Category Archives: Logic and philosophy

Accommodating Science: Unpicking the arguments

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.


Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Evolution, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Religion, Science

Accommodating Science: What is the problem?

[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?


Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, Logic and philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Science

Undefining religion

[This will be a series of posts based on a book I am writing – see last post]

When anthropologists began to study religions in cultures other than the European context, which itself was based upon Roman jurisprudence, they encountered a difficulty. Until this time, in the mid-nineteenth century, “religion” had meant Christianity, with a sidelong glance at Islam and Judaism, religions which shared a number of common features (so they thought): a single deity, doctrines, rituals, and religious authorities. But some time earlier Europeans had begun to encounter eastern “religions” like Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Hindu Vedic traditions. These “religions” either had many deities, or none, a plethora or absence of doctrine, at least in the sense that failure to accept them excluded one from orthodoxy, and occasionally highly local and variable rituals.

The “solution” was to either classify these traditions and communities in terms that were developed for Christianity, forcing them into the European Procrustean Bed, or to set up a typology of religions. One who presented the most widely used, subsequently, was Edward Burnett Tylor (Tylor 1871). He noted that while some writers of his day asserted that religion was a late development in human societies, in fact it was the opposite of the truth:

It is not unusual for the very writer who declares in general terms the absence of religious phenomena among some savage people, himself to give evidence that shows his expressions to be misleading. Thus Dr. Lang not only declares that the aborigines of Australia have no idea of a supreme divinity, creator, and judge, no object of worship, ‘no idol, temple, or sacrifice, but that in short, they have nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish.’

He instead suggests that the “natural religion” of humanity is what he calls animism:

I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy.

… Animism in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in deities and subordinate controlling spirits, these doctrines practically resulting in some kind of active worship. One great element of religion, that moral element which among the higher nations forms its most vital part, is indeed little represented in the religion of the lower races.

Tylor here sets up a contrast between “lower” religion and “higher” religion, which, clearly, is based on Christianity. He includes within animism Hindu religions.

This – dare one say – imperialistic notion of religion is common within Christianity, and to an extent other so-called “world religions”. Adherents are so immersed in their own world view and community that they often cannot even conceive of other ways to see the world than their own, and must make all others as similar to theirs as they can.

Ironically, this Christian centric notion of religion has been transferred to those who have left Christianity, or who were raised non-Christian in a Christian-dominated society. When discussions of what counts as religion in the context of scientific belief are held, it is generally agreed upon by all sides that what is true of Christian religious traditions, is true of Islam, Hinduism, and such recent sectarian divisions as Mormonism. And yet, all ethnological investigators know that there is no such shared essence to religion. So when, for instance, Richard Dawkins writes

My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament

and then argues against that version, in order to conclude in the final chapter

Religion has at one time or another been thought to fill four main roles in human life: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In this role it is now completely superseded by science…

he is clearly gerrymandering the argument. First, he says, he will only deal with supernatural religion, but then, he concludes, religion (without the qualifier) is superseded by science. Clearly, then, we should abandon religion, as he goes on to say, in favour of a clear-headed scientific view of the world. But what he should have argued is that supernatural religion, akin to Tylor’s animism, is superseded by science and should be abandoned. I think you would find a great many religious thinkers agree.

When we argue about whether “religion” is compatible with science, it pays to be very careful about what we might be asking, for this reason. “Religion” covers a multitude of sins, so to speak. What we want to ask is instead this: Is there some ordinary sense of “religion” that is neither the animistic or “supernatural” religion, nor the abstract, rarefied religion of philosophers and scientists, that is compatible with science? Somewhere between the God of the folk, and the God of the philosophers, lies the medium position that is interesting.

The God of the philosophers

As Dawkins discusses, many scientists have had a sense of “God” and “religion” which bears little resemblance to the ordinary religion of the societies around us. Sometimes this is just a metaphor for a sense of awe about the physical universe. Dawkins calls this “Einsteinian religion”, but it is better thought of as the religion of the Enlightenment, that period of thinkers that responded to the scientific revolution by removing as much in the way of animistic supernaturalism as possible. It is the religion of deists, who believed that all revelation had to be excised – thinkers such as the fathers of the American Revolution like Jefferson and Paine. But, philosophically speaking, it is the religion of the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz, whose view has both been incredibly influential amongst the philosophically inclined, and also the subject of withering parody by Voltaire, in his novel Candide.

Leibniz was not, despite Voltaire, ignorant of the problems of his view. He held that God was, by definition (whose definition? Well, philosophers since Epicurus in the fourth century before our common era) perfectly good and ultimately powerful. This meant that we had to account for a world in which things were less than optimal. Leibniz argued that since God was good and powerful, this must, contrary to appearances, be the best world any God was capable of making. It was, he said, the best logically possible world. This was what Voltaire parodied with his portrait of Doctor Pangloss, who disaster after disaster, insisted this was for the best because “all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds”.

Leibniz’s point was rather different to Voltaire’s parody (after all a good parody must take some view to the extreme). He knew the world was messy and had suboptimal events, individually. What he argued is that this collection of optimal and suboptimal outcomes was the best any God could do, in order to achieve whatever goals a God should have. Evil is evil, but it is the least amount of evil a good powerful God can get away with, logically. We might appeal to the economists’ theorem, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which states that when you have a number of competing goods, there is no perfect outcome, just the best trade-off compromise. God has his own Arrow’s dilemma. No nicely ranked set of outcomes is possible, even for a deity.

No church of Leibniz was ever formed, although some of what are often called “liberal” or “modernist” churches approach it. So while it remains only a philosophical speculation, it hardly represents what most people call “religion”. Unfortunately, when philosophers ask questions like “is religion compatible with science?” the kind of God they assume is more like Leibniz’s, a god of the philosophers, than the pope’s.

