Fulsome accommodationism in the journal Nature

September 21, 2016 • 10:00 am

I don’t know what’s going on with Science and Nature—perhaps the two most prestigious science journals in the world—but both are increasingly catering, if not pandering, to religion. Science and its sponsoring organization the AAAS have a program, funded by Templeton, to increase dialogue between science and religion, and the AAAS has faith-themed events at its annual meeting. Nature publishges editorials and pieces speaking positively about religion, claiming that science and religion both depend on “faith”, and arguing that science and religion are compatible (see here and here, for example).

Now Nature has jumped the shark even farther with a new article by Kathryn Prichard, who works for the Church of England, called “Religion and science can have a true dialogue.” This short piece is still too long, for Prichard simply claims that science and religion can have a fruitful dialogue because religious people are avid followers of—indeed, are hungering for—science. This, she argues, should lead to useful discourse between the two areas, discourse too often stymied by popular misconceptions that science and religion are in conflict.

But her article is one of those well-meaning bowls of mush that hasn’t been properly digested, and Prichard tries to veil the very profound conflict between religion and science with a rain of sweet words.

My counterarguments to her pap are these:

Science and religion are in conflict.  I lay out the reasons in Faith Versus Fact. Suffice it to say here that both areas endeavor to find truths about the Universe, but only science has a way of verifying its truths. The “truths” of religion—about the existence of God, the afterlife, saviors and prophets, the nature of God, His moral code and so on—differ among faiths, and none can be verified empirically. In other words, scientific claims are made on the basis of observational and experimental evidence that is widely agreed on (and makes testable predictions), while religious claims are made on the basis of revelation, dogma, scripture, and authority. Only one of these epistemological methods is reliable.

Prichard claims that the conflict simply doesn’t exist, it’s a misleading “popular narrative of science-faith conflict that pervades contemporary culture.” She also argues that this false argument is used to dismiss the ethical concerns of religious scientists:

Too often, this simplistic claimed tension is used in the media, for instance, to pigeonhole ethical arguments from (even highly scientifically literate) religious figures as being relevant only to those ‘of faith’, rather than expressing a broader concern for human welfare. This biases the way that their engagement filters into public consciousness.

Her unwillingness to give examples of anything (and her tedious prose) makes this a bit hard to parse, but I’m not aware of secular ethical arguments being dismissed simply because a scientist is religious. Plenty of religious scientists are pro-conservation and anti-global warming, and I’ve never seen anybody say, “Well, we can dismiss her arguments because she’s a faithhead.” On the other hand, when some religious scientists argue, as does Francis Collins, that human morality, lacking an evolutionary explanation, much have been vouchsafed us by God (shades of C. S. Lewis!), we can dismiss their arguments out of hand because they involve a deity for which there’s no evidence.

Finally, Prichard hints that the historical conflicts between churches and science are overblown. This is a common theme of accommodationist historians like Ronald Numbers, who say that the Galileo affair, as well as creationism, have nothing to do with religion. In fact, in this way the accommodationists are of a piece with those who claim that terrorism has nothing to do with religion. It’s always politics, personal frustration, colonization, and so on. To argue that creationism is not a huge instantiation of the different “ways of knowing” of science versus faith is to brand yourself as an ideologically blinkered zealot. And the motivation of both groups is the same: to show that religion can’t inspire anything bad.

A “constructive” dialogue between science and religion can go only one way: science tells religion what’s true, and religion has to deal with it. Although Prichard claims that fruitful two-way dialogue is possible (“Our projects express the conviction that science and theology — at the church, cathedral and local-community level — can illuminate one another to the benefit of all. We will report on the results”), she only gives us ways that science can help theology. For example:

Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common. Yet in this enjoyable, high-energy context [a meeting of the Archbishops’ Council of the CoE related to science], there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses? Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny? The event was transformative in ways that none of us — the cosmologists included — could fully articulate.

