Accommodationism du jour: Michael Zimmerman

May 23, 2010 • 7:12 am

Michael Zimmerman is a biologist at Butler University.  He’s also the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, a project that rounds up clergy to sign a letter asserting that science and faith are compatible.  Here’s part of that letter:

While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts. . .

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.

Well, I still don’t know what the “timeless truths” of the Bible are, or how they differ from the conflicting but equally timeless truths of Islam, Hinduism, or Scientology.  What, for example, are the “timeless truths” of Noah or the Adam-and-Eve story? That all animal species went through a bottleneck of two individuals? That all humans were all born in a state of sin?

But never mind.  The Clergy Letter Project seems harmless at worst, though it’s predicated on the dubious assumption that if the shepherds assert the compatibility of faith and evolution, creationists will rush to join the Darwinian fold. Still, Zimmerman extols the virtues of accommodationism in a post in Thursday’s HuffPo, where he asks us to not only recognize the differences between science and faith, but respect them.

It’s straight-up NOMA-ism.  Zimmerman defines science thusly:

Scientific investigation is a process that depends upon hypothesis testing and demands that scientific claims be offered in a manner that permits them to be falsified. Simply put, if you can’t phrase your hypothesis in a falsifiable manner, it falls outside the bounds of science.

And then tells us that religious claims are outside these bounds— except, of course, for creationism!:

Where does that leave religion? Well, it depends what you mean by religion. When religion (or more likely its fundamentalist adherents) begins to make claims in the complete absence of evidence and in a manner that is not falsifiable, and when those claims are passed off as scientific, the record must be set straight. Creationism, in all of its guises, including intelligent design, regularly makes claims of exactly this sort. Rather than addressing evidence, creationists simply make faith statements and expect that those faith statements be taught in science classes.

While none of us should hesitate to attack such activities, it’s well worth pointing out that most mainstream religions don’t do this. Consider, for example, the resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the United Methodist Church at its quadrennial conference in 2008: “Be it resolved that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church go on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools.”

What? Most mainstream religions don’t make empirical claims that are in principle testable? That’s just wrong. In April I gave a list of empirical claims made by religious people.  These claims are either testable and have already been disproven  (prayer works) or testable in principle (an itinerant rabbi was raised from the dead two millennia ago).  And they’re all empirical claims.  The only kind of religion that doesn’t make those claims is deism.

Zimmerman isn’t describing the real world, but the world of left-wing theologians.  As I wrote a while back in The New Republic:

The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

If you turn on your television on Sunday morning, as I did today, you’ll see that real world.  You’ll see oodles of preachers testifying to the literal truth of God’s creation, the Fall of Man, and the power of prayer. What’s more, some of these preachers promise salvation, wealth, happiness, or health if you’ll just forward a few bucks to their ministries.  Aren’t those empirical claims?  Apparently not, because, you know, those people are deluded: religion isn’t really about whether God fiddles with the world:

Many, many religious leaders understand that religion is not dependent upon a single interpretation of any text. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the religious leaders with whom I interact regularly believe that religion is about morality and spirituality rather than science.

Maybe Dr. Zimmerman should get out more.

In the end, Zimmerman wears his accommodationism proudly:

I have no problem being labeled an “accommodationist” for taking such a stand. I also have no problem arguing vehemently when anyone, religious or otherwise, crosses the line from science to nonsense.

Right.  I look forward to Dr. Zimmerman’s vehement arguments against the nonsensical and pseudoscientific claim that prayer works.

79 thoughts on “Accommodationism du jour: Michael Zimmerman

  1. Zimmerman is not only to be labeled as an accommodationist but also as a fool, a jester, who is out of touch with reality is several different ways. He is not just ignorant, he actively hides from reality and his own brand of nonsense.

      1. I’ll join in on this deepity by quoting Aaron Neville:

        “Everybody plays the fool…
        There’s no exception to the rule…”

        (But, damn, the accommodationists sure do seem to play the fool more often than most.)

    1. Like the jester George Dumbya Bush who had much of the citizenry of the US fooled? What truth was spoken there?

      1. Speaking truth to power was the job description given for a jester. Speaking lies from a position of power is something quite different.

        1. It was also the original job description of the ancient so-called prophets, (often female).

  2. I also have no problem arguing vehemently when anyone, religious or otherwise, crosses the line from science to nonsense.

    Nonsense as in religion?
    And also the project should be named as to what it really is: The Clot Project.
    Which is more concise and precise.

  3. I’m not sure why you believe that denying the value of ancient mythological texts is necessary to defeat the religious use of them. Would you say that Homer has no value because he repeatedly refers to gods? What about Anna Karenina? None of that happened. Does it have no value? Moby Dick is even worse. Not only is it fiction, a lot of the Cetology is wrong. Does it have to be testable to be valuable? If so, how is that last question tested?

    1. I’m happy to say that the Bible is similar to The Odyssey and Anna Karenina, but I very seriously doubt that the vast majority of the faithful would agree. If the Bible is merely fiction with some helpful life lessons, why construct huge social edifices around that book and not, say Tom Sawyer?

      The religious don’t just think that the Bible is pragmatically helpful in some way, they think it is sacred, that it espouses things one is obligated to believe by god. That’s a radical difference, one that historically has been worth killing over. Very few people have gone on pogroms over Tolstoy.

