I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

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So given that it is not entirely clear what religion is, or even what science is, it would help if we could put the arguments clearly. It is hard to find clear statements of either the accommodationist or the anti-accommodationist positions, so what we have to do first is reconstruct them. And to do that, we need to identify the different positions that arguments can be made for.

Now, in ordinary language, an argument is what you have when your parent/partner/friend rejects your desire to go out drinking, or supports the wrong football team. It involves shouting, throwing things and generally making the pets cower. This is not, quite, the sense in which arguments are played out in an intellectual debate. However, arguments of the intellectual kind often end up being arguments of the ordinary kind, so some ground rules first.

In any debate where emotions run high, where the issues being debated really matter to the disputants, a certain degree of name callingand denigration of opponents occurs. The accommodationism debate is one in which this happens frequently and by those who ought to know better. It is not restricted to one side of the debate or the other, nor is it done only by atheists, religious, or agnostics. There are those who having settled on a view tend to attack the probity and personalities of their opponents, justified in the knowledge that they are in the right and their opponents represent all that is wrong with society. I shall name no names, as it is widespread, but it is unworthy of those who think they have reasons and are therefore rational to do this. If there are reasons and good arguments, that ought to be sufficient. But it rarely is.

Arguments are not always about giving reasons and reasoning. Ever since Plato wrote The Sophist to attack those who thought argument was all about convincing people, not leading them from true premises to true conclusions, argument has been divided into logic and rhetoric, and rhetoric is designed to make arguments seem appealing and convincing even if they shouldn’t be, logically. A recent paper has even argued that argument evolved to do the rhetorical thing rather than the logical thing (Mercier & Sperber, 2010), although it is not quite convincing.[1] So perhaps we had better ask why we are arguing about this in the first place: for logical or rhetorical benefit?

If this were just an intellectual exercise, then academic tomes could be written and buried, to be exhumed only when doctoral students did their literature reviews. The old legal question, however – cui bono? (who benefits?) – suggests that this is more than a dry technical problem. It matters because it affects how we teach our children, how we make our policies, and how we live our lives. Each of these has real costs involved: we have a limited amount to educate children and young adults, when we make policy choices they cost money to implement, and time, and every day we have to decide where we will spend our time, ultimately the only resource that matters. Later we will consider the costs of religious beliefs, but let us ask now what it costs us to have a nonscientific view, and who benefits when we do not.

What is a scientific view?

One presumes the reason for thinking that a scientific explanation is valuable to us, is because it tells us how the world really is, to such a degree of accuracy that we do not find ourselves running headlong into things we didn’t know were there, like antibiotic resistance or global warming.[2] If we have the wrong view of the world, then we will suffer the consequences. And if that were the end of it, then it would be enough to say to an opponent of this or that scientific theory that they were avoiding the real world, end of story. But things of course are not that simple.

Scientific theories have a range of parts, as it were, ranging from the established to the contentious (and the more recent a theory, the more contentious it is until enough empirical work has shown it to hold), and from the empirical to the constructed. What I mean by that last bit is this: if you observe and measure some phenomenon, once you have eliminated potential sources of error and repeated the observation, a fact is a fact. All the rest is constructed in our minds: laws, techniques of analysis, and interpretations. Different thinkers on the nature of science take differing emphases on this. Everyone agrees that some at least of our scientific theories are constructed. But some thinkers, often known as “social constructivists”, hold that all our scientific knowledge is a social construction, including facts and observations.[3] This has been leapt upon by, for example, creationists who claim that science is just a social construction and not to be accepted when it contradicts revealed religion (as interpreted by their favourite authorities).

So we have a rather complicated picture (did you expect anything else?). What aspects of science are to be taken to conflict with alternative viewpoints like religion? Established science? Well it could be wrong. There is an argument in philosophy called the pessimistic meta-induction (PMI), which goes like this:

1.      All previous scientific theories that have been overturned were false

2.      [By induction] Our present scientific theories will turn out to be false

C.     Scientific knowledge is false.

If scientific knowledge is true, then something is wrong here. Answers to the PMI include claims that science is converging upon the right answers, and so is becoming more accurate and therefore more true. Asimov once wrote:

… when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. (Asimov, 1989)

Scientific theories become more precise and accurate as they evolve, and so while a theory in the early twentieth century has been shown to be wrong in the absolute sense, it was better (more accurate and precise) than the theories it replaced. We are converging upon a set of theories that are closer to the truth. And yet, we are not reducing the number of theories about the world. We are increasing them. We may have ruled out a flat earth, but we now have a very large number (10500) of theories that are consistent with our universe in string theory (Woit, 2002).

Why this happens is due to what we want from scientific theories. We want explanations (explain why this happened from general laws or principles joined with the initial conditions or starting point) and we want ontologies (a statement of the kinds and natures of the things the world is made of). Now explanations are better or worse if they are more or less accurate in their predictions than alternatives.[4] So Newton was better than Aristotle, and Einstein is better than Newton. Some day we may have an even better theory than Einstein’s, but we cannot deny that we do more now using Einstein than we did with either Newton or Aristotle. As Asimov noted, we are less wrong than before.

But then there are questions about what scientists say is real. This breaks down into two topics: what we observe are real, and what we theorise are real. Generally we do not have trouble with observing real things. The coffee table that I grazed my shin on last week is as real as anything else I might encounter. But according to some physicists, that coffee table is mostly empty space and fields, so it isn’t real; instead, physicists think fields and the zoo of particles are more real than coffee tables (Eddington, 1928). Why this is, when nobody has directly observed the smallest particles or a quantum field, is troubling. This move, which Eddington did before quantum fields and most of the particle zoo had been named and described, is called eliminativism. It is a widespread move across the sciences and in philosophy. The self has been eliminated in favour of brain modules that are dumb; the organism has been eliminated in favour of cooperating groups of genes and cells, etc. Life itself has been eliminated in favour of thermodynamic processes in chemical reactions.

Is that what we should require religion to defer to? Quite apart from the constructivist challenge (there are no facts), we also seem to have an eliminativist challenge (there are no things, at least of the kind that folk or religious belief requires). Eliminativism, however, is not a Bad Thing in science. We eliminated the notion of a vital force, and gave explanations in terms of biochemistry and physics. This was a real achievement, and undergirds all our current medical and biological, and to an increasing extent, psychological research. When critics do not like this move, however, they call it reductionism, which is an insult to its opponents and a virtue to its advocates. The original meaning of “reductionism” was that it was an advance in science to reduce the terms and theories of one domain to the terms and theories of another, more fundamental domain (thus preserving the advances made in the reduced domain). Now it means, in large part from the way biologists have criticised it, that you assert that something (like an organism or a mind) is nothing but something smaller (genes or brain modules or computation).[5]

The issue of teaching reductionism is therefore rather fraught. It is one thing to teach that the energy within a cell is processed through the Krebs cycle. It is another to teach that our self is nothing but neurons firing. And yet, if science has anything to say about the mind, it is that our brain states and bodily processes account for anything we might observe in human behaviour (so long as we also include in the account interactions with the environment and other humans). Should we include this in our curricula? After all, it directly contradicts certain religious beliefs about moral action, free will, and the existence (or not) of a soul. And the answer is of course, we should teach it (in ways suitable for the ages of the children), leaving the religious to accommodate it as best they can.

Nevertheless, while these views are widespread, they are not universal in science. There are those, like Sir John Eccles, the neurophysiologist and Nobel laureate, who hold that the mind is more than the sum of its neurons. If anyone is a scientific authority, it is a Nobel laureate (at least, in their specialty), so should we include this too? Here is where it gets messy again. Scientists hold views for a range of reasons. Sometimes it is because the evidence tells for them. Sometimes it is because some view is “elegant”. And sometimes it is because the alternative seems too indecent, for personal reasons. In the case of Eccles, it seems to be based upon his devout Catholicism, although he presented arguments (with Karl Popper) in favour of his dualistic view of mind and body. But in any case his argument was as a philosopher, not as a scientist. The evidence is there now that minds are brains functioning in bodies; anything more should be moved to the philosophy classes that all schools of excellence surely must run. Still, it is far from clear that the science is unequivocal on this subject.