Well let the faithful masticate these metaphysical questions until their teeth are worn down, for they won’t find any answers. But scientists have even less to gain—in fact nothing—from theology. Ours is an atheistic, naturalistic discipline, one that needs no input from religion. As Laplace is supposed to have said about God, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”

At the end, Prichard describes some projects intended to educate the faithful about science, like a “Scientists in Congregations” project that brings science and its practitioners into Christian churches to educate believers. That’s fine with me: the more science the better, and maybe a few people might even give up their superstitions. But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Let us not come with any patronizing nonsense that science has something to gain when believers discuss their faith with scientists. Science has not left that open to us. That is not the way it works.”

The asymmetry between science and religion—science can force religion to change its theology, while religion can have no effect on science—is, I think, known to most believers. And it infuriates them. It shows the epistemological inferiority of religion and the vapidity of religious belief. To deal with this cognitive dissonance, people like Prichard pretend that their faith has something to contribute to science, so that the areas are not only not in conflict, but mutually supportive.

That, of course, is hogwash. But it pains me to see the hog being bathed in the pages of Nature.


h/t: Cameron

54 thoughts on “Fulsome accommodationism in the journal Nature

  1. “A “constructive” dialogue between science and religion can go only one way: science tells religion what’s true, and religion has to deal with it” > I like that. A lot. I may *borrow* it…

  2. Too often [she says], this simplistic claimed tension is used in the media, for instance, to pigeonhole ethical arguments from (even highly scientifically literate) religious figures as being relevant only to those ‘of faith’, rather than expressing a broader concern for human welfare.

    Like you, Jerry, I’m frustrated by a lack of examples, because the ones I can think about point in the opposite direction. I see pro-choice atheists arguing that better sex education and access to birth control will lower the abortion rate, and that they agree this is a good thing. They don’t reject the argument that lower abortion rates are a public good simply because it’s coming from a religious person or religious motivation.

    What I see in the community is that scientists give credit for any ethical argument that has a good solid basis in public health or broader, non-sectarian ethics, regardless of the religion of the person making the argument. Where atheists are going to pigeonhole ethical arguments as ‘merely faithy’ is when the argument rests not on public welfare, but on the notion of humans having a soul. That is rightfully identified as a sectarian religious belief, and as such, it should not be an ethical principle that we use for the foundation of regulation in a religiously pluralistic country.

    in this way the accommodationists are of a piece with those who claim that terrorism has nothing to do with religion. It’s always politics, personal frustration, colonization, and so on

    Frankly, if they can find a way to reduce creationism by changing the culture or politics of fundamentalists rather than their religious beliefs, I’m all for it. We even know what that end-state looks like: religious people who espouse a secular public school system. There are already loads of them. Likewise, I’m fine with a solution to Islamic radicalization that results in the currently-violent radicals remaining Muslim but turning away from violence (again, there are loads of non-violent Muslims; its a perfectly viable end-state).

    But I also think this is not a zero sum game. Accommodationist secularization and non-accommodationist deconversion strategies can operate in parallel. There is no sense in the former trying to get the latter to stop; both deconversion and secularization make the world a bit more rational, a bit more peaceful.

  3. Next up – Nature does a series detailing the different heirarchies of angels.

    Once you allow faithists to take over that’s how it goes.

    1. Hi John, I think you are the same John Gribbin who wrote Science, A History 1534-2001.

      I really enjoyed that book, so did my (non-scientific) Mom. Thanks very much.

  4. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses?

    Aztec cosmology can already handle that: there are thirteen heavens and nine levels of reality on the Earth.

    It takes an American religion to show the way.

    1. Some Muslims claim that so does their religion.

      “…It must be stressed that most Muslim scholars and Quran commentators have shown little or no objection to the existence of other worlds in the cosmos. On this they rely on several verses that appear to make this argument rather clearly. A few examples will make the case: “He who created the seven heavens and of the earth a similar number…” (Quran 65:12), where it is often remarked that “seven” in ancient Arabic (and in the Quran) usually translates as “many”; “Then praise be to Allah, Lord of the heavens and Lord of the earth, the Lord of the Worlds.” (45:36), which is reminiscent of the very first verses of the Quran: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds…” (1:1-2). Indeed, the great philosopher-theologian Al-Razi (9 – 10thth c. AD) starts his 20+ volume commentary on the Quran with a paragraph expounding his views that this very first verse implies the existence of living creatures in the heavens…”

      Jamal Mimouni1 & Nidhal Guessoum2

      1Physics Dept., Constantine1 University, Constantine, Algeria

      2Physics Dept., American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates


      1. So Maya, are you saying that Arabic, before it got Hindu numbers, went 1,2,3,4,5,6,many.

        Or was it already 0,,2,3,4,5,6,many?

