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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).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jerry Coyne on science organisations and accommodationism

At his Why Evolution is True site, Jerry Coyne has been posting about the accommodation of religious sensibilities in materials and statements by American science organisations such as the National Academy of Sciences, National Center for Science Education, and American Association for the Advancement of Science. In all cases, these (valuable) organisations have considered it necessary to calm the fears of American religionists that science, particularly evolutionary biology, undermines religion.

It's fair to say that the science organisations have taken policy stances that science and orthodox religion are not incompatible. In my view, that is a deplorable step. 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? Individual citizens are, of course, quite entitled to have views on that question. Likewise, as free citizens, individual scientists are entitled to have their philosophical views. However, it's not an issue that can be resolved within one specialised science; nor can it be settled by the policy decisions of one or more science organisations. It requires an analysis of the worldviews offered by various religions, including a consideration of which doctrines are considered essential by religious authorities and which are more peripheral. These must then be compared with the overall picture of the world in space and time emerging from scientific investigation. This involves an assessment (based on the consensus of scientists in the relevant fields) of which theoretical propositions are so well-corroborated by now that there is little prospect of revision, even though no scientific claims are considered certain or totally beyond revision. In other words, we need to assess which propositions should be considered established findings. Comparisons must then be made between essential religious doctrines and science's established findings.

In the end, reasonable people may differ about whether there is any incompatibility, though I am convinced that there really is an incompatibility between important, orthodox positions in Abrahamic theology, on the one hand, and established scientific findings on the other.

Before getting to that, I should note that some religious positions are plainly incompatible with well-established scientific findings. The image of the universe in space and time that has been built up by the converging investigations of scientists in such fields as geology, astrophysics, and evolutionary biology was not contrived for the purpose of discrediting religion. Rather, it is the gradual result of ordinary methods of rational inquiry supplemented by more precise methods that have become increasingly available since the time of Galileo — such as instruments that extend the human senses, mathematical modelling, and apparatus that enables many decisive experiments to be done. As a result of patient scientific work over the past few centuries, increasingly specialised and professionalised in recent decades, we now know that the universe we live in is billions of years old, that our planet itself is something like four-and-half billion years old, that life diversified through an evolutionary process involving mechanisms that prominently included Darwinian natural selection, that our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared in Africa about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, and so on. However, some religious leaders teach that our planet is only about 6,000 to 10,000 years old, that biological species have not evolved from earlier species, and so on. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence against that image of the world, all such religious doctrines are plainly and directly at odds with well-established outcomes from rational inquiry.

More importantly, however, at least for those of us who live outside of the United States with its abundance of creationists and the like, the scientific image of the universe is difficult to reconcile with more general ideas from traditional Abrahamic theology. It is particularly difficult to reconcile the scientific picture with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, providential deity, seen as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Note, however, that this "difficulty" is a philosophical inference, reached after a process of comparison between Abrahamic doctrines and scientific findings. It does not amount to a plain contradiction between religion and science, but is mediated by various assumptions that may (I'm willing to suppose) be debatable.

People like me - philosophers who are sceptical about the truth-claims of religion - may ask, pointedly, why an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, providential deity has employed biological evolution to bring about rational life forms like us, assuming that that was the deity's goal. It would have been within the power of such a being to create us, just as we are now, in the blink of an eye; instead it used the slow, uncertain methods of mutation, survival, and adaptation. What was all that about? As I argue in my forthcoming Voices of Disbelief essay, such a being, whose attributes include omniscience, would have known that this process would lead to untold cruelty and misery in the animal world, imperfect functional designs, and a timeframe of billions of years for rational life to eventuate. In short, why wouldn't a superlative being, such as the orthodox Abrahamic God, simply have chosen the outcome it wanted - then made it happen? As the Koran says of Jesus' virgin birth, "When He decrees a thing He only has to say, 'Be,' and it is." So why all this suffering, wasted time, and imperfection?

In defending the compatibility between religion and science, orthodox Abrahamic theologians and believers must either abandon their orthodox views (perhaps moving towards deism, or some kind of process theology, or even to an irrealist/metaphorical conception of God); or else they need to offer theological propositions that reconcile God's providential love (and other attributes) with the choice of such methods of creation. I very much doubt that the latter can be done in any plausible way. The attempt to reconcile orthodox Abrahamic religion with well-established scientific findings leads to unbelievable intellectual contortions.