A similar problem arises with what has come to be known as “gene-centrism”. This is a view popularised by Richard Dawkins in his book The selfish gene (1976). Here the actors of biology are genes, and all else is just the vehicles in which genes act. This is a form of reductionism that locates the causal power in one element of the biological organisms. However biologists know that all elements of organisms, together with their environment, cause things in biology, and criticism of this view has come from within and without biology. Is it therefore science, or philosophy?

So it is very far from clear what it is that we ought to require nonscientific views to conform to. The philosophical implications of science are often drawn by and argued for by scientists, but that doesn’t mean these are scientific questions. For example, Coyne’s claim in chapter 1 that evolution is nonteleological is a philosophical claim. In 1995 the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) published the statement that:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Many religious people objected to this statement, taking “unsupervised” and “impersonal” to mean that God was precluded given evolution’s truth. Genie Scott, of the NCSE, encouraged the NABT to remove these words.[6] She argued that:

[p]roperly understood, the principle of methodological materialism requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act. I could say, speaking from the perspective of my personal philosophy, that matter and energy and their interactions (materialism) are not only sufficient to understand the natural world (methodological materialism) but in fact, I believe there is nothing beyond matter and energy. This is the philosophy of materialism, which I, and probably most humanists, hold to. I intentionally added “I believe” when I spoke of my personal philosophy, which is entirely proper. “I believe,” however, is not a phrase that belongs in science.

Coyne, on his blog,[7] objected to this:

In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision. Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth. Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity—especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.

Coyne accused Scott of pandering to the theologians. Scott saw her approach as limiting science to scientific issues rather than philosophical ones: if God chooses to use natural processes, the lack of supervision doesn’t preclude scientists from being religious. So the debate rages on.

Varieties of accommodation

There are two basic claims that are called accommodationism:

Cognitive compatibility: Science and [a suitably revised] religion are compatible

Strategic inclusion: We should include rather than exclude all religious believers who [say they] accept science.

The opposing perspectives we can thus name:

Cognitive incompatibility: One cannot simultaneously believe in religion and accept science

Strategic exclusion: We should exclude religious believers even if [they say] they accept science.

I will talk about “compatibilism”, and “incompatibilism”, and “inclusivism” and “exclusivism”, to make sure what is being discussed. We can generally refer to this as “accommodationism”and “nonaccommodationism”.

Now when we talk about cognitive compatibilism, what are we referring to with the adjective “cognitive”? We might mean any of a number of things. We might mean that one can in fact conceive of a God and do science properly. That is to say, one could hold the beliefs “there is a God” and “science is knowledge” simultaneously. This is in fact true –many scientists hold both ideas. But we may mean something stricter: perhaps one cannot hold both these beliefs consistently. Let us call this rational incompatibilism. Holding these beliefs may rationally conflict (this is to be discussed later). Or, they may not, in which case we would assert rational compatibilism.

The strongest form of cognitive incompatibilism would be to say, as a matter of fact, that one cannot hold these two beliefs simultaneously; that one or the other has to be trimmed. These cognitive views therefore run from weakest (cognitive compatibilism) to rational compatibilism to rational incompatibilism to strongest (cognitive incompatibilism).

Strategic issues come in the context of scientific institutions and associations either including or excluding religious belief or believers. Here the question is two-fold. We can say that religious beliefs are inclusionary or exclusionary within science. This is about the content of the beliefs. Or we can put this in terms of the believers. One is a logical matter, and the other is a sociological matter.

If we are talking about beliefs, then the question is whether to permit religious beliefs within the practice or results of scientific activity or not. The sense of permit here is itself open to interpretation. We can mean it in a permissive or normative sense, for instance (as when Scott excluded beliefs from the “proper” sphere of scientific activism) or we can mean it in the sense of it being consistent with scientific work. If you take the normative sense, then it becomes a duty of pro-science advocates to include or exclude religious beliefs, respectively for inclusivists or exclusivists. That is, if you take the stance you do, and you think belief from religious (and other) traditions has a proper role or not, then you have a moral obligation to act in a particular manner.

Sociological issues, however, are different from this. If the question is whether or not believers, the actual real people who have religious beliefs and are pro-science or scientists, should be permitted to be a part of the scientific endeavour and advocacy, then you start to move into the territory of licensing and banning people from science. I take it that nobody argues explicitly that religious believers should be banned from or forced to be a part of the scientific community, but some of the rhetoric comes very close. For example, when the evolutionary biologist and Catholic Ken Miller testified in the Dover trial about intelligent design in schools, I recall many pro-science advocates objecting to his inclusion in the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs. Likewise, when Catholic Francisco Ayala, an ex-Jesuit priest and renowned evolutionary biologist, was elected to the presidency of the AAAS in 1995, many exclusivists objected on online forums. In both cases the sticking point was their religious beliefs rather than their science or public advocacy of the science.

The sociological debates are perhaps the most unpleasant aspects of this topic. They often cross the line from reasoned debate to ad hominem rhetorical flourishes, and represent a kind of moral purity desired by those who object to religion in public life. I will not further consider this unless it comes up in the context of cognitive exclusivism, as it deserves no careful consideration. If you, the reader disagree, then we have no real discussion. In a free society, or something vaguely resembling it, such strictures smack of censorship and the abuse of privilege.

A matrix of choices

This all gives us the following matrix of choices of the relation of religion to science:

Religion Beliefs Advocacy
Accommodative Compatible Inclusivist Permissive
Non-accommodative Incompatible Exclusivist Prohibitive

It should be clear that to adopt an accommodative position on, say, religion and advocacy, is not to be accommodative with regards to beliefs, or any other combination. All accommodationists are not restricted to just those choices in the accommodative row, nor are non-accommodationists restricted to just the non-accommodative row. These are independent issues, and we must be careful not to presume that because someone takes one position they must take all the others associated with an accommodative or non-accomodative stance.

The presumption that an accommodationist on one issue must be an accommodationist on all, or that an anti-accommodationist must be anti-accommodationist on all, leads to some slippery arguments. For example one will often hear opponents of the accommodation of religion argue that this means the accommodationist they are arguing with must think that religious beliefs must be included in science, which they then (rightly, in my view) demolish, concluding that religious belief is incompatible. But if we say that one can be a compatibilist about religion without being an inclusivist about religious ideas, you can see how the argument trades on the ambiguities of the more general term.

Finally, we should consider the strength of the positions taken by those who argue for these views. Someone can have a view but think that it doesn’t carry much weight, while the opponent can think that it is the most important belief to hold, and everything in between. Religious believers often hold their beliefs strongly, but hold that they have a place in scientific debate only weakly, or even independently of their religious beliefs. One should not infer from the fact that a view is strongly held by one side of a debate to the conclusion that the other side must hold it strongly also. Human beings, and not only the religious or fervent believers, often compartmentalise their beliefs. This is well known in psychology, for example, although there it tends to apply to memories rather than beliefs.

Adjectives to describe the strength of beliefs include militant, fundamentalist, wishy-washy, apathetic, and so on. These are almost always used by opponents, and they border on the ad hominem. There is no need, for example, to declare Richard Dawkins a “fundamentalist atheist” (see the comment in the previous chapter about the origins and meaning of this term); he is just an atheist. That he holds to his atheism strongly, or advocates for it in a broad public manner is irrelevant to the views he holds, and this is equally true of all others, including theists. To apply a strength-of-belief adjective to someone (as opposed to them applying it to themselves) is a rhetorical move, not a rational move, aimed at manipulating the prejudices of the audience. This, by the way, is just as true of those who claim to be “fervent believers”: the fervency or diffidence of the belief in no way goes to the reasonableness of otherwise of the belief itself. And agnostics (of which tribe I am a member) are neither fence sitters nor uncommitted in the strength of their beliefs. Claims that agnostics are uncertain atheists, or have “faith in faith” are just insults, and as insults we can ignore them if what we are attempting to do is evaluate claims. That might be good demagoguery, but it is lousy argument and worse philosophy.