        1. I guess, the former :-). But the authors must know better. They are physicists, with PhDs and lists of publications (I guess), one of them working for the American University of Sharia, whatever this means.

          But at least, they are Arab Muslims, this is their culture. If you want to see something that will knock you down, read about the Canadian Dr. Keith Moore and how he sold himself to the Saudis and put Islamic additions to his embryology textbook:


  5. Towards the end, she gives away the game:

    Although these projects have an educational slant, I believe their main purpose is to incrementally inform the science–religion climate in this country and to give a higher profile to science in the church.

    Now, I am all for giving science a higher profile in the church. But Ms. Pritchard, do you realize what you just said?

  6. It’s annoying to see this kind of nonsense in the pages of Nature, I agree. Someone should write submit an article to Nature challenging it. Preferably, the writer should be someone who can address the issue with some authority from the science side, having studied the conflict between science and religion, and written a substantial book on the subject. Also, someone who can write good clear prose.

    Do we know anyone who fits that bill, folks?

    1. My guess is, PCC’s response (if any) would have only a small chance of being published…because it would be competing for space with the responses from Dawkins, Krauss, and probably several others. 🙂

      real question is whether Nature will find the room to publish Jerry’s response with

        1. That has been my biggest pet peeve since the “new atheists” fired their first broadside: all those National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society members who remain in the closet in the face of clear and present bullshit – religion whose insistence on imposing falsehoods as truth is a scourge on humanity. Something they must all know, clearly see and understand yet won’t speak up about out of political correctness and fear of appearing strident or “offensive”.

  7. That is one cute little pig. If I had not seen that picture I would have burst my veins in disgust with Nature for pandering to Kathryn Prichard. Coddling does not begin to define what Prichard’s column invokes.

  8. “Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny?”

    Of all the directions the Universe might be heading — big rip, big crunch, heat-death, what have you — aint’ a one of ’em suggests the Universe gives a good goddamn about human destiny.

  9. For those who missed it last time, and for what it is worth, Numbers’ viewpoint about Galileo is not shared by the relevant articles in the _Cambridge Companion to Galileo_, or by the latest biography (_Galileo: Watcher of the Skies_)

    (It is also not shared by me, but I am just an interested amateur, needless to say.)

  10. I don’t know what’s going on with Science and Nature

    I think I have an idea.

    The two have become a combination of for-profit entities and deeply entrenched establishment institutions.

    This means that any rocking the boat has to be avoided and that the agenda of the people who run them does not feature such things as the quest for objective truth about the surrounding worlds wherever it might lead us.

    Religion is not the only such issue, just take a look at the level of the coverage of environmental and resource issues.

    The environmental situation is first, absolutely dire, and second, one that cannot be adequately addressed within the framework of the current sociopolitical ideology, because a fundamental pillar of that ideology is infinite economic growth, i.e. the very thing that is behind the sustainability crisis.

    You will not see an open and frank discussion of the situation on the pages of Nature and Science, they are only marginally better on the topic than the WSJ and The Economist.

    Why is that? Well, for the same reasons that religion cannot be criticized.

    They are simply not in the business of supporting science and telling the truth.

    1. I can understand why they prefer not to rock the boat by telling the truth about religion, but it is more difficult to understand why they insist on telling lies. Why not just keep silent about religion, as if it doesn’t exist? There are plenty of other things worth publishing.

      1. The view that religion and science and incompatible is not mainstream.

        That is not the impression one would get reading the literature on the subject — for every militant atheist publication out there there are probably 10 accommodationist ones, plus theistic ones bashing atheism, etc.

        Also, there are a number of journals (in philