Will an accommodationist approach help the secularist movement?
Will it help the cause of secularism, and separation of church and state, for atheists to accommodate religion? By refraining from harsh criticism of religion, for instance? Or by ceding the grounds of philosophy and meaning to religion in a Non-Overlapping Magisteria gambit? Or by allowing language about God in government, on the grounds that God doesn't necessarily mean religion?
One of my favorite talks at the Atheist Alliance International conference was the one by Jonathan Kirsch, on the history of the Inquisition... and how its tools and methods have been taken up by many other institutions seeking to expand and maintain their power. This phenomenon isn't just limited to the obvious, literal tools and methods of torture; it includes strategic tools and methods, such as thought crimes, and getting victims of their accusations to name names and turn others in, and seizing the assets of the accused.
The whole talk was fascinating. But what really stuck with me was an almost tangential point. Kirsch was talking about the founding principles of the United States... and he pointed out that tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs was not a value that came from Christianity. It was a value that came to the U.S. from the Greeks and Romans, via the Enlightenment. The Christian Churches of the 18th century and earlier, he pointed out, didn't think tolerance of different religious views -- or even of different interpretations of roughly the same religious views -- was a goal worth striving for. Quite the contrary. The Christian Churches of the 18th century and earlier held, as their highest value, getting everyone in the world to believe the same damn thing -- the thing they believed.
At the point of a sword if necessary. Or at the point of the rack, or a burning stake.
I've been thinking about Kirsch's words. And it occurred to me:
This really hasn't changed that much.
Tolerance of religious diversity is still not a guiding value of the Christian church. No, people aren't being institutionally murdered and tortured for Christianity -- as much -- but tolerance of religious diversity is not a guiding value of the Christian church.
Oh, I know it is for some. There are some Christian churches for whom ecumenicalism is a core value. I'm not denying that. But they're very much in the minority. The majority of Christian churches, around the U.S. and around the world, are either Catholic or fundamentalist. And those churches are not exactly known for their "Live and let live," "All religions are just different paths to God" attitude towards different faiths. They are very much known for their hard-line, "my way or the highway" attitude.
And frankly, that's not out of line with Christianity's canonical texts. I've been thinking about a piece I wrote a while back, The Messed-Up Teachings of Jesus, in which I pointed up all the teachings of the Jesus character in the four gospels that run directly counter to progressive ideals of tolerance, diversity, questioning authority, and thinking for one's self. The trope that only people who believe in Jesus's divinity will be saved is all over the gospels like a cheap suit. As is the trope of strict obedience to Jesus's teachings. As is the trope of the beauty of having faith in Jesus without skepticism or needing evidence. (And, of course, the Old Testament is lousy with the "Believe in our god or suffer murder, rape, warfare and genocide" theme.)
So. Given that all this is true. Given that "everyone should practice religion our way" is a central theme of Christianity's founding texts. Given that, historically speaking, a harsh and rigid enforcement of dogma has been Christianity's dominant M.O. for two thousand years. Given that Christian evangelism and missionary work has overwhelmingly been based, not on persuasion or reason, but on fear-mongering and bribery at best, and on actual threats, intimidation, violence, and war at worst. Given that tolerant ecumenicalism has been a fairly recent development in Christianity, and a fairly minor variant to boot.
Given all that.
Why on earth would we think that accommodationism is a good idea?
Why on earth would we think that accommodationism is going to involve anything other than us rolling over and playing dead?
Atheists trying to be accommodationist with Christianity is like Obama trying to be bipartisan with Republicans. You can bend and bend and bend all you like... but they aren't going to bend back. They don't have the slightest interest in compromise. They actively and passionately oppose compromise as a violation of all that is good and right. They are interested in only one thing -- crushing their opponents.
Now, if that weren't true? If all or even most religions were tolerant and ecumenical and "live and let live," about other religions and about atheism? Then the accommodationists might have a point. If all or most religions were interested in compromising back, then compromise might be a valid strategy. (Of course, if all or even most religions were tolerant and ecumenical about other religions and atheism, then most atheists wouldn't much care about religion, and the atheist movement probably wouldn't need to exist. Thus rendering the whole question moot.)
But most religions aren't like that. Most religions don't care about compromise. Most religions care, more than anything, about (a) perpetuating themselves, and (b) seeing that the will of God is done. They don't see tolerance of other religions as an inherent value in itself. They see tolerance of other religions as a violation of God's will.
And there's a reason most religions are like this. As many scholars have pointed out (Daniel Dennett most memorably, in "Breaking the Spell"), rigid and dogmatic religions tend to survive better, with fewer believers drifting away, than moderate and ecumenical ones. Rigid and dogmatic religions tend to exert a stronger hold on their believers, especially when the tenets are taught in childhood. I dearly wish this weren't so... but it seems to be.
So given that this is true... what do the accommodationists hope to accomplish? How do you accommodate someone whose only response to your efforts is to demand that you accommodate some more? And then more, and more, and more? How will accommodationism accomplish anything other than atheists turning ourselves into doormats?
Of course we should respect and defend people's right to believe and practice whatever religion they like. We should do that, not because it's accommodationist, but because it's the right thing to do: because freedom of thought and of private, non-harmful, non-intrusive practice are crucial parts of our core values.
But we do not need to accommodate religion by declining to criticize it. We do not need to accommodate religion by allowing it to use its language in government documents and institutions. We do not need to accommodate religion by agreeing that the spiritual world somehow governs philosophy and meaning, even though it has no discernable effect on the physical world.
And there's no point in doing so. We cannot expect religion to be reasonable, tolerant, and eager to compromise. We have to expect the Spanish Inquisition. There is no point in accommodating people who won't accommodate back.