The God of the folk

Ethologists of religion distinguish between what they call folk religion and elite religion. Elite religion is the religion of educated elites, of the theologians and philosophically inclined. Folk religion is the religion that finds its way to preachers and pastors, in sermons and letters to the editor about the declined moral standards of the secular world. Elite religion is usually mostly free of supernatural beings and spirits in things, while folk religion can range from the simple literal reading of sacred texts to a borderline animism. For example, Catholicism has a wealth of theological works to draw upon, but the folk version often includes supernatural powers of the saints, or even a mixture of African or folk cults such as is found in Caribbean voodoo or Peruvian worship of dead heroes or even criminals.

Clearly the folk religions have the greater social sway. This can be simple superstition, like crossing yourself when you pass a graveyard, or it can be more malignant, like searching out those who are “witches” and burning them, something that unfortunately still occurs in places like Nigeria and Papua New Guinea to women and even children. To take these as the exemplar of religion, the way Dawkins does, however, is to gerrymander the issue. Of course such religious beliefs are incompatible with science; that is not the issue. Likewise, the parallel case of folk beliefs about psychology, or even economics (“voodoo economics” as George H. W. Bush called it, which remains an article of faith among certain kinds of conservatives the world over), are incompatible with our best knowledge about these fields. It is not an argument against “psychology” or “economics” to say that these folk beliefs are incompatible with science, and neither should it be about religion. Science does rule out some sorts of beliefs.

For example, the religious beliefs based on folk tales of Thor causing thunder and Woden causing lightning are ruled out by a knowledge of meteorology and physics. All sides in the debate agree upon this. But let us suppose that Thorologians (the Scandanavian equivalent of theologians) become acquainted with modern science. They might decide to reinterpret Thor’s powers in a more philosophically sophisticated manner, something like how the catholic tradition interprets the Bible allegorically. This form of Thorism is not contrary to science, because, as happened with Galileo’s heliocentrism, the tradition reinterprets what had previously been a literal world view as a theologically charged story or allegory. So does modern science rule out Thor-worship? The question turns on whether or not the religious traditions are those of the pre-Christian folk or those of the post-scientific thinkers within the Thor community.

Likewise, we cannot infer from, say, young earth creationists within the Christian tradition to the view that science has ruled out Christianity, since the term “Christian” is as slippery and malleable as “religion” itself. One person’s “Christian” is another person’s heretic or even unbeliever. So we have to understand the social and intellectual structure of religions.

Elite religion, on the other hand, is not the same as philosophical religion. Where Leibniz evades the question of God’s direct intervention in the physical world, allowing for it but presuming that science holds sway in explaining mundane events, elite religions can often adopt a realism towards miracles, revelations and interaction with spirits, angels and demons. That is, elite religion can include supernatural events and powers. The difference with folk religion is that it attempts to reconcile in a cohesive structure of ideas and beliefs both the core beliefs and doctrines of the tradition, as well as the best of our knowledge about the natural world. Nobody who is concerned that their religion be, to some extent, realistic, wants science to conflict with their tradition. That would be equivalent to saying there are two truths about the world and that they are in conflict. Believers usually hold the beliefs they do because they are intended to provide insight into how things really are, not into how we wish them to be.


Critics of religion often accuse it of wishful thinking. A recent popular “new age” movement, called The Secret, invented by an Australian television producer, Rhonda Byrne and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, is a perfect example of this (Byrne 2006). According to the Secret, if you have a positive attitude to life and wish hard for what you need, the Universe will deliver it. Consider what the Universe would need to be like for this to be true: it would need to be run by some power – a Universal Law of Attraction – that attends to the every desire of those who are properly positively thinking, and to intervene in what would otherwise have occurred to bring about what they desire. Clearly this is magical thinking, as the title of a later book, The Magic (2012) makes bleedingly obvious.

But if folk religions are often rife with magical thinking, elite religion is more sophisticated in its approach. The view that the universe must act like humans do, with intentions, agency, and responsibility, and that it can be bargained with, is called anthropomorphism, literally, taking things to be like humans. It is a form of projection, and according to a dominant view in the study of religions, in what has come to be known as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), gods are the ultimate anthropomorphism. As Voltaire famously said, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, surreptitiously implying that in fact we did.

Elite thinkers attempt to dehumanise gods and divine powers. There are two ways to do this: either deny that deities act in the same manner as human agents do (by raising their agency to a higher form that bears no resemblance to human agency) or deny that we can recognise their agency when it occurs. The former approach can take several forms. In those religions where all that is not God is created by God, one can say that God created the universe so that it would result in the outcomes God desires without meddling, through foreknowledge of what would occur if, in fact, he created that universe. This view makes God’s agency a much more rarified kind than humans. He made the world and the world made us. In theology, this is called the distinction between primary cause or creation of all things, and secondary causes, the laws of that which God created, according to which the creation behaves. We shall return to this [see here].

The latter kind of elite religion supposes that God somehow orders things (in a mysterious fashion) so that things turn out according to his plan. This is not deism, which tends to presume that God does not intervene in physical affairs,but instead a managerial notion of God who orders things to behave according to his business plan, or as religious terminology has it, Providence. How that occurs is left open. It contrasts with the non-interventionist notion of God as a clock maker who builds and winds up the universe, and then lets it run. A modern version would see God as the computer builder and programmer, who then lets the program run as it was programmed to do.

The reference class problem

Now, which version of religion – elite or folk, interventionist or non-interventionist – is it that we must compare and contrast to science? The fact is, there are no generalisations that cover all bases; it depends very much on the particular form of religion that is in conflict with science in a time and place. In one place and time it might be fundamentalist Protestantism that is the problem, as it is in North America. In another it might be some kind of Hindu extremism, and in another, although I cannot envisage this happening, the kind of Anglicanism that is more concerned with tea than metaphysics.

