I’ve stayed away from the current round of accusations and counteraccusations about accomodationism between religion and science. This is because I am a wishy washy Chamberlainist fencesitting Laodicean. But I am impressed by a few bloggers’ posts on the matter. First, what’s the background?
For many years there has been a divide between those who are not religious but think that promoting science should not exclude the religious, and those who are not religious and think that no defence of science should ever admit a religious believer at all. That is not quite the way they would put it of course, but the divide is between “accommodationists” and “exclusivists”.
Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.
Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that science and religion are incompatible, and that to defend science one must, perforce, assert this incompatibility.
Each has a story about the motives of the other. Accommodationists think that exclusivists are being, variously, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist or just strategically stupid. Exclusivists think that accommodationists are being, diversely, incoherent, cowardly, stupid, or dishonest.
Much fun all round. So before I list the posts that I think approach the matter sensibly, a few points from moi:
- It is not the task of those who are not religious to find ways for the religious to harmonise their religion with science. That is the task of any religious adherent who wishes to live in the real world. But one may discuss whether it is possible, and if it is, conceptually, point out how, without thereby taking an advocacy role for religion. This is something that exclusivists think is just wrong. If I, as a non-religious person, think there is no evidence for some religious belief, I must therefore, on pain of self-contradiction (or self-immolation, or something) insist that nobody else can make the claim that their religious belief is consistent with science. Accusations of being a “religion lover” are uncomfortable echoes of previous intolerance.
- This is not just about strategy, but it is in part about strategy. The fact is that most people in society – whose taxes fund science, and whose governments decide on what science to fund – are religious or favourably disposed towards religion. A religious milieu is part of the ecology of science, so to speak. Making science the enemy of religion is going to have a single outcome, one that we can all predict. It won’t be the death of religion.
- As a point of fact, many people who are scientists are, actually and honestly, religious. Many religious are in favour of science. Why, then, should I insist that they give up one or the other? If I am trying to convert them to my way of thinking, that might be the way to go, but converting people to or from religious positions is not science; at best it’s philosophy, and at worst it is religious proselytising. Sure, atheism is not-pro-religion, but that doesn’t mean it is automatically not a religious position, and science, so far as I can tell, can only talk about empirical matters and their implications. So if to be religious means one admits of miracles, and science cannot either disprove miracles or accept them, one exceeds the bounds of science to insist that no miracles ever happen.
- All that notwithstanding, I fully concur with those who think that a science-defending institution or professional association, should make no assertions that science is compatible with religion either. That is, as I said in point 1, for the religious to sort out. Coincidentally, many religious bodies have done exactly that.
- Science and religion are not both seeking knowledge of the same things. The religious often make that assertion, that they are different epistemes or ways of knowing. If religion knows anything qua religion, it is nothing that can be investigated empirically, and when religion and science coincide on a view, it is an accident on religion’s part (or just common sense). In every case when a religious authority has asserted something about the physical world that is testable and novel, it is wrong. I know of no contrary examples. So what religion knows, if anything, is its own domain and topics, not those of science.
- Science and religion have never had “non-overlapping magisteria”. I know why Gould invented this, as a pluralist trying to effect a rapprochement, but it is just false. But likewise, there has never been a “warfare of religion against science”. The fact is, religion and science are like dancers on a crowded floor; sometimes they jostle each other for space, sometimes they are aware of the other and try to avoid conflict, and sometimes there’s just a bar brawl. Scientists often make religious pronouncements that are well outside the domain of their competence qua scientists, and theologians and clergy much more often make claims about science that are so silly they are funny, or would be if religion didn’t have the kind of political power that it usually has.
So, what’s set off the current round of claim, accusation and abuse? Jerry Coyne, a noted evolutionary biologist, wrote a piece in the New Republic and Chris Mooney, a science journalist who I like even if I don’t fully agree with everything he says, responded. Coyne is an exclusivist. Mooney a strategic accommodationist. The toing and froing can be found at their respective blogs (Coyne is a rare bird – a leading scientist who blogs). Mooney has been criticised by PZ Mashedpotato, Larry Moran at Sandwalk*, and various others.
What strikes me as regrettable is that this got personal very quickly. I’m not pointing fingers, but it does seem to me that exclusivists attack at the drop of a hat, calling people unscientific, ignorant, stupid and the like very quickly, for no more reason than that the person concerned disagrees with them! Okay, that’s perhaps what passes as debate these days – I blame debating rules as taught in schools – but such punditry does nobody any credit.
It is my opinion, for what it’s worth, that those who are accommodationists are not being cynical. I say this as an obvious accommodationist; it’s something I have argued for for years. We hold that it is better to not try to make science do what philosophy cannot, and eliminate all possible arationality from public debate by force majeure. And we hold that many good people, who think as well as the best of us and better than most, honestly think there is no conflict between science and religion. Sure, it is also the case that we should not alienate voters/funders/possible allies, but that’s not the main point.
Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject, and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect. I know I won’t change their mind either.
Finally, let me say that the answer to the problem is not to shut anyone up. Exclusivists should put their case forcefully. Accommodationists should likewise. As I once said about public atheists, they should say as much as they can. I’m a Millian liberal, and free exchange of ideas is the best solution for society, not the suppression of any view. So when accommodationists or exclusivists insist the “other side” should be quiet, I demur. The more voices, the better.
Some good posts:
Coyne lists the posts to that time here.
Mooney lays out his creed here.
Lawrence Krauss lays out the exclusivist argument well here.
* Yes, he who thinks I am an asportist, when in reality I am an anexercisist. I wish people would get the distinction straight…