On Being An “Accommodatheist”: A Response to Jerry Coyne September 25, 2014

On Being An “Accommodatheist”: A Response to Jerry Coyne

This is a guest post written by Steve Neumann. Neumann is a writer, teacher, and philosophile.

We know that crows are very smart birds. And we know that they need to eat to survive, obviously. But when a crow plucks a helpless chick from a robin’s nest and carries it away as lunch, we condemn him for doing so — we feel repulsed. However, when a crow figures out that dropping heavy cubes into a narrow jar raises the level of water inside so he can get a worm to eat, we praise him and call him a genius — we even admire him.

For me, the New Atheism in America has become like that first crow, going after the easiest prey. That’s why I recently wrote an article for Salon called “Cut it out, atheists! Why it’s time to stop behaving like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins.” In it, I issue what I call “The Atheist Positivity Challenge,” the purpose of which is to “draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.”

My worry, as an atheist myself, is that both “true believers” and fence-sitters alike are turned off by what they perceive as atheist attempts at guilt-by-association: when we single out the most obviously disgraceful Christians for criticism and ridicule, they will see it as an attempt to lump all Christians into the same contemptible category. But I cite several polls that seem to indicate that the tide of religiosity in America is turning in our favor — the younger generation has grown weary of the narrowness and judgmentalism of traditional evangelical Christianity. And that’s why I say that I believe my Atheist Positivity Challenge will be successful.

As I anticipated, the article generated backlash from my fellow atheists, including one prominent New Atheist, biology professor and author Jerry Coyne. Coyne wrote a post titled “Accommodatheism I: Salon proposes that we all stop criticizing the low-hanging believers.” There, he says that there’s no evidence that we atheists have hurt our cause because we’re too “in your face.” And he also notes that some of the easy targets I suggest refraining from criticizing are “doing some pretty bad stuff.”

And I agree with him. But first, there are a few things you should know about my article.

First, I didn’t choose the title, my editor did — my original title was simply “The Atheist Positivity Challenge.” But, as that title is rather boring, I can see why he changed it. And based on the current tally of 1,176 comments, I’d say he accomplished his goal as an editor — driving a lot of traffic to his site. That’s a shame, but I understand the motivation. The second thing you should know is that, as with any editing process, some things were cut out. In fact, the final three paragraphs were left out of the final piece, which is unfortunate since they directly addressed Coyne’s criticisms.

But let me share those paragraphs with you now. I wrote at one point, verbatim:

Yes, by all means continue to unflinchingly attack Judeo-Christian principles and doctrines, as well as the empirical and philosophical foundations of Christianity; attack the specific teachings of Jesus and Paul, the founder of the religion that bears Christ’s name; and even question the historicity of Jesus himself.

So I’m not advocating refraining from any criticism whatsoever, just the “low-hanging believers,” as Coyne calls them. And though I think it’s difficult to discern the amount of influence this low-hanging fruit​ has specifically,​​ I believe the evidence shows that overall they don’t seem to have much influence in whether or not people convert to Christianity, or adopt their version of it. However, I also believe that those who are influenced by low-hanging fruits probably are motivated to act on ​that ​their influence — for example, by voting. So in that regard, their arguments do need to be criticized. But overall I think that people like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort — even Mark Driscoll — are, and are speaking to, a dying breed.

Also left out of the final piece was this:

And while I believe that the demographic trends I cited earlier will eventually get us to the type of egalitarian, pluralistic society we want for our country, in the interim we still need to stand up for the woman who doesn’t have access to affordable birth control because her employer’s religious beliefs motivate them to legislate against it.

I wish now that this sentence had been included in my article, because it speaks directly to Coyne’s worry that some Christians are “doing some pretty bad stuff.”

And the original final paragraph read as follows:

But let’s refrain from attacking individual modern Christians… for one month and see what happens. Besides, the other Christians won’t even be open to our criticisms, and we’ll just be left preaching to the converted. So take The Atheist Positivity Challenge, and don’t let the atheist echo chamber become just a secular cathedral.

My claim in this paragraph is an empirical one, and should therefore be open to verification or refutation. However, to my knowledge there is scarce direct research into the reasons why so many today have left religion, as well as how believers respond to the criticisms of atheists. All the polls show a general trend away from religion, but not all of them identify the reasons for this. Of the ones that do, the reasons given are usually based on the believers’ experience of Christianity itself, both their experiences in church as well as the antics of the most prominent Christian pastors, pundits, and politicians — there is scant evidence that they have been turned off of religion because of the articles, blogs, and books written by atheists like us.