But what if I'm wrong about this? Perhaps there are Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) philosophers who can answer the point I'm making. Well, fine. But even if there are, official organisations representing science don't - or shouldn't - get to adjudicate between them and me. This is a highly contentious issue that falls outside the expertise of such bodies.

In any event, individual scientists are entitled to have views on such philosophical issues, and it's clear that many scientists take positions much like mine. Those scientists have every right to be angry that their official organisations - organisations that are supposed to be representing them - are taking a stand on the issue. This leaves aside the arrogance of science organisations appearing to favour particular religious viewpoints. Of course, it's true that some religious viewpoints are just irrational, in the sense that they plainly contradict well-established scientific findings. Others, even on my account, are incompatible with science only in relatively subtle ways, and reasonable people with those viewpoints could put some kind of case against my position (even though I might not consider that case to be at all plausible). While this is all true, it's not up the scientific organisations to be saying it. That's outside their remit. It’s really up to the religionists to alter their views to bring them into line with well-established science - if they can. Or they can choose not to and go on advocating positions that range from plainly irrational to (more) subtly implausible. They may even fight back with nonsensical pseudo-science such as warmed-over diluvian geology or Flintstones-style depictions of humans and dinosaurs sharing the same environments.

Science organisations should stick to the point that certain findings are the result of systematic, rational investigation of the world, supported overwhelmingly by several lines of converging evidence. In putting that case, they can be "religion blind"; they should present the evidence for the scientific picture, but that's as far as they should go. They should not comment on what specific theological positions are or are not compatible with science. Leave that to the squabblings of philosophers and theologians, and, indeed, of individual scientists or other citizens. We can think and argue about it for ourselves.


BT Murtagh said...

The specific details of a religion's cosmology may or may not agree with the scientific consensus view; more fundamental is the incompatibility of the methodologies, revelation vs. investigation and faith vs. verification. That's the deep incompatibility which can't be reconciled.

Russell Blackford said...

I've never been so impressed by that, you know. Well, impressed by it, but not so impressed by it.

In principle, their different methodologies could have reached the same conclusions. E.g., it could have been the case, for all people knew at the time of Galileo and Newton, that the world would turn out to be 6000 years old, etc., once its age was examined scientifically. It could have turned out, for all they knew, that there was a huge flood at the time we can calculate for Noah, that the first humans were somewhere in Mesopotamia, etc., etc. The fossil record and the means by which rocks are formed might have turned out to be compatible - on further investigation - with diluvian geology. And so on. That would have been extraordinarily powerful support for biblical religion (you'd think God would manage to get a major holy book and the outcomes of scientific investigation to agree with each other like this, if he wants us to believe in him!). It would have suggested that there really other "other ways of knowing" such as tradition and revelation.

So, while I take your point, and it's one I'd make myself, and while there's certainly a huge difference between the religious and scientific approaches to obtaining knowledge ... I'm actually more struck by the fact that the substantive findings of science turn out not to be compatible with the substantive claims (and certainly not with the literal claims) of religion.

Happy to discuss further.

Russell Blackford said...

Er, should say: "really are 'other ways of knowing' ..."

BT Murtagh said...

Why would it have been extraordinary support, though? It's because the scientific methodology is self-correcting and thereby inherently trustworthy, which unverified revelation is not. The power of the correspondence, did one ever come to exist, works only one way.

If a prophet's revelation were to be afterward confirmed by science to be factual, as in your examples, we'd be impressed. If a scientific fact is afterward 'confirmed' by a prophetic dream ("God has confirmed to me that opposite electrical charges attract!") we'd either yawn or chuckle.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, BT, I certainly agree that we (should) test the success of the methods of revelation and authority by whether they get the same results as the methods of rational inquiry. It's not the other way around.

No argument there, but the question for me is then: do the methods of revelation and authority actually pass that test?

There's no prize for guessing what I think the answer is. And yet, things might have turned out otherwise ...

Caraleisa said...

Hi Russell,

As an American and an atheist, I must say I strongly agree with your points. I suspect that there are two variations at play here - the concern that science will drive theists away if a strong anti-religious statement is made, and/or that there remain theistic scientists whose bedraggled faith needs bolstering by introducing such statements.

In any case, there's no place for ANY statement about religion in the sciences. It's a different topic. Scientists should, by definition, simply describe the what and how, and offer evidence to support their findings.