Claims such as the one made by the late Christopher Hitchens, that Religion Poisons Everything (the subtitle of his 2007 book) are therefore incredibly ambiguous and rely upon vagueness for their impact. Some religion poisons some things, and no religion poisons everything. For example, no religion has poisoned my Apple MacBook, unless you believe that Apple itself is a religion. To say that religion poisons everything is rhetoric and little else.

Yes, Dawkins does try to argue that “religious moderation” allows religious fanaticism to exist, and that religious indoctrination is child abuse, but these are not factual claims. Extremism is largely the end product of social factors such as frustration with social exclusion and resistance to the rate of social change. As such it arises not because there are religions, but because of general human tendencies to react when in those conditions of frustration and confusion. In short, religion doesn’t cause extremism, being human does. And all children are indoctrinated, although in polite company we call it socialisation or even education. It is no more child abuse to teach a religion to your child than it is to inculcate a love of the local football team – indeed there are some very close parallels between support for religions and support for political and sporting affiliations. One might almost think that there is a common underlying cause, and that it is not religion itself that is at fault.

If we are going to apportion blame to religion – and I certainly think there are things some religions can correctly be blamed for – we must ensure that we do not shepherd into the class being blamed anyone who even vaguely is connected to it. For example, Muslims are often asked why they do not criticise bombers and other forms of terror in the name of Islam; as if every Muslim is responsible for the actions of every other person who self-identifies as Muslim. And yet, we do see Muslim leaders decrying such actions, both in the Western countries where there is an increasing (and generally benign) Muslim presence, and in the countries where the terror is taking place. This is conveniently overlooked by those who wish to paint all Islam as a terror religion. It is a form of a well-known fallacy: of taking the parts to stand for the whole, which goes by the name fallacy of composition. I would like to call this the reference class problem.

A reference class in statistics is the baseline group against which some outlier is measured. For example, western nations are generally not very religious, which makes the United States stand out as an exception. “Western nations” forms the reference class because they are intertwined in their cultural and socioeconomic histories. But does “religion” form a reference class? Arguably not. Religion scholars are in that respect like economists: they are studying a heterogeneous set of things under a constructed category. It is quite widely understood by scholars of religion that there is no single thing that is religion and not also applicable to other phenomena in human culture and society (see, for instance, Bulbulia 2005).

We are subject to what psychologists call confirmation bias, where any single instance of something that we find important stands for the entire class of phenomena (see Kahneman 2011 for a good discussion of this and other cognitive biases we are prone to). A person commits an act of terror who is Muslim, and we will infer that Muslims are criminals or at least the religion is. A Catholic or Baptist commits an act of terror, and we assign them to other reference classes than their religion (working class, Southerner, gun-nut, etc.), because we expect Muslims to be terrorists. The imputation is not based upon facts, but upon our constructed classes of people.

So it is far from clear that religion is, in fact, the problem here. Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity. I shall return to this, also. [See here]

How to speak about religion

In order to avoid the reference class problem, it would be better to use more specific terms when discussing religion. These are called index terms and act like a database record ID to prevent putting the wrong data in the wrong record. In ordinary language, we often use adjectives and names to identify what we are talking about: instead of talking about “religion”, an index term like “fundamentalist religion” is better, and “Southern Baptist religion” better still. The reason for this is that while “fundamentalist” has a set of connotations (socially conservative, etc.) the use of “fundamentalist” as an adjective is pretty ambiguous. For example, we have seen the use of “fundamentalist Muslim” or worse, “fundamentalist atheist”, when in fact the term’s origin and proper meaning is “Christian in the Protestant tradition whose beliefs trace back to the series of books entitled The Fundamentals in the early twentieth century (Dixon, Torrey et al. 1910–1915, Numbers 2006). For a historian, that is what “fundamentalist” means. Applying it to Darwinists, atheists, Muslims or any other group is at best analogical and at worst merely deprecating. This would mean that if “fundamentalist religion”, or “Southern Baptist”, is the reference class being blamed for some social outcome, or assigned to an argument, there is little to no confusion about what that means, and it blocks overgeneralisation through a fallacy of composition.

I have found this a very difficult point to get across to critics of religion. They, like everyone else, look around them and see a certain group of vocal proponents of this or that scientific idea speaking in the name of “religion” (and not, say, Southern Baptist fundamentalism) and generalise from this to the view that all religious are like those people. But this is not true. There are religious people who are generally pro-science and pro-reason (as they understand it; they might be mistaken) but who don’t get the press the fundamentalist Baptists or Wahabist imams do. This is hard to avoid: we typically take our categories from prime examples around us, as we learn the language and societal norms of our community, a technique known as prototyping in linguistics and psychology. As we mature we will revise many of these simple examples but not all. There isn’t time to do this, and unless you are exposed to the reflective investigations of specialists through education (or well written popular books), you probably maintain most prototypes without much revision. But this is not a scientific or rational approach to a problem.

Religions are not monolithic blocks of belief, contrary to the way it is presented within religions themselves. There are usually multiple interpretations, attitudes to the secular, and sub communities of ideas and specialisms within any religion. Consider the Church of England. It has roughly three different communities: low church, broad church and high church (roughly, those influenced by evangelicalism, those who take a “middle way”, and those who are Catholic in all but allegiance to the See of Rome). Each of these has theologians, who specialise in doctrinal matters from an abstract perspective, the clergy, who are ordained and given a basic training in theology, pastoral care, and liturgy, among other topics, and the laity, who may be well or poorly educated in their own church traditions. if you were to criticise, say, evangelical Anglicanism, you would be best to look at what their theologians and biblical scholars say, and not their twice-a-year worshippers. So who should we ask the question about science in that community?

Who should we ask can accommodate science?

There is a standard principle of debating and reasoning known as the “principle of charity” (see Davidson 1973), according to which the argument you should combat in your opponent may not be the one they express, but the best possible and strongest version of it you can construct. This is so that if you can succeed in knocking it down, your opponent has no way to turn.

