To yell or to talk

The diversity of dialoge within the Atheist community

About a year ago, there was a large debate among different atheist blogs about how atheists should deal with others. Every time I look at it, I have to cringe a bit. Not because it’s embarrassing, or because it dug up some mean spirited aspects of the movement, or even because there were bad arguments on either side. Rather, it’s because somehow the terminology managed to land on the most awkward and inconvenient terms for the two sides that I could possibly imagine: confrontationism and accomodationism. These are not terms that are well known, in this context, outside the Atheist community; yet, knowing them can help one understand the nuances within the Atheist community.

To illustrate the two sides, let’s take two imaginary atheists: Mark and Sally. Sally is our typical confrontationist and she certainly has much to be angry about: honour killings, child molestation, terrorism, evolution not being taught in schools, et cetera. Sally’s not going to let this stand – she’ll scream the crimes of religion from the rooftops if she has to. In her opinion, every person that turns away from belief in a god-figure makes the world a better place.

Mark, as an accomodationist, has a slightly more laid-back view when it comes to dealing with religious individuals. He also believes numerous problems are perpetrated in the name of religion. Yet, he believes that, in debates regarding religion, one attracts more flies with honey than with vinegar. It does more good to work together with religious groups, and to give no more than a slight push towards the idea of there being no God. In Mark’s view, there’s room for compromise.

There are good arguments for both sides here. In the face of the outrages committed daily in the name of religion, it’s hard to simply sit back and claim that we need to be respectful. When religious individuals demonize same-sex relationships and drive queer identifying people to commit suicide, one should be angry. We should also be upset when one cannot publicly draw a picture of the prophet Mohammed without being subject to threats and attacks on one’s life. Those that defend such actions as just being done by a fringe religious group simply enable the problem by refusing to acknowledge that holy texts can be used to support both positions, and the radicals have just chosen to ignore different parts than the moderates.

On the accomodationist side, nobody reacts well to accusations. Claiming that moderates are responsible for the crimes of the radicals does not endear them to you, and you’ll get farther by being role models of civility and understanding than by just being shrill. It’s not fun to keep your mouth shut when being lectured about how you’re going to hell, but you’ll at least spend more time at the table.

My own stance is accomodationist; I prefer to try to foster dialogue and understanding between groups rather than hammer on the religious atrocities occurring across the world. But the stronger point to make here is that it’s not necessary that the atheist movement be completely purged of one side or the other, becoming completely accomodationist or confrontationist. Sure, the two can hamper each other in their work, but there’s room for both amongst non-believers. There’s a time to be restrained and diplomatic and there’s a time to be cathartically blunt. Being aware of differences between confrontationists and accomodationists can help one remember – the atheist movement is not monolithic in terms of its interactions.

One Less God is a twice-monthly column on atheist communities and philosophy. Harmon Moon is a U2 History student and VP External of the McGill Freethought Association. He can be reached at