Since there is no evidence for gods, the topic should never even come up. By making the statement that religion and science are not compatible, the scientist introduces a variable which is simply not there, and is thus being untrue to the basic scientific method. Such a statement is nothing short of a violation of the basic tenets of science.

It's disheartening, at the least.

Caraleisa (Carol E Roper)

Vic Stenger said...

I have written and lectured extensively on the subject is the incompatibility of science and religion. I have been particularly critical of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education. Here are some references:

God: The Failed Hypothesis (NY Times bestseller) pp. 27-30.

Slideshow of talk at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/RelSci/Super.ppt

Essay "Supernatural Science" at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Briefs/SuperSci.htm

Essay "Let's End the Free Ride" at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Briefs/Ride.htm

See also Yonatan Fishman, "Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?" Science & Education ISSN 0926-7220 (Print) 1573-1901 (Online). DOI: 10.1007/s11191-007-9108-4. http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/RelSci/Can%20Science%20Test%20Supernatural%20Worldviews-%20Final%20Author%27s%20Copy%20%28Fishman%202007%29.pdf

Russell Blackford said...

I haven't yet read Vic's other references, but I certainly recommend God: The Failed Hypothesis to my readers.

Russell Blackford said...

Oh, actually I have read the Fishman article, and I can recommend it also.

PNRJ said...

Your analysis of this subject is by far the most cogent I've seen. Most people seem to either use inane vagaries of "non-overlapping magisteria," or else claim that religion and science are inevitably in constant conflict; but you recognize both that religion and science clearly do overlap---and clearly are in conflict in many places---and that this is not inevitable. Basically, if religion stopped making absurd claims about souls, the afterlife, a young Earth, creationism, prayer, and virgin birth---it could probably be made compatible with science. But of course this would require a revolution in what we think of "religion," and this is a revolution that standing religious institutions have a strong interest in preventing.

John Pieret said...

Let us imagine for a moment that some organization, in furtherance of an anti-science agenda, began loudly to proclaim that science and democracy were incompatible. There's no lack of profound and controversial philosophical questions about democracy and government. And science qua science has no particular hand in those issues either. Would it be improper for the NAS, NCSE and other scientific organizations to take a position that science and democracy are compatible and that it is wrong to reject science on those alleged grounds alone?

In point of fact, in the US, saying that science and religion are incompatible is very much a political statement. No matter how regretible that fact may be, a widespread acceptance of that position would, almost certainly, greatly effect our laws and the public support for science. To expect scientific organizations to refrain from pointing out the empiric fact that some religious organizations and believers can reconcile their beliefs with science, even if they don't do so in accord with your personal standards of how theology "should" be done, is to be, at the least, highly naive about the relationship between science as it is practiced today and politics.

Moses said...

The specific details of a religion's cosmology may or may not agree with the scientific consensus view; more fundamental is the incompatibility of the methodologies, revelation vs. investigation and faith vs. verification. That's the deep incompatibility which can't be reconciled.Revelation makes testable claims via religious writings. These are testable and within the purvey of science.

Faith vs. verification is just another word for clinging to ignorance and refusing to accept reality. I think psychologists call this "delusion."

Unknown said...

In point of fact, in the US, saying that science and religion are incompatible is very much a political statement.It's also rather unempirical, isn't it?

If the incompatability that Coyne insists upon were actual, then we would have only atheistic scientists. Atheists are better represented among scientists than in the gen pop, but not to the exclusion of all other ontological stances.

Among laypersons, only the most fractional minority of religious people in the US do not at least implicitly support physics and chemistry. And a great number of religious people have enormous enthusiasm and passion for scientific inquiry. BT makes it sound like if you belong to the class "religious," you uniformly believe in revelation over investigation and faith over verification, (and conversely that if you belong to the class "nonreligious" that you believe in verification over faith across the board) but no such uniform belief patterns are found in reality.

Pure verificationalism, without some amount of faith (not in god(s), necessarily, but in the accuracy of one's sense data, or the reliability of reason and logic) is an impossibility. It regresses infinitely to the point of complete paralysis.

"Incompatability" is a convenient myth that undergirds the political view (as JP notes) that religious people should be excluded from participating in a scientific society. It is suported by no evidence, and only the laziest exercise of reason.

BT Murtagh said...

That's a misrepresentation of my stated views. I said that the methodologies of religion (revelation and faith) and science (investigation and verification) are different and incompatible; I did not say that religious people uniformly use only the methodologies of religion, or that nonreligious people never do.