We could, of course, measure the effect that folk religion has had on the acceptance of science. This is a useful and important thing to do (see Numbers 2006). But that is a sociological investigation. Accommodating science within religion is a philosophical issue, not a sociological one (consider a reverse argument: science is not determined by what the majority think acceptable). So perhaps we should ask the following questions:

  • Which religion or form of religion should we ask whether it can accommodate science?
  • What represents the best (most charitable version of) that form of religion’s beliefs about the relation between science and [their] religion?
  • What are the solutions offered in that faith community’s traditions for dealing with science?

and finally

  • How well do these resources cope with science and the modern world?

We will address these points in subsequent posts.


Bulbulia, J. (2005). “Are there any religions? An evolutionary exploration.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17: 71-100.

Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. London, Simon & Schuster.

Byrne, R. (2012). The magic. London, Simon & Schuster.

Davidson, D. (1973). “Radical Interpretation.” Dialectica 27: 314–328.

Dixon, A. C., R. A. Torrey and Others, Eds. (1910–1915). The fundamentals – a testimony to the truth. Chicago IL, Testimony Publishing Co. (Bible Institute of Los Angeles).

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: how religion poisons everything. New York, Twelve.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London, Allen Lane.

Numbers, R. L. (2006). The creationists: from scientific creationism to intelligent design. Cambridge, MA; London, Harvard University Press.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom. London, Murray.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, Evolution, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Religion, Science

Degrees of religion

Larry Moran quotes Jason Rosenhouse disputing Phil Plait:

So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.

It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.

It is true that what most theists (usually very far from fundamentalists) of the nineteenth century objected to with Darwin’s view of evolution, or rather the popular version of it presented by writers like the anti-clericalist Haeckel, was the implication that evolution was, as Jason puts it, “a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought”. Basically the theist account of intellectual Christians presumed that humans were part of God’s plan, and so the idea that there was no purpose to our existence was, to put it mildly, a stumbling block for the brightest religious of the day. But it was not insuperable.

Almost immediately, theists appealed to a distinction that had a long history in theology: that of a distinction between primary cause (God’s actions creating and supporting the world) and secondary causes (the laws of nature acting as if they were basically mechanical causes. Some, like Asa Gray, argued that God intervenes to make the requisite variations occur (for the causes of variation in heredity were as yet unknown) so that natural selection, a secondary cause, would result in humans, like a cook who regulates the heat in cooking to ensure the right outcome, or as he put it

“that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Quoted by Darwin in his Variation under Domestication (1868) Vol. 2: 432]

Others held that God had foreordained the ways the mechanism of selection would work by choosing the right initial conditions. In effect, God chose this world to make knowing, as he must, that humans would be the result. Much appeal to Matthew 10:29 – that not a sparrow falls with God knowing it – was made.

Darwin, of course, rejected this interpretation:

There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.— I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head. Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated. But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. [Letter to Lyell, 1 August 1861]

and he repeated this argument in the Variations chapter above. But the point to be made here is that some religious were able to accommodate Darwinian blind evolution by natural selection as a secondary cause. Darwin is right, I think, to reject Gray’s irrigator model of a divine intervention from time to time to keep things on track. It is ad hoc and certainly not good theology. But Gray was no theologian. Both are scientists trying to do science (one in the context of prior belief; the other dismissing this as beyond a modified monkey’s brain).

So let us return to Rosenhouse’s claim: that evolution, of itself, challenges religion. Secondary causes were discussed as long ago as Aquinas in the 12th century, and he did not invent the idea (Wikipedia has Augustine, in the 4th century, as the originator of this). His mentor Albertus Magnus, no mean naturalist himself, wrote:

In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass. [De vegetabilibus et plants l.2 tr.2 c.1. Some more on Albert as a scientist here: PDF]

This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue.

It is true that much of the debate about Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century was focused on God’s agency and purpose. However, usually the folk doing the debating were public intellectuals rather than theologians. Often they defended a theological perspective that was at best questionable even within their own tradition (as Dewey said, we do not solve philosophical problems, we get over them. This is uneven and cyclical even within a doctrinal community). And it is true that natural selection undercut the purposiveness of living things that was assumed by natural theology and similar traditions. But natural theology was dying out as Darwin wrote (and not because of him precisely) and even the “God of the gaps” theme now so beloved of exclusionists was invented by a religious writer dealing with Darwin. Henry Drummond wrote in his Ascent of Man (1894):

There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps – gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

If by the accumulation of irresistible evidence we are driven – may not one say permitted – to accept Evolution as God’s method in creation, it is a mistaken policy to glory in what it cannot account for. The reason why men grudge to Evolution each of its fresh claims to show how things have been made is the groundless fear that if we discover how they are made we minimize their divinity. When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine – as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, he disappears periodically. If he comes upon the scene at special crises he is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology. Negatively, the older view is not only the less worthy, it is discredited by science. [333-4]

Drummond argues that science’s job is not to final moral purpose in the world; this cannot be done. But its job is to find how things have evolved.

So when we read this comment by Jason, I am left wondering what the reference class of the term “religion” is for him and Larry, and others. I am sure that they would not wish to adopt the parlour trick of Richard Dawkins and say “we are not talking about the god of the philosophers, but the god of ordinary religion” and then slip in conclusions applying to all religion based on arguments against that type only. That would be disingenuous indeed. Certainly that was not how Darwin or Huxley approached the matter.