      1. But the danger of an idea or a text is not the same (in fact is almost the opposite) of saying that it has no value. Many people arguably died because of Voltaire and Rousseau’s writings. Are they without value? Much of the 20th Century was fought over the writings of Karl Marx. Do they have no value? Should Bunyan be considered “devalued” because there was an English Civil War.

        I also don’t think you want to use a text’s tendency or not to cause pogroms as a touchstone for its value. It sounds too much like the arguments creationists make about Darwin.

        By the way, there were religious and mystical groups formed around the writings of Tolstoy. And Twain is considered so subversive, that many right wing groups have spent much time trying to remove him from school libraries.

        1. I didn’t say that the bible has no value, but that the faithful claim that the source of that value is its alleged divine authorship. Do you honestly know any religious person who says that any other book had as much “value” as the bible? To say that the religious don’t view the bible fundamentally differently from other books is absurd.

          1. So, to get back to my point, you agree that ancient mythological texts may have value — a position that Jerry Coyne seems to doubt?

          2. Jerry hasn’t talked about the “value” of myths, so your assumptions are based on your having gotten a message to confirm your biases. You want to BELIEVE Jerry said that myths have no value… I think Ophelia brought the conversation back to what was actually said below.

            This is not a discussion about whether there is “value” in myth… it’s a discussion about whether there even are “religious truths” we should be encouraging people to put “faith in”.

            What is the value of believing a myth is “The Truth”? What is the value of people sacrificing people and other animals to please invisible entities? What is the value of feeling like you MUST believe something or suffer eternal torment?

            I’m not saying there is no “value” in myths. Certainly those who sell myths as “higher truths” see some value in myths. The Templeton sees “value” in such myths. But value is interpretive– it’s an opinion and requires an “according to”. The truth doesn’t. If you are confused, blame accommodationism.

          3. Aesop’s fables have “value”. They are little parables or moral lessons.

            So let’s treat religious claims the way we treat Aesop’s fables in science– as fables.

            We dismiss them and if someone felt noble for believing these stories were the truth, we’d rightly consider them unhinged and discourage this delusion. We’d hope they’d keep such silly beliefs private so that we wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed for them or like we needed to walk on eggshells to protect their feelings.

            What about the feelings of those who prefer the truth and are bothered by magical thinking in adults like most of the posters are this site? What about those who think this sort of childish thinking inhibits scientific progress?

            The religious folks can take care of themselves. They’ve got an invisible friend who cares what they think and comforts them in time of need. They don’t need accommodationists to add to the entitlement they feel.

          4. They have value just as any Mills and Boon novella has value. As an economist might put it: people pay money for it, so it has value.

          5. Wow, artikulett has hit a winning streak here. “If you are confused, blame accommodationism” – indeed. And other nuggets.

            But what I wanted to nitpick on is a foul by MadScientist: “any Mills and Boon novella”. Didn’t you realize innocents like me had to google that?

            The amount of pink alone is utterly devastating. I had no idea there were things worse than religion; now I have to go and wash my eyeballs together with the usual victim my brain.

            [Frankly I’m exaggerating, I get the same thing reading about how catholicism “loves” its altar boys. 🙁 or looking at the catholic church leader’s pointy hats.]

          6. “But value is interpretive– it’s an opinion and requires an ‘according to’. The truth doesn’t.”

            A minor nitpick — maybe just semantics, but as a scientist I deal with facts and observations, not with The Truth. I leave the latter term for philosophers and priests to kick around like a football.

    2. Who said anything about the bible’s “value” (whatever that means) other than you, dkfennel?

      When it comes to science, of course, the bible has no more value than any other mythological story. Religious myths, however, are unlike other myths in that people are promised eternal rewards for believing them to be true and threatened with eternal damnation for doubting them. In this way, religion has always been a thorn in the side of scientific progress.

      If we are allowed to treat religion the way we treat other superstitions, then religious beliefs can fade away like superstitions past –(e.g. the belief in witches or demon-caused illness.)

      Respecting and coddling religious beliefs (whether they are unfalsifiable or not) encourages the inane notion that belief is noble and faith is an avenue towards truth. It makes people feel proud of their ignorance –even “saved” because of it! What wouldn’t a person do if they were convinced their “happily ever after” depended on them demonstrating that they truly believed a supernatural claim?

      Accommodationism encouranges muddled thinking such as yours and Zimmerman’s. You guys use a lot of words to justify your inclination to favor one brand of superstition (Jesus Lite) over all the others. I think this is because you have what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”. To me, it just sounds– smarmy… a muddled dishonest semantic game that allows religionists to hear what they want to hear so they don’t have to feel irrational for having irrational beliefs.

      1. You’re right, Articulet. Coyne was not saying anything about the “value” of mythological stories when he suggested that the point of one tale was to show an evolutionary bottleneck. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed he was making any point whatsoever except to burlesque the pompous language of Zimmerman. Nothing more to see here I guess.

      2. If we are allowed to treat religion the way we treat other superstitions, then religious beliefs can fade away like superstitions past

        Frankly I find that unlikely.

        There are other pathways, such as how the old then pervasive cultural and religious phenomena of astrology has been retained in a mostly innocent form. The difference is that while it makes empirical claims it doesn’t make moral claims such as religion at large.

        More to the point is that religion _is_ a pervasive cultural phenomena besides the open and unashamed superstition. Recognizing that it is superstition in the eyes of other groups will still keep it safe by the foil of having it happen in the out-group (“in the eyes of other groups”).