By the way, this is a philosophical argument, whether it is made by scientists or theologians. Those who declare philosophy to be dead because science has answered philosophical questions, such as Krauss or Hawking, or those who declare philosophy to be an atheistical activity because it fails to take into account the reality of a god, are equally doing philosophy, and in every case doing it badly. I will not go so far as Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and demand rigidly defined areas on uncertainty for philosophers, but once you move past the evidence to arguments about what counts as grounds for beliefs, you are doing philosophy whether you like it or not. The only question is whether you are doing it well or badly.

The meaning of “belief”

Throughout the preceding discussion I have used the word “belief” a lot; and it may jar some readers. Often,“belief” is equated to “faith”, and so is considered to be what it is that religious believers have. In a philosophical sense, though, a belief is just some conceptual stance held by a thinker. It includes knowledge claims, for example: if I say that I know it is raining, then I have a belief that it is raining which meets the requirements for knowledge. “Faith” here is a belief that one has without meeting the conditions for knowledge–either because it lacks evidence or is in some other way unwarranted (for example, because it is not scientifically established).

Many of those who argue for religious exclusivism in science seem to think that right belief is only that which is established using a scientific method or something that could be recast as a scientific method (such as the use of trial and error, but without the statistics and experimental design). Some inclusivists seem to think that scientific beliefs are “just another religious belief”, and so the accommodation debate is about which religion you accept. Let us first consider that second view, which often gets called the “worldview” view, and then return to the former, which is often called “scientism”.


A standard rhetorical technique by creationists is to declare science a “worldview” and therefore just as much a religion as their view. As Ken Ham, the founder of the Institute for Creation Research, once said

When we discuss creation/evolution, we are talking about beliefs: i.e. religion. The controversy is not religion versus science, it is religion versus religion, and the science of one religion versus the science of another. (Ham, 1983, cited in Selkirk & Burrows, 1989, p. 3)

As Ken Miller, the evolutionary biologist noted

“It is crucial for creationists that they convince their audience that evolution is not scientific, because both sides agree that creationism is not.” (Miller, 1982, p. 4 cited in Selkirk & Burrows, 1989, p. 103)

Similar moves have been made by proponents of the so-called Intelligent Design movement:

We are dealing here with something more than a straightforward determination of scientific facts or confirmation of scientific theories. Rather we are dealing with competing worldviews and incompatible metaphysical systems. In the creation-evolution controversy we are dealing with a naturalistic metaphysic that shapes and controls what theories of biological origins are permitted on the playing field in advance of any discussion or weighing of evidence. This metaphysic is so pervasive and powerful that it not only rules alternative views out of court, but it cannot even permit itself to be criticised. (Dembski, 2002, p. 114)

The notion of a “worldview” in philosophy is an old one, and its usual formulation goes back to Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century, and Kant in the eighteenth. It is supposed to be something like Kuhn’s paradigms, ruling all reasoning according to self-contained and self-consistent rules and assumptions, and hence is immune from rational criticism by competing worldviews.[8] The idea has been very popular among Reformed theologians like Cornelius van Til in the 1920s and Hermann Dooyeweerd in the 1960s, as it makes apologetics a matter of changing the foundational “presuppositions” in the hearer, rather than reasoning from shared premises, such as the rules of scientific investigation (Naugle, 2002). Consequently, the choice of a worldview is arational, and there can be no rational discussion between them. It is a matter of a leap in the dark: you have your worldview and I have mine.

The notion of a worldview plays a large part in what has come to be known as “postmodernism”, although what exactly postmodernism is post to is quite unclear. In this trend, we construct our worlds through the influence of language and its interpretation. There is no “authorial perspective” of an independent world to which all have access. This has been applied to science by many thinkers who are not religious, at least overtly, and led to the idea that science is “just another worldview” that can be accepted or rejected depending upon the interests of the individual and the society in which they live (see Sokal & Bricmont, 1998).

The only problem with this is that there is no reason to think (at least from my presuppositions) that worldviews even exist. That is not to say there are not views of the world that colour how we see it. The term “worldview” is a rough translation of the German word Weltanschauung, which means something like a perspective on the world. In philosophical contexts, a Weltanschauung is a hermetically self-contained set of beliefs which form a coherent whole, a “metaphysic” as Dembski anachronistically calls it.

While we all have our view of the world, in the stricter sense of a Weltanschaaung, I doubt such things exist. For a start, where would it come from? Given that we develop our belief set over time from disparate sources of influence, and that these are a mishmash of competing beliefs and rules, it is unlikely that anyone has a fully formed worldview of this kind. Christians do not have one coherent set of beliefs, and neither do atheists or rationalists. Instead we gain our ideas piecemeal, and make them fit together as best we can. To think otherwise is to commit what we might call the essentialistic fallacy: that because a group of ideas are held more or less by some group of people, there is an essential internal logic to these ideas that must be the defining characteristic of those people’s traditions.

Moreover, we simply do have some shared beliefs and properties. For a start, we are all animals, mammals and primates, and we live in the same sort of environments (from a cognitive perspective). We all must learn from our peers and families, solve practical problems of food, water, clothing and habitation, and learn to speak a common language (which itself is a mishmash of uses and meanings). Wittgenstein once said that if a lion could talk we could not understand him, because his form of life was radically different to ours, but in fact we understand many of the same needs and interests as a lion, because we are both living animals that strive to survive, mate and rear young ones. Even more is shared as a form of life between human beings, not least our way of perceiving the world around us. The idea of a radical discontinuity between world views is largely a myth.

This gives us a way to understand each other if we try. Despite the rhetorical attacks on those who believe differently from us, we understand the motivations of most of our opponents lives, use the same technologies, and deal with the same problems. So the philosophical worldview is a myth. But there are some generalities we can make about views on the world: there are“folk”physics, psychology and taxonomy that we all share, often (misleadingly) called “commonsense”. And this common sense view is often in conflict with science. American philosopher Wilfred Sellars once called this the “manifest image”, and he contrasted it with the “scientific image” that we have of the world as we investigate it thoroughly (Sellars, 1962). Much of what is counted as a conflict between religion and science is in fact a conflict between the manifest and the scientific image of a society. We will consider how this plays out in a subsequent chapter.


Theologians and philosophers alike often attack a view they term “scientism”. This is how Karl Popper dealt with it:

My position, very briefly, is this. I am on the side of science and of rationality, but I am against those exaggerated claims for science that have sometimes been, rightly, denounced as “scientism”. I am on the side of the search for truth, and of intellectual daring in the search for truth; but I am against intellectual arrogance, and especially against the misconceived claim that we have the truth in our pockets, or that we can approach certainty. (Popper, 1987, p. 341)

But“scientism”is a fabulous beast: often sighted but never captured. It is, as noted by Mario Bunge, “sometimes employed in a derogatory sense, and at other times confused with either positivism or naturalism” (Bunge, 2010). He defines it with the following argument:

1. Everything knowable is best studied scientifically.
2. Mind, society and morals are knowable.
3. Therefore mind, society and morals are best studied scientifically.

As stated, this is not terribly objectionable except to those who deny premise 2. But there is a wider sense in which people do object more reasonably: that nothing else is proper for us to investigate but what is knowable scientifically. In short, if it is knowledge, it is scientific, and if it is not scientific, it is not knowledge (or worse, it is superstition and nonsense). In short, it replaces “best” with “only”.

However, this stronger claim, that only science delivers knowledge, is not really “scientism”, but has another more specific name: positivism. Invented in the 1830s by August Comte, positivism seeks overtly to replace religion with “reason” (by which is meant, science). A form of it was popular in the “scientific philosophy” movement originating out of Vienna between the first and second world wars, and went by the name logical positivism. This was founded on a principle we can label as P:

P: Anything that can be known is known by logical and empirical methods. Anything else is nonsense.

However, as was quickly pointed out (in part by Popper), P is not known by logical or empirical methods (it is neither true by definition nor something one could investigate scientifically) and so by its own lights is nonsense. Hence, logical positivism was self-defeating. But it quickly reformed as logical empiricism, which is more tenable: knowledge is gained through scientific measures, and any claim to know must either be of that kind or something that could be revised scientifically.

