Accommodating science: Strategy

[This is part of the final chapter. It is unfinished, but I have to move on to some other activities, so it may not be completed for a while. Also, the chapter on neuroscience and religion will take a while to work up. So expect one more section soon, and then nothing for a while.]

So, at this point we need to summarise. I wish I could have given you a simple and straightforward answer to the question Is religion able to accommodate science? but it has no simple or straightforward answer. I can, however, give you my conclusions:

When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins. That is, science should be deferred to, especially in the secular sphere (in the wider community than the religious community that rejects the facts). If you do not defer to science in these cases, you cannot fairly claim to be interested in knowing about the way things really are.

When a religious opinion has no empirical consequences, then no amount of scientific reasoning can show it to be false or unacceptable, most especially when dealing with matters of value. Consequently, claims that science has shown God to be a failed hypothesis only work when God was intended to be an explanation of some particular aspect of the natural order. Since many if not most modern versions of religion no longer make that assertion, their version of their religion is not in danger from science, and it is simply wrong to assert otherwise. And moreover, scientific results can in no way affect the claim that the reason for the existence of the universe itself is the intent or action of a deity, since that cannot be tested. While there is no empirical evidence to suggest a deity is needed (that would be another book, not this one, so take my word for it here), neither can there be any empirical evidence against such a deity, so long as nothing about that deity changes the expectation of the way the empirical world will be from a scientific one.

Religion is not a single unitary phenomenon that can be blamed or praised all at once. Like any human institution it has degrees, varieties and loose and strong interconnections, and moral culpability does not transfer without loss from one part of a religion to another. To say otherwise is to blame very human being for every bad thing any human being has ever done, by parity of reasoning. Claims that “religion poisons everything” end up as vapid as “everything is affected by everything else”, and pay little to no attention to the actual research on the function and influence of religious ideas. I will stick with my own view that religion is a banner under which socioeconomic interests gather, and almost never the direct cause of institutional processes. However, religious ideas can and do affect the beliefs and actions of individuals, and that is enough to be worrying about. It pays not to oversell the problem if we want to deal with it effectively.

So the final issue is what the right strategy should be for pro-science advocates to deal with the actual, not the imagined, religious interference in science and science education. To resolve this, let’s consider some recent research on how people do or do not change their minds in a public debate.

How to change people’s minds

When Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones, entitled “Seven reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution”,[60] he was simply reporting the arguments made by a range of cognitive scientists of religion and psychology that certain types of belief are more “natural” for human beings than belief in some of the more arcane or distant results of science. The argument has also been made by Robert McCauley in his recent book Why religion is natural and science is not (McCauley 2011). The argument runs like this: our evolved cognitive dispositions did not evolve to understand the truths of science, but instead to adapt to social agency. Religion, which is a cultural expression of our social dispositions and cognitive biases, is therefore something very natural for us as a species to adopt (given the many meanings of “religion”, this may be overstated). Science, on the other hand, deals with large numbers, long periods, the very large and the very small, and these are things we did not evolve to deal with.

The reaction of some bloggers, such as PZ Myers, whose blog Pharyngula is one of the most widely read new atheist blogs in the US,[61] and Lawrence Moran, whose Sandwalk is a Canadian equivalent,[62] was therefore rather surprising. Mooney was accused of “selling” accommodationism, and making out that atheists were somehow mutants. It was a great over-reaction, and had an obvious agenda behind it: to denigrate any hint that accommodation is a respectable strategy. Why is this? After all, a fact is a fact, and the fact that something like religion is in general a natural default mindset for human beings doesn’t therefore mean one must accommodate religion in science.

The reason has to do with longstanding opposition to strategies that are in some fashion conciliatory to religious believers. It is thought that this “tone” debate defangs opposition to religion in science, and makes critics seem shrill when in fact aggressive argument is called for. Often, parallels are drawn with minority rights movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And there is real substance to this. To be an atheist in modern America is matched only by the costs of being an atheist in Turkey or Indonesia in the modern industrial world: atheists are less well trusted than politicians, used car salesmen and rapists! This is not the case in most of the rest of the industrial world, however. Atheists are regularly elected as leaders or representatives in other countries, including my own, although there is a worrying trend towards public religiosity among the majority parties even in Australia.

This goes right back to the origins of religious toleration in the United States. In the famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” by the philosopher John Locke, offered to the American colonists as a defence of secular government, he basically exempted atheists from all civil rights, because

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

In other words, atheists can’t be trusted since they have nobody to swear their oaths by. This is one of those “If you don’t believe what I believe, there’s something wrong with you” moments. Nonbelievers aren’t fully human, and can’t be expected to be honest.

