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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Giving up ... something?

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins asks:

Suppose you have a religion and are interested in science. Do you

a. Have to give up your religion

b. Have to abandon your effort to find out about the natural world through science

c. Try to find some accommodation?

Now suppose you are a member of a scientific body, and want to suggest to members of religions that they can be part of the scientific enterprise. What do you do?

a. Tell them they can do so only if they abandon their religion

b. Tell them they cannot be part of the scientific enterprise

c. Tell them that some religions have no apparent problem accommodating science?

John thinks, or thought before I commented, that my answer would be "a." in each case, but that's not really how I see it. If someone asked me the first question, seeking personal advice, I'd give an answer more like c., although I'd be telling them to follow the science where it leads, and I'd warn them that they might thereby reach a view of the world incompatible with their current religious view or anything much like it. There's actually a bit more to say here, because the main problem that I see is the tension between acceptance of the general picture of the world offered by science (the age of the universe and the Earth, the long slow process of life's evolution, the fact that we ourselves are evolved animals closely related to chimpanzees, and so on) with the general picture of the world offered by orthodox Abrahamic monotheism. You don't actually need to know all that much science to see this tension, and if you think you can resolve it to your own satisfaction prior to pursuing a scientific career, it's possible (even likely) that whatever resolution you come up with will continue to satisfy you. That resolution will probably be some theological doctrine, or set of doctrines.

In my own view, if you're rigorous you'll be forced to a theological position quite remote from orthodox Abrahamic monotheism, possibly even as far as deism (or maybe some other historically unorthodox theological position, like process theology). And once you go that far you might start to lose the motivation to believe in God at all and become an atheist or at least an agnostic. You certainly might come to be very sceptical about the teachings of your own church (or mosque, or whatever).

But, look, that's just how I see things. Although I argue this case and would, frankly, like to see a loss in the authority accorded to religion, I'm not trying to force my view on anyone. Nor do I mind telling any young would-be scientists that there are good scientists who are also religious - the Ken Millers and so on. I'm not the thought police.

As to the second question, I'm not sure that scientific bodies should say anything at all on such a subject. However, I'm not all that worried if they say c., and then shut up. If they were really honest, though, they'd acknowledge that it's not so straightforward. To reconcile your religious faith with what you learn from science, you may eventually need to adopt theological positions that you find either far-fetched or remote from what attracted you to religion in the first place. Really, it's better for scientific bodies to shut up about this, or at least say as little as possible. It's not their job to reassure people that they can pursue the scientific enterprise without it changing them. No such reassurance can be given, at least not honestly.

If they went further than c., and claimed that religion (still thinking of orthodox Abrahamic positions) and science just are compatible, I'd not only think this incorrect and beyond the remit of the scientific organisations, but also rather dangerous. The fact is that some young scientists will think about the tensions between the scientific picture of the world and the orthodox monotheistic world picture ... and some will decide that they can't satisfactorily reconcile the two. Some of these people will come to see whatever doctrines are needed to produce the reconciliation as too far-fetched to be believable, or too remote from whatever made religion attractive to them in the first place. If scientific organisations start buying into the philosophical question of the compatibility of science and religion, but without mentioning this real possibility, then they risk being simply dishonest.

Again, it's better to say as little as possible and concentrate on talking about science itself. After all, there's overwhelming evidence for, say, the main ideas of evolutionary theory. Science also has huge social benefits, as well as intrinsic excitement. It's not as if there's nothing left to be said in defence of science once you decide not to address theological and philosophical questions.

I wonder how John would answer if I threw a variant of his questions back at him:

Suppose you have a religion and are interested in philosophy. Do you

a. Have to give up your religion

b. Have to abandon your effort to inquire into the nature of the world through the study of philosophy

c. Try to find some accommodation?

Now suppose you are a member of a philosophical organisation such as the American Philosophical Association or the Australasian Association of Philosophy, and want to suggest to members of religions that they can be part of the philosophical enterprise. What do you do?

a. Tell them they can do so only if they abandon their religion

b. Tell them they cannot be part of the philosophical enterprise

c. Tell them that some religions have no apparent problem accommodating philosophical inquiry?

Surely it would be disingenuous for an association of philosophers to get involved in the second question, partly because philosophers are deeply divided on whether any religion (and if any, which?) can withstand philosophical scrutiny. Answers a. and b. are obviously wrong, but c., even if literally correct, is disingenuous. If you study philosophy, you will change. No one can guarantee that the change will be one that preserves your current religious views - or anything like them. It's dishonest to provide an answer that implies the contrary.