I have never met a single individual who doesn't use the testing approach in some aspect of life, but that testing approach is not normally applied to religious beliefs - they are taken on faith alone, and that's precisely what causes us to describe them as 'religious' even if they're not part of a church's teaching.

If you test the cosmological tenets of a religious dogma, you are not doing religion, you are doing science. As Vic Stenger's book (which I also have, and recommend) points out, religion doesn't come off well in such a contest from a *scientific* viewpoint. The religious response would be to ignore the contradicting evidence and just have faith anyway - the stronger your faith in the teeth of evidence and argument, the better a person of faith you are.

To the extent that you change your beliefs to match observed reality, you are by definition not taking those views on faith alone; you are being scientific.

Chris Schoen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Schoen said...

I have never met a single individual who doesn't use the testing approach in some aspect of life, but that testing approach is not normally applied to religious beliefs - they are taken on faith alone, and that's precisely what causes us to describe them as 'religious' even if they're not part of a church's teaching.Fair enough, BT. Now, can you demonstrate that religion is unique in this regard, and that there are not "sacred" elements in all human lives, whatever one's ontological persuasion, that would erect similar zones of quarantine against verificationalism?

BT Murtagh said...

No, I can't demonstrate that religion is unique in that respect, which is why I don't make the contention.

James F said...

You, and others, have constructed a giant straw man by claiming that the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE are promoting the view that science and religion are compatible in all areas, while in fact they are responding to the creationist canard that acceptance of evolution is equivalent to atheism by noting that evolution need not be in conflict with religion. To fail to counter this attack on science would be naive at best, as John Pieret noted; I would use far stronger terms. Can you point to examples where these organizations move outside of the issue of acceptance of evolution and attempt to, as you say, "reconcile the scientific picture with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, providential deity?" Individual philosophers, scientists, theologians, and clergy can and do try to sort that out, but that's not what the AAAS, NAS, or NCSE are doing.

Chris Schoen said...

BT, the intention is implied when you write:

That's the deep incompatibility which can't be reconciled.Methodologies abound, and aren't limited to these two spheres (scientific practice and religious observance). If verificationalism is not the technique used in all aspects of life save religion, your statement misleads.

BT Murtagh said...

Sorry, underverse, but no such universality is implied by my words; you're reading something that isn't there. Saying that two approaches are incompatible doesn't in any way imply that people who predominantly use one can't or don't use the other, and I nowhere made any such implication.

Nor did I state or even imply that those are the only two approaches there are, though they are the only two I addressed since they're the only ones referenced in the posting.

My failure to mention things outside the scope of the discussion should not be taken to imply that I deny their existence; when I want to argue something's nonexistence I'll do it explicitly.

Larry Carter Center said...

Let's work on getting these so called science organizations to remove the false descriptions of science that accomodate religionists per se.

We can do this without calling good scientists on the carpet to "confess" or "repudiate" their likely religious ties or their motives for writing these pseudo-scientific statements in the first place.

Lets get out our magic marker highlighters & color the false words and replace any UNnecessary phrases with our revised versions. Surely there are people who "belong" to these groups who are on the side of strict science definitions & standards who will lobby for the corrections? Indeed, this is exactly how we here in South Carolina operate to fight proposed changes in science school standards that the creationist theocrats propose.

We are on the inside & we nip them in the bud. Doing all this does not require we 'out' our science friends who may have put the false accomodationist language in these group documents.

If we need to do anything to accomodate faith community sentiments, we can declare religious books are literature, not science texts.

We can declare freedom of religion is protected by our highest law just as freedom from religion applies to science matters.

Our US government is neutral, not choosing sides, IS but deciding which side is a private religious exercise & which MIGHT BE a public establishment of religion in PROPOSED public school textbooks.

Science is not creationism.

Clergy who seek to force Genesis equal to Darwin violate the establishment clause.

If there were scientists who injected themselves into literature classes where bibles may be discussed freely by students who choose to do so, if they prohibited the free exercise of religion, they'd be violating the free exercise clause. I know of no such violator in public schools.

When we clearly show both pathways, only the theocrat & creationist who wants control over science public schools is proven to be the lawbreaker.

I know of no single high school operated by public funding requires any student to read the arguments against religion. Thus neutrality is prevalent, only creationists are the scattered violators.

The many books and speeches exist for the advancement of Atheism fundamental in science but are not required reading for public school students.