But in a secular society, where religious exceptionalism is not established as law of the land (which one could hope were every industrialised nation, although it isn’t the case), discussion between religious and areligious interests has to be carried out without the privilege either of religion or the unquestioned authority of science, and so the debate rages either as political warfare, or as civil debate. Neither approach works well in every case, but I aim to argue that civil debate is the right starting point. 

[60] 26 November 2013 < people-deny-evolution>

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10 thoughts on “Accommodating science: Strategy

  1. Could you comment on to what extent economics is ‘science’ and to what part a belief-based secular religion?


      1. True, you didn’t. I would like to have your take on the precedence of economics – if physics trumps theology, what if anything does economics trump?


  2. “When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins.”

    Wins what?

    I would rework the above statement as follows:

    “When a plain reading of God’s Word, the Bible, contradicts speculative historical reconstructions of the distant past formulated within a naturalistic philosophical framework, such reconstructions cannot be considered good ‘science,’ and those who cling to them will ultimately experience profound loss.”

    Even in a hypothetical nontheistic cosmos, ultimately nobody would win anything. The eventual expansion of the Sun and (in the very long term) heat death of the universe would destroy all human claims of superiority, equalizing everyone, and leaving self-designated “scientists” with a draw, at best.


    1. Richard, if you think that a religious scripture trumps secular science (done well) when we are talking about the secular world, then all I can say is, have a nice life and don’t get sick, need to use anything that was once mined, or anything that relies upon physics like a computer, radio or GPS.

      Historical reconstructions are not speculative when done right: they are based upon our knowledge of the physical world. If you privilege your reading of a text over our experience and knowledge, then no sensible discussion can be had with you.


      1. If there were a reason to label all knowledge about the distant past as “speculative”, is it not also so about the distant in space? Did Newton have any reason that F=ma was true also on the Moon and the planets? “How did he know? Was he there? Only God was there, and He told us that the Sun circled a fixed Earth.”

        I am tempted to say that all that important science is about stuff that is not immediate to our direct seeing.


        1. Perhaps not “all” knowledge about the distant past is speculative, Tom, but surely a great deal of it is. Evolutionary “just-so” stories are continually being revised. Cosmogonical speculations likewise. As for origin-of-life chemistry, no one scenario has ever been definitively settled on, even for a short period; they just keep going “in and out of fashion” (John Horgan).

          “Evolutionary scenarios are an artform. They usefully exercise the brain, causing us to look at old data in new ways and stimulating us to collect new data. They do not have to be true!” — W. Ford Doolittle, leading theorist on the (alleged) evolutionary origins of basic types of organisms, Dalhousie University (Reviewer’s report 1, in Eugene V. Koonin, Tatiana G. Senkevich, and Valerian V. Dolja, “The ancient Virus World and evolution of cells.” Biology Direct 2006, 1:29

          When evolutionists themselves say things like that, I think it’s reasonable for me to attach the word “speculative” to their work.


      2. John, if you think that speculative magical naturalistic reconstructions of the distant past are “science done well” or “done right” — or that development of medicines and computers depends on that kind of “science” — then I respectfully disagree with you.

        The sort of philosophy that believes a huge Something can arise from (essentially) Nothing, by itself, and that life can arise from non-living molecules by random processes, contrary to observed chemical tendencies, and that the whole diverse biosphere could arise through destructive processes like mutation and natural selection — is not what I would call “sensible.”

        It’s not that I privilege “my” reading of a text over “your” experience and knowledge. The actual conflict here is revelation (from an all-knowing Creator) versus theorizing (by finite, ulterior-motivated, confirmation-bias-prone creatures).

        Or to put it another way, regarding what happened in Earth’s past (historical and “pre-historical”): I accept certain people’s claims of experience and knowledge, that I can’t personally check in detail, and you accept other people’s claims of experience and knowledge, that you can’t personally check in detail. (I’m assuming you haven’t personally worked the equations behind the Big Bang model, or conducted very many experiments in origin-of-life chemistry, or reconstructed many fossils. Etc.)


    2. A reasonable reading of the Bible, as not informed by modern science, is that the Earth is fixed in space. Unless you are a geocentrist, I not understand how you can see how to hold to the opinion expressed above.


      1. Not sure what Biblical text(s) you’re thinking of. But from a phenomenological (observational) point of view, it’s OK to treat the Earth as fixed, and all sky objects as moving. Current newspapers still speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” even though they’re not likely run by geocentrists.

        Physics calculations can be done correctly no matter what reference frame we select, including the reference frame of a fixed Earth. Everything in space is rotating, and engaged in various other types of motion, so we have to hold something motionless, as a fixed reference point, in order to simplify calculations.


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