More on the war between science and religion 10

From an article by Mano Singham in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

There is a new war between science and religion, rising from the ashes of the old one, which ended with the defeat of the anti-evolution forces in the 2005 “intelligent design” trial.

That was Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District. Eleven parents of students in Dover, York County, Pa. sued over the school board requirement that  intelligent design should be taught in ninth-grade science classes along with evolution. They lost. US District Judge John Jones ruled (inter alia):

We have concluded that it is not [science], and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

Mano Singham continues:

The new war concerns questions that are more profound than whether or not to teach evolution. Unlike the old science-religion war, this battle is going to be fought not in the courts but in the arena of public opinion. The new war pits those who argue that science and “moderate” forms of religion are compatible worldviews against those who think they are not.

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world — such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe — allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Prestigious organizations like the National Academy of Sciences have come down squarely on the side of the accommodationists.

What? The National Academy of Sciences … ? Pause here for that to sink in.

Then on we go:

On March 25, the NAS let the John Templeton Foundation use its venue to announce that the biologist (and accommodationist) Francisco Ayala had been awarded its Templeton Prize, with the NAS president himself, Ralph Cicerone, having nominated him. The foundation has in recent years awarded its prize to scientists and philosophers who are accommodationists, though it used to give it to more overtly religious figures, like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Critics are disturbed at the NAS’s so closely identifying itself with the accommodationist position. As the physicist Sean Carroll said, “Templeton has a fairly overt agenda that some scientists are comfortable with, but very many are not. In my opinion, for a prestigious scientific organization to work with them sends the wrong message.”

In a 2008 publication titled Science, Evolution, and Creationism, the NAS stated: “Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. … Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. … Many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings.”

Those of us who disagree — sometimes called “new atheists” — point out that historically, the scope of science has always expanded, steadily replacing supernatural explanations with scientific ones. Science will continue this inexorable march, making it highly likely that the accommodationists’ strategy will fail. After all, there is no evidence that consciousness and mind arise from anything other than the workings of the physical brain, and so those phenomena are well within the scope of scientific investigation. What’s more, because the powerful appeal of religion comes precisely from its claims that the deity intervenes in the physical world, in response to prayers and such, religious claims, too, fall well within the domain of science. The only deity that science can say nothing about is a deity who does nothing at all.

In support of its position, the National Academy of Sciences makes a spurious argument: “Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. … Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.”

But the fact that some scientists are religious is not evidence of the compatibility of science and religion. …  Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, notes, “True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.”

Accommodationists are alarmed that their position has been challenged by a recent flurry of best-selling books, widely read articles, and blogs. In Britain an open letter expressing this concern was signed by two Church of England bishops; a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain; a member of the Evangelical Alliance; Professor Lord Winston, a fertility pioneer; Professor Sir Martin Evans, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and others. The letter said, “We respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin’s theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory.” …

What people? Why?

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as “extreme,” “uncivil,” “rude,” and responsible for setting a “bad tone.” However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

But political considerations should not be used to silence honest critical inquiry. Richard Dawkins has challenged the accommodationist strategy, calling it “a cowardly copout. I think it’s an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It’s good politics. But it’s intellectually disreputable.”

Evolution, and science in general, will ultimately flourish or die on its scientific merits, not because of any political strategy. Good science is an invaluable tool in humanity’s progress and survival, and it cannot be ignored or suppressed for long. The public may turn against this or that theory in the short run but will eventually have to accept evolution, just as it had to accept the Copernican heliocentric system.

It is strange that the phrase “respect for religion” has come to mean that religious beliefs should be exempt from the close scrutiny that other beliefs are subjected to. Such an attitude infantilizes religious believers, suggesting that their views cannot be defended and can be preserved only by silencing those who disagree. …

We think religious belief is childish. And we recall that for long ages the religious defended their beliefs by forcibly silencing those who disagreed, and we suspect that many would do it again if they could. (They do in Islamic states.)

But see how far the religious have had to retreat as science demolishes dogma after dogma. We do not hear their advocates talking nearly as much or as loudly as they used to of the seven days of creation, of a virgin giving birth to God in Bethlehem, of God dictating commandments. (Okay – of the Angel Gabriel dictating the Koran we still hear too much.) Mano Singham informs us that they’re not even insisting on “intelligent design” as much as they did. Backs to the wall, they’re only begging us to concede  that, because of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and continuing conjecture about the Big Bang (for example), we “must allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected” by science. And if we don’t, we’re being rude. “Be nice to us”, they’re implying, “let us nurse our fantasies. If you don’t, you’re just a lot of rationalist bullies.”

Let them put their thumbs in their mouths and sulk. We’re winning!

  • Frank
  • C. Gee

    It’s worth noting that the National Academy of Sciences supports AGW.  Any institutional statement is always political, not scientific. 

  • Liz

    Jerry Coyne nails it – that faith and science are only compatible “in the trivial sense that both attitudes can simultaneously be embraced by a single human mind”.  Yes, even psycopaths can simultaneously embrace psycopathic thoughts and sane thoughts at the same time – that doesn’t prove that psycopaths are sane!   It’s well known that the mind is capable of incredible feats of self-delusion in order to accomodate incompatible thoughts.  And that is all being an “Accomodationist” boils down to. 
    Herman Philipse was quoted as saying in an earlier post – “Science invalidates religion as a source of knowledge”, and, as this article points out, “science is steadily replacing religious explanations with scientific ones”.  Two sources of knowledge – fact and fantasy, cannot both be valid!
    Its great that the Christians now find themselves on the same side of an issue with the Muslims.  Maybe this uncomfortable position will help them rethink their beliefs.  

  • I love this comment:
    “Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists.”

    This is all too true.  When I was discussing/arguing the issue of religion at, there were quite a few people that called me (and Dawkins, since that is who the article was about) pretentious, insolent, etc.

    So we atheists are “pretentious” because we think we know “better” than god?!?!?  Umm, I don’t believe in god, so the concept of knowing better than him is null.  But, This is how a theist thinks (or doesn’t think).  It wouldn’t bother me so much if they weren’t SO MUCH in the majority.

    • Liz

      Yes, it is despicable to insult the Great and Mighty Oz by presuming to know more than him.

  • Human Ape

    Nobody will ever accuse me of being an accommodationist. I’m in favor of the complete eradication of all religious fantasies from this planet.

    • Don L

      Hi Human Ape:

      Got an email of your post under “about us”…couldn’t actually find it on that page?  Anyway, per the email, welcome and most here hold your thoughts!!!

      And, your thoughts here are in the main as well!

    • Liz

      Thanks for the link – enjoying your blogs!

  • Don L

    Never ever mention the scientific truth that dejection floats in the same sentence with the unscientific miracle of a christ walking on water. 

  • Ralph

    No matter how you package it faith and reason aren’t compatible.