“Religion” is one of the more slippery terms in modern discourse.The dictionary will not help, as dictionaries are maps to common usage, not a technical definition (unless they also give one or more such technical definitions). And being slippery, one can elide from a more inclusive definition to a specific, and back again, in one’s arguments. This is known as the fallacy of ambiguity. As religious anthropologist James Dowe noted

“Religion” is, in fact, a folk category in Western culture. Comparative analysis can flounder on efforts to use folk categories in scientific analysis. [A scientific definition of religion, p5]


Religion is a collection of behavior that is only unified in our Western conception of it. [p7]

To aver that religion is necessarily opposed to evolutionary theory, when there are so many instances of it not being, is a category error. Jason and Larry might reject the idea that this view is “religion” as they understand it. That would be to put the folk definition in a privileged position, when even the scientists who study the phenomenon do not. But allow that these philosophically minded views are part of religion, at least historically, and you find the claim untenable.

What we need to do is to specify the degree of religion that finds evolution impossible to reconcile with belief, for there surely is some, and a lot of it. I think of a particular religion as a series of concentric circles. At the most broad, one’s religion is label and a set of rituals (including statements of belief) that includes anything that falls under that rubric. “Christian” includes folk beliefs in demons and spirits as well as theologically refined views like Drummond’s or Aquinas’. But folk religion is rarely what the more educated people think, and so the superstitions of religion fall away as you move inwards. The average educated believer knows that somehow religion and evolution are not at odds, but they probably do not know how, and take it on faith the two are consistent. More refined thinkers find ways to reconcile the secondary causation of science and the primary causation of God. A few theologians, not all by any means, give the arguments; the extent of their approach is restricted, but logically coherent.

Now any religious community consists of many theological and philosophical traditions, and they are often at odds. A strand of the Christian community appeals to Aristotelian notions of causation and teleology against what they see as the soulless and mindless actions of natural law in modern scientific theories, to be sure. These thinkers strive to show that Darwinian selection is incomplete, or simply wrongheaded, and apply all kinds of arguments like irreducible complexity or design. But they are not the entirety of the tradition, nor are they, at least outside the United States and Turkey, the majority of religious thinkers. They use the resources of secondary causation to deal with things, and their problem is not whether or not natural selection works, but how it reconciles with providentialist theology (I wrote a paper on this very topic, by the way, giving at least one way this might be done, using Leibnizian multiple worlds). How they do it is not my concern, but the fact that they do do it is itself a counter instance to the claim Jason and Larry make.

Few theologians of any note are literalists, no matter what the tent preacher might assert. Nor is religion necessarily superstitious (unless one holds the a priori view that belief in any deity is superstition, a position I am not inclined to defend). At the least, there are varieties of religious belief that are not anti-scientific. Accommodationism is not yet dismissed. Evolution is inconsistent with some religious views, no doubt about that. But it is not inconsistent with “religion”. To say otherwise is to equivocate. Plait is right, and Jason and Larry are not.

I think this is due, in large part, to the media presence of the fundamentalists in north America, something that is not the same throughout the world. I have never understood why Dawkins adopted the “folk religion is religion simpliciter” approach in The God Delusion. He’s British, for Darwin’s sake! In Britain and other countries like Australia that noisy minority is, in fact a small minority, and forms of religion are not so straightforward as he made out. Larry and Jason I can understand. The “metaphysical purpose with a cup of tea” approach of British and Continental religions is rare there. I used to find comforting the older British style Baptists, and like Larry and Jason I decry the obsessive and combative attempts of the Southern Baptist style of fundamentalism to control public debate. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the majority of theists are not literalists, and they can rather easily find the resources to accept evolution, real evolution including unguided natural selection. It takes a while for traditions to change and catch up, that is all.

Mind, ask me about the problem of evil, and you’ll get a different answer. But we aren’t discussing that here.

Late note: I am mostly arguing against Larry, here, but Jason has cited a number of religious sources where authorities have attacked evolution, and historians have interpreted this. I am particularly fond of Artigas, who he cites, on Catholic trends. My argument, however, is that religions are not of necessity opposed to evolution. His argument is that the reason why evolution is problematic for religion is the loss of moral purpose in nature. We are both correct, and it is not Dawkins’ or PZ Misty’s fault that this happens. We are at one.


Filed under Accommodationism, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Evolution, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Rant, Religion, Science

Books I am reading/reviewing

Despite marking scores of essays, after having taught a subject intensive, and preparing various papers, I get to review some books. This means reading them, familiarising myself with the technical literature, and so on. So I thought I’d do a brief summary of them for you now:

The first is this:


M. A. Khalidi, Natural Categories and Human Kinds: Classification in the Natural and Social Sciences

This is an excellent summary and discussion of the idea of natural kinds in science (and as such makes a nice companion piece to my book). Where I and my coauthor Malte Ebach approached the philosophy of classification from the perspective of the sciences, Khalidi approaches the sciences from the perspective of the natural kinds debate in philosophy. He discusses some issues, such as whether classes can “crosscut” other classes, what the status of kinds are in science and philosophy, and essentialism (which has been revived lately in the philosophy of science). In particular he rejects essentialist accounts of kinds because of their problem in inductive projectibility.

So far there are a few slips: he conflates Linnaean taxonomy with phylogeny, for instance. But it is a good book. I recommend it. The review will appear in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.


God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason by Herman Philipse

Philipse addresses the standard arguments, and some not so standard recent arguments, for the rationality of belief in God. He specifically addresses Richard Swinburne’s arguments, and concludes that the most promising is a Bayesian account Swinburne proposes. He discusses reformed theology, which is often ignored by philosophers. Being a professor in a Dutch university (Utrecht), he is well placed to consider many of the theological arguments they present. As many of these underpin the evangelical apologetics found in the United States, this is significant. But he also spends considerable time dealing with the usual arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological argument that depends upon modal logics, as well as natural theological arguments.

Godfrey Smith

Philosophy of Biology (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy) by Peter Godfrey-Smith

PGS, as he is known in the discipline, is perhaps the leading philosopher of biology today. One expects, then, that this will be a great book, and so it seems given a quick read. It looks like the lecture notes of a course, which is a good thing, since it presents an introduction to a complex field. I have quibbles, of course, but none of them are particularly telling. I would use this as a textbook in a course, as it offers a good summary of the issues and links to literature that the student can use to explained her knowledge.

