I am struggling with a thought this morning, so I thought I’d ask y’all for some feedback.

During Mason’s chat with Christopher Hitchens she said, ” I want to grow up to be a freethinker. My mom says I’m not, but I already am.” I winced. And then tried to explain that I was following Richard Dawkins’s advice about not labeling children. (This part was cut from the video.)

Then when Mason was interviewed by the local paper she said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve decided my religion yet. I’m going to kind of experiment around and see if there’s any religion I like in particular. But if I do decide to be a freethinker, the chances are very high. … I just want it all to make sense.”

That was my doing. We had had a talk about “keeping an open mind” at age nine.

But, a reader at Why Evolution is True commented that she sounded like a little “accomodationist.” I’d never heard the term before. (Remember, I am rather new to atheism and have kept my thoughts to myself for the past few years. Going to the Texas Freethought Convention felt like a dangerous and daring foray into the snake-pit.)


I am wondering what I am doing wrong. I understand that you can’t appease fanatics, but if you are a “hard-core” atheist are you also a fanatic as well? I  don’t want to be close minded and judgmental, but I also don’t want to be a useless glob of wishy-washy protoplasm. How do you strike a balance?

So, in the spirit of socratic irony…

What is accomodationism? Why is it wrong? Is it ever OK? What should we teach our children about religious ideas?


About Anne Crumpacker

I like to read. I also like science, art and drama. I like really big numbers, but I don’t understand them. I like kids and being silly, but sometimes I feel serious and that’s when I like thinking BIG THOUGHTS. You can visit me @
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20 Responses to Accommodationism

  1. Liz Heywood says:

    I think you’re doing fine. We have to teach our children SOMETHING–it’s our job description. We tell them who we are and then we try to guide them to find out who they are. I think the more secure a parent is, the more free-rein you give a child. Clamping down on a child’s ideas, telling them they are wrong, punishing them are all signs of the parent’s own insecurity, usually the result of THEIR parents insecurity. It’s the fear that keeps on giving.

    We give our kids words and language to help self-exploration. I’d rather have my 12 yr old daughter Brock stating she’s a skeptic or an atheist than _____ (chose a religion). I tell her she can decide for herself, and I mean this–if she finds something that comforts her, I wouldn’t take it away from her or tell her she’s wrong. But if I do my job as her mother–albeit single, one-legged & on the wrong side of the poverty line–she will feel secure, loved, equipped to handle her own world of school & peers, and able to face uncertainty with enough strength of character to believe in herself without needing a primitive belief system that answers every question with reassuring falsehoods. This was how my parents raised me (in Christian Science) and it cost me my left knee when I was a teenager. Call me an accomodationist, but I’d rather hear a child say–even if they are parroting a parent, and this is not to imply that any given child does that–”I’m not sure and I’ll make up my own mind,” than to spout the religious party line about science and family values.

    Call me a hard-core fanatic of free speech, maybe, even in my kids…for some reason that doesn’t bother me at all!

    • Michael Fisher says:

      Hi Liz dear

      I’m missing a left arm, above elbow & a left leg, above knee. Three daughters I call The Three R’s [two have flown the nest]

      People rattle on about good health being beyond price, but my experience tells me that it’s up to me to maximise what I have. And I do. Some of the healthiest human specimens I know lead the dullest & most predictable of lives.

      That ain’t my story nor yours I would suppose

      Don’t be good, be effective

    • Liz,
      This is my favorite part…
      Clamping down on a child’s ideas, telling them they are wrong, punishing them are all signs of the parent’s own insecurity, usually the result of THEIR parents insecurity. It’s the fear that keeps on giving.

      Sometimes I feel cowed when talking with true believers. They seem so sure in comparison to my doubts. I think you have nailed it.

  2. Elaine says:

    Okay the video made me cry a bit. How awesome to have met him. How sick he looked, but still the same mix of funny and unbeatable. And how bloody cute is Mason.(and you’re not too bad yourself)

    You ask a tough question, one I am struggling with daily. I’ve gone out of my way now to focus on teaching Caitlin as much science, and science fact as possible and I am shying away from anything fantasy and fantastical. So we’ve touched on death, vaginal birth and evolution, very matter of factly. ( I love fantasy but want to make sure there is a balance)

    I found all of these much more easy that the GOD question or the “What are we” question. Actually I don’t know how to answer you. I’m also new to the out of the closet atheist thing.

    I am going through major change in my life as my family finds it harder and harder to accept me and have now turned quite hostile because Caitlin told my mom ” Jesus isn’t real” So Yeah, right now I am also struggling to find the right way, the proper way. Not to become a fanatic, and what is the right thing for Caitlin

    a Good Friend of mine always says even when you try to not imprint there is no way a child can be raised in this world without SOME form of imprinting. I also remember thinking I’m gonna leave her blank when it comes to religion and maybe she will be able to make up her mind, but it takes some active effort to 1. prevent brainwashing by schools, family etc, and 2. actively expose and educate about a ton of religions I don’t even know about. and then 3. Actively challenging her to really BE a freethinker. In other words, question your own beliefs as much as possible. Be intellectually honest.

