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Why I Am an Accommodationist

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"To accommodate" has a number of meanings. The positive ones include reconcile and cooperate; in a more pejorative context, it could mean to surrender or capitulate. In a diverse and civil society, there is clearly a need to accommodate in a positive way and to honestly distinguish between cooperation and capitulation. In the ongoing debate on religion and science, let me strive towards the positive meaning of "accommodation."

In the sense that I believe in God, I am religious. However, I empathize with skeptics who, once they hear a believer begin with a phrase like "God's love" or "religious truth," dismiss the claims on history that often follow, like a human virgin 2000 years ago who supposedly had a son. I can understand why some anti-theists shake their heads at religious apologists who start with The Big Bang and end up with The Empty Tomb, as if this could legitimize belief in literal, bodily resurrection. Skeptics know of plenty of authors who try to use a deity behind the laws of nature to justify absurd incursions into our Earth's daily routine, not to mention demands regarding the geographic, dietary and sexual. Now that I've just "accommodated" the anti-theists by agreeing that institutionalized superstition has a bad track record, what's left for religion?

For many theists, even if they would phrase it differently, "religion" requires a deity who leaves behind evidence in a similar fashion as a human being might do, like Santa Claus not finishing his cookies or a toga-clad Charlton Heston dispensing rules on stone tablets, capriciously ignoring his own natural laws. Many anti-theists agree: if God exists, "he" has to leave behind evidence in a human-like fashion. Notably, such a perspective is at the core of the so-called "intelligent design" movement, which claims to find evidence for clever intervention in biology, relegating what its adherents call "natural" and "random" to the profane. But why can't a "designer" act through nature? In describing the natural mechanisms behind the evolution of the eye, Charles Darwin similarly asked "have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?" (Origin 1st edition, p. 188). The idea that divine agency has to resemble human agency, and that it is somehow deviant from nature, has been challenged for many years. For recent examples, see publications by (among others) my HuffPost blog-neighbors Ken Miller, Karl Giberson, and John Shelby Spong. Here is where we can identify the overlap between the secular "numinous" and religion, and try to answer the question "what's left" posed above, hopefully turning a shouting match into a discussion.

Such a discussion should consider what drives the majority of humans who are religious, many of whom are now giving Rick Santorum a running shot at the Republican nomination for US president. Santorum's views on certain issues (particularly scientific) are odious, and an "accommodationist" like me is just as capable of recognizing this as the most fervid anti-theist. Yet I also recognize that Santorum supporters are not idiots; they just have different ideals that are worth considering on their own merits. One such belief is that a science like evolution implies atheism, a falsehood promoted by anti-theists, and which (tragically) provides a convenient recruitment tool for reactionary political candidates like Rick Santorum.

The concept of "God" is debated by every generation, and the arguments are familiar: our cosmos had a beginning, and the behavior of matter (at least on a macro-scale) is generally predictable. Western science has its roots among individuals who believed that such natural laws reflected divinity, and who furthermore recognized that deciphering a mechanism (or proximate cause) does not rule out an agency behind it (or ultimate cause). These arguments neither justify claims about walking on water or the saints leaving their tombs, nor are they weakened by such claims. I believe in an agency behind the laws of nature, one which pervades but does not replace the mechanisms expressed in those laws. I understand that skeptics are reluctant to give credence to apologists who use such arguments as a prelude to more specific demands for superstition. Anti-theists can choose to reject the whole thing, to regard accommodation as surrender, but in so doing they're throwing the blastula out with the bathwater. There is too much at stake in our (still) civil society to insist on the same anthropomorphic "god" who can only act like a giant Charlton Heston, prized by anti-theists and fundamentalists alike. But you don't have to "insist". You can leave dogmatism to talk radio and intransigence to the 112th US Congress, and consider what motivates those with whom you disagree. Accommodate, and society will be better for it.

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