A defense of accommodationism and a misunderstanding

June 14, 2009 • 11:57 am

Over at the Guardian website, James Hannam has appeared from the woodwork to argue that by critiquing the philosophical accommodation of faith with science, I am explicitly rejecting an alliance with the enlightened faithful to go after creationism:

It’s popularly imagined that the history of science and religion is one of violent conflict, but the facts don’t bear this out.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists to defend Darwinism. He doesn’t want to see them joining forces against the creationist common enemy in case that legitimises religion. In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship. . .

. . .The conflict between science and creationism is real enough, but it is the exception, not the rule. For most of history, science and religion have rubbed along just fine. So, if Jerry Coyne really wants to promote evolution, he should be joining hands with the religious scientists who want to help.

Mr. Hannam is either joking or simply hasn’t immersed himself in the debates or  the c.v.s of their participants.  For crying out loud, I  have always been allied with religious people in attacking creationism.  For example, I wrote a book on the evidence for evolution.  What I won’t do is suppress my view that people who claim that religion and science are compatible are victims of bad philosophy.  You can obviously defend Darwinism without cozying up to the faithful.  As far as I can see, none of the  new militant fundamentalist atheists have ever threatened to stop attacking creationism if organizations such as the NCSE and AAAS continue their accommodationism.   As P. Z. Myers has pointed out, it is not we atheist/scientists but the religious scientists who threaten to withdraw from the creation/evolution battles unless the other side shuts up about religion.  Do we threaten to withdraw our support if Kenneth Miller, the NCSE, and others continue to espouse accommodationism?  I don’t think so.

On to the bigger fish, who badly need frying.

Update: It looks as if I didn’t have to correct Hannam here.  The comments on his own post, and a note by Olivia Benson, are warming his tuchas.

44 thoughts on “A defense of accommodationism and a misunderstanding

  1. Good grief – notice the ‘No true Scotsman’ or ‘I’m right by definition’ move –

    ‘It’s true that the popular perception of a historical conflict remains strong. That hasn’t stopped all serious historians from queuing up to condemn it.’

    All of them! All serious historians agree with the Guardian writer! Any who don’t are of course unserious…

    1. All serious historians of science to my knowledge do reject the ‘conflict thesis’ invented by Andrew Dickson White and Draper in favour of the ‘Complexity Thesis’. Are there some you know of who don’t?.

      1. But the article of course did not say “no serious historian of science” nor did it limit the claim to “the ‘conflict thesis’ invented by Andrew Dickson White and Draper” – it simply said

        “It’s true that the popular perception of a historical conflict remains strong. That hasn’t stopped all serious historians from queuing up to condemn it.”

        That’s a ridiculously broad claim. Obviously. Adding stipulations makes it narrower, but the stipulations aren’t there in the article, so why add them?

      2. Ophelia, surely by now you’re used to people making claims based on what they wish an author wrote, not on what he actually wrote. Why, it wouldn’t be The Internet (TM) without that!

      3. I thought, since you were so au fait with what serious historians maintain, that you would know that the ‘popular perception of a historical conflict’ is in large part the Draper and White ‘conflict’ thesis of the 19th century which has remained rooted in the popular conciousness despite all attempts to eradicate it by ‘serious historians’. This is in large part because the present day conflict between fundamentalist religion and science is being projected backwards into the past.

  2. “This person is either joking or simply hasn’t immersed him/herself in the debates or in the c.v.s of their participants.”

    No, I think James just read your blog. It has become something of a rallying point against religious moderates and their attempts to claw back the religious from the malign influence of the Discovery Institute. Not much evidence of an alliance here, just the same old ‘new atheist’ polemics.

    1. “religious moderates and their attempts to claw back the religious from the malign influence of the Discovery Institute. ”

      Oh, really? Religious moderates have been doing a lot of that, have they? Just busy little beavers, loudly, vocally trying to rescue their compatriots from the extremist views of the fundamentalists? Gee, I don’t recall seeing much of this. If they are so engaged, it must be in the timid, mousey “I don’t want to seem rude” way. You know, their entire modus operandi. Perhaps that’s why these allegedly hard-working moderates have had such a stunning, unequivocal lack of success.