Coyne concedes in his blog post that the number of “nones” in the country is rising, but that all this is “happening in the very era of Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, and Dennett.” This is true; but as Coyne (or any scientist) surely knows, correlation is not causation. In fact, we can legitimately ask: Are there more nonbelievers today because of the work of the New Atheists, or do the New Atheists have more work (e.g., book sales) today because there are more nonbelievers? Like I said, there’s not much research dedicated to this specific question. So, since Coyne and I are in disagreement, the best thing we can do is to present our strongest arguments and marshal as much evidence in support of them as we can.

Coyne’s argument (at least in his current post) doesn’t rely on published research, but he does offer evidence when he says that “Dawkins can in fact point to hundreds of people who have abandoned religion because of his books and talks.” I don’t doubt that. But what we don’t know, obviously, is how many people have been turned off by his books and talks. Does he not keep a list of the people who write to him complaining of what they perceive as his polemical vitriol? Maybe he does, I don’t know.

We do know that there are many Christian bloggers out there who react to the New Atheists and their style of attack, and these bloggers have their own loyal readership. Are there hundreds of these bloggers and readers? I would say so. You can do a Google search of “Christian responses to Richard Dawkins” (without the quotation marks, anyway) and see for yourself. Even the movie God’s Not Dead, which portrayed a caricature of a stereotypical atheist college professor, earned over $60 million at the box office (so far). I think it’s fair to say that more than “hundreds” of Christians have been turned off by Dawkins’ style of rhetoric.

But what are the reasons why people change their beliefs? This is a confusing and complex issue. But persuading people to believe and behave differently is essentially a sales job. Both Christians and atheists alike are selling a worldview. The reasons why people buy one thing over another is also a complex one. But there is evidence that the character, attitude, and conduct of the seller has a lot to do with it.

Consider one example: Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, Robert Cialdini, has been studying the art and science of persuasion for over 30 years. In a 2007 article in Scientific American called “The Science of Persuasion,” Cialdini describes the results of his work, where he lists six principles of influence. Of these six, I believe one is most obviously relevant to my argument: what’s referred to in the literature as simply “liking.” As Cialdini says, “People prefer to say Yes to those they like.” This isn’t earth-shattering news. Here I’d like to appeal to your own experience: How often do you say Yes to someone you don’t like? Doesn’t the delivery of the message affect that message’s effect?

In addition, Cialdini notes that research has identified two factors relating to likability that are especially important: similarity and praise. He says that “similarity literally draws people together,” and that praise “both charms and disarms.” But this poses a couple of problems for us atheists. First, what could be more dissimilar than a theist and an atheist? The cards are stacked against us from the get-go. Second, as far as praise goes, the critical stance of the New Atheism is absolutely devoid of it. Interestingly, Coyne says in his post that “We are not, by and large, negative.” But the very essence of our stance is negative: a-theism is a lack of belief in God, and some would even say a stance against theism in general — it is by definition negative; and criticizing someone’s belief is obviously a negative activity — do you experience positive feelings when someone questions your beliefs?

There’s no denying that some number of people have changed their beliefs because of the work of the New Atheists — the problem is quantifying it on a significant scale. Dawkins’s letters from converts are only one small source of evidence; and judging by one reaction to my Salon article alone — where the link on the “Freedom From Atheism Foundation” Facebook page has 2,006 likes as of this writing — we could easily counter claims of Dawkins’ influence. I think the evidence from the science of persuasion suggests that, just as the religious extremists don’t have the influence they believe they have, neither do the New Atheists. The purpose of my Atheist Positivity Challenge was to draw attention to this fact, as well as to try and rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.

Coyne says that the message of my article is “If we’d just shut up and be positive… all will be well,” and he calls this “Accomodatheism,” a portmanteau of “Accommodationist” and “atheism.” But, no, that’s not my message — though I understand why he thinks that, since my article was heavily edited. Criticism is essential, and selling our worldview is an important activity. But I believe the evidence suggests that we atheists can accomplish even more, and sooner, if we adjust our approach. I said before that the tide of religiosity is turning. Like a surfer, we can choose to work with the power of this wave, adjusting our posture so that we can ride it gracefully, always just ahead of the breakwater. Or we could try some superfluous tricks and aggressive cutbacks, and wipe out in a flourish of foam and spatter. But I think one thing is for certain: the wave reaches the shore nonetheless.

[Note from Hemant: The opinions expressed here don’t necessarily represent my own, but they’re very interesting to think about.]

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