How Atheists Treat Religious Dictates As Holy

How Atheists Treat Religious Dictates As Holy September 1, 2011

Greta Christina has a fine inaugural post at her new Freethought Blogs site.  It is on the real difference between being diplomatic towards religious people and being an accommodationist who gives the religious everything they want, even if it contradicts one’s own personal positions:

Diplomacy means working with religious believers as equals. Accomodationism means bending to religion as its subordinate.

Here are some specific examples, to hash out this distinction and show you what I mean by it.

Diplomacy: Making arguments against religion using polite, civil language; making it clear that you have respect for the other person even if you disagree with their beliefs; being sure to acknowledge when you make mistakes or don’t know something; being cautious about which arguments you do and don’t want to have in the first place (and where and when and with whom); and being willing to drop the conversation or postpone it if it becomes too heated.

Accomodationism: Refusing to make arguments against religion — not because you personally don’t enjoy them, but because you think it’s inherently disrespectful to criticize people’s religious beliefs, and/or because you think religion is in a special category of ideas that ought not to be criticized. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.

Diplomacy: Sending a polite, friendly letter to the Muslim association on your campus, informing them that you’re going to be chalking stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in protest of violent threats against cartoonists; saying that you understand that they may find this upsetting; explaining why your principles demand that you do it anyway; and expressing the hope for further conversation, on this and other topics.

Accomodationism: Declining to chalk stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in response to threats of violence against cartoonists… because the Muslim faith forbids it, and you want to accommodate the Muslim faith and show it respect. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.

Diplomacy: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that, while science and religion are fundamentally different approaches to truth claims, you encourage both believers and non-believers who support your organization’s mission to join it, and you respect and defend people’s right to freedom of religion, and you will not take any position or action that interferes with that right.

Accomodationism: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that science and religion are entirely compatible, and do not conflict in any way.

Diplomacy: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that they are are inaccurate, unfair, or disproportionate.

Accomodationism: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that criticizing religion is inherently divisive.

What I like most is her emphasis on the accommodationist “bowing down”. The key problem to me with deferring to religious sensibilities when you don’t share them is that you wind up treating as holy (i.e., separate, special, inviolable) what they want to be holy. Their religion says, “no one may ever draw this or say that or take a position like that” and then when you go out of your way to not draw this, say that, or take a position like that, you are in practice acknowledging and deferring to that religion’s ability to dictate what you do and what thoughts you will express.  You then are effectively treating and thinking of what they call “holy” as, well, holy—things which it would be wrong of you to ever challenge or treat with anything less than utter respect and deference.

Religions should not be able to dictate this much from people who aren’t their adherents.

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds also started her new Freethought Blogs site off with a post on accommodationism, in which she essentially turns the table on accommodationists and asks them to stop lumping all New Atheists together, to stop treating them as though they were all ignorant or monolithic in their thinking, etc. Essentially she is asking the accommodationists to stop doing to the New Atheists what the accommodationists are always accusing the New Atheists of doing to the religious.

Along the way, Stephanie points out the things that a member of a privileged group (with respect to some area or another in life) has trouble realizing about what it is like to not be a member of the privileged group. The description could apply to any minority group even though in this context it is meant to raise consciousness about the psychic pressures atheists are under:

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you’re ruining modern life.

All of this pressure coming from fear of what will happen if you do not treat religious ideas and institutions, etc. as holy as you are expected to.  It is all the guilt, shame, and neurosis of offending the gods by violating religious rules without any of the actual belief in gods.

And it is not just atheists who struggle to accommodate other people’s religions, as Ophelia Benson (also at her own new Freethought Blogs home) beautifully puts it in a post about the taboo against critical discussion of religion in the public square and (particularly) in the classroom:

Almost everyone who does any kind of talking-in-public is terrified of saying anything that contradicts conventional wisdom about religion as the best thing evah. Teachers and school officials of course are triply or quadruply so, because they’re public servants, because they have power over the vulnerable young, because they have parents to deal with. The result is a vast rustling forest of taboos, and the result of that is ignorance and distortion.

And in closing she also notes, again poignantly, that:

It’s odd the way Americans combine a certain respect or affection for dissident thought with a passion for the most obedient kind of thought there is.

And this is the paradox of the average atheist too. The disbeliever, the dissident, who nonetheless passionately protects the sanctity and value of religion as an institution that should be politely respected.

We activist atheists who challenge faith-based religion (sometimes angrily) are not the average atheist. There are countless atheist academics and journalists who recoil at the thought of publishing aggressively against the pieties of others. For the extremely high rates of atheism in academia, how paltry few take any thing like a public atheist’s role?

And I know that even as an outspoken, well-known village atheist in the circles I travel in I feel the pressure to be polite and to not offend is great on me too. And all the scoldings we outspoken atheists get from other atheists should indicate that the last thing the average atheist wants is to offend.  He or she, quite often, would rather treat religion’s taboos as his or her own than do that.

And that is part of why we passionate activist atheists are so adamant.  It is just as much to instill pride in our fellow atheists as it is to call our religious friends’ to higher standards of belief. It is also why I can sympathize with some of the anger atheists express, even when they clearly go overboard in venting and deserve criticism.

Below are some links to some of my prior thoughts on the possibilities for constructive debates and interpersonal relationships between believers and non-believers.  I also am including links about the valuable need to sometimes blaspheme and explicitly defy religious strictures on what is to be treated as sacred in order not to implicitly be deferring to a religion one does not oneself accept:

Is Debate Between Believers And Non-Believers Inevitably Futile?

The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth—But With No Name Calling

When (And How) Should We Bother To Push The Issues?

On Meeting People Where They Are

TOP Q: “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?”

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?

On Atheists And “Interfaith” Participation

Top 10 Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists

My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day

In Defense Of Mocking And Embarrassing Religion

The “A” Word

Who Cares About Atheists?

You Might Be An Atheist Even If You Hate The New Atheists

Your Thoughts?

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