      1. It would be more fair to say that moderates and atheists have had an unequivocal lack of success. Creationism is now a global phenomenon. I would however point to Kevin Miller’s testimony at the Dover Trial as one example of moderates pulling their weight despite being shouted down by everyone else. Unfortunatly people love conflict.

      2. Lord Kitchener, it’s a pretty stunning claim to make, that atheists (be they “new” or not), have anything to do with creationism being a “global phenomenon.” What a lot of people sniffily describe as “New Atheism” has only existed for the past few years. For decades and decades, the approach, at least in America, has been to gingerly, timidly mince around the issues, and never criticize anyone, in the everyday cultural discussion, for pushing their religious delusions.

        It has been only very recently that we outspoken “New Atheists” have had any measure of popular or press attention. That’s just a fact, LK, it’s not an opinion that you (or I) get to differ on. None of us can predict what the conversation on religion will look like in future decades with any certainty, but it seems plausible to me that this refreshing change, this brashness you so dislike, is going to help marginalize religion in public discourse.

        What’s already known, however, is that whatever the moderates were doing (not much that I can see) hasn’t made a damned bit of difference. It’s been under the “moderate regime,” if you will, that we in the U.S. have had to do battle after battle in the court system to keep creationism out of the public schools. I know that you know the Dover trial is only the most recent in a decades-long string of such cases, stretching far back before Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, or anyone else had the prominence they do today in the religious conversation.

        I’m glad Ken Miller helped score a win for rationality and science in the Dover trial. His testimony was excellent. But I’d rather we stop having to have these trials in the first place (they are a peculiarly American phenomenon). For that to happen, the cultural climate has to shift away from the automatic deference accorded to religion, and toward a more British attitude that sees god-bothering in public life as embarrassing, anti-intellectual, and unseemly. Yes, I do want people to have to feel socially uncomfortable and silly when they interject their metaphysical claims into public life.

        The Ken Millers of the world are not helping with that goal (yes, I realize he doesn’t share this goal, and would be alarmed by it). In fact, I think they’re helping maintain the climate that guarantees we’re going to suffer more Dover trials, and more Supreme Court cases over the bloody 10 Commandments in courtrooms across the land.

        Expecting us to cheer on Ken Miller for sticking up for science in the courtroom and to be satisfied with that is like criticizing fire prevention programs for being ungrateful to firefighters.

      3. There needs to be more, true, but the effort exists and is growing. People affiliated with the Clergy Letter Project have joined with local citizens-for-science groups (and even the Center for Inquiry) to counter attempts to weaken science education in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.

      4. Also, LK, you wrote:

        “I would however point to Kevin Miller’s testimony at the Dover Trial as one example of moderates pulling their weight despite being shouted down by everyone else.”

        Oh, stop it. That’s nonsense. No one – no one – was shouting down Ken Miller during the Dover trial and you know it. Dawkins, in fact, was candid in admitting Miller was the tactically better witness for that battle. It would be nice if people who share your line of thinking would reciprocate and admit as how there are other contexts in which uncompromising frankness is appropriate.

      5. Hi Joshua. I appreciate your frustration. More should be done (and is being done to) combat creationism. ‘Shouted down’ is perhaps the wrong choice of words; ‘ignored’ is probably more appropriate. There is a tendency to emphasise the extremes of the conflict and ignore those in the middle as irrelevant. When we show how we personally reconcile science and faith, we are derided as ‘creationists’ and thus lumped in with the imbeciles at the DI.

        Perhaps I am wrong and your chosen approach will achieve it’s goal. Although here it is worth noting that in anti-religious Britain a recent poll by Comres showed that the support for intelligent design is running at 51%, YEC ran at 32%. I think therefore the problem goes very deep.

    2. Nonsense. All I need is to be sufficiently au fait with what serious historians maintain to know that they don’t all cover the same ground and therefore they would not all line up to say anything about the historical conflict between religion and science. I am that au fait. It’s a pretty minimal requirement.

      1. I see what you are saying and I accept the point that, in the strict sense, the original statement is too broad. Please excuse my prickliness; the boiler in my house broke yesterday.

  3. Am I the only one who found the claim that science and religion “rubbed along just fine” through most of history a howler?