        But cognitive dissonance and the actual ridicule that open discussion will engender, as well as the empowerment of atheism in religious society (say, by making it difficult to make religious belief a criteria for political office), will go a long way toward a future marginalization of religion as a problem for educational, scientific and social progress.

        That is a worthy goal.

        [It is a sad irony that religion is correlated to use among poor and uneducated, when it is likely among the historical dominant causes for exactly poverty and educational dis-empowerment. That history ought to be unraveled and told some day.]

    3. Let’s straighten this out now before it goes into a thicket of incomprehension. What Jerry said was:

      I still don’t know what the “timeless truths” of the Bible are, or how they differ from the conflicting but equally timeless truths of Islam, Hinduism, or Scientology. What, for example, are the “timeless truths” of Noah or the Adam-and-Eve story? That all animal species went through a bottleneck of two individuals? That all humans were all born in a state of sin?

      That doesn’t say “the Bible has no value”; it asks what the Bible’s timeless truths are. That’s different.

      1. That is true. Jerry doesn’t say that the Bible has no value. But it would be wrong, I think, to equate the value it has to the literary value of other mythological texts. So long as the Bible functions religiously on a large scale, it’s literary value is to that degree diminished. And it may already be compromised, because of the radical transcendence of the god depicted in it. Christians have tried to talk up the literary value of the Bible, but the main purpose of this, when the religious do it, is to encourage a religious reading of it. So, the religious value has a tendency to distort the concept of its literary value, even if the Bible, in itself, may have literary value. Actually, the most valuable books in the Bible are ones that question the whole god idea, like Job and Ecclesiastes, or humanise god, like some of the prophets or the psalms.

        Take the Noah story as an example. In that story, God repents that he made man, and decides to destroy what he has made, saving one family for a new beginning. (Sounds a bit like Stalin or Pol Pot.) Not only is this genocidal; it failed! If you compare this story to the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which truly has literary value, you’ll see the difference is that the Epic is human, the gods don’t know why so many had to die, and Gilgamesh himself learns that being human includes an encounter with death and suffering. This has value, because it contributes to our understanding of what it is to be human. The Noah story adds no such understanding. As a myth it is valueless, in my view.

  4. “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.”

    When one hears such phrases as “to transform hearts,” it is important to remember that the heuristics of real world dilemmas are not being worked out in a metabolic pump the size of a fist.

    1. I agree. Whenever I hear someone use “heart” in this sense, I often mentally replace it with the word “mind”, and I find it significantly transforms the feel of the statement. Emotion becomes integrated with perception and reasoning where it belongs, and these experiences feel less fundamentally distinct.

      I don’t want to be a killjoy on the use of poetic language, but I wonder if this particular metaphor ultimately does more harm than good.

  5. The “timeless truth” of the Adam and Eve story is that if it weren’t for a woman, we’d still be living in Eden–that is if Adam and Eve could figure out how to create “us” without the useful intervention of that darn snake. But then, maybe only Adam and Eve would be enjoying paradise. Forever.

    I’ve always thought this is why the Roman Catholic Church treats Mary as a demi-god (bodily assumption, HER conception being immaculate, never mind the virgin birth). The “mother of god” couldn’t be a mere woman–the sort of creature whose disobedience caused all of mankind’s ills.

      1. It’s not apples, it’s knowledge that’s bad for you. It was the ‘fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ which they ate.

  6. If we are to say that religion has the job “to transform hearts”, that is an empirical statement. It says that the stories of the Bible can lead to changes in emotions and attitudes, both of which are operational and testable.

    We can further ask questions like, do the stories in the Bible lead to emotional and attitudinal changes that promote well-being? If so, is there a cost, say in the ability to accurately judge reality or in a reduction of tolerance towards difference? Even if some of these questions are difficult to probe, they are nevertheless scientific questions.

    1. If the question is ‘Are people better for being christian?’ then the answer is found and it is no. There is no evidence that christians are better people, on the contrary, the more religious a state or country the higher the crime rate tends to be. So if christianity changes hearts it changes them for the worse.

  7. “many religious leaders understand that religion is not dependent upon a single interpretation of any text”

    Actually the Bible says clearly that there is only one correct interpretation of its contents.

    1. I thought that I knew my bible pretty well, but fail to recognise the passage to which you refer.
      I would find it surprising that one of the authors of the various books:
      1) Knew that his book would centuries later be kept into or out of what we now call the bible.
      2) That unless it was the last tome to be written, how he could have known that future chapters would contain the one true word.
      Are you able to enlighten me as to where it makes this ‘clear’ claim, please?

  8. Zimmerman is rejecting “Creationism, in all of its guises” and specifically supporting science-based science education, and that makes him a dangerous pseudo-scientific lefty? And Whoa, NEBob!

    I once heard a Management Person where I worked described as so grouchy that you could piss him off “by bringing him a cup of coffee and TWO doughnuts.”

    Have you read Kagan on how sectarianism killed the Socialist agenda?

    1. You are assuming atheist and accommodationists have the same agenda.

      They haven’t, it is opposite. I think you are discussing the wrong post, this one is the most recent that has discussed your belief:

      Isn’t it weird that pro-science organizations [NCSE] gleefully take out after every form of superstition save the one that’s most pervasive?

