The Atheist Wars

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In case you weren’t aware, there’s a raging battle going on.

No, I’m not referring to Afghanistan or Iraq, but the Atheist Wars, being waged by two camps, known as the New Atheists, and the Accommodationists. I thought a brief discussion of each group was timely, given the recent ‘chatter’ between these two camps.

And what better way to ring in the new year, than with a discussion about religion?


As the name suggests, the Accommodationists are of the ‘live and let live’ variety, and make every effort to avoid hurting the feelings of the faithful. At one extreme of accommodationism, they simply stay silent on their disagreements with the religions or the reasons for their non-belief. Here’s a good example – Dick Gross, who writes the Godless Gross column in the Melbourne Age,and who identifies himself as an accommodationist. In this article, he tackles the New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, saying of them:

There are the ”repudiating atheists” who have an interest in denouncing faith in all its forms and in all its activities.  This school is evangelical, never missing an opportunity to ram down everyone’s throats that all beliefs are wrong, evil and for the soft of brain.

Of Christopher Hitchens, Gross says:

He eviscerated everything religious like a medieval disemboweling. He made Vlad the Impaler look like a mummy’s boy.

In contrast, Gross’ accommodationist viewpoint is that, yes atheism has some bad stuff, but let’s not forget the good stuff that it does.

At the other extreme of accommodationism, accommodationists bend over backwards to provide comfort and a place in society for the church and all it stands for. Some at this extreme will try to assist the faithful by engaging in research or analysis in an attempt to demonstrate how religion coexists with science, as in the case of the Templeton Foundation. This organisation hands out large lumps of money, ostensibly for “support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries“, but on closer inspection, is really pushing the ultimate accommodationist agenda, also stating in its mission statement that:

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

Our vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship.

New Atheists

This group takes the head-on approach, calling a spade a spade.

One of the most vocal New Atheists is PZ Myers, who writes the Pharyngula blog. This recent article is a passionate defence by him of his approach, and encapsulates all the key features of New Atheism. Here are some of my favourite bits:

We often get this insistence from the accommodationists that the only way to win people over is to be nice to them — atheists should try to be good citizens who get along with everyone. A related point they will make is that atheists don’t have a real problem with discrimination, because they look just like everyone else and can blend in, and if we aren’t rocking the boat no one will have any grounds to oppose us.

I really, really despise that argument. I don’t want my community to accept my presence because they have me confused with an Episcopalian, or because I’m one of those good atheists who don’t raise no ruckus, no sir, and so they can tolerate me because I’m invisible. I intend to be loud; I will leave no doubt that I disbelieve and am disagreeable about it. I am not the one who needs to learn a lesson in tolerance, the smug, oblivious Christians are, and the only way I can give it is if I’m standing up and challenging them.

So when people, atheists and theists alike, complain that I’m obnoxious, I feel good about it.

In response to a criticism from Massimo Pigliucci, he says:

Pigliucci complained about the arrogance of some atheists who think all believers are dumb, which is a common complaint, and one you hear from believers as well. But they’re wrong: I don’t think I’m smarter than everyone else.

I just think I’m right.

That’s important. Atheists should have a feeling of unrepentant confidence — we are on the right side of reason, the right side of history, and the right side of the evidence. It’s not because I think I have some intrinsically greater worth than others at all, but I have shed some delusions and freed myself of traditional dogma, and have also worked most of my life to alleviate my ignorance. Other people could benefit from similar enlightenment.

And anyone who’s bothered by my cockiness should have a little more self-awareness: we all think we’re right, or we wouldn’t be doing what we do.

And finally:

I see priests raping children. I see a publicity-seeking nun praising pain and suffering, poverty and sickness. I see politicians pandering for votes by demanding the persecution of gays in the name of Jesus. I see godly men declaring that the role of women is to be silent and subservient…and brood a quiverful of children. I see fanatics strapping explosives to their bodies and killing randomly in the name of their god. I see lobbyists hard at work, trying to dilute science education, and suggesting that we teach the Flintstones as fact in our biology classes. I see a pope in fancy silks and gold-bedecked palace urging people to shun materialism and savor the simple life. I see deluded people opposing work to alleviate climate change because they’re sure God wouldn’t let it happen. I see ordinary people certain that these are the End Times, rejoicing in our imagined imminent apocalypse, and actively working to bring it about.

If you aren’t angry, there’s something wrong with you.

There’s a lot more, but you get the idea. Well worth reading.


If you’re wondering, I think I’m in the New Atheist camp. I bet regular readers would have guessed that. While I have no wish to insult or upset the faithful just for the sake of it, I do find myself very agitated when I hear of any of the things so eloquently listed by PZ Myers above. I get agitated hearing about young children being fed nonsense as fact; about how god loves us and that’s why thousands die in tsunamis; about the double standards of the church around pedophile priests; and about the massive resources compiled by churches at the expense of their flock. The list goes on.

I think when it boils down to it, it comes back to what good does religion do to balance out the bad stuff? Dick Gross tells us that:

While I rail against some religious bigotry and irrationality, in the absence of some detrimental public impact, I live and let live. I acknowledge the good things of the faiths and seek to replicate some of the spiritual sustenance they offer the human species.

While there are good things done by religious-based organisations, I still don’t believe that it is the religion per se which causes the good acts. It is the good acts of people for which the church takes credit. As I’ve argued before, you don’t need religion to be moral or good.

So what’s left to accommodate?


8 thoughts on “The Atheist Wars

    @blamer said:
    January 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Each atheist camp thinks they’re on to the better way to speed up the unwinding of religion’s influence on modern society.