Positivism is a strong tradition among scientists and those who oppose religion. That it is itself a philosophical claim is not often recognised by them, for they often deprecate philosophy unless it suits them to use it. Those who reject the compatibility of science and religion will often assert that religion holds beliefs that are not known to be true, which is correct, and conclude that it cannot be compatible with science for that reason.

If religious claims to knowledge that is not scientific are indeed knowledge, then there must be another source of knowledge than science. This is usually referred to as “alternative ways of knowing”. Positivists deny (knowing this how?) that there are any other kinds of knowledge than the scientific. A weaker position is that if religious knowledge is knowledge, it is not scientific knowledge, and must give way to scientific knowledge when it is acquired. For example, before the theory of the Big Bang in cosmology, religious claims that the universe had a beginning were not scientific, but a religious person could hold it without fear of contradicting modern science. Now that we know the universe is 14.5 13.8 billion years old, religious claims (for instance by Hindus) that the universe is eternal must be rejected (or reinterpreted to include a “multiverse”).

In the case of the strategic question, positivists exclude religion because none of the surviving religious claims (those that are not shown to be false) are scientific, and it is for that reason I call them positivists. Unless one accepts (and can argue for) the view that nothing that is not scientific is a worthwhile belief, exclusivists have no argument for their view, and to require that as a premise is question begging. But if one accepts that while beliefs acquired from other than scientific investigations may not be scientifically acceptable (in the sense they are not results of science), then so long as they do not conflict with the actual results of science, they are not objectionable. Hence, compatibilists argue there are a large range of religious beliefs of this kind, and so those who accept them can do perfectly good science, so long as they don’t affect good scientific practice.

As to whether there are nonscientific sources of knowledge, I leave that to the reader to decide. I do not think anything that has not been gained by experiential evidence and reasoning counts as knowledge, myself. It can be other forms of belief, though, and these need not conflict with science. We’ll consider how the religious might deal with this in a later chapter.

Where have we got to?

So far I have argued that the notion of science is fraught with difficulties, that religion is equally hard to define, and that we should appeal to the best versions of religious arguments when considering whether religion can accommodate science. I have argued that religion has many traditions and levels of authority, and that we should be careful when we argue that “religion” is or is not anything, because of the reference class problem. I have tried to distinguish between several kinds of “accommodationism”and opposing views, and argued that these are independent of each other. I have discussed the idea of a worldview and dismissed it, and considered scientism and positivism as starting positions for critiquing religion.

What I haven’t done yet is defend or attack accommodationism. In subsequent chapters I will consider historical cases of conflict between science and religion, and why religious believers adopt what we might think of as “silly” views, contrary to what is known. Then I shall discuss the ways in which intellectual theists have defended the place of religion in a world of science. Finally, I will give my account of the ways religion and science ought to interact. 


Asimov, I. (1989). The Relativity of Wrong. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1), 35-44.

Bunge, M. (2010). Knowledge: Genuine and Bogus. Science & Education, 20(5-6), 411-438. doi: papers2://publication/doi/10.1007/s11191-009-9225-3

Chakravartty, A. (2013). Scientific Realism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dembski, W. A. (2002). Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology. Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic.

Eddington, A. S. (1928). The nature of the physical world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press; Macmillan.

Ham, K. (1983). The relevance of creation, Casebook II. Ex Nihilo, 6(2), 2.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2010). Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Miller, K. (1982). Answers to standard Creationist arguments. Creation/Evolution, 3, 1-13.

Naugle, D. K. (2002). Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Popper, Karl. 1987. “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind.” In Evolutionary epistemology, rationality, and the sociology of knowledge, edited by Gerard Radnitzky and W.W. Bartley III, 139-146. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.

Selkirk, D. R., & Burrows, F. J. (Eds.). (1989). Confronting Creationism: Defending Darwin. Sydney: New South Wales University Press.

Sellars, W. (1962). Philosophy and the scientific image of man. In R. Colodny (Ed.), Frontiers of science and philosophy (pp. 213-217). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Sokal, A. D., & Bricmont, J. (1998). Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Picador USA.

Wimsatt, W. C. (2006). Reductionism and its heuristics: Making methodological reductionism honest. Synthese, 151(3), 445-475. doi: papers2://publication/doi/10.1007/s11229-006-9017-0

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On certainty (D. Paul & G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford,: Blackwell.

Woit, P. (2002). Is String Theory Even Wrong? American Scientist, 90(2), 110-112.


[1] Yes, that’s irony.

[2] I won’t engage in that question here: suffice it to say, as one physicist, David Jamieson, said to me, that when you keep more energy than you release, things get hotter, and the second law of thermodynamics hasn’t been repealed by the coal industry. Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius did the initial work in 1896. All we are now arguing about is how hot, and where, and why in local cases there is some variation from the overall trend.

[3] Not all structuralists or constructivists hold this, of course. But some do. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction” at <> for a review of the issues.

[4] Or retrodictions. An explanation is the same if it predicts the future or retrodicts the past; all that is different is the time index.

[5] The phrase “nothing but” here is taken from Wilfred Sellars. The best analysis of what reductionism commits the thinker to William Wimsatt’s (2006).

[6] See her essay: “Science and Religion, Methodology and Humanism” <>

[8] The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a similar view, but unlike the usual formulation, he thought that we had a series of ruling principles (Prinzipen) that may or may not cohere (Wittgenstein 1969). He was very influential on Kuhn.

[9] There are three kinds of religious beliefs that are not scientific: those that have been shown to be false, those that involve one-off interventions by a deity (miracles) and those that are impossible to test with science. The falsities can be ignored. Miracles are outside the domain of science, as they are neither repeatable nor open to experimental testing. The third kind (such as the claim that God desires us to love our neighbours) are either held not to be known (which many theists would reject) or are revelation that is ultimately thought to be subjective.

[As I write the first draft of my accommodationism book, I will post chapters here under the Category “Accommodationism”. Here is the latest – which comes before Undefining Religion]

The religion-versus-science debate took a special turn in the West because of the existence not only of doctrinal religion but of a monopolistic doctrinal religion that made the crucial mistake of meddling in statements of fact, providing us with a long list of particularly precise, official and officially compelling statements about the cosmos and biology, supposedly guaranteed by Revelation, that we now know to be false. In every instance where the Church has tried to offer its own description of what happens in the world and there was some scientific alternative on the very same topic, the latter has proved better. Every battle has been lost and conclusively so. (Boyer 2001, 320)

In 2009, a blog war erupted among those who saw themselves as defending science, and in particular evolution, from attacks by religious activists in the public sphere, especially in education. There is an excellent, if underfunded, nonprofit organisation in San Francisco, the National Center for Science Education, which for several decades now has been providing information about and to the defenders of science education in schools. One of the main targets until recently has been the unending tide of bills in state legislatures, quite contrary to the United States Constitution separation of church and state, to enforce the teaching of creationism or its stalking horse intelligent design in state schools. The NCSE has provided comparative evidence about the motivation of these bills, which is always based upon a religious (or in the case of intelligent design, quasi religious) foundation.

The then-director of the NCSE, Dr Eugenie Scott (“Genie” to her friends, who are numerous) has always insisted that the task of the NCSE is not to attack religion, but to promote science education and knowledge in the broader community. In fact, the NCSE has, as part of its mission statement, the following passage:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.[1]

This innocuous statement is inclusive. In short, it doesn’t matter what religious affiliation an NCSE supporter has, so long as they are advocates for good science education and policy. It would seem a fairly agreeable view to take. But some find this highly objectionable. Professor Jerry Coyne, a well known evolutionary biologist who specialises in speciation, took the NCSE to task. He wrote on his blog:

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.[2]

Coyne argues the following:

… my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

According to Coyne, evolutionary biology is nonteleological: it offers no support for the idea there is purpose in the world. This, however, is not how many (not the majority by any means) philosophers of science and biologists see things. They interpret evolution by natural selection as a purpose maker. In a view called teleosemantics (Macdonald and Papineau 2006), purpose is what you get when something is the result of selection for a trait or property (Sober 1984). Hence, one outcome of evolution, they say, is that natural selection (henceforth just “selection”) gives things purpose. Could this offer a hook on which to hang God? The answer to that varies according to who gives one. Theologically inclined writers think it does. Others, known in the philosophical trade as naturalists, say that it merely gives the illusion of purpose. But it is far from clear that selection, and evolution itself, in nonteleological. We will return to this later. For now, let’s ask this question: does evolution preclude belief in a providential deity? On this one example, among many such scientific challenges to religious belief, hangs a deep issue, about knowledge, belief, rationality, and social policy. It’s not an abstract philosophical issue, but one which has wide ramifications and urgency in the modern world. In what follows, I will attempt to get at the heart of this issue.

Science is one of the best and probably most enduring of all human activities, if not the best. Where once we widely believed that the world was made of an undifferentiated “substance” to which “form” was applied, now we are dealing with the most fundamental aspects of reality, creating physical conditions in our laboratories and supercolliders that haven’t been seen since the Big Bang. We can explain why physical bits of stuff behave the way they do to a very high degree of accuracy and precision. We explain why stars form, why planets orbit stars, and why some bits of stuff on the surface of at least one of those planets reproduces and evolves. We know more now than we ever have, and perhaps more than will be known anywhere else in the universe. That ain’t hay.

And there is no apparent contender to the pre-eminence of science. If there is a way to correct or revise the ideas that science has produced, it is only by science that we can do this. Science, or something that is very like it, is the sole way to know about the universe. The role of religion, often in the past and in pre-scientific cultures, has been deprecated to being an observer of knowledge creation, rather than a source of it. I won’t go into the history of this. There are many very good introductions to it from a historical and philosophical perspective, and we do not need it for what follows. All I will say here is that if we know something about the world, we do so through science.

So the religious are left with a quandary: either religious traditions are not sources of knowledge, or they conflict with the knowledge we get from scientific investigation. So they either have to say that religion doesn’t actually help you understand how the world is, and reduce their scope of authority, or they must challenge the belief that science does help you understand how the world is. Both strategies have been employed, sometimes simultaneously. I take it that we have no better metric of knowledge than that something has been properly investigated scientifically. I will not challenge the role of science in this book, but take it as a provisional given.[3] Of course, there are deeper philosophical questions about whether that is true, or warranted. Some of these will come up later. But we will start, as Coyne does, with the view that science is how we know things about the world, and that if we teach our children and advise our policy makers, we must do so based on that knowledge, and not some other claimant to know.

Thus far, we agree with Coyne and those who he makes common cause with. But they take it a step farther. Only science is relevant when we know the world. Since religion has beliefs that are either contrary to science or unnecessary for doing it (science is a verb as well as a noun), we must eliminate these from consideration in formulating education and policy. This is a much more restricted claim.

The term “accomodationism” has been used to label the idea that science and religion are compatible, although there are some wrinkles we’ll get to shortly.[4] The contrary view is sometimes called “anti-accommodationism”, which is cumbersome and defines a position solely in terms of it not being what another view is. I will therefore divide these views up in another fashion.

The argument goes roughly like this (for instance, as given in the Boyer epigram at the head of this post):

  • Science acquires knowledge through observation and experiment, and is subject to revision in the light of new evidence.
  • Religion acquires its beliefs through the process of supposed revelation, and is not revisable except through further revelation.
  • Science believes in testable entities and processes.
  • Religion believes in things that are either not testable, or have been tested and found not to exist.
  • Therefore religion is not compatible with science.

Now many religious beliefs are not based upon revelation – for example, the Protestant doctrine of sola scripture is not to be found in the Bible or any personal revelations,[5] but then neither is it revisable in the light of experience and evidence. So incompatibilist critiques of religion often focus on the implications of these beliefs. For instance, if the Bible teaches that mental illness is due to demons (Luke 8: 26-39), and we have learned scientifically that mental illness always has a physiological basis, then belief in the Bible must be abandoned. However, not only do religions not abandon those beliefs, they often double down and assert that science is false, or incomplete (which amounts to the same thing; an idea cannot be only a bit true. It is either true or false[6]).

The accommodationism debate, however, has several aspects. One is whether or not religion can be made compatible with science. It can. All that has to happen is to change the religious beliefs. That this is not a popular choice among the religious is obvious. What it does not imply, however, is that we could reach a rapprochement by changing the science. Many so-called compatibilists try to do this, and we’ll look at that later. The problem with doing it, though, is clear: by what criteria would religion evaluate the knowledge claims of science? If they are religious criteria alone, then they deny that science is, in fact, our best way of knowing the world, and deny the facts one way or another. Nobody seriously considering this issue can accept that. If they are experiential, by which I mean based on observation and experiment, then those criteria are properly scientific anyway. It is just possible that a religion encodes in its doctrines the outcomes of some protoscientific investigations that science has not yet studied or attempted independently, in which case that religion would be contributing to science, but the historical evidence is against it. I suppose William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (James 1902) comes close, but James was a scientist and religion merely the subject of his psychological investigations.

The harder problem here is whether the changes that need to be made to religion to accommodate science could be made without destroying the basic core tenets of that religion. There is no real answer to this. For a start, the core beliefs of religions change over time anyway as they adapt to differing social, economic, and political circumstances. At one point, the God of the Tanakh, El[7], was one among many gods who “owned” as it were the tribes of Israel (see Psalm 82 for an example). Later, Judaism evolved after the Israelites were exiled in Babylon and they encountered Zoroastrian dualism, and when they returned to Palestine, their deity was the only one in existence, although there was a demigod, Satan, who gave him a run for his money. The very core belief of modern “Abrahamic” religions was once a revision to the religion itself (Smith 2001). What core beliefs change and how they do so is not something one can speak of in general terms. It really is up to the believers of a religion to decide what they can revise without damage, not anyone else.

Another issue, often mixed in uncritically with the former question, is how to promote peaceful coexistence of religion with science. The so-called “warfare hypothesis” first promoted by Draper (1875) and White (1896) in the nineteenth century, that science and religion are and always have been at war with each other, was constructed in the context of debates over the secularisation of education (Brooke 1991), and is widely regarded as at best overstated and at worst, quite false. And yet, there are enough cases of actual conflict to raise the issue for us. Critics on both sides take from history what they need: accommodationists find cases of affable cooperation and scientists who were devout, and anti-accommodationists find cases of religion impeding or even blocking entirely avenues of scientific work.

A counter argument presented by many religious believers and some scholars (see the overblown case made by Stark 2005) is that religion caused science. Usually this is the more specific claim that Christianity caused science. There is both truth and falsity in that claim. It is true that the religion in which science developed, and the cultural tools of which were used to do so, was Christianity. Most if not all scientists in the western tradition prior to, say, 1900 were Christians of one kind or another (but as we shall see in the next chapter, it pays to attend to the kind of believers they were). Some go so far as to say that Christianity is a rational religion and so it is a prerequisite for science to develop, or even (as we shall see later) to do science at all!

This borders on the inane. The tools used to develop science were the tools developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, along with a large dose of Islamic philosophy mediated to the Christian West around the 12th century. Science had to develop somewhere if it did at all; it happened to develop in a quickly industrialising and capitalising society, and that was the Christian west, but prior to that science was being done by Greek “pagans” and philosophers of all kinds, Romans, Muslims, Chinese, Indians and so on. What happened in the west was largely a socio-political change: science was being done in the open, publicly, due to trade links between competing societies.

Christians can be proud of their heritage, however. When all is said and done, it was scholars within the Christian tradition who discovered or established heliocentrism, chemistry (out of another Christian tradition – alchemy), taxonomy, anatomy, physics (by that mystic unitarian, Newton), and so on. But there is a curious pattern in each case. While Christians were the ones who, on the whole, did the work, the religious institutions were often cautious or even hostile to these novelties. Copernicus’ views were represented contrary to his own position as a hypothetical method for computation of the positions of the planets by his Lutheran “editor” Osiander. Galileo was banned from teaching his version of heliocentrism as fact by the Catholic Church authorities who tried him. Chemistry and anatomy were constantly resisted by various church figures. The record is not unequivocal.