Griffiths and Stotz

Genetics and Philosophy: An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy and Biology) by Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz

This is an excellent and nuanced introduction to the philosophy and biology of genetics, including discussions of the idea of “gene”. They introduce a notion of genetic information – “Crick information” – which is basically the structural specificity of genes and their products. I recommend this book unreservedly, and will be discussing it in more detail later.


Filed under Book, Epistemology, Evolution, Genetics, Logic and philosophy, Metaphysics, Natural Classification, Religion

How to argue with silly thing believers

Orthodox apocalypse

The apocalypse in an Orthodox church. Source: Wikimedia

[Apologies this took a while; I’ve been rather sick]

So, given all this [Why believers believe silly things, why they believe the particular silly things they do, and the developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition], how can you change a believer’s mind? It is tempting to say that you cannot, or to take a more rationalist perspective and think that more argument is all that is needed, and both views are often put. But, as we might expect, the situation is a bit more complex than that.

First of all there are two distinct questions here. One is the individual question: how can we change a particular individual’s beliefs? The other is the communal question: how can we change the overall reasonableness of a given group or population? These are different questions with different answers.

The individual question has no general answer: it depends upon the individual’s belief-set, and how coherent it already is, and whether or not they are sensitive to experiential challenges (that is, if they are in a crisis). A believer who has a relatively well-cohering set of beliefs, with no real internal conflicts of note, but who is in no personal position of challenge by experience, is relatively immune from rational argument. If they face empirical challenges (their beliefs do not match with the world they are experiencing, as in the classical study of the failed millennialists by Leon Festinger and colleagues (Festinger et al. 1956)), one solution is to deny the facts, another is to to reinterpret the peripheral or less weighted beliefs to save the core beliefs, and a third is to reinterpret the core beliefs so that they are not challenged by the facts. All three strategies can easily be found. For example, global warming denialists will challenge the facts. Creationists will allow some facts but reinterpret them or the ways they are handled by creationist thinkers. And my favourite case of core reinterpretation is the reaction of the Catholic church to Daltonian atomism and chemistry: change the interpretation of a core belief in substance in the doctrine of transubstantiation from a physical reality to a metaphysical reality (thereby partly conceding to their Lutheran critics of 400 years earlier).

When these things happen, believers will usually deny that they have happened (Schmalz 1994), like the historical revisionism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state goes to war with a new enemy and now tells its pliable population that “We have always been at war with Oceania”. These three strategies are increasingly schizoid. Reinterpreting the core beliefs to accommodate new facts is a healthy response to the world, leaving only questions of group identity marking (we do not agree with those Lutherans, they are heretics!). The Church has accepted (belatedly) the scientific virtue of Galileo, Dalton and Darwin.

The revision of peripheral beliefs is more strained. When [honest] creationists spend time trying to accommodate the facts of biogeography, biodiversity, genetics and dating techniques, they may find their “hypothesis” dying what Flew called “the death of a thousand qualifications”, but so too do defenders in science of outmoded hypotheses, and there is no threshold at which it becomes irrational to hold those beliefs. Nevertheless, like pornography, we can recognise irrationality when we see it. The rationalist approach to argument, however, behaves as if there is, or ought to be, a line that one should not cross. This leads to interminable “debates” of claim and counterclaim, which rarely result in any resolution.

The third approach is to simply deny the facts. This can be achieved by adjustments to the reliability of those who we disagree with (ad hominem attacks, for instance, on the probity of climate scientists). Both believers in pseudoscience (like Bigfoot or homeopathy) and anti science (such as creationism or anti-vaccination) find methods of calling into question the facts themselves.

Now as the response becomes less grounded in the empirical, reasoning becomes much more difficult, until you reach a stage where no reasoned argument is possible. But this is determined by the strategies adopted by the believer, not by the subject or belief they hold. Homeopaths can be argued out of homeopathy, and Catholics can still hold stubbornly onto the view that the Host really is blood and flesh, and that chemists are just anti-Catholics. So it depends upon the individual. If the core beliefs are cognitively entrenched, then they are less likely to undergo any kind of rational or empirical revision. [As a side note, one often anecdotally hears of a believer in homeopathy or some other “complementary medicine” who abruptly adopts empirical medicine when it is their child or loved one who is suffering. This is a very personal crisis. However, it can also drive the believer deeper into the silly belief, as Festinger noted.]

At a group level, however, things are even more complicated. Here what counts includes the institutional structure of the belief-group. The plasticity of the group itself will help determine whether the group adapts or digs in further: the more authority-driven the group, and the more exclusionary it is to those who deviate even slightly from the approved belief-set, the less it will change. And another issue is group size. The Catholic Church, for example, while supposedly hierarchical (indeed, the very term hierarchy was taken from its military-style structure of command and constraint; it means “rule of priests”), has been very fluid in its interpretation of its core beliefs. In large part this is because the Church is not small and there are many de facto command structures apart from the clerical. The Jesuits, for instance, played a great role in adopting, refining and making viable scientific acceptance within the Church, even as others were pushing for a return to older, conservative, beliefs. Christian, Jewish and Islamic doctrine has been in various ways able to adapt to new science and new social conditions (as Harnack showed in great detail in his classic History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century).

But some generalisations can be made. One is, that the more a belief-group is reliant upon authority figures to tell believers what they should believe, the less fluid the tradition. This is, as I argued in the paper on rational creationism [mentioned in the last post], due to a kind of doxastic [that is, belief] division of labour. Most of us have little time to test and become familiar with the technical ideas of science, for instance, and so we rely upon authorities. But the authorities we select to rely upon depends a lot upon what belief-group we are in. We choose to believe our authorities over theirs. As I argued, this is because, evolutionarily speaking, they aren’t dead yet. Having their beliefs may have a cost, but that is offset by the benefit of savings in time, effort and resources of taking ready-made ideas off the shelf. We have a disposition to adopt the views of those we grow up around, because it is economic to do so, and adopting those views won’t likely kill us. Only when we reach a crisis state do we challenge those authorities, and even then we will tend to do so piecemeal until we reach a (personal) threshold of incredulity.

