On Accommodationism: A Reply to Pigliucci

Russell Blackford takes issue with the substance and style of Massimo Pigliucci's defense of accommodationism.

Massimo Pigliucci is someone I normally have time for. I’ve enjoyed amicable and efficient dealings with him in the past, and I don’t doubt that his long-running critique of pseudoscience has achieved a degree of good. But on any topic related to the “New Atheism” – including the relationship between science and religion, or that between science and morality – he appears to lose all objectivity.

I don’t really care what history, or what quirks of psychology, might lie behind this – I don’t even want to speculate. The result, however, is that he does himself a disservice, since I’m surely not the only person to have noticed how these topics bring out the worst in him.

Accommodationism and political exigencies

On this occasion, I’ve evidently pushed Pigliucci’s buttons with a post on the Cogito philosophy blog, which is hosted by The Conversation. My post, entitled “Against Accommodationism: How Science Undermines Religion,” responds to Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. In part, the post functions as a (favorable) book review; however, it also sketches my own case against the position (or range of positions) that I refer to as “religion/science accommodationism” and define briefly as “the idea that there’s room for religion in a scientifically informed understanding of the world.”

Accommodationism of this kind comes in various forms and flavors, but the general approach is to claim some sort of interesting, more-than-trivial, compatibility between religion and science. In the American context, such claims are often expressed in terms sufficiently strong to suggest that there is no tension at all between religion (especially Christianity) and science. For example, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum assert in their 2009 book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, that religion and science are “perfectly compatible.” They also (correctly) identify this as the position taken in the US by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

The official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are perfectly compatible. It is not only the most tolerant but also the most intellectually responsible position for scientists to take in the light of the complexities of history and of world religion.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum are entitled as individuals to support such a hardline accommodationist position. However, there is ample evidence that many individuals and organizations find such an approach politically convenient, irrespective of its actual truth. The mere fact that official organizations such as the NAS adopt stances on a contentious philosophical topic ought to make us suspicious. In our 2013 book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, Udo Schüklenk and I discuss in much detail the frequent assertions that (what might be called) anti-accommodationist views are pushing American Christians away from science. There is no doubt that exigencies related to America’s unusual religiosity among industrialized nations are influencing the policies of American science organizations in particular.

More generally, there are pretty obvious reasons why some people might be biased toward accommodationist views, and there are even more obvious reasons why accommodationism tends to emerge in statements from American science organizations. We can acknowledge this in a measured way without accusing any particular individual of arguing in bad faith. (Readers can make up their own minds about my Cogito post, but I maintain that its tone is as careful, civil, and non-accusatory as can reasonably be demanded.)

Stephen Jay Gould was clearly influenced by social and political exigencies when he offered his principle of NOMA – Non-Overlapping Magisteria – in an effort to establish once and for all that religion and science, properly understood, cannot come into conflict. According to Gould, in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, religion and science have separate and non-overlapping domains of teaching authority (“magisteria”). In referring to the circumstances that existed in 1999 (and are continuing), I am not accusing Gould of intellectual dishonesty: he was probably convinced that his principle was true. Nonetheless, there were reasons why someone in his position might have been motivated to seek just such a principle – and why many others would welcome it and not scrutinize it too closely.

Smearing and meta-smearing

Pigliucci’s response to my post is one of his own, entitled “In Defense of Accommodationism: On the Proper Relationship Between Science and Religion.” This appeared recently on his Footnotes to Plato blog (hosted by TPM Online).

One point that bothers me is his protest at my quick description of Gould as “the celebrity palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould.” This is not a point of substance, but it can’t go unremarked, as it enables Pigliucci to suggest, falsely, that I engage in smearing others – in which case I might, perhaps, be a less innocent victim of any incivility or worse that I receive myself. Again, readers can make up their own minds, but I insist that there is nothing in the way I discuss Gould that can, in context, reasonably be regarded as a smear. To make this clearer, Pigliucci writes:

The most famous, or – depending on the source – notorious of the accommodationists was Stephen Jay Gould. Blackford, rather tendentiously, calls him “the celebrity paleontologist,” a phrase that could easily be used to smear some well known anti-accommodationists, like Richard Dawkins, “the celebrity science writer.” But that’s just name calling.

Well, if I referred, in some appropriate context, to “the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver” (or it could be Gordon Ramsay or Nigella Lawson, or whomever you might prefer as an example), I would not be smearing Oliver (or whomever). The phrase might be a bit clichéd and journalistic, but it is a quick way of reminding readers whom we’re talking about. If the term “celebrity chef” is applied to Oliver, it does not convey that he is incompetent in the art and craft of cooking. It indicates, rather, that he has brokered his high-level kitchen skills, combined with skills in presenting himself to the public, to the extent of gaining recognition and acclaim beyond the confines of his profession. By analogy, a “celebrity palaeontologist” would not be somebody who is incompetent at palaeontology, but somebody who has managed to combine high-level skills in the relevant scientific discipline with skills in presenting to the public, so as to achieve popular recognition and acclaim.