    1. Just ask Galileo how they “rubbed along just fine” as the Catholic Church condemned heliocentrism as “false and contrary to Scripture” in February 1616

  4. “…the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship”

    I think history shows modern science emerging from a mixed morass of ignorance, superstition, religion, philosophy, magical thinking, technological advances and other stuff. History shows science becoming a discipline which now stands on its own two feet. Indeed religion, in so far as it is a natural phenomenon, becomes a subject for scientific investigation. Whether science and religion are compatible is now a contentious question. History is history; now is now.

  5. I would however point to Kevin Miller’s testimony at the Dover Trial as one example of moderates pulling their weight despite being shouted down by everyone else.

    despite being what?

    I couldn’t hear what you were saying because you’re standing behind that giant strawman you just erected.

    1. Joshua took issue with moderates not pulling their weight. I tried to point to one example in response. Joshua was not satisfied with that and wants us to do more. Would you mind pointing out where this giant straw man was erected?.

      1. the one where you said moderates are being shouted down.

        uh, they aren’t. In fact, it’s been exactly the opposite for a long time now. the moderates have been shouting down the likes of Dawkins and Myers and Coyne.

        care to try again?

      2. No, that isn’t a straw man within the context of the argument. It would have been a straw man if I presented a distorted version of Josh’s argument and argued against that, thereby ignoring his original position. As far as I can see I did not do that as I was responding to Josh with a counter example.

      3. Would you prefer it be categorized more precisely, then?

        Your argument is simply a bald-faced lie.

        NOBODY has “shouted down” religious moderates from arguing against creationism.

  6. Can someone fill me in on why we should care what historians have said about the nature of the debate in the past? I’m not dissing history, of course, but it seems to me that this is a debate about current tactics, and the relevant part of what we know about the history of the science/religion conflict (or non-conflict, I really don’t care) is that ignorance is flourishing under the obliging veil of religion RIGHT NOW. Arguing about what serious historians have said is a distraction from affairs on the ground.

    And, unfortunately, serious historians don’t seem to meddling in this affair anyway. Anyone who read what Coyne wrote and thinks he’s arguing that we can’t cooperate with theistic evolutionists to improve science education, that we don’t want to join forces, seems to have some difficulty with that awkward literacy thing, and perhaps should recuse himself from the ranks of serious historians. Most serious historians seem to be able to parse meaning from sentences in their native language without bunging it up quite so badly.

  7. Note to Coyne:

    When you see irrational and/or deluded statements in a book you’ve been assigned to review, please ignore. Musn’t appear to be ungrateful or rude. ;^}

  8. My post referred to some words from PZ Myers’s blog which our host thought might be construed as having come from him. This was not my intention as my post was intended as a direct reply to Myers.

    As this shows our host found Myers’s words unacceptable, or at least would not tolerate a mistaken inference that they came from him, I’m happy to let the matter rest there.

    Best wishes


    1. Well, that’s a shame. I hate to see comments being deleted. Especially when they are not obviously trollish or outrageously inflammatory. Yours was obviously for PZ and not meant to implicate Jerry. And even then, he could have openly remarked about it here and had you clarify it.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am in complete agreement with Coyne and PZ in these matters being discussed. You are completely off base in your commentary… but people who are quick to remove comments seriously bug me.


      1. I, on the other hand, love to see comments deleted. (Not Hannam’s in particular, which I didn’t see.) Lots of comments are just…clutter, and if they pile up too much they can render a blog less readable instead of more so. A certain amount of discipline is a good way to keep a blog from getting choked with inarticulate wool-gathering.

      2. Ophelia,

        I thought, in this case, it was clear nobody was talking about “inarticulate wool-gathering” and “clutter.”

  9. Very sorry to hear about your boiler, LK. That would make anyone very cross. And, I think we can all be given a bit of a dispensation for prickliness on the general grounds that this topic is vexing, no matter what stance you take.

    Again, we have to distinguish between the US and Great Britain. I take it you’re in Britain (correct me if I’m wrong)? Many Brits have a very hard time understanding what it’s really like here in the U.S. They can’t quite believe there’s so much lunatic, fundamentalist public religiosity as there is, because they haven’t experienced it themselves for generations. They’re skeptical that it can really be as mad as we claim it is. But trust me, it is.