      There are other recent posts that discuss how this is essential to break the problems surrounding public acceptance to science and education; religion is the root of all evil here. However, I grow weary at doing your work for you.

      So, contrary to your belief no sectarianism is in observation.

      1. Dr. Zimmerman’s article rejects creationism and advocates advocating for better science education in American schools. If that isn’t on your agenda, I do beg your pardon.

        1. My comment is to that effect.

          I don’t know how you could interpret it differently, except if you still interject “sectarianism” after I explicitly rejected it as a phenomena and is basing your interpretation on a continuing conflation between reading the post and discussing a larger atheist agenda.

          To wit; the atheist agenda can be larger than rejecting creationism and advocating for better science education. Again, I refer to those posts you refuse to read and discuss in.

      1. Elena Kagan, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, wrote a paper on the history of the socialist movement in New York.

      2. Elena Kagan has been nominated to the US Supreme Court. An analysis of her analysis of early 20th century socialism was published last week on Slate. That is, fatal disagreement over politics rather than anything significant about principles.

        1. Oh that Kagan. Good grief. Kagan is a common name; I didn’t even think of her, I thought of Robert. It helps to give the full name when citing Smith or Brown or Kagan.

    2. NEB didn’t call Zimmerman a “dangerous psuedo-scientific lefty”– those are your words. They are a straw man.

      You seem to misunderstand what the issue is: How can ones say that “creationism” is unscientific without religionists realizing that all their supernatural beliefs are equally unscientific– for the same reason creationism is.

      Moreover, a creationist can make their silly claims unfalsifiable by claiming that god (or Satan) designed the world to look like evolution happened when it didn’t… or to make the earth look old to “test humans”. In their head, this makes them a “winner” in the “faith test” their invisible savior apparently uses as his rubric for determining how they get to spend eternity.

      Some people want no part in enabling the spread of such a mind virus. Accommodationists have no such scruples.

      Demons are as unfalsifiable as gods– but we’d never use science to elevate belief in demons or to obfuscate understanding of science. And, yet, that is exactly what accommodationists do in regards to their preferred versions of god. They talk in muddle-mouthed ways so religionists can hear what they want to hear and keep from hearing the truth:

      “There is no more evidence for the invisible entities you do believe in then there is for the invisible entities you reject; there is no more evidence for the supernatural beliefs you do believe then there are for the ones you find laughable.”

      That’s a fact.

      I think religionists should be encouraged to keep their supernatural beliefs private –not to feel entitled to special privileges for being able to believe irrational things. Accommodationism makes religionists feel entitled to special respect– respect they’d never give those with conflicting faiths or similarly unevidenced woo beliefs.

      1. “left-wing” and “pseudoscientific” are Jerry’s words. Since he says the Clergy Letter Project is “harmless”, I assume he is opposing it to the HuffPo piece as not so.

        Dr. Zimmerman is clearly opposing those who “Rather than addressing evidence, …. simply make faith statements and expect that those faith statements be taught in science classes.” You are objecting to your own straw man.

        1. No, Mr. Zimmerman is sending are “higher truths” that science can’t access. As much as every believer in superstition wishes to believe this is true, it isn’t. Or rather, there’s no more evidence for the Christian supernatural beliefs than there are for Scientology beliefs. Get it?

          I oppose doublespeak that encourages god belief the same as I’d oppose doublespeak that encourages demon belief. They are both equally unscientific. They are unscientific for the same reason that Zimmerman finds creationism unscientific. All myths should be treated similarly by science. You and Zimmerman want to give certain brands of religious belief undeserved respect and deference from scientists. You are free to do so. You may think this fights creationism or is a wise method. But in the experience of many of us, this is not so, not effective, and not honest.

          Science has as much to say about god belief as it does about demon belief. It has as much to say about biblical myths as it does about Aesop’s fables. Unfortunately, people like you get all upset when scientists do just that. They hear things that aren’t said and miss the main message in favor of their straw man so they can keep convincing themselves that they are diplomatic and moderate, when they are as full of bullshit as those they defend.

          Clearly, the majority here did not get the same simplistic message you got. Jerry makes sense to many; you make sense to yourself.

          It’s not my concern that you seem utterly clueless as to what this conversation is about despite numerous people trying to clue you in. Go fight your straw man on your own blog.

          And Jerry did not say “left- wing” and he referred to prayer as pseudoscientific. Moreover, neither he nor NEB said what the voices in your head seem to think they said. You missed the main message and heard what you wanted to here so you can feel like you are some sort of moderator between the faithful and fact-based. Unfortunately your point only seems to exist in your head.

  9. he asks us to not only recognize the differences between science and faith, but respect them.

    So he does, “Religion and Science: Respecting the Differences”. He doesn’t tell us however, what that means. In that absence, and in the abject absence of clear boundaries that define differences in, say claim areas, I can only interpret that as implicitly saying “respect religion”.

    Or in simpler terms, Zimmerman’s unwillingness to accept the problems means in effect that he wants us to accept the problems.

    That is however not something I can sensibly do. Religious freedom means that I have to tolerate other’s beliefs. But not only is respect earned, it is a problem for my tolerance if I’m told that I also have to have “respect” without being able to assess the worthiness of that respect.

    And we all know religion can not earn respect, neither intellectually (see for example accommodationism) nor morally (“forward a few bucks to their ministries” for salvation).

