Skip to content

Accommodating Science: Unpicking the arguments

Last updated on 4 Mar 2014

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.


  1. I’m enjoying this series. Thus far, it is very good.

    Some notes:

    1: When I have heard Dawkins described as a fundamentalist atheist, that has usually been by an atheist or agnostic, or perhaps a liberal Christian whose theology is so liberal as to be easily confused with atheism. So unless I misread what you wrote, I think you are a tad off on that.

    2: You say that Ken Ham was “the founder of the Institute for Creation Research.” I’m pretty sure that’s wrong. He founded AiG (Answers in Genesis).

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      I meant to check that about Ham but forgot. Thanks.

      I have heard Dawkins called a fundamentalist, though, by religious disputants.

  2. In my own comments on anti-religious fundamentalism
    (see )
    I suggest, among other things, that “fundamentalism” refers to the content rather than the strength of a belief. In that usage, a “fundamentalist atheist” would be one who doesn’t just lack belief in any god, but also believes that there is no possible definition of “god” which refers to something that “exists”.

  3. TomS TomS

    ISTM that religions are often called “fundamentalism” when they are unsatisfied the present state of things, and to find a correction by an ideal past of their tradition.

  4. Hilarious scholarly video on Genesis / science v religion by j. snodgras (which came to me with announcement of his new book, Genesis and the Rise of Civilization):

Comments are closed.