    Gosh, are we expecting too much of ourselves and our kids?.

    I don’t think that if she is being accommodating to some degree at 9 years old that you should be worrying about it. As far as I know that is quite normal and sure to be completely reversed as soon as she goes into the rebellion of teenage years. So I’d say “yeah whatever” As long as she stays curious and stays interested, You have given her a GREAT Foundation and I’m sure you’re keeping those lines of communication open. What more could we ask for really?

  3. Elaine says:

    And if you manage to make sense of any of that you deserve a reward

  4. James Cornah says:

    To me it’s a label, or worse – a box.

    If you accept the label, you get in the box. All of a sudden the box defines the boundaries of your thinking. All that exists is what’s in the box. How many people do you know who live their lives inside a box with “Christianity” written on the lid?

    In my opinion it doesn’t matter what you, or anyone else, try to teach your kids about the religions of the world, as long as you teach them how to stay out of that box!

    • I had a friend tease me once that I think so far “out of the box” that I don’t even notice there is a box! Box? What box? I didn’t see a box….

      Labels are tricky. We love and hate them. I love buying the t-shirt and being part of a group, but less and less so these days.

      • Michael Fisher says:

        Quite right! Being in the choir & only hanging with the choir is a sure way of losing ones ‘tone’ ~ it leads to a flabby arse from sitting too long. A constant babbling brook of agreeable sounds entering the ear at all times will rot the brain. Republicanism & madness that way lies [& I mean lies].

        I detest the political self-promotional, self-referencing atheist & freethinking backslapping ‘in group’ conference mentality ~ can you tell? :)

  5. awb says:

    For topics where both sides represent a legitimate view, you might be inclined to let her decide. For example, you might believe the Republican party has better ideas about how to lead the country, but you want your child to grow up and make the decision of which party to support on her own.

    For things that are inherently dangerous, you might decide to steer her away from them, rather than let her make up her own mind. If you could dissuade her from taking up smoking, you’re probably doing the right thing.

    Where does religion fit in this? Is it a legitimate way to view the world and live your life, or is it a bunch of potentially dangerous nonsense? If she came home saying she believed Zeus and Hera were in control of our lives, you wouldn’t think twice of telling her that those are fictional characters. How comfortable are you telling her the Hebrew God is also made up?

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Love and Logic style of parenting. The basic principle is to give your children lots of small, easy choices, so that they can learn to make good decisions while the stakes are small (what shirt to wear, how late to stay up). When the stakes are high (do I try drugs with my friends), hopefully they’ll make the right decision. A critical piece of this is that you, the parent, must be comfortable with both choices you give to your kids. You can’t give them the choice and then refuse if they select the one you don’t desire.

    How comfortable would you be if she decided on her own that the Hebrew God is not made up, but real and the one true way to lead your life?

    • Hey, thank you for this!

      I like the basic concept of Love and Logic, but there are a couple of problems with it. Giving kids choices makes sense, but only to a point or you’ll go crazy. So, most “choice” friendly approaches advocate giving children choices within choices. That makes good sense. Instead of, “Which shirt do you want to wear?” It is, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?” We are grownups recognize this as a false dichotomy. I actually like this as a way to get things done with your toddler. But better is something like, “Brrr, it’s cold outside. What do you think would be the warmest outfit in your closet today?” That encourages more thinking.

      We were friends with a couple who had attended a Love and Logic program. They wouldn’t correct their daughter’s aggressive behavior towards Mason. They told us that little “Suzie” would learn natural consequences when Mason refused to play with her. Instead they learned learned natural consequences when we refused to come over anymore! LOL

      You make a very good point about teaching kids to handle the important/ dangerous choices in life. All we can do is teach them to be critical thinkers and give them straight answers. I suppose the same applies to religion. And you are right. I would not be thrilled if she believed in Zeus. So, your point makes perfect sense to me. I guess the question would be do I write her off if she did? Or would she refuse to be with me? (We all know of too many families where that has happened.) How could you bring her back to reason? I guess education and reading would be the best remedy. I’m obviously still struggling with this. Thank you for your help. :-)

  6. Ian says:

    Anne, you’re doing nothing wrong. As James says above, carry the label – get in the box! That will then define the person and by doing so restrict that individual to the relevant dogma.

    To call a nine year old ‘accommodationist’ just because ‘she is looking around to make her own mind up’ is ridiculous.

    Giving Mason the freedom to look around, BUT, with your guidance and advice on how to analyse the various options out there is ideal. The pros and cons, the inconsistencies etc, Mason will eventually reach her own conclusions if, in fact, she hasn’t already done so.

    • Thank you, Ian. I appreciate your support.

      Mason will eventually reach her own conclusions if, in fact, she hasn’t already done so.

      Sounds like you know my little girl! She is a pretty independent thinker. I am probably worried about nothing!

  7. Zachary Moore says:

    “Accomodationism” is an imprecisely-defined term. As is “confrontationalism” or whatever other term is used as its antonym.