    1. Religious freedom means that I have to tolerate other’s beliefs.

      No it doesn’t. It means you can’t interfere with them in any physical or otherwise coercive sense, but it doesn’t mean you have to tolerate them. In fact religious freedom means that you’re free to detest them. Various other freedoms also mean that.

      1. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the connotation of the words, but for me social and legal tolerance for a phenomena doesn’t mean that I’m not free to detest them. What I’m not free to do is to have intolerance to the legal provisions that have been made for them.

        I.e. if there is freedom of speech I’m not allowed to put pressure to silence a newspaper exhibiting this right. I have to tolerate that it happens.

        But, as we both agree on, I can still detest them, for example if the journal is a mouthpiece for accommodationism.

        1. Oops, should have added:

          I hope this makes sense. If not, please point out the parts that are intolerable (?).

          1. No you’re right, at least I think so – I think that is often how the word is used. The trouble is, it’s ambiguous, and that leads to trouble – to tolerance-creep, in the same way ambiguity about “respect” leads to respect-creep. Legal tolerance becomes substantive or intellectual tolerance, and the idea becomes: everyone is obliged to have substantive or intellectual tolerance even for beliefs that are obviously absurd.

            So I think it’s worth tirelessly pointing out the ambiguity.

            But I should have put it that way. I nearly did add that that’s how the word is often used but etc etc.

          2. Thank you, nicely put.

            Yes, I’m acutely aware of ambiguity and creep, which is why I started to use tolerance as a nice more or less neutral respect-creep stopper. Instead of having to refer to social rights (religious and free speech freedoms), which is extraneous baggage that can be left unsaid.

            I may have to rethink this. I’m not sure if I agree with social and legal tolerance being opposed to intellectual tolerance in general, as one can turn the crank again and intellectually tolerate that there is a legal tolerance. That would be “domain wide” intellectual tolerance of social rights vs “area specific” tolerance of specific religious ideas or of religion in general.

            But I understand why people react to the term. At the same time I don’t want to add qualifiers to it, because it detracts from the respect-creep message in the same way as mentioning social rights outright. Oh woe!

  10. the overwhelming majority of the religious leaders with whom I interact regularly believe that religion is about morality and spirituality rather than science.

    What does he mean by “spirituality”? Impossible to know, so leave that aside. That leaves him with morality for religion to be about. But other ways of thinking are also about morality, and they’re much better at it, so religion is left with pretty much nothing. “Spirituality” is just a fuzz-word, unless it’s just his way of sneaking the empirical claims back in under cover of darkness, in which case it is out of order. And morality is not a monopoly of religion, nor is it even a specialty. Zimmerman is talking himself out of any really meaningful content for religion.

  11. Zimmerman’s plea sounds reasonable enough–my religion respects science, so science should respect my religion. But it is not. It is like an astrologer who says “I respect the heliocentric model, so please accept my belief that the position of the planets influences people’s lives on earth.”

  12. But the catholic church says science and religion are compatible; they reburied what they believe to be the bones of Nicolas Copernicus and added “he’s not a heretic after all”. See – religion loves science!

  13. Jerry,

    You conclude by saying “I look forward to Dr. Zimmerman’s vehement arguments against the nonsensical and pseudoscientific claim that prayer works.” In fact, I was co-author on one of the first papers (Witmer, J. and Michael Zimmerman. 1991. Intercessory prayer as a medical treatment? An inquiry. Skeptical Inquirer 15: 177-180.) attacking the first published report on intercessory prayer.

    As I said in the Huffington Post piece you reference, pseudoscientific claims made by religion and advanced as science, should be vigorously attacked. I’ve been doing just that for well over 25 years.

    But I don’t see any value in attacking those facets of religion that are unrelated to science – or attacking religious leaders when they promote high quality science.

    You also say, “The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.”

    I’m not going to argue with you about this – and I’m willing to concede that most of the 12,500 Christian clergy members who have signed The Clergy Letter may well fall into this group (although I know for a fact that many actually are politically quite conservative, regardless of their theological leanings). The fact is, though, if these clergy members keep promoting the teaching of evolution in our schools and keep explaining to their congregations why evolution is not incompatible with their faith, perhaps we can move a larger percentage of the American public away from their disdain for evolution.

    Of course you’re correct when you point to the televangelists who make outrageous claims. The political problem is that too many people think that these extremists speak for religion. The fact is, however, that there are thousands upon thousands of clergy who find the message of the televangelists just as abhorrent as you and I do. But these people haven’t had an appropriate forum to ensure that their voices are heard. Creating such a forum, helping to take back religion from the extremists, is part of what The Clergy Letter Project is all about. When these moderates, those who are urging school boards across the country to teach evolution and only evolution in our public schools, are attacked by science proponents, they’re likely to stop trying and we’ll be far worse off than we are now. They expect to be attacked by religious fundamentalists and they’re willing to weather those attacks, but when those they had hoped would be allies in the fight for improving science literacy also attack, they begin to give up.

    For what it’s worth, The Clergy Letter Project was one of the groups protesting the Texas State Board of Education’s attack on science. For example, we teamed with CFI to create a web site helping to clarify the importance of the issues (

    Michael Zimmerman

    1. I appreciate Dr. Zimmerman’s response, but he seems to have missed the main point of my post. It was this: his editorial, and the Clergy Letter Project, attack one form of superstition (creationism) while enabling a much more pervasive one (every other assertion of faith).