Another depends upon the degree of engagement we have with the wider society in which our belief-group is located. Even the Plymouth Brethren must deal with teachers, the media, and popular culture that is right there on the shelf in the bookshop. Messages that conflict with our belief-set can reach another (personal) threshold that we find challenges our core beliefs. When that happens, we may find a crisis that causes a rapid conversion (or de-conversion) in core beliefs.

This is why one of the major areas of battle between belief-groups lies in the control and amelioration of these challenges in education. If you can introduce some doubt about the strength of, say, evolutionary biology among younger children, it is rational (in a bounded sense) for them to stick with the core beliefs of their belief-group. Only if evolutionary biology (or whichever other topic is at issue) is presented firmly and without competing beliefs in educational contexts will it begin to undermine the authority structure of the student’s belief-group. As I argued in the creationism paper, sufficient challenges will tend to sway the average developmental trajectory of a believer away from the hard-core or exclusive belief-set of the belief-group. The population as a whole becomes more accommodationist.

This leads to my final point: herd immunity. In vaccination, when a sufficiently high number of the population has been immunised, the epidemiology of the disease being vaccinated against reaches a point at which the likelihood of infection among the unvaccinated (the very young, for instance) is very slight. Beliefs behave like pathogens (a metaphor that has been widely abused, in my view) in that since we take our belief cues from the experienced social norms, when those norms are reasonable ones, unreasonable beliefs tend to founder, and so this sets up a selection pressure in the evolution of beliefs for beliefs to be not too weird, or they isolate the believer too greatly from the social context in which they live. Sufficient education in reasonable beliefs forces many silly beliefs, or at any rate those that have real world consequences, to become less silly.

Anyone who understands population genetics will realise that this does not mean that the entire population will become reasonable as such. In genetics and in epidemiology, the ratio of beneficial to deleterious variants will reach a tradeoff point, called an evolutionarily stable strategy. In economics, this is called a Pareto optimal point. To increase one variety will lower the average fitness of the population, and so the two variants will remain in a set balance until external conditions change. It is for this reason, for example, that I do not think religion will “disappear” as many rationalists think it will. There are group benefits to religion, and even in the most secular society, until the costs of being religious exceed those benefits, religion as an institution will persist.

So in order to ameliorate the supposed evils of religion (or conservatism, pseudoscience, radicalism, etc.), the best strategy that those whose ideas are empirically based can take is, in my view, to resist attempts to dilute science and other forms of education. This sets up a selection pressure against extremist views. Similar approaches might be taken in what Americans call “civics” classes to deal with political extremisms, and so on.

To conclude, I should make the following point: I am not suggesting that I alone am ideologically pure and coherent in my beliefs. Anything I say in general must apply to me also (this is why one of the objections to Marxism is that somehow Marx exempts himself from false consciousness). So I assume that I, too, will have conflicting belief subnetworks, and so one of the reasons why I put these thoughts out here is to get the same kind of correction from the wider community that I expect those I have used as examples here require. I am a radical (increasingly as I age), conservationist, small-l liberal of the Millian variety, agnostic and very, very, pro-science. I expect I have more than a few of my own shortcomings. As a friend once said of me, I am like a hunchback who cannot see his own hump, but sees everyone else’s. I expect this. But I think this analysis is roughly in the right region.


Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis, MN, US: University of Minnesota Press.

Schmalz, Mathew N. 1994. “When Festinger fails: Prophecy and the Watch Tower.” Religion 24 (4):293-308.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, History, Journalism, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Social evolution

The “developmental hypothesis” of belief acquisition

In the last two posts I have discussed why members of belief-groups have silly beliefs (that is, beliefs that the wider population finds silly), and why those particular beliefs, whatever they are, are the ones they believe. In broad terms, the answer is that these are arbitrary, costly hard-to-fake signals of group membership which tend to be historically contingent “frozen accidents”. In those posts I mentioned, and appealed to, something I call the “developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition” or DHBA for short. In this post I want to outline that view. It is not something I have directly lifted from others, so any flaws in it are entirely my own.

We are developmental organisms, which means that we change our morphology and behaviour as we mature, and as part of the typical life cycle of our species. Many organisms do not have a developmental cycle, although there is a lifecycle of their species: single celled organisms often simply divide into progeny cells that are in all relevant respects identical to the “parent” cell. However, contrary to common belief, this is not the norm. Many single celled organisms reproduce in a cycle of cell forms. For example, many bacteria have distinct stages between reproduction events, where they merge genetic material, in a form of sex. So the normal behaviour for living things is to have a developmental sequence.

Development is maintained by many things, but the most obvious, prima inter pares as it were, is genetic control. Genes modulate when and how these steps are taken. In organisms of our kind (multicellular eukaryotes), this is a very complex process, but the sequence is generally obvious. We go through fertilisation, division, invagination, birth, maturation and enculturation in a relatively stable and predictable fashion. It is not a great leap to see the process of belief acquisition as being a part of that process.

Nobody is born knowing very much, if anything. It makes more evolutionary sense when an organism can live in many variable environments, both in a single lifetime and in the range of the species, for organisms to be able to acquire beliefs from local cues, such as (in humans) culture and practice, as well as by personal experience. So instead of humans being born with a set of “Pleistocene” beliefs (which the sociobiologists mark 2 think), we are instead born with dispositions to acquire beliefs. These are sometimes called “fast and frugal heuristics”; ways that allow us to get just enough of a belief-set that is liable to increase our survivability to mating.