Only a science textbook in biology, geology or cosmology can be required reading, not Atheist polemics countering creationist propaganda.

It seems we are fighting amongst ourselves over who is right rather than be on the battle lines repelling the continuing assault by theocrats & creationists in public schools.

Collegiate debate is fine.

Just remember that the Dover case was won by plaintiffs who are believers in a rural high school district, not militant Atheists policing the upper echelons of debate.

And the victory is because the defendants were and remain dishonest about how they sell & repackage creationism/intelligent designer facades for Jehovah or extra terrestrial agents.

Let's just get the job done with these science groups by lobbying to remove the accomodationist language & replace it with clear boundaries for personal faith exercise & secular science standards.

Chris Schoen said...


If that's the case, then this dreaded "incompatibility" doesn't seem so bad, does it? If a person can attenuate between two (or more) "methodologies" as an appropriate response to the world at any given time, this would seem to be a sane use of one's faculties.

My question is why does religion get special treatment--special scorn--when all human lives address the world at various times with something other than "the testing approach"?

Put another way, I think there is a fairy tale embedded in your position, wherein non-religious people have rejected the invalidated techniques of your dichotomies of "revelation vs. investigation and faith vs. verification." There is always something given to provide firm ground for one's investigations.

BT Murtagh said...

My question is why does religion get special treatment--special scorn--when all human lives address the world at various times with something other than "the testing approach"?Again, you're extending the scope far beyond what I said, and indeed what the conversation is about. It isn't about everything that all human lives address in the world at various times; the issue is whether being religious is compatible with doing science.

My remarks were even more narrowly focused than that, as I was talking only about whether the methodologies themselves were compatible, my position being that they are not; you misread that to mean that I thought religious people were not capable of doing science, which isn't the case.

Just to try to be clearer here's my actual position, 1-2-3:

1) Science is all about testing and evidence, and when the evidence opposes the hypothesis the hypothesis fails and must be amended or replaced. Religion is about belief in the absence of, or even in opposition to, available evidence. The two approaches are not compatible.

2) The two approaches are not equally useful. I don't believe that revelation and faith are equally valid "ways of knowing" along with empirical science; even if the hit rate for correct answers in prophetic revelations weren't so abysmally bad there would still be no way to *know* when you'd hit on a truth other than crossing over to the opposite camp and performing a test, i.e. doing science. One is self-correcting, the other actively resists correction.

3) In no way does that imply that I think that people who don't apply a testing approach to religion, or to any other aspect of life, are thereby rendered incapable of applying it within their professional life.

To expand upon that:

There is a case to be made that people who habitually apply a scientific approach to every aspect of their lives tend to make *better* scientists, and I've never seen a case where religious belief seemed to actually help the processes of science, but being religious certainly is not an absolute bar to doing science, or vice versa.

However, that's really just NOMA lite; if a religious revelation makes a claim which is scientifically testable (e.g. the Earth is a few thousand years old), and the scientific testing disagrees with the dogma (the multiple lines of evidence suggest an age in the billions of years) then science organizations must stand with the evidence.

If having the dogma disproved scientifically is a threat to religion, as most of the religious certainly seem to believe, then the position taken by these organizations dedicated to promoting science is disingenuous at best. Science *is* a threat to that kind of religion (i.e. the kind that makes falsifiable claims - stick to non-falsifiable beliefs and there's no issue).

Chris Schoen said...


It sounds like we agree on this issue. I was thrown off, apparently, by your assertion of a deep, irreconcilable incompatability. Since the topic at hand was Coyne's argument that science and religion are inherently hostile toward each other (he makes no caveats for subgroups of religion that refrain from falsifiable claims), I took this as an expression of your sympathy to that view. If I understand your clarifying remarks correctly, you don't believe there is any inherent conflict so long as a particular religion sticks to unfalsifiable statements.

I think this mildly contradicts your initial remarks (which are neither n the spirit of NOMA or "NOMA-Lite") but if your most recent comment accurately states your view then I stand corrected.

Explicit Atheist said...

underverse said...

"...Since the topic at hand was Coyne's argument that science and religion are inherently hostile toward each other (he makes no caveats for subgroups of religion that refrain from falsifiable claims), I took this as an expression of your sympathy to that view..."

Not true. It sounds to me like BT Murtagh and Coyne mostly agree, you are mischaracterizing Coyne. Here is Coyne on this question of falsifiability:

"So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category."