The Warfare Thesis has some bite then. Again and again it depends upon who you count as “religious”.

A history of accommodationism

The view known as “accommodationism” has a past history of some note, and we had better get that out of the way before we consider the modern debate.

The word accommodationism has two prior meanings, tangential to this question. One is: the accommodation of religious practices and beliefs within a secular society. This is a legal use, and refers to states either permitting or assisting the religious in carrying out things that are either regulated or prohibited for the non-religious (Brady 1999).

The other, which is more relevant, has to do with how to read the Bible. In the Christian period before the modern age, science was often discovering facts that contradicted the literal meaning of the Bible. This goes right back to the beginnings of Christianity; it isn’t new. As science fluttered into existence during the late medieval period, this posed a problem for theologians and Christian scientists,[8] who adopted what they called the “accommodatory language” view. God spoke the truth, but in terms that people of the day could understand, and so He used words that implied falsehoods in strict scientific terms. Thus, the words that have the earth fixed, with pillars rest in the waters, and a fixed and hard heavens, used in various places in the Bible, were of no more account than the vernacular use of “the Sun rises in the East” means that we think the Sun, not the earth, revolves.

Notice that this latter meaning is relevant to our topic. When facts (science) contradict the Biblical passages, then our interpretation of the language used in the Bible must give way to them. This approach was adopted by Galileo, Copernicus and others all the way back to Augustine (Moran 2003). In fact, the default view of the Catholic tradition has always been to do this. A parallel tradition that took a hard literalist approach, known as the Antiochan tradition, never got that much traction in the broader Christian tradition, and those who took scripture to be literally true, like Lactantius (third century) or Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) and so asserted a flat earth, were few and generally ignored by educated Christians, who had read their Aristotle or their Plutarch (Toulmin and Goodfield 1962). But when Christian theologians began to engage with the best science of their day, they did not trim science to suit doctrine, but reinterpreted doctrine to not conflict with science. And the means by which they did this was called allegory: finding the hidden meaning in the stories told in the Bible that led to a theological or deeper truth. However, the default view was also that if there are no reasons not to take the scripture as literally true, especially in claims of the events and people described, like Noah or Moses, then you must do. It reminds one of the passage from T. H. White’s Once and Future King, where the Wart is transformed into an ant, and as he enters the nest sees a sign “Everything not forbidden is compulsory”.[9]

As science began to infringe upon some of the more treasured core doctrines of religion, however, the tensions began to rack up. When Galileo, naively thinking that he was well within the usual practice of the Church, wrote his Dialogues, he expected that the Church authorities would reinterpret doctrine once again. His timing was awful. The Church was in the midst of dealing with the Lutheran schism as they saw it, and Galileo unfortunately tried to lecture the Church on how to interpret scripture, which was their and only their domain of expertise in Christendom at the time (which of course the Lutherans challenged). He got roundly slapped down. It took the Church over 500 years to “apologise”, although how good an apology is to a man 500 years dead is disputable.

Tensions continued as the pace of scientific discovery increased. One of the more significant challenges to doctrine was the discovery of chemical elements. According to the key issue, apart from the authority of the pope, that separated the Catholic Church from the Lutherans, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the physical aspect of the Host (the consecrated bread and wine) was replaced when the bell was rung in the consecration with the physical substance of Jesus’ body and blood. This relied upon the Aristotelian distinction between substance and form: the outward properties of a thing were given by its form, and the substance was a propertyless gunk that only bore the form. In Catholic doctrine, the outward form, called the “accidents” or “species”, of the bread and wine remained at consecration, but the gunk was now fully Jesus.

When Dalton proposed his atomic elemental theory of chemistry in 1802, the properties of things were now the result of the inherent properties of the elemental particles and how they were arranged. So the doctrine of transubstantiation no longer made any sense. Change the elemental particles, and instead of bread-like stuff, you would now have something that literally looked like it had been carved off a living organism. The wine would taste of blood. It was no longer possible to be scientific and Catholic. For a little while, that was. In the 1870s, when Catholics began an attempt to become relevant in intellectual life, they quietly redefined “substance” and “accident” so that the former was some kind of metaphysical stuff, and the accidents now included the physical stuff bread and wine were made of (Artigas, Glick et al. 2006). Ironically, Catholic doctrine did not settle on a response to Darwin for some time later.


Stephen Jay Gould was a pluralist in many things. He was a palaeontologist who wrote wonderfully literate and humanistic essays in Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Shortly before his death, he gathered some of these together and published and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998) and then Rock of Ages (1999) in which he argued that science and religion each had what he called “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated by him as NOMA). A magisterium is a domain of appropriate authority in which one may speak as a specialist or teach. While he did not deny that science and religion did fall into conflict, historically, he characterised this as “bump[ing] right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border” (Gould 1998). In short, they were politely passing each other on a crowded sidewalk. This view, he thought, resolved the question of the compatibility of science and religion. So long as each cobbler stuck to his last, there was no professional dispute to be had.

Now this view was widely applauded by many religious thinkers, but it was not at all liked by incompatibilists. Religion has forbad science to investigate some things, and instructed scientists in what to teach or think. Buffon, who did the first empirical experiments on the age of the earth, was forced to recant by the theologians of the Sorbonne. Richard Owen, sadly remembered today only for being anti-Darwin, in fact proposed a kind of evolutionary theory before Darwin (there were many pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories) only to be severely chastised by Adam Sidgwick, a devout Christian and geologist, and his patrons at Cambridge University for heterodoxy bordering on heresy (Rupke 1994 chapter 4). Ironically, when the Origin came out, he anonymously reviewed it, saying that it was wrong, and anyway he had come up with the theory first (he hadn’t, not really).

The idea of magisteria is a kind of epistemic division of labor. It assumes that we do not all have the time, inclination or capacity to investigate each and every domain by ourselves. We have instead specialists who do the work on our behalf (and who we fund, some of the time, from the common purse), and whose results we rely upon when they are needed. This applies to science in spades. Specialists can be so narrow as to spend their lives cataloguing, describing and studying a single group of organisms, or even just the one. Or they can be specialists at a higher level of abstraction than even most scientists would be willing to consider. We alway must appeal to some specialists when we are doing or learning science.

This is sometimes cast as a religious decision: you have your authorities and I have mine. However it is more like the idealised notion of an economic market in which there are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and each sticks to their own task and makes their products available for sale. We have to trust each specialist that they will make a good product, since we cannot make all the things we need ourselves. Likewise, specialists in science produce what we expect will be good science. Sometimes it isn’t, either because of fraud or because there is a broad problem with the techniques used. As an example, the very nature of statistics in science is presently the subject of much criticism, especially in the biomedical sciences (Cumming, Fidler et al. 2007). But there is still nothing that we can replace the specialists’ work with that is any better.

The notion of magisteria gets murkier when we move outside science. It is obvious that a theologian of some sophistication and note is a better source of religious ideas than a tent preacher, if by that we think there is some specialty they better express. However, the notion that the theologian has his domain and it does not intersect with the domain of the scientific community is at best wishful thinking and question begging, and at worst ignorant and contrary to the historical record. Many of the key issues in science (how did this get here? What is its importance?) are also key issues in theological debate, and it is inevitable that in these cases when both sides offer solutions, they will come into conflict.

Another issue is when the scientists make claims that the philosophers and theologians properly consider to be their domain. For example, Victor Stenger, a physicist, has published a number of books in which he claims that the “God hypothesis” has failed and science has shown this (2007; 2009; 2009). However, he does this by evaluating the “God Hypothesis” as a scientific hypothesis. That this is question begging is obvious, although it is true that a number of theological writers do treat religion as a kind of scientific hypothesis. Another example is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, in which he makes the case that morality is just human flourishing, a view that goes back to Aristotle, and that science can determine what that means. Philosophers rightly object that showing that something contributes to human flourishing is quite distinct from establishing that it is good or moral. As a final example, consider the physicist Lawrence Krauss (2012), who argues against philosophy being necessary on the grounds that science tells us how something comes from nothing (where “nothing” means quantum fields, which is not nothing to a philosopher). Similarly Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) claim that philosophy is dead because science has answered all the philosophical questions. Philosophers consider this arrogance borne of ignorance of their field. Theologians often make the same point about scientists who criticise theology. We will return to this later.