    In general, I find most accusations of “accomodationism” (a label applied almost exclusively as a perjorative) lobbed at people who are felt to be unreasonably downplaying the implications of a freethinking and humanistic worldview as being atheistic. The people one is being accused of “accomodating” are religious believers who, presumably, would be friendlier to humanists as long as atheism were never brought up in conversation.

    The original context for the other “A” label was in regards to the evolution/creation cultural controversy. Scientists were urged by certain people to avoid bringing up arguments against God when discussing the science of evolution with creationists. The reason for this was that if the discussion became about atheism rather than about science, members of the general public would be more likely to dismiss evolution.

    I think worrying about accomodationism is frankly a bit silly. I don’t worry about bringing up my atheism in public, nor among religious believers, but I’m much more eager to talk about how my worldview is informed by a freethinking approach and humanistic values. I also reserve most of my anti-religious confrontations for those people that I really think deserve it: anti-science fundamentalists and purveyors of religious privilege who want to exercise cultural dominance in the public square and in our public schools.

    So let me be clear: regarding atheism as a tentative position in NO WAY makes someone an accomodationist. It makes them an honest and open-minded thinker.

    • Anonymous says:

      I find this sentence impossible to understand Josh. What do you mean?:

      In general, I find most accusations of “accomodationism” [sic] (a label applied almost exclusively as a perjorative [sic]) lobbed at people who are felt to be unreasonably downplaying the implications of a freethinking and humanistic worldview as being atheistic

      Perhaps it means what you write in the very next sentence & that’s all, but I can’t be sure:

      The people one is being accused of “accomodating” [sic] are religious believers who, presumably, would be friendlier to humanists as long as atheism were never brought up in conversation


      So let me be clear: regarding atheism as a tentative position in NO WAY makes someone an accomodationist [sic]. It makes them an honest and open-minded thinker

      Regarding the “honest & open-minded thinker” part ~ this might be true for you Zach, but you cannot make it a generally true statement as you appear to be doing here. Also an atheist isn’t usually accommodationist BECAUSE they are a tentative atheist. The reasons are usually those set out by Ken Perrott in my post below & it’s to do with communication. I guess you mention this because Anne conflates accommodationism, atheist doubt & open mindedness in her post.

  8. Michael Fisher says:

    Ken Perrott of Hamilton, New Zealand blogs under an “Open Parachute ~ the mind doesn’t work if it’s closed” & he posted an informative article there last May entitled Confronting Accommodationism ~ I urge you to read it Anne, because it nicely summarises the positions & the personalities. It will clarify a few things for you. Ken goes on to discuss the arguments regarding which is the best tactic for an atheist to adopt when dealing with theists & their faulty world view: Confrontationist or Accommodationist? Perrott writes (& I agree) that

    “…confrontation is a bad tactic when used at the personal level. In the one-to-one or small group situations ideas are advanced better if their presentation does not anger the receiver. In such situations one should seek the common ground and use it to advance one’s ideas. Of course this does not mean dishonesty or denying one’s own world views”

    I think this is the sensible line for Mason (or anyone) to take in a face-to-face one-on-one with a theist ~ have a conversation!

    But what about when an atheist public figure or an atheist/secular/freethinking [or at least neutral] public body plays niceynicey with theists for long-term, strategic political reasons? Spouting half-truths & burying disharmony in the hopes that it will bring more people into the conversation? Well that’s different & the stakes are too high. All that matters then is TRUTH.

    This comment is getting to long. To be continued…

  9. Michael Fisher says:

    April 2011: Open letter to the NCSE and BCSE by Jerry Coyne from this page of: Why Evolution Is True

    Dear comrades:

    Although we may diverge in our philosophies and actions toward religion, we share a common goal: the promulgation of good science education in Britain and America—indeed, throughout the world. Many of us, like myself and Richard Dawkins, spend a lot of time teaching evolution to the general public. There’s little doubt, in fact, that Dawkins is the pre-eminent teacher of evolution in the world. He has not only turned many people on to modern evolutionary biology, but has CONVERTED MANY EVOLUTION-DENIERS (most of them religious) to evolution-accepters. [Michael's note: check out the link!!!!]

    Nevertheless, your employees, present and former, have chosen to spend much of their time battling not creationists, but evolutionists who happen to be atheists. This apparently comes from your idea that if evolutionists also espouse atheism, it will hurt the cause of science education and turn people away from evolution. I think this is misguided for several reasons, including a complete lack of evidence that your idea is true, but also your apparent failure to recognize that creationism is a symptom of religion (and not just fundamentalist religion), and will be with us until faith disappears. That is one reason—and, given the pernicious effect of religion, a minor one—for the fact that we choose to fight on both fronts.

    The official policy of your organizations—certainly of the NCSE—is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.

    We will continue to answer the misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks. I don’t expect them to abate, but I’d like your organizations to recognize this: you have lost many allies, including some prominent ones, in your attacks on atheism. And I doubt that those attacks have converted many Christians or Muslims to the cause of evolution. This is a shame, because we all recognize that the NCSE has done some great things in the past and, I hope, will—like the new BCSE—continue do great things in the future.

    There is a double irony in this situation. First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

    Sincerely, Jerry Coyne

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