      Zimmerman asserts that he’s been attacking “pseudoscientific claims made by religion and advanced as science” for over 25 years (indeed, he has written one critique of early, flawed studies on intercessory prayer, which is a good thing), but his HuffPo post, and the Clergy Letter, suggests that Zimmerman sees some of these claims as off limits. In my post above, I link to a whole slew of empirical and—in principle—testable assertions made by mainstream faiths. Granted, Zimmerman may not consider these “scientific,” but they are because they are empirical claims that could be adjudicated by appealing to real-world data. Has Zimmerman also spent the past 25 years attacking these “pseudoscientific claims”?

      There is a sky father who intercedes in the world

      The sky father is all powerful and benevolent as reflected by his actions in the world

      Jesus was born parthenogenetically

      Jesus was brought back from the dead

      Humans, unlike all other animals, have a soul, one that was instilled in the human lineage by God

      The soul comes into the human at fertilization

      Catholic saints performed many miracles, in which, through God, they performed healings and other feats not explainable by natural processes.

      We survive, in some form, after death, but in order to survive in a felicitous state, we must obey the dictates of faith (e.g., no unconfessed masturbation or contraception).

      Diseases are caused not by microorganisms or bodily misfunctions, but by imperfect faith.

      Does Dr. Zimmerman consider these propositions, so important in modern faith, not amenable to empirical or rational examination? I assert that there is not a shred of evidence for any of the claims above, that there could have been such evidence, and that its absence suggests that the claims are almost certainly untrue. I am not afraid to say this. I invite Dr. Zimmerman to weigh in as well. I doubt that he will for fear of losing the support of his clergy, but I’ll be mighty impressed if he does.

      The point is that the Clergy Letter Project, and the religious incursions of organizations like the National Center for Science Education, are limited to only a single empirical claim of faith: God created the plants and animals fairly recently, and they have remained unchanged over since. They attack this claim by enlisting the faithful, but to do that they must swallow every other form of pseudoscientific nonsense held by religion, including those above.

      What’s so bad about this?

      First, it is hypocritical. Creationist claims are a no-no, other miracle claims are fine. I doubt that you’ll see Zimmerman, or the NCSE, taking out after Christian Science.

      Second, it confuses people about the nature of science. By pretending that creationism can be examined scientifically but other assertions of faith cannot, it conveys the message that some forms of superstition are off limits to rational scrutiny. Catholics, for example—and Zimmerman’s letter is signed by some of these—are now told they can accept evolution, but they also get to keep their Church’s profoundly supernatural and anti-evolutionary idea that, at some point in the human lineage, God injected Homo (or was it Australopithecus?) with a soul. What, pray tell, is the evidence for that?

      Third, by attacking only the non-creationist parts of faith, and refusing to criticize others that are equally insupportable by reason and observation, Zimmerman’s brand of accomodationism leaves intact those particular superstitions that are socially destructive. These include assertions about our possession of souls (with impacts on abortion, assisted suicide, contraception and AIDS prevention), tacitly misogynous aspects of faith (think Catholic church), assertions about life after death (which many of the faithful use to torture their children and keep their congregations in line), and religiously-based claims about sex (which some of the faithful use to oppress gays and persecute single mothers).

      The other big problem with Zimmerman’s accommodationism, and that of the Letter Project, is that it promulgates the fiction that religion has unique and “timeless truths” to convey. This is palpable nonsense, for every religious “truth” that makes any sense, like “we’re better off by treating our neighbors well” is equally derivable from secular reason and secular morality. (Indeed, many of the “timeless truths” aren’t really truths, but moral strictures). The remainder of the religious truths contradict the timeless truths of other faiths, and therefore aren’t truths at all.

      Look again at the Christian letter:

      Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation.

      What, exactly, are those timeless truths? Is Jesus as Savior one of them? Is that a “timeless truth” for Jews? And what is the timeless truth about God conveyed in the Bible? Doesn’t that presuppose that God exists? What is the “timeless truth” about “the proper relationship between Creator and creation”? Are these truths shared by all faiths? Wouldn’t they have to be, if they’re timeless truths? Or are they only true for Christians?

      The fact that there aren’t timeless truths that transcend all faiths is attested by the fact that there is not one Clergy Letter, but three: one from Christians, one from Jews, and one from Unitarian Universalist Clergy. It’s interesting to compare the Jewish and Christian letters: the Jewish letter, for instance, says nothing about “truths”, Adam and Eve, Noah, and so on. (The Unitarian Universalists are back to the “timeless truths.”) If there are such truths from the Bible, why don’t all clergy sign on to them?

      Now I don’t have a huge beef with the idea of the Clergy Letter Project. The sentiments behind it are noble: let’s get real science taught to our kids. And it might even be helpful in a limited way, by letting the faithful know what the leaders of their church really think. But I question whether those faithful who oppose evolution will be deeply swayed by counter-assertions from their leaders. Evolution is simply too corrosive of morality and purpose, many think, to sit well with theistic religion.

      But regardless of its short-term efficacy, in the long run the tactic of cozying up to the faithful, opposing one superstition while refusing to criticize all the others, simply blurs the boundaries between science and faith. Opposition to evolution is only one—and a relatively minor one—of the destructive social effects that religion has had on America.

      And here’s a Clergy Letter I can really get behind:

      We, the undersigned clergy, accept that evolution occurred, and that it is wrong to prevent it from being taught in the public schools.