For some reason, Pigliucci decides to drag Richard Dawkins into all this when he says that “the celebrity palaeontologist” is “a phrase that could easily be used to smear Richard Dawkins ‘the celebrity science writer.’” This wording does not make literal sense, since Dawkins is not a palaeontologist. However, Pigliucci is saying that Dawkins would be smeared by a supposedly analogous expression such as “the celebrity science writer.” Yet even this won’t work. After all, I referred to Gould as a palaeontologist, not as a science writer. A more analogous expression for Dawkins might thus be “the celebrity ethologist” – except my guess is that most educated people probably know what a palaeontologist is, whereas they probably don’t know what an ethologist is.

Pace Pigliucci, who sometimes doesn’t seem to think things through, such choices of language get complicated. Fortunately, Dawkins is currently at the peak of his fame and I would need no words to remind The Conversation’s audience who he is.

But if comes to that, why does Pigliucci mention Dawkins at all? He was not the topic of the original discussion, much as he has anti-accommodationist views. In any event, there are no considerations that make my journalistic description of Gould (chosen over alternatives that flashed through my mind, such as “celebrated palaeontologist” or “American palaeontologist” or simply “palaeontologist”) even remotely like a smear.

Strangely enough, after engaging in this skirmishing activity, Pigliucci reveals that he actually agrees with me that NOMA is an intellectually untenable principle:

I don’t know what the intentions of the Holy Ghost are (indeed, I don’t believe in ghosts, holy or otherwise), but I think Gould was mistaken, as Blackford states. For one thing, it is historically the case that religions have made a number of claims about how “heaven goes,” claims that have repeatedly been shown to be unfounded by scientific advancements (I mean, Galileo himself was the protagonist of one of these episodes, though he survived it, unlike his colleague, Giordano Bruno). Moreover, Gould apparently forgot that there is another venerable approach to the domains of ethics and meaning, namely philosophy, so that religion certainly doesn’t hold exclusive rights there either.

Thus, Pigliucci supports the essence of my critique of NOMA. He could have found more of that critique via a hyperlink in my Cogito post – to an earlier article of mine that was first published in 2000. And if he did follow the link, he’ll have seen that when I dissected the NOMA principle in detail, over fifteen years ago, I discussed Gould respectfully. Indeed, I explained why I was (as I remain) generally a fan of Gould’s books.

How to write like Pigliucci

As we’ve seen, Pigliucci demands such a high standard of civility that he regards the use of an expression such as “the celebrity palaeontologist” as a smear. Yet much of his own post is a torrent of highly controversial claims that he states with a show of ex cathedra certainty, combined with turns of phrase that border on ridicule and abuse (of me, my Cogito piece, and Jerry Coyne). It should go without saying that this approach does not make controversial claims, through a process of alchemy, any more obviously correct. Labelling your opponents’ views (or your caricature of them) as weird, smearing, plainly absurd, gross misreadings of history, or hopelessly confused, or perhaps as revelatory (or highly indicative) of sinister agendas, does not, in fact, transmute your opponents’ views into any of these things.

If we wanted, however, we could adopt Pigliucci’s style of dismissing opposed ideas. Here are some of his own claims, followed in bold by Pigliucci-type responses:

  • “That said, however, it is simply a gross misreading of the history and meaning of religious practices to claim that their main business is, or even has been, the production of cosmogonies.” This is weird!
  • “Religions, and religious belief, however, are primarily not about cosmogonies, but rather about ethical teachings and questions of meaning.” Even Pigliucci can see how absurd this is!
  • “By Blackford’s reasoning, science has also undermined philosophy.” Hopelessly confused!
  • “Ignoring the smell of a bait and switch [...]” Oh no, a smear!

I could go on playing this game for another page or so. Try it for yourself! You, too, can respond to Pigliucci in his own signature style! Of course, doing so won’t help you get nearer to the truth of things. Let’s turn to points of substance.

The substance of the argument

There are points on which Pigliucci and I agree. As we’ve seen, he actually agrees with my critique of NOMA. In turn, I agree with him that what we now call science has a narrower range than the entirety of rational inquiry – note, though, that Coyne explains his position on this in Faith versus Fact, and his views are somewhat subtle, not plainly absurd as Pigliucci alleges.

This can turn quickly into a merely semantic argument, as Coyne observes in his own response to Pigliucci. For what it’s worth, I think we can distinguish in sensible ways, and for practical purposes, between the sciences and the humanities. However, they are continuous with each other, and they both draw on our ordinary repertoire of reasoning, evidence-seeking, trial and error, and appropriate doubt. Furthermore, the sciences and the humanities have made findings that have historically undermined the prestige and authority of (among other religions) Christianity.