Science and philosophy are different enterprises of course, but if we are going to recommend a different sort of answer for scientific organisations from what we recommend for a philosophical organisation, what exactly is the salient difference?


Chris Schoen said...

If you study philosophy, you will change. No one can guarantee that the change will be one that preserves your current religious views - or anything like them. It's dishonest to provide an answer that implies the contrary.Russell,

This does not address the actual content of choice (c), which does not guarantee to members of religions that their ontologies will not change, but merely observes, modestly and factually, that they need not do so in way which forces a choice upon the individual; that there is no necessary incompatibility. Whether there will prove to be one in any individual case is outside the scope of the problem. It is a question of participation versus exclusion, not of second-guessing specific outcomes.

Russell Blackford said...

There's still this ambiguity going on. They are either incompatible or not. That is a philosophical question. You can't say, as if it's just a fact, "there's no necessary incompatibility." All you can say is that some scientists perceive them not to be incompatible.

Chris Schoen said...


Shouldn't we privilege the people who are living out this conundrum over the people who are merely talking about it, rather than the reverse?

Unless you are prepared to call people like Francis Collins either bad scientists or bad Christians (or "no True Scotsmen"), it is a factual, empirical matter, not a philosophical one, that religion and science have no fundamental incompatibility of the kind that would militate against participation of religious people in the "scientific enterprise."

The incompatibility hypothesis, as stated, has been falsified. I don't see you or Coyne revising it so that it calls for new, specific, philosophical criteria that can be tested against. The ambiguity you refer to may just be a symptom of an insufficiently articulated question. You pose it thus: At stake here is a profound and controversial philosophical question: is the emerging scientific image of the world compatible with any of the religious images of the world that are currently on offer, particularly those that claim to be orthodox?But it might be more honest to phrase it as "...compatible with [Russell Blackford's idea of] any of the religious images of the world that are currently on offer..."

John S. Wilkins said...

As it happens, Russell, when I started studying philosophy if did abandon my religion. But I have many friends who have advanced degrees in philosophy and ancillary disciplines that have not. I do not think they are right, but I also feel no need to insist they must choose the same solution set I have. For that matter I don't even insist that atheists must adopt my solution set (which is agnostic on empirically inoculated deities). I would expect that any philosophical society that would have me for a member, and which I would be a member of, would recognise that its members could be theists, or atheists, or even agnostics.

Adrian said...

Good clarification, it matches many of my first thoughts upon reading John's post.

The data shows that advancement within science correlates to declining religiosity, whether that's because scientific thought reduces religiosity or the deeply religious avoid or drop out of science. It is true that some religious people have made it through this sieve but they are a minority and I suspect their religious beliefs were changed significantly in the process. Saying that religious people can accommodate science with no added caveats feels like saying that you can survive and prosper by playing Russian Roulette without mentioning that most people die and the longer you play the lower your chances become. It may be technically true but it is deceptive and ignores the general case.

Anonymous said...


I think I understand and agree with your view: "which is agnostic on empirically inoculated deities", but do you hold that view consistently on all "empirically inoculated" X's? Is there any position that is "empirically inoculated" that you just say, "that is B.S."? Can't we inoculate *any* view in this way with an appropriate just-so story?

Russell Blackford said...

So we agree, John? I take exactly the same view as you do:

I would expect that any philosophical society that would have me for a member, and which I would be a member of, would recognise that its members could be theists, or atheists, or even agnostics.I think this applies to science organisations as well as philosophical societies. They should be neutral. That means they should be neutral on the correctness or otherwise of atheist arguments that there is an incompatibility between science and religion. But as soon as such an organisation says, or strongly suggests, that science and religion are actually compatible, it ceases to be neutral.

My whole point in this discussion has been that such organisations should strive to be neutral about these issues.

Underverse, I have never, even for a moment, argued that there are no scientists, or no "true" scientists, who have reached accommodations between their science and religion that they find subjectively satisfactory. That has never been what this debate is about.

The debate is about whether or not science organisations should be neutral on the alleged compatibility or incompatibility of science and religion. I say that they should be neutral about that. At no point have I said anything else. I don't know why this concept is so difficult to understand, but I hope it's now clear.

Chris Schoen said...