    The social sciences don’t yet seem to have much to tell us yet about which approach is working best. My guess is that both camps are complimentary to each other. (Perhaps in a different way to any benefit a religion gets from the interplay between their hopeful moderates and angry extremist sects)

    Accommodationists seem to be working to convince the religious to treat infidels more fairly.

    New Atheists seem to be asking non-churchgoers to pick a side between academia and spirituality.

    neutralturn said:
    January 5, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I come at this subject obliquely. As a young man I saw all belief as a surrender of personal autonomy. I felt that, on becoming consciously aware of holding a belief, one should immediately subject it to serious scrutiny to ensure that it was worth its price. As an old man, and from a completely different starting point, I have come to see the individual as essentially the sum total of his beliefs. Not much movement over close to 50 years; but there is a difference. When I was young I thought there was such a thing as ‘personal autonomy’ separate from the sum of one’s beliefs. Now I don’t. Such autonomy as exists is realised in the personal selection of beliefs to hold.

    Humans are a social species. An individual can survive only as a member of a group. It therefore seems improbable that evolution would result in individuals who were totally autonomous in the selection of their personal beliefs. Somehow or other individuals must come to choose some beliefs which serve the interest and cohesion of the group, not themselves. I’m inclined to think religious belief represents a partial surrender by the individual of his right to select his own beliefs and permits the acceptance of an unedited package of beliefs from the group. The detail of these beliefs isn’t terribly important. What is important is that all individuals accept them; that a part of each individual’s set of beliefs belongs to the group and therefore a part of each individual belongs to the group.

    Can atheism provide this group bonding function? The answer is clearly no. Atheism has no deep significance relating to values, ethics and so forth. It is simply the rejection of the proposition that there is a god. It is not a brotherhood of earnest, worthy folk; or a religion without a god. Many western atheists claim that the civilised virtues such as equality, charity, altruism, generosity, justice and so on spring from our universal humanity and are as commonly observed among atheists as as among theists. The latter statement seems to me right, but the attribution to common humanity is, I think, wrong. The moral or ethical beliefs observed amongst western atheists are a legacy gifted to them by western culture. I would expect Somali, Chinese or Saudi-Arabian atheists likewise to hold moral and ethical beliefs reflecting the cultures that nurtured them. In parading their moral and ethical standards western atheists are free-loading on a Graeco-Roman culture evolved over millennia with a strong theistic core.

    I do not think that atheism is capable of sustaining, let alone developing, a civilisation. It is too trivial. It only seems significant because of the size of the target it engages. On the other hand I think that theism and belief systems based on it are absurd. In the Atheist Wars I inhabit a shell-hole in no-man’s-land.

    rationalbrain said:
    January 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I think you are trivialising atheism a bit. Your assertion that it has no deep significance is unfounded. What you appear to be missing is that atheism is not a fundamental phenomenon – it is emergent from a certain mind-set, method of thinking, and approach to life. And without doubt, there is now strong group-bonding happening on the basis of these attributes.
    I am surprised that you feel the absence of significant values etc. It’s interesting how two people can have such different perspectives on this. Bearing in mind our previous discussions in this blog on the basis of morals and values, I am of the view that atheists have a much stronger sense of self and society – based on reality.
    When all the blah-blah is boiled down, the question is: why do we need a fiction for group bonding? There is no fundamental law dictating that bonding and values etc must be fiction-based. Why can we not bond over the worship of reality and an approach to life free from superstition?
    Methinks you place too much weight on a simple vestigial behaviour which may have served us well before the advent of language and self-awareness, but which we are outgrowing. There are, after all, more interesting things over which to bond. Like science and the pursuit of knowledge. And the footy.

    neutralturn said:
    January 6, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I think we have a problem with the definition of the term “atheist”. As I said in my previous post, I define an atheist as someone who rejects the proposition that god(s) exist(s). That is what I mean when I say I am an atheist. I say nothing about the values I hold; my social, political, ethical or moral views; nothing about anything else. Your post makes it clear that your understanding of the term is far broader. Could you please give us your strict definition of the term?

      rationalbrain said:
      January 7, 2012 at 8:29 am

      No, I agree with your definition. Did I imply something else in my post?
      Perhaps to clarify my points, I disagree with the notions (a) that atheism cannot provide a group bonding function, and that (b) that atheism is not capable of sustaining and/or developing a civilisation. I think my point is that atheism is a symptom of higher level functions, and it is those higher level functions that are nurturing for civilisations. Does that make a bit more sense?
      I know it sounds a bit elitist; but I think that’s what Dawkins was getting at by suggesting that we call atheists ‘brights’. While I don’t go that far, I support that concept that somehow atheists have done a slightly better job at thinking about and understanding the world.

        neutralturn said:
        January 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm

        Right, sorry, I was misunderstanding your position. Nevertheless I still cannot see atheism as having anywhere near the cultural bonding power of religion. Certainly in pre-modern times, religion engaged the huge majority of individuals in the society. I cannot see atheism bonding anything close to a majority. Indeed, I doubt it is capable of bonding even a majority of atheists. Remember, Comrade Stalin was an atheist, as was Slobodan Milosevic and many others of doubtful civilising inclination. I think I might have bonding difficulties with a typical Saudi-Arabian atheist. Additionally, many of those who fail to bond with atheism could be expected to be actively hostile to it.

        As to atheism’s being an indicator of higher level mental functions I think the response is, “So what?” It could be said that comfort with the notion that the square root of -1 exists is an indicator of mathematical ability, surely a high level mental function. Can we conceive of a civilisation developed and sustained by the joy of maths? I don’t think so.

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