Now beliefs are slippery things. I think of them as “cognitive stances” (Olson) in which our cognition leads us to adopt attitudes to certain inputs in ways that lead to action when necessary. We can think of them as sentences here, though. A belief is a sentence that we are inclined to assert the truth of; that is, take as a reason for action.

We typically discuss belief-sets as static entities, as logically or rationally connected lists of things we believe, either at the individual level or the group level (“Christians believe that…”). But this is misleading. Beliefs are dynamic entities. They grow or shrink, connect to various other beliefs in different ways, and form networks as we mature. A Christian friend once thought that the Bible, as the Word of God, was a timeless writing; he now still thinks it to be the Word of God, but has a more nuanced historical view in which it underwent many redactions over time. This represents the dynamism of belief-sets. They are the outcome of constant revision and acquisition, and a shuffling of their relative weights and connections.

W. V. O. Quine once wrote a book (with his student J. S. Ullian) entitled The Web of Belief, in which he argued that we do not have foundational beliefs, but rather a web, or as I prefer, a network of beliefs that give mutual support to each other. As a result, he argued that we can revise, rationally all our beliefs. Objections to this followed, employing the cutely named theorem of mathematics, the hairy ball theorem, that once you start combing a fuzzy ball, there must be at least one point where all the adjacent hairs radiate out from that point. Using the analogy of hair direction to rational revision, Quine’s view suggests that there must be one single rational foundation. However, if revision is done on the basis of the current weighting of beliefs, and these are dynamic, as I have suggested, then the process of revision can go on indefinitely.

Quine’s and his critics’ view was that the beliefs are static, but connected. If we think of them as the current state of our beliefs, a time slice through our belief-set right now, then we begin to see that we may rationally revise in some future stage the current “foundational” belief. And this is exactly what happens as we develop our belief-set. What we took to be a coherent set of beliefs at, say, age ten, no longer need be now, as we test our beliefs, including our beliefs about the real world, against our experience, utilising the in-born heuristic disposition trust your experience. And so we have a more plastic notion of beliefs than Quine et al. But there are constraints.

As we adopt our beliefs, these become entrenched in the dynamic set, and so an early belief will tend to be implicated in giving support to more and more beliefs as we age. Call these cognitively entrenched beliefs. An entrenched belief acts as a modifier of all kinds of later beliefs, and so to revise an entrenched belief is to force the revision, potentially, of many others, and the earlier the belief is acquired, the more “damage” is done to the belief-set. Consequently, the likelihood that a belief will be revised over time depends upon how many subsequent beliefs it adds weight to. It’s not that we cannot revise it, only that there is a cognitive cost to it. I’ll get back to costs in a bit.

So what we have is a probabilistic “cone of possible belief-sets” that we might expect to achieve in the future, and that cone narrows the choices the older we get. Here is a diagram I used in my essay on creationism. The arrows represent pro-science or folk-belief influences as the person matures:

Creationist rationality

The cone of possible beliefs at birth

Each of the dark lines represents an individual trajectory of development. Since the influences have to be greater to move a trajectory from one place in the space to another some distance away, the more entrenched views get less and less likely to shift in a mature person the earlier the belief was acquired.

So getting back to “costs”, we can think of the belief-set as an investment of time, energy and resources in belief acquisition. The more time and resources you have expended trying to acquire you beliefs, the less inclined you are to abandon them (a kind of cognitive Gresham’s Law). So if there is a cost to getting a belief, then the probability you will abandon it is inversely related to that cost. As an example, if someone has learned all the Linnaean names for plants, then any proposal to abandon this scheme in favour of another will be resisted the more effort you have taken to learn the old one, especially if the beliefs are themselves not really a matter of practical outcome.

So what drives changes of belief, for we often see people undergoing “conversions” from one belief-set to another? To understand this, I think we need to consider the quality of the beliefs we acquire early on. By definition, a novice in some field is uncritical of what they are being taught. Five year olds will accept whatever any suitably authoritative source teaches them (like parents or peers). Consequently, assuming (as I think we can) that one acquires beliefs from a disparate range of sources, not all of whom are consistent with each other, we will tend to have a complex of as-yet-unramified belief-sets which will likely include ideas that are mutually unsupportive or even contradictory. These are maintained by compartmentalisation, in which contradictory beliefs are never brought into conflict in the life of the person.

But people do live their lives, and occasionally they will enter a cognitive crisis, in which they must decide which of two contradictory beliefs they will act upon. These can be social crises, or experiential crises, or moral crises, and so on. When they do, a process of “belief warfare” begins, and so people find themselves evaluating and dropping various beliefs. This can happen quite rapidly, and is the foundation for what some refer to as “conversion” experiences. These conversions can be partial (affecting only some beliefs) or global (affecting all or most beliefs).

When conversions occur, typically the believer is left with gaps in their belief-set. For example, losing their religion might leave them bereft of moral rules. They must then, to the degree that these gaps are urgent, find replacement beliefs. And these are typically on offer. If you become a non-Christian in favour of, say, skeptical views, there are many ethical systems out there you can select from, ready-made, as it were. There is an additional cognitive load to acquiring them, but often it is enough to just get the basics and then learn more as needed. The choice of ethical system, for instance, might be that scheme that most closely matches the ethical values you have abandoned (for example, a western bourgeois Christian might adopt bourgeois freethinker ethics).

This also plays into the costly signalling claim: you may choose a system that marks you out as a member of some new group, in order to have support and community with that group.

Creationist rationality2

How cognitive dissonance causes a conversion event.

So if we think of belief acquisition as a developmental or DHBA process, we can understand why it is that costly signal beliefs are so critical; they offer a way to do a lot of cognitive acquisition easily, but they at the same time signal one’s communal identity in an honest manner, especially if your new beliefs are going to undercut your engagement with those of rival belief-sets.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, Logic and philosophy, Politics, Religion