Tinkerbell the Accommodationist

Because we New Atheists haven’t been told to shut up nearly often enough, Matt Nisbet has an editorial on BigThink this week. I was so glad to read it, because it had been a disturbingly long time – possibly as long as a whole day – since we’d last heard from someone saying we need to be shoved back into the closet (and the closet door nailed shut). Thankfully, this essay ends that worrying drought, calling it a “strategic blunder” that the Council for Secular Humanism gave a speaking spot to P.Z. Myers at its recent L.A. conference.

Nisbet begins with that much-used and much-loved rhetorical tactic, the false dichotomy:

On one side, “accommodationists” argue that non-believers should build bridges with others around shared values in order to work on common problems such as climate change and failing schools. On the other side, “confrontationalists” argue that they should close ranks and engage in relentless attack and ridicule against all forms of religion…

Nisbet has an enviable advantage when arguing against us: he’s not confined by petty limitations such as the truth. Does he actually provide any citations of people saying this to substantiate the razor-sharp line he draws?

Let me see if I can straddle that line. I’ll freely admit to the charge of being as fiery, uncompromising and New an atheist as you’ll meet. I also attend a Unitarian Universalist church and, in the past, have given money to liberal religious charities. I can only presume that Nisbet, if presented with this contradiction, would start stammering “Does not compute” and then we’d see sparks shoot from his ears, like those androids in the original Star Trek whose computer brains couldn’t cope with people doing things that didn’t make sense.

Before the accommodationists’ brains melt down entirely, let me solve the paradox for them: what New Atheists actually believe is that we can work together with good-hearted religious people on areas where we share common cause, but without surrendering the right to criticize them when it comes to other areas where we disagree. We can join with theists on, say, climate change, but still maintain – and advocate – the opinion that faith is more harmful than helpful. In Nisbet’s black-and-white world, you’re either someone’s servile ally or their sworn nemesis, with no gradations in between.

The accommodationist mindset must be like being Tinkerbell from the original Peter Pan, who’d get homicidally jealous of any girl flirting with Peter because she was too small to contain more than one emotion at a time. Similarly, Matt Nisbet seems to think that because we criticize religious groups, it must mean we categorically refuse to associate with religious individuals. Fortunately, our brains seem to be just big enough to allow us to hold both those concepts in mind together.

The Council for Secular Humanism — and its parent organization the Center for Inquiry – erred considerably in giving Myers a forum. His appearance and remarks have gained news attention, but at what price?

This is not about censoring Myers, but about making wise choices relative to the public image of the organization and the future of the movement. There will always be a need for iconoclasts and pundits such as Myers who exceed the boundaries of civil discourse and who grab attention by saying foolish and embarrassing things. But that doesn’t mean that major organizations should affiliate with him by making his remarks the news that comes to define their annual meetings.

An aside: Can we now put to bed, once and for all, the canard that accommodationists aren’t just trying to shut us up? What is this if not a naked plea that secular groups not invite people who disagree with Matt Nisbet to come and speak?

It strikes me that if the Center for Inquiry erred by giving P.Z. Myers a platform, and worse, by making his speeches the news that defines them, then Matt Nisbet has committed that very same error, only in even greater magnitude. If you follow the writings of Nisbet or his ilk, like Chris Mooney, you’ll soon see that practically their sole avocation these days is constant complaining and bellyaching about how impolite the New Atheists are. Reacting to us is the sole thing that’s come to define them.

It’s incredible how single-mindedly focused our critics are on us. Scan the headlines, and what do you see? Religious fundamentalists assaulting, murdering and terrorizing people who hold different beliefs; bombing buses and slashing throats; enslaving women and brutalizing gays; working to dismantle democracy and erase culture and history; and spreading ignorance about basic truths of life, the world, and human biology. And what have we, the New Atheists, done in response that’s so terrible? Our catalog of crimes consists of the following: drawing cartoons, writing books, speaking at conferences, and occasionally being rude to inanimate objects.

Daniel Dennett asked why these people aren’t “equal-opportunity sneerers“, but I’d take it a step farther: their myopia makes them ridiculous. Their umbrage is wildly disproportionate to our actual deeds. It has nothing to do with what advances justice or freedom for humankind, and everything to do with whether they’ll feel comfortable at cocktail parties.

Much like the current appeal of the libertarian movement and Reason magazine, the sharp iconoclasm of Myers and others appeals to young people seeking something novel and anti-establishment, an outlook easily captured in a T-shirt and expressed as an identity by way of a label such as atheist.

I’m sure P.Z. Myers, a happily married university professor with several grown children and a recent heart ailment, will be very pleased to find out that he’s now numbered among the “young people”. Doesn’t this guy sound just like those snide, smarmy religious apologists who insist to our faces that our atheism is just a youthful phase we’ll grow out of?

As I discussed in a Big Think video interview earlier this year, the Center for Inquiry and its magazine Free Inquiry were relatively slow to invest in Web-based content and applications. This in part created a vacuum online and the opportunity for bloggers such as Myers to rise to global prominence and gain a following.

I absolutely love that paragraph; you can practically taste the bitterness seeping through the page. It must be anathema for Nisbet to consider that people have flocked to P.Z. Myers or Richard Dawkins’ banner because they agree with them, because they’re saying the same things that many more people were already thinking and doing it loudly and fearlessly. No, it couldn’t possibly be that – it must have been some sneaky, underhanded New Atheist trick we pulled to hypnotize people into agreeing with us! If only they’d listened to their betters, like Matt Nisbet and the Templeton Foundation, they’d be in their proper place: sitting quietly at home and not making any trouble.

Young people are also deeply supportive of science, especially when science is connected to progress, a system of values and ethics, and the solving of social problems. Secular humanism can offer a positive message about science as progress. In contrast, confrontationalists tend to celebrate the “poetry of science” while simultaneously using it as a rhetorical bludgeon against religion.

Yes indeed! It’s a very efficient and clever strategy called “killing two birds with one stone”. Although it must come as a grave shock to Tinkerbell over there, we can celebrate the beauty and the transcendence of science while also firmly believing that it tells against ancient and primitive religious superstitions, which are, by comparison, laughably small, simplistic and human-centered.

The bitterness and resentment evident in this column are proof of one more thing: this is a fight the accommodationists have already lost. Since their goal is to silence us, they can only win if they persuade us to stop talking or other atheists to stop listening. Given the evident popularity of the New Atheist movement which Nisbet decries, they’ve failed on both counts. All they have left is insult and jealous sniping, neither of which will accomplish anything more than make themselves look foolish.

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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.


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