Answering the Accommodationists (Again)

A great deal of flak has been flying back and forth across the blogosphere in recent weeks on, once again, the issue of compatibility between science, atheism and religion. The latest round was sparked by a Pew study on how the public views conflicts between science and faith, with Jerry Coyne arguing for incompatibility, Chris Mooney taking the opposite position. I have a few thoughts of my own.

First, the survey. There are a few choice pieces of data, such as this one which finds that creationist attempts to portray evolution as a “controversy” have not succeeded:

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution.

But more important is this:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

As far as I can tell, the data is undisputed. The question is how we should react to it. Mooney believes we should set an accommodationist course:

For it seems to me that if we could only dislodge the idea that evolution is contradictory to people’s belief… then they would have no problem with evolution.

…I’m quite convinced that the data are an excellent reason to take Kenneth Miller’s (and my) approach and try to convince people that science needn’t be any threat to their religion – indeed, they show that this is a strategy which ought to work for many Americans.

I have two points to make in response to this.

First of all, what is Mooney’s strategy for convincing the faithful that evolution and religion are compatible? The creationists are devoted to spreading the opposite message, and they have large, well-financed ministries, propaganda mills cranking 24 hours a day, and even their own, multimillion-dollar creationist museum. They’ve spent decades and millions of dollars drumming it into their followers’ heads that six-day creation is a vital and essential keystone of the Christian worldview, and that evolution is not just false, but an evil, dangerous, even Satanic deception that leads directly to genocide, school shootings, abortion and homosexuality. And for the most part, they view pro-science Christians as just as bad: as weak, rootless believers in a “sad and sorry god“.

The accommodationist strategy backed by Mooney and others is the same one that we’ve been trying for decades. Clearly, it hasn’t worked. The simple, literal, easy-to-understand theology of the creationists has been demonstrated to have mass popular appeal. Meanwhile, the theistic evolutionists – whose theology tends to depict God as distant and vague at best – has not had similar success with the public.

So, I ask the accommodationists in all seriousness: How is your approach different from what’s already been tried? You’ve already voiced your belief that atheist scientists should stop speaking up. What, in your view, is the next step? How do you plan to overcome the fears and prejudices that creationists have pounded into their followers’ heads, and what makes you think this will be easier than what the atheists have set out to do?

Second, I want to point out an implication of this strategy that Mooney doesn’t dwell on: it’s remarkable to what extent this is a strategy of surrender. It takes for granted that people’s religious beliefs are fixed and immutable, that if their beliefs conflict with science they’ll always reject science, and our only hope is to convince them that evolution poses no threat to their faith.

Given this assumption, Mooney believes that he can change people’s beliefs about whether evolution conflicts with their faith. But why should this be easier than convincing them of a different proposition – that if science and faith conflict, science should win out? As the Pew survey shows, an overwhelming majority (87%) even of religious people respect science and feel that it makes society better. Why can’t we build on that fact instead?

The accommodationist strategy implicitly validates the very prejudice it seeks to counter: that faith is superior to science and should win out if the two conflict. This would be like a person who lived during the suffragist era conceding the anti-feminist argument that women are intellectually inferior to men, but arguing that they should get to vote anyway, because after all, we don’t make men pass intelligence tests to vote, do we?

This is fighting on your opponent’s turf, which is a sure way to lose. To defeat a prejudice, we should attack it at its source. Plenty of ideas that were once common and widely believed, such as the idea of female inferiority, turned out not to be invulnerable; they crumbled under strong, direct criticism. And there is good reason to believe the same is true in this case: the ever-growing numbers of the godless suggest that attacking religion is not the losing strategy that accommodationists would have us believe.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.