The NAS is manifestly not taking sides in the moral or philosophical question of whether science and religion *should* have common ground, or to what extent they should pursue that common ground. It is only saying, in response to vociferous claims by fundamentalists that science *cannot* be consonant with religious views, that it need not be dissonant. What exactly is your philosophical quarrel with this quite pedestrian statement of fact, which operates on the "subjective" level you derided in your last comment?:

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history.There is nothing here about grand claims to ontological compatibility of worldviews. If there were it might indeed be out of scope. But to point out that evolution is not itself anathematic to Abrahamic religion in its broadest sense is a far more humble position than the one you and Coyne are arguing against.

Russell Blackford said...

As I said in answer to JJ's comment on another post, read the material in its entirety with an open mind. I know that weasel words are used throughout so that it is not possible to find any one sentence that conclusively says "science and religion are compatible in every sense," but the total impact of the material (there's quite a lot of it) is to suggest very strongly, not just a sociological datum that some good scientists are also religious but that something like the NOMA doctrine or the position of the Catholic Church is plausible or even most likely true.

There is language throughout that is hostile to rationalist positions, e.g. the claim that some scientists believe in "scientism" - that is like waving a red rag.

Material that suggests that scientists are disproportionately religious is attacked in a spinning/debunking style.

The bibliography is massively designed to lead the reader to adopt a moderate religious view, and not to fear that a scientific understanding of the world will challenge her faith. In fact, that is surely the tenor and purpose of the whole thing - to give that reasurance.

If you honestly can't see all that when you read the material, I can't prove it to you: it's notoriously difficult to prove things that rely on judgments of tone, wording, balance, and the like (though courts do have to rule on such things quite frequently ... fortunately we're not in court, just having a discussion).

If that's the situation we'll have to agree to disagree. I can't rely just on my personal incredulity, if that's what it comes down to ... although I can ask my other readers to look at the material and judge for themselves.

Since I replied to JJ, however, I've checked and found that the author of the material appears to be a Catholic and an apologist for the Catholic position on science. He has even co-authored a book on the subject. That doesn't prove anything, of course, but it does give me more confidence that my judgments about tone, wording, overall meaning, and so on are not just my own idiosyncracic reaction. This guy really does have the views that I thought were being conveyed by the material, and I'm more convinced than ever that those views are getting conveyed, despite the crude device of using weasel words to avoid the NCSE explicitly endorsing them.

Russell Blackford said...

Aaargh, "idiosyncratic", though "idiosyncracic" or whatever I wrote might be a nice word.

Chris Schoen said...


By "the material in its entirety" you mean, what--the full complement of html and pdf pages at ncseweb.org?

I'm all for seeing the forest for the trees, but the history of rhetoric is replete with skilled examples of demonstrating the forest though select and representative trees, or at least copses and groves. Give me a real homework assignment, not a shibboleth saying that only a real "open mind" can see what's going on.

In light of RBH's re-consideration post at Panda's Thumb, I'm sympathetic (though agnostic) to the notion that NCSE may have overstepped its charter in the compatibility discussion. I won't deny it wholesale without having read through the site more thoroughly. I think J.J. Ramsey makes a good point on this, though: if nobody in the secular community can even acknowledge that *some* religious groups and subgroups have a NOMA-like relationship with the sciences (that is they attribute no falsifiable claims to supernatural forces), it cedes the dialogue completely to those with a religious agenda. We all know where the funding is on that side of the fence.

At any rate, my comments have mostly been directed throughout this discussion to the remarks of the NAS, which I think Coyne profoundly misrepresents.

Thanks for responding. I'll probably try make a better stab at summarizing my thoughts on this over at underverse. But that's on the other side of a good night's sleep, or at least a decent power nap.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, mate.

Really, my main point - as per my last comment on this thread - is the one that Richard Hoppe has since conceded, and which you also now say may be correct. Maybe I'm right about some other things, maybe I'm wrong about some other things. I did think it worth making some constructive (and, I thought, gentle) criticism, and I've been surprised at the virulence of some of the response (I don't mean yours; more some of the outraged and unfair responses at Panda's Thumb and elsewhere).

I'll look forward to your post on you own blog, and maybe I'll comment there if more remains to be said.

Russell Blackford said...

One more point, in the interest of fairness. Apparently one of the things I specifically object to - the debunking article about the (ir)religiosity of scientists - was actually written by Eugenie Scott.

Chris Schoen said...


Do you have a link to that Eugenie Scott article, or some reliable search terms? Is this the same piece you referred to in comments above, that you thought had been written by a Catholic apologist?

Also, I opted to comment over at the Austringer, making some of the points I intended to blog about separately (And still may, though events are overtaking me). I hope you find them to be in the spirit of fairness.