Trimming science

One oft-made claim is that accommodationism requires trimming science to fit religion, not the other way around. And if you read some of the popular books on how science confirms this or that religion (often eastern style religion) that is a fair claim to make. Ranging from “physics confirms Buddhism” to “science is fine except for evolution”, religious thinkers (rarely scientists themselves) have argued that religious belief sets a limit on science and what it may assert. This is not so much an accommodationist thesis as it is religious exceptionalism. If that is how religious believers have to go in order to deal with science, that’s their business, but it has no weight whatsoever to those who are not within the theological tradition and community concerned. It is, in other words, special pleading.

The problem with this was pithily dealt with in another context (morality) by Bishop Joseph Butler (Butler 1749 Sermon VII):

Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?

If Christians or any other believer must deny what things are in order to believe, then they have a real problem, and one we do not need to attend to unless we are also of the same mind. Few if any accommodationists in the present debate would allow religion the right to deny facts or our best theories in order to include religious believers among the pro-science group, for in doing so, this deprecates the very idea of science. And to that we now turn.

What is “science”?

As much as religion is a confusing and heterogeneous category, so too is science. It has numerous meanings and supposed shared properties and methods. Much of the accommodationism debate relies upon these ambiguities and different interpretations.

Often one will read, in a textbook or popular treatment, that science has a “method”, usually capitalised to show its importance: The Scientific Method. However, when you start to look at the flowcharts, decision diagrams, and other such representations, it becomes very clear that there is no single pathway to doing science accepted by everyone who calls themselves “scientific”. This is a widely discussed topic in the philosophy of science.

If science were done by recipe, that is if there were a Scientific Method, then there would be an easy test whether a claim was scientific or not. But science, it turns out, is not so easily demarcated from nonscience; this is called the Demarcation Problem (see the introduction to Pigliucci and Boudry 2013 for a summary of the issues). A commonly appealed to Demarcation Criterion was proposed by Karl Popper, who said that something is science if it is open to empirical falsification (Popper 1965). The trouble with this was immediately noted by other philosophers and scientists. As the nineteenth century physicist Pierre Duhem (1954[1991]) had already noted, when you test a hypothesis, and get a negative result, you are onto just testing the hypothesis by itself but all the other hypotheses used in the test: how the equipment works, other theoretical assumptions, and any methodological assumptions (like the use of statistical inference) that are employed in the research. You know that something must be wrong, but what it is, is not immediately clear.

Popper applied his Criterion to psychoanalysis and Marxian economics, and saw it as a simple way to show these were false. He wanted to isolate science from the boundary “sciences” popular in the 1930s when he came up with it. Since then, many scientists have exhibited a kind of multiple personality disorder: when they do science, they do not behave the way they criticise nonscience. Popper, for example, argued that science is not inductive: that it did not do lots of observations and then draw general rules or laws from the observations (I include the making of formal models as induction here). Instead it came up with hypotheses (any old how) and tried to falsify them, that is to show they are false by counterexamples. This is referred to as falsificationism in the philosophical literature.

Now when those who adopted a sociohistorical approach to actual “science” considered Popper’s view, they discovered that this Criterion was in fact not often, if at all, applied, even within physics, which Popper took to be the very exemplar of scientific investigation. Instead, as Paul Feyerabend, an Austrian philosopher who moved to America after the second world war and saw himself as a gadfly among the philosophers, wrote, if there is a Method in science, it can only be the rule that “anything goes” (Feyerabend 1975). Of course, Feyerabend qualified this claim with the more nuanced view that in fact there were scientific methods, but that they formed a cluster of approaches, and not a single Method. Moreover, he rejected the idea that these methods were subject to any central ruling principle. The science historian Thomas Kuhn (1962) went even further: what rules the rules is a worldview, which he called a “paradigm” (one of the most abused of all philosophical terms ever). A paradigm set what counted as evidence, what counted as confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory, and even what the very terms used in a theory meant.

Duhem’s point was taken up by the American philosopher Willard Van Ormand Quine (Van to his friends), who generalised it to the point that we test entire sets of beliefs when we test a hypothesis, not the one hypothesis (Quine 1953). Consequently, science was like a genetic complement being subjected to natural selection, tested as a whole and rejected when it failed to work out. He explicitly drew the parallel with natural selection (not original to him, though. Thomas Henry Huxley had made exactly the same point shortly after Darwin had published). Science evolves, not through revolutions as Kuhn had asserted, but by gradual adaptation of the entire set of beliefs and techniques.

What this meant was that there is no point at which a proponent of a theory can be said to have become irrational or unscientific, even though there are clear cases, like phlogiston, phrenology and land bridges in geology, where they have clearly ceased to be good science. Like pornography, we can’t define bad science or nonscience, but we know it when we see it.

This is significant in the case of science versus religion, because all the positions taken by, say, the Catholic Church, in such disputes were previously accepted as good science. What was at issue was a host of hard-to-define issues like whether a novel approach solved more problems than it raised, and the promise of the new theory being fruitful in future research, a set of issues that are very much alive within science itself. There were also questions of doctrinal or philosophical concern, but often, the “religious” were also well educated in the science of the day, and saw themselves carrying out a scientific debate, only with the authority and power of the ruling elite.

When opponents of accommodationism criticise the religious for their failure to accept science, there are therefore many things to keep in mind. What exactly counts as science in this case? Is it the best theories of today (as determined by whom)? Is it what experts put into textbooks (and who are the experts)? Is it something like a consensus of those who work in the particular field? When does an idea cease to be acceptable within the science?

Generally, curricula for schools are determined by specialists in the field being taught. In the United States, however, this is reviewed by elected nonspecialists, often with no scientific training at all (or if they have a “science” degree, it is likely to be in medicine or dentistry or some other vocational field that claims scientific foundation). This unique system is not shared by any other western democracy of which I am aware, and it causes massive downstream effects in those other nations, since the current curriculum publishing business model tends to begin with American sources and modify them to suit local needs. Often textbooks are given a light editing by a local specialist and published as the “Australian” edition or the like. The School Board system if the United States thus influences, subtly or overtly, how science is taught elsewhere in the world. For this reason, the battles over what is included in the textbooks approved in Texas or California are of global importance.

Scientists also have their regional differences in emphasis or subject matter. Since scientists are typically educated into their specialty in one nation, they are very likely to adopt as a given whatever ruling views are adopted by authoritative scientists in their country. So for a long time, French biologists tended to downplay Darwinian evolution in favour of their countryman Lamarck’s notion of evolution (Burian, Gayon et al. 1988), until the molecular biologists Jacques Monod (1972) and François Jacob (1973) promoted the Darwinian synthesis extensively.

Given all this, what is the “science” that the religious believer must accommodate to? It is not so clear when a scientific field is in a state of flux, either because the progress of discovery in that field is rapid, or because there are within the scientific field itself multiple interpretations and theories in play. Especially in highly abstract general theories like modern quantum physics, it is not clear what must be taught at schools, or what the import of a theory is for religious believers. But the real conflict lies at a much lower level, usually. This is why it is not quantum mechanics that causes real problems for believers, but theories of psychology, biology and environment, which are areas that affect everyone. Do we have free will? Is there a purpose in the living world? Is our environment going to remain stable or change? How old is the world? Such questions raise problems for believers in a way that quantum foam and entanglement, as fun as they may be to think about when one is a teenager (or the equivalent in later life), do not.

If we cannot identify “the science” that must be accommodated, can we at least identify the issues that are controversial to a believer? That will be the subject of later posts.


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[1] accessed 16 February 2014.