I disagree with Pigliucci’s claim that accommodationists are necessarily atheists – he is just factually wrong about this. For example, the renowned Christian philosopher (I hope that’s not a smear of some kind!) Alvin Plantinga is a leading advocate of the view that religion and science are compatible.

Moreover, I am simply baffled by Pigliucci’s argument that science cannot have undermined religion because, per impossibile, it would then also have undermined philosophy. The argument seems to be along these lines:

P1. Science has not undermined philosophy.

P2. Philosophy is relevantly analogous to religion.

C. (Therefore) science has not undermined religion.

An obvious problem is that, even though science historically grew out of philosophy, it may well have undermined philosophy in some ways and to some extent – the denial of this is controversial, and it’s a complex issue. Thus, Pigliucci can’t simply help himself to P1. But the reason why P1. nonetheless has some plausibility is that, to a large extent, philosophy is not much like religion. That being the case, P2. is false. If philosophy (as we now understand it in the West) were less like an ongoing, inter-generational conversation – guided by reason and with no fixed dogmas – and if it were more like religion, divided into sects with rival bodies of faith-based dogma, philosophy almost certainly would have been dramatically undermined by science.

Although Pigliucci does not accept the principle of NOMA, he claims, without much argument, that religion is primarily about ethical teachings and questions of meaning (whatever these really amount to; it’s not straightforward!). Thus, Pigliucci thinks, most of religion, or perhaps the most important part, cannot be contradicted by empirical findings from the sciences (or perhaps it’s just the natural sciences, exclusive of psychology). To see things otherwise is “a gross misreading of history,” so Pigliucci claims – but again, claiming this does not make it so.

As Pigliucci himself appears to acknowledge, many theologians got out of the cosmogony business precisely because they felt pushed out by the success of scientific inquiry. As a result, yes, many Catholics, such as Pigliucci’s mother, are not biblical literalists – but that is precisely an example of what I discussed in my post: religion has been forced to come to terms with challenges from science and modernity. The historical record that Pigliucci refers to supports my case, not his. (That said, plenty of mothers and others are biblical literalists – at least in the US. See the statistics provided by Coyne in his response to Pigliucci.)

Unfortunately for Pigliucci, religions are not in any measurable way “primarily” about moral claims or “ethical teachings.” Such teachings are often, though not always, important elements of religions. But they are important as elements in systems that integrate many other elements, such as (yes!) cosmogonies, eschatologies, sacred histories, epistemologies (contrary to one of Pigliucci’s ex cathedra pronouncements, religions do indeed offer methods of finding truth, such as faith, prayer, revelation, and study of holy books), and prescribed forms of ritual and worship.

Religions typically make claims that are, at least to some extent, open to empirical scrutiny by the sciences and humanities. If those claims don’t check out – or even if they are rendered explanatorily superfluous – then of course there is a tendency for the religions concerned to lose their prestige and their aura of authority. If a religion retreats to offering only allegories and moral guidance, it may then lose much of what made it psychologically attractive to adherents in the first place. Besides, we can often rationally ask why the retreat was necessary – if a religion was divinely established, as many purport to be, why were its claims not correct from the start?

Furthermore, without their pretensions to possess a wider explanatory authority, religions lose their appearance even of moral authority. Given the oppressive and miserable nature of many moral norms associated with one or another religion, that’s probably just as well.

This does not entail that thin assertions about the existence of a transcendent reality are logically inconsistent with empirical findings from the sciences and humanities. I’ve never argued that, and neither has Coyne. Give us credit for a bit more nuance and sophistication.

But truth claims can be undermined in many ways short of proving propositions that are logically inconsistent with them. Consider just one example: if I believe an otherwise implausible truth claim only because of the convincing testimony of somebody who later turns out to be a good actor and a pathological liar, I’ll be quite rational to withdraw my belief in the claim. Nothing logically inconsistent with the claim need be demonstrated.

Conclusion

Finally, I confess to being blindsided and annoyed by this turn of events. I don’t mind being disagreed with, but it creates an awkward situation when such a hostile and rhetorical post is lobbed my way from someone with whom I have various ongoing professional dealings. I won’t labor the point: to be sure, I’ve put up with much worse, in my time, and from far nastier people than Pigliucci, but it’s still unexpected and objectionable.

More worryingly, anyone reading Pigliucci’s post from outside the discipline of philosophy will form a poor view of the discipline. If this is the way one of its better known tenured professors chooses to engage with others, and to discuss ideas, the rest of us will struggle uphill when we try to present philosophy as a counterweight to propaganda and tribalism. I hope outsiders won’t interpret Pigliucci’s approach to “New Atheist” topics as typical of how philosophers go about their business. We usually display – I hope – a bit less belligerence and a bit more intellectual substance.

RUSSELL BLACKFORD LATEST BOOK IS THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (PALGRAVE PIVOT, 2016). HE IS A CONJOINT LECTURER IN THE SCHOOL OF HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA.