In Defense of Accommodationism: On the Proper Relationship Between Science and Religion

Science, Religion and the Nature(s) of Human Inquiry

My biology colleague Jerry Coyne has recently published his new book: Faith vs Fact — Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, and my philosophy colleague Russell Blackford has just penned a glowing review of it, entitled “Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion.” I have known Jerry for a long time, and I’m familiar with his writings on the matter, but I have not read the book, so this essay is intended as a response to Blackford and to the general issue of “accommodationism.” Should I have time and stamina I will eventually go back to Faith vs Fact and comment on it directly on a separate occasion.

First: what is accommodationism? Having being accused a number of times of being an accommodationist (a word ominously reminiscent of “collaborationist,” but maybe I’m just paranoid), I think I have a sense of what Blackford, Coyne, and others are reacting to. These authors think that science undermines religion, and that if someone (like me) claims that that is actually not the case (with a huge caveat to come in a minute), then that someone is an accommodationist. And very likely he is also intellectually dishonest, unnecessarily deferential to religion, politically expedient, or all of the above.

Second, notice that accommodationists usually are atheists, because a religious person who accepts scientific findings (as opposed to, say, a fundamentalist creationist) is just that, a religious person who accepts science — like the majority of people on the planet.

Third, it is good to bear in mind that accommodationists readily agree that science directly contradicts (i.e., it is logically incompatible with) a number of claims made by a number of religious people (this is the above mentioned huge caveat). If someone believes that the earth is a few thousand years old, say, or that the Grand Canyon was formed during a single flood, they are flatly wrong. You can either be a young earth creationist or someone who accepts the findings of modern science, but not both. The two are utterly, irreducibly incompatible with each other.

Well, then, so what’s left to say on the issue? A lot, as it turns out.

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. The substance of the issue is Gould’s so-called NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria) principle, according to which science and religion have separate domains of competence, science dealing with factual knowledge of the world, religion concerned with morality and meaning. As Galileo famously put it, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” (letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615).

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.

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. Sure, the Old Testament talks about the origin of humanity in terms of Adam and Eve, while Hindu texts tell us that the world is cyclically created and destroyed every 8.64 billion years. But so what? Even philosophy, early on, made cosmogonic claims, and science has definitely shown than Thales of Miletus was wrong when he thought that the world is made of water. By Blackford’s reasoning, science has also undermined philosophy. Except that it hasn’t, because science itself originated from that murky past, eventually becoming the field of human inquiry that is best equipped to tell us how heaven goes. Ever since, both serious philosophers and serious theologians (and a huge number of common religious people) simply got out of that same business. My mother, for one, was rather scientifically illiterate, and she considered herself a Catholic. But she absolutely did not believe in either Adam and Eve or that the world was created in seven days. She thought, like any sensible modern person does, that religious stories are best interpreted as allegories, not as literal truths.

(I feel like this is a good time to remind the reader that I am an atheist, a philosopher, and a scientist. Moreover, I don’t have an agenda of appeasement, as I’m currently not seeking funding from the Templeton Foundation. Please keep this in mind throughout the remainder of the essay.)

So what is the accommodationist position that Coyne, Blackford, and others find so objectionable? Well, there is no official accommodationist movement to which I belong, so I will speak for myself. I think that:

i) We need to make a distinction between “religion” in the sense of any particular organized body of beliefs and practices, such as Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., and a more general belief in some sort of transcendental (i.e., non-material) entity. Specifics claims about the world of individual religions — when they do make them — may or may not be in contradiction with scientific findings, and this needs to be verified claim by claim. It is a good general bet, though, that whenever a religious claim about reality is at odds with the corresponding scientific claim, the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth.

ii) Religions, and religious belief, however, are primarily not about cosmogonies, but rather about ethical teachings and questions of meaning. Whether those ethical teachings are sound, or the answers provided to the issue of meaning satisfying, needs to be assessed depending on the specifics. But such assessment is a matter of philosophical discourse, and perhaps of human psychology, certainly not of natural science.

iii) There is no logical contradiction between accepting all the findings of modern science and believing in a transcendental reality. Which is why lots of intelligent people, including lots of scientists, do in fact accept science and believe in a transcendental reality.

iv) “Science” is a particular type of human epistemic activity, with a specific history, cultural setting(s), social structure, and so forth. As such, it is not co-extensive with “reason and evidence,” and it does have proper and improper domains of application (as well as some domains where it is pertinent but not decisive — a philosopher would say domains in which scientific evidence underdetermines the question at hand).

v) Specifically, issues of ethics and meaning are outside the proper domain of science, though they are in fact beneficially informed by the best science available (i.e., these issues are good examples of the above mentioned underdetermination).

Now back to Blackford’s take on Coyne’s book. The first revelatory point comes from this quote: “Note, however, that [Coyne] is concerned with theistic religions that include a personal God who is involved in history. (He is not, for example, dealing with Confucianism, pantheism or austere forms of philosophical deism that postulate a distant, non-interfering God.)”

By why not tackle religion in general? After all, the title of the book is Faith vs Fact (a generic “faith,” not a particular one), and the subtitle refers to “religion” in general, not just the highly qualified version that turns out to be the actual target of Coyne’s critique. Ignoring the smell of a bait and switch, however, even “a personal God who is involved in history” is far too ambiguous a statement. Is there any credible evidence that God performed miracles during recorded human history? Not really, but we have known that since David Hume, no need to invoke the might of modern science for that. The fact is, however, that contemporary theologians don’t spend a lot of time talking about miracles, and often speak of God as working through the laws of nature that He established to begin with. How on earth would a scientist test that hypothesis?

(This might be a good time to go back up to my reminder that I am an atheist, etc.)

Here is a second highly indicative quote from Blackford: “Coyne makes clear that he is not talking about a strict logical inconsistency. Rather, incompatibility arises from the radically different methods used by science and religion to seek knowledge and assess truth claims.”

Ah, so it turns out that science and religion are, in fact, logically compatible (not sure why the clause “strict” is necessary here, something either is or is not logically consistent with something else). I could declare victory and graciously leave the room at this point, but I’m not done yet.

To even talk of a “method” used by religion to seek knowledge is an obvious category mistake. Religions, as I stated above, are simply not in the (primary, at the least) business of seeking knowledge of the natural world — pace the misguided young earth creationists and their ideological allies. So Coyne and Blackford are, strictly speaking, correct, but what they say is similar to a statement along the lines of “baseballs are radically different tools from soccer balls.” Indeed they are, and baseball players are not in the business of scoring goals either.

Blackford continues: “religions have seemingly endless resources to avoid outright falsification.” On the one hand, this is, again, a category mistake: since the primary goal of religions is not to seek truths about the natural world, the very idea that their statements ought to be falsifiable is weird. Imagine if I said that I don’t think the death penalty is ethically justifiable and you asked me for a falsifiable experiment that could prove that. I wouldn’t know what to tell you, other than that you are hopelessly confused about what I just said.

On the other hand, however, some “religious” claims are eminently falsifiable, and have, in fact, been falsified. Think the earth is a few thousand years old? Well, much evidence from geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy clearly and unequivocally falsifies your “theory.” So there.

Finally, let me add a few words on the nature of science. Again from Blackford’s review: “[Coyne] favors a concept of ‘science broadly construed.’ He elaborates this as: ‘the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.’” But this has it exactly backwards: it is professional scientists that use that same combination of doubt, reason and empirical testing that Homo sapiens has been using since the Pleistocene, and that has made us the dominant species on planet Earth (for good and, mostly, for bad, as far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned). To refer to the application of basic reasoning and empirical trial and error as “science” is anachronistic, and clearly done in the service of what I cannot but think is a scientistic agenda.

Indeed, Blackford himself, at some level, realizes the absurdity of Coyne’s “broad construction” of science, but confines his comment to a parenthetical statement: “From another viewpoint, of course, the modern-day sciences, and to some extent the humanities, can be seen as branches from the tree of Greek philosophy.” Exactly.