      1. It is beautifully said, and one thing that strikes me again and again, Jerry, is how clearly you express the most abstruse topics, and not only that is the sheer amount that you know, and the careful way you analyse it!

        I think the clergy letter project is just another example of how religion works, and how it poisons everything. You say something and think that you have dealt with it. Religion and science are compatible. So, sign a letter saying so. There, it’s done. We legitimate religion. Let’s move on. It doesn’t work like that. You really have to do a bit of work, but religion is simply not up to that part, because they know they have no way to deal with the problems. Let’s just fudge that, shall we? Now, isn’t it just wonderful how, though we are of course the product of evolutionary processes, God comes to our aid when we pray?

  14. What, for example, are the “timeless truths” of Noah or the Adam-and-Eve story? That all animal species went through a bottleneck of two individuals? That all humans were all born in a state of sin?

    You’ve got the message right on the Adam-and-Eve story, but you are way off-base on Noah’s story. Only a Creationist would think that the point of the story has anything to do with animal lineages.

    No no, True Christians(TM) realize that the moral of the story of Noah’s Ark is: “If you don’t sufficiently fellate God, he will Fuck You Up. And fuck your family up. And everyone you know. And everyone they know. And almost all of life on Earth, for that matter. Seriously, don’t cross God, he is a stone cold motherfucker.”

    That’s the message. You know, fearful subservience and all that. Duh! Can’t you grasp this timeless religious truth, which is of a different order than scientific truth?

    1. Love the imagery! But the truth of the story is worse than that. God will not only fuck you up, but he fails miserably at his purpose. His creation was so bad that he had to destroy it and begin again, but the new creation isn’t much different (so far as anyone can see) to the old. So, as Hume surmised, God is obviously a doddering old fool, who tries and tries, just like an old general who keeps doing the same stupid thing and getting his men killed, and, in the end, for all the suffering he causes, it’s still all wrong; it wasn’t worth it after all. And he is a stone-cold motherfucker, because, in the end, he doesn’t even say I’m sorry. And this, by the way, is what Christians mean by love.

  15. Personally, I sleep better with Dr. Zimmerman carefully chipping away at one edge of religion, smiling all the way, while Dr. Coyne assaults the rest. If Zimmerman can coax the “window” more towards the Deism end of things with his “accommodationism,” then the rest of the job is that much easier.

    His stance can’t buttress their faith — it’s already close-mindedly inviolate. So if he’s not strengthening their position, but rather shifting it, then good for him.

    Think of religion as one of Darwin’s Galapagos tortoises. Zimmerman lures its head a little bit out of its shell, so that Jerry can whack it with a hammer. Attacking the shell directly takes a lot longer.

    1. This would be valid if and only if accomodationism actually worked.
      But it does not.
      It is a form of lying for illusory short-term political gains.

      1. “But it does not.”

        Until the empirical data support that assertion, I’ll remain skeptical. I don’t know if it helps at all, when used in conjunction with a more frontal assault. I don’t know that it doesn’t, either.

        1. We have the data from at least 2300 years of experimentation.
          Is that not enough for you to indicate a failed strategy?

          1. I look at northwestern Europe, which seems rather a success compared to the U.S.

            In other words, over various times and places, the data are mixed enough that I don’t think we can isolate a statistically-signficant trend in either case.

            Simply throwing out data that don’t support one’s predetermined conclusion is a bit scientifically dishonest.

  16. Yeah, I predict crickets will be chirping to describe exactly what “timeless truths” Dr. Zimmerman feels are revealed in the bible.

    Unless it’s the observation that Yahweh in particular is somewhat of a bad-tempered prick.

  17. Re Coyne’s reply to Zimmerman, excellent counterpoints! The venue should be broadened, especially since we still haven’t got an explanation for why we should be “respecting the differences” or in Coyne’s words enable superstition and pseudoscience. A broader discussion could in principle help to tangle that elusive fish.

    What is offered is that “helping to take back religion from the extremists, is part of what The Clergy Letter Project is all about” and that this should take precedence. Besides that religious politics should in no way or form be a concern of scientists, it is outrageous to claim that religion should repress scientists concerned with pseudoscience and education.

    Which lead up to this:

    And here’s a Clergy Letter I can really get behind:

    We, the undersigned clergy, accept that evolution occurred, and that it is wrong to prevent it from being taught in the public schools.

    It is really that simple.

    However, it is easy to predict that it won’t happen. The lure, the compromise to be made must be political, because organized religion would never be interested in education on a purely moral basis. Apparently Zimmerman is on board with this.

    Therefore “a Clergy Letter” must gain the religious organizations: a) a lever against religious extremism, and b) other political and social benefits from making science, and scientists willing to accommodate, convenient props.

  18. “Well, it depends what you mean by religion.”

    This is the crux of the matter. I have enjoyed my exchanges with others here and learned more than I have informed. (Should I send money?)

    In a process I learned in my career as an engineer I tried to make sense of these disputes and have concluded, “It depends on one’s definitions.”

    Since my science education occurred in the sixties in and engineering school, it may have been limited and, if not, has lost currency in these past fifty years. Hoping to become current on terminology I bought a set of Oxford reference dictionaries–one each for science, biology, physics, chemistry, world religions and world mythology–with the aim of improving my understanding of the current science/religion scene so I might discern where the ongoing debate has merit and falls short.