[3] Science is, in the end, a human activity, and so it has fashions, failures and fictions. However, given that it is our best source of knowledge, there is no other standard we can apply to claim of knowledge about the world. Hence we should rationally accept science, in a provisional fashion, as being true. If there were some other standard source of knowledge, we might be able to assess science by that. But this is not to say we think all our science is correct or true, nor that we need to take it on, one might say, faith.

[4] The term was introduced, as far as I can tell, by Professor Lawrence Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, on his blog Sandwalk <>. He informs me that he chose it to replace the term “Chamberlainists” introduced by Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion, which he felt was unfair on Neville Chamberlain. Thanks to Josh Rosenau for help tracking this down.

[5] Claims to the contrary, based, for instance upon 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” which cannot refer to itself, are based on a prior belief in the inspiration of the canon chosen at the Synod of Hippo Regius in the fourth century, which was ratified in subsequent councils with variation. Early Christians used the “Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as “scripture, along with a choice of gospels and letters.

[6] Of course, philosophers spend a lot of ink on that very question. A belief can be held with a degree of confidence, or to cover a part of a statistical sample, or perhaps the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic, which says that either the sentence A is true or A is false, is itself wrong, and there can be sentences that are neither true nor false. Have fun with that. It doesn’t affect us here.

[7] There were a number of gods who were folded into the final God of the Bible (I use Tanakh to denote what Christians call the Old Testament, since the Jewish view is that it is not old or superseded). El was the generic term for “god”, and was usually given a place or tribal name such as “El Yeshrun” or “El Yisrael”, or some power, such as “El Shaddai” (the mighty god) or “El Tsaddik” (the righteous god). In the west semitic religions in which the Bible writers wrote, El Elyon was the “most high god”, the supreme deity of the pantheon. YHWH was the southern tribal deity. These and the plural form of El, Elohim (the gods), were collapsed into a single entity after the Exile. Female gods like Ishtar or Asheroth were dropped or reinterpreted as “wisdom”. See Smith 2001 for a summary of these developments.

[8] Although they were not then called “scientists”, as that term wasn’t invented until 1834. The two fields of what we would now call science were then natural philosophy, which broadly covered physics and astronomy, and natural history, which broadly covered biology, geology and geography. Sometimes the former were referred to as “mathematicians”, although that could also mean “astrologer”.

[9] Even as a kid I knew that ants recognise nest mates by their smell, so the Wart should have immediately been torn apart by the soldier caste guarding the nest. But if you are going to accept that a human can be made into an ant and retain all his cognitive abilities, why not that Merlin could simulate the pheromones of that particular nest?

If, as I argued in the last post, believers believe silly things in order to make the community cohere in the face of competing loyalties of the wider community, why is it that they believe the things they believe?

For example, you will often see Jews attempt to argue that kashrut (kosher, in Yiddish) dietary rules make sense in arid environments where trichinosis was rife[1], and so on, but what is the reason why you can’t mix fabrics, or get tattoos? The reason appears to be that these marked the Jews out from their competing cultures. An approach taken by recent Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) scholars adopts the “costly signalling hypothesis” formulated in evolutionary biology by Amotz Zahavi and applies it to the cultural evolution of these kinds of displays. Zahavi’s hypothesis supposes that if an organism is signalling its toxicity to predators or genetic health to potential mates, it can easily fake those signals. Evolution, however, is a hard mistress, and will weed out these easy-to-fake signals over the long term, as any variant predator or mate that tricks on a way to detect fakes will spread rapidly through the population, causing an arms race. So in the long term, signals of whatever property is being signalled will have to become hard to fake. Zahavi suggests that behaviours like stotting will have to honestly signal the fitness of the organism.

So there are several properties for a costly signal. One is that it costs more to fake than to simply have the right property. Another is that it must correlate with the right varieties. Another is that it must be arbitrary: it should not be a trait or behaviour that is selectively advantageous, or many different varieties or organisms will trick upon it, and it will not therefore correlate. So an honest, costly signal is an arbitrary signal.

CSR researcher Richard Sosis proposed that many of the doctrines and institutions of religions are such costly signals. Kashrut is arbitrary, because it has one function: to mark out, uniquely and honestly, Jews from their (genetically related) neighbours. This is not biological evolution, but cultural evolution – what evolves are institutions, rituals and behaviours. They function as what I call “tribal markers”. They include accents, languages, dress, diet, and a host of other things. Consider the ban on pork by Muslims and Jews: here is an easy to raise food resource that is foregone to identify themselves. It is hard to fake if food is not plentiful. Circumcision and scarification among various groups is another kind of costly signal. People can die from these rituals. That is the ultimate genetic cost.

So the reason why (or if you prefer a pluralist approach, a major reason why) religions have these silly beliefs is that they serve to honestly signal identity. But this doesn’t explain why they have these silly beliefs. And extending the argument to all kinds of belief-systems, it fails to explain why belief-groups settle on the particular beliefs they do as the tribal markers of identity.

One suggestion is that these are simply contingently adopted. For example, the use of some “shibboleth” like abortion or the use of tattoos or tassels may be a simple matter of an idea being proposed at the right time and taking off, as a fashion, so long as it involves all the right costs. There may be no other reason for it. “Shibboleth”, by the way, is an example from the Tanakh:

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the E’phraimites. And when any of the fugitives of E’phraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an E’phraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the E’phraimites. [Judges (Shoftim) 12: 5–6]

The word used, “shibboleth” means the seed or fruit bearing part of a plant. The specific meaning is irrelevant here, and it’s adoption is due to accent differences between the E’phraimites and the Jews, which has all the costly signalling characteristics: it is arbitrary, and hard to fake (as every American actor finds out when called on to do a foreign accent). Since then, a shibboleth has been a costly signal.

But there are other reasons why a tribal marker might be the thing it is. For example, it may be that the marker arose at a time of conflict between groups. Denial of global warming arose as an in-group identity marker when those raising the issue were seen to be challenging some core values of conservatives and those who benefited from the coal and oil industries (for example, employees of those industries and their friends and families). It was not arbitrary in that dispute, although the signal might have been something else. Once entrenched, the signal becomes a “frozen accident”; it is now entrenched in a developmental sequence of belief acquisition, and to remove it would seriously disturb the development of “right thought and action”, as the Buddhist tradition calls it in the Eightfold Path.

A third reason might be cynical intervention by rulers and thought leaders. For example, few think that reasonable conservatives (I would like to say here that I know many such beasts) have reasons for thinking global warming is a hoax now, least of all those whose personal interests are maintained by the offending industries. Yet many do. It may be that on the part of the majority of these people this is simply a matter of division of labour: authorities think that it is a hoax, and I don’t have the time to investigate the matter myself. So why do these authorities think this? Possibly they don’t, but it suits their social and economic interests to act as if they do. This is very old. Cynical manipulation of followers can be found as a strategy in Aristotle and Machiavelli.

Also he [the tyrant] should appear to be particularly earnest in the service of the Gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and has a reverence for the Gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and they are less disposed to conspire against him, because they believe him to have the very Gods fighting on his side.  [Aristotle, Politics. Bk 5, ch XI]

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. [The Prince, chapter 18]

Once a signal has been proposed, cynically or otherwise, then it will spread to the extent that it acts as a useful marker. That is, just so far as it identifies honestly a member of the in-group. Rarely (in my opinion), the marker or signal will be something that bears directly upon the core beliefs of the belief-group. For example, modern western conservatism has as one of its stated values the freedom of the individual from government intervention, yet many of the signals, such as abortion or marriage, involve direct government intervention in people’s private lives. Justifications are given that are post hoc and ad hoc. Likewise, commitment to free market economics are set aside when special interests benefit, through subsidies and interventions or tax exemptions of failing industries. Likewise, social progressives often adopt economic policies that serve the interests of industry rather than their putative constituency, working people.

So costly signals for in-group identity are often contrary to the beliefs the group holds most dear. Abortion, for example, was not a core issue for evangelicals until they made common cause with Catholics in the early 1970s (see Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God for an account of this). But once it took root, rational debate became impossible. And this is because it is not about the idea, but about the community. As Sosis noted about religion, it is not about God, but about us.

1. But this fails to explain why the neighbouring tribes did eat pork, since they lived in the same environment.