    Brits also don’t usually understand how different the public mood is here. When Tony Blair’s aide proclaimed “We don’t do God” (ironic in hindsight, I know), you could hear Americans gasping. In this country, such a blase attitude to religion is heard as shockingly rude. Blair’s aide not only could not have said that in the U.S., he would have been obliged to say exactly the opposite.

    There has barely been breathing room in the US to be even indifferent to God in public life, let alone skeptical, critical, or downright hostile to the idea. That really is very different from the UK mood, and it’s why people like me want to seize the moment and talk frankly, and loudly, about the elephant in the room that has debilitated our body politic.

    This is why many of us are nonplussed by the efforts of Ken Miller, or the signers-on to the Clergy Letter project. It’s a fact (unfortunate or not, you can decide) that middle of the road, genteel protestations by the religious moderates can’t change this situation, at least by themselves. America really does need a glass of ice water in the face to shock the public enough to even consider that there’s an alternative to God Suffuses Everything. This, in a country founded on secular principles, which many Americans don’t even know, or actively deny.

    For what it’s worth, no one I knew was ignoring the Dover trial, or Ken Miller’s part in it. We were on the edge of our seats, cheering those on the side of reason, even if we couldn’t go all the way, philosophically, with the point of view he speaks for. But again, that’s not good enough for people who share my view – we want to push the Overton window so that we’re not forever fighting a rearguard action. If we rely only on moderates, this will never happen.

    1. Hi Josh. Thanks for the interesting reply. I do live in the U.K but visit New England a lot as my wife is from there. I have to say most people I have met there seem pretty pissed off with organised religion, mainly because of all the scandals in Catholicism. I was fairly amazed by the religious channels you have there. In the UK the sole religious programming we have is a show called ‘Songs of Praise’ in which senior citizens sing half-hearted hymns while the Church of England slowly crumbles around them. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different in both countries.

      Although I will continue to defend the part of the Christian tradition I am passionate about, I do wish you the best of luck in fighting the kind of ‘fundamentalist’ rubbish we see over there. Teaching your kids that Darwin was the agent of Satan or building a museum featuring Adam and Eve frolicking with cuddly dinosaurs is extraordinarily silly.

  10. Lord Kitchener wrote:

    Although here it is worth noting that in anti-religious Britain a recent poll by Comres showed that the support for intelligent design is running at 51%, YEC ran at 32%. I think therefore the problem goes very deep.

    I’m skeptical of that, too. A Google search turned up at least three polls in Britain over the last three years on such topics. Each came to wildly different conclusions. One showed shockingly high levels of support for creationism, while others showed just the opposite. Obviously, they can’t both be right, and frankly, from what I know of the UK (as an outsider, yes), huge support for creationism seems an extraordinary claim that needs scrutiny.

    Even if support for creationism runs that high in Britain (which I doubt – look at some of the contradictory numbers in these polls and you’ll find some real confusion from respondents), it surely cannot be the case that fire-breathing “New Atheists” are responsible for it. That hypothesis strikes me as just the same as claiming that black agitators for civil rights in the U.S. are responsible for racist sentiment, or that gay rights campaigners have only themselves to blame for anti-gay sentiment because they’re just too uppity and loud.

    1. Yes it does seem an odd result to get from such a secular country (We had another strange one a while back which said that 7% of atheists think Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead) Nevertheless, when someone as informed as Ron Numbers says that creationism is a rising threat in the U.K it has to be taken seriously. RE the poll itself, 53% seems unusually high.I suspect that lots of people who frankly couldn’t care less about religion end up identifying as ‘nonspecific’ creationists. Since these kind of people won’t lobby to have the science curriculum changed it is less of a problem than in the U.S.

  11. The real battle isn’t between religion and science, it is between reason and dogma (of which faith is a variety)–this pits religion against science a priori.

  12. “As P. Z. Myers has pointed out, it is not we atheist/scientists but the religious scientists who threaten to withdraw from the creation/evolution battles unless the other side shuts up about religion.”

    Have any religious scientists threatened to not fight creationism? I read Miller’s quote as meaning that he and others would have to spend more time reassuring their coreligionists that they don’t have to give up their religion to accept evolution, and would therefore have a more difficult task fighting creationism, not that anyone would stop.

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