    My first reading in each of the dictionaries was the definition of the main topic. I was not surprised that the one on World Religions provided a ten page essay on the variety of meanings ascribed to religion with many references to other scholar works. I knew that, but not the detail.

    Ironically, the Dictionary of Science offered no definition of science. Why? Is it intuitively obvious? Was it an oversight? Am I looking for a flaw, real or imaginary, in the ongoing debate? The other three science dictionaries had definitions of their subject so I guess this was an oversight.

    One of the fundamental problems in this investigation is that science has a simple, fairly well agreed definition, but religion does not.

    Further, while my definition of religion is broad–a meaning system by which to live–when I focus on Christianity, which seems to be the main thrust of the disputation on WEIT, I find a diversity of beliefs that astound. If public opinion and “common” usage as the defining terminology, then scientists must accept the general view that evolution is “just a theory” and Michael Behe must be included within the community of serious scientists, neither of which I accept, but still call myself a Christian, meaning simply that the teachings of Jesus inform my behavior. When Michael Ruse told me you can’t be a Christian and not believe in God, my response was, who says? Him? Sorry. Until the scientific community realizes that there is no central authority for Christianity, no checklist to determine whether one is a Christian, this conflict will continue unresolved. My question is whether the scientists involved in this debate are interested in working through the imprecise language of religion to understand the point of view of those who embrace science fully, as agreed by the scientific community, and still see religion–as they define it–as an essential in living a meaningful life.

    1. Well, at the risk of engaging in the no true Scotsman fallacy, I would say that it’s a pretty far stretch to call oneself a Christian and not believe in god.

      So Jesus was just a nice guy? And not the “son of god”? Who performed no miracles, including the pretty nifty trick of coming back from being gruesomely and publicly executed?

      If it’s just following his teachings that distinguishes you as a Christian, how does that differ from being a Buddhist, or a Taoist? Are you Buddhist, too?

      And since I “follow the teachings” as much as anyone, does that make ME a Christian? Even though I disavowed the entire thing decades ago (I deny the Holy Spirit).

      Seems to me a fundamental part of being a Christian is some sort of acknowledgment of the divine nature of the man. Not JUST an appreciation of his teachings. Which presupposes the existence of a god. In particular, the nasty prick Yahweh I mentioned upthread.

      After all, why “worship” just another good preacher? Should we set up a new religion for the veneration of Jerry Falwell? Or Rick Warren? If not them, why not Oprah? Or Dr. Phil?

      And, of course, WHICH teachings? “Pray in a closet”? “Hate your mother and father”? “No rich man will enter heaven” (at least not without a VERY large needle and a very small camel – or a camel-sized blender)? “Follow ALL of the law until everything is accomplished” – which can by no means be claimed to have occurred, since the Second Coming(TM) has not happened? Which would require, among other things, stoning adulterers and requiring rape victims to marry their assaulters?

      Frankly, I see nothing exceptional in the teachings that would lead me to follow them. Or to distinguish this “teacher” from any other Bronze Age ascetic.

      But, of course, you’re probably referring to the kumbaya, the meek shall inherit the earth (HA! where’s the evidence for THAT!) Jesus. Not the guy who allegedly killed a fig tree because it wouldn’t give him fruit out of season.

      And, of course, you probably presuppose that Jesus was actually a real human being. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, and no evidence in the affirmative. Although maybe not…can you be a Christian and acknowledge that Jesus is entirely a mythical construct (akin to Hercules, only without as many muscles)?

      1. “I would say that it’s a pretty far stretch to call oneself a Christian and not believe in god. ”

        Fair statement. As a scientist would you care to cite references for both Christian and God?

        There are more than three hundred registered Christian denominations in the USA. I have belonged to several churches of two of them and while I have found general agreement as to their credo–neither of them were creedal–I found no universal agreement among members within any of them, excepting those who say they agree, but have no idea why.

        Christianity began as a Jewish sect and was until the destruction of the Temple in 68 CE when Christianity, for reasons in dispute among Judeo-Christian historians, went its own way.

        Evidence suggests early Christianity was similar to Rabbinic Judaism in that it had no central authority and that the basis of Christian living was quite varied.

        This holds true today. There is no detailed definition of Christianity excepting in the mind of the definer. The only common characteristic is that the teachings of Jesus are central to it. If you read The Five Gospels by The Jesus Seminar you will find how uncertain even those teachings are. To say, “That means every Christian must figure it out for themselves.” is spot on.

    2. I guess the one timeless truth I learned from my childhood bible study was “Don’t go doing things to others that you wouldn’t want them doing to you.” I can believe in that and not believe in god. And I don’t think I needed all that the other gobbledegook just to learn that one timeless truth either.

    3. But the biblical ‘Jesus’ is almost certainly a fictional character.
      One may as well call themselves a “Sherlock Holmesian” in order to gain a meaningful life.

      1. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — drug habit aside, Holmes had some admirable qualities. I’m something of a “Robert Parker’s Spenserian,” and am all the happier for it.

  19. Since religions are philosophies combined with the old ways of explaining the world, those “timeless truths” are morals.
    For Adam and Eve, it’s probably “do not disobey your superiors”, “do not abuse your rights to gain more of them”, or something like that.

    Noah’s Ark, it’s most likely “listen to God when he tells you to get the crap outta there”.

    1. I prefer Aesop’s Fables.

      There is no way to tell a “message from god” from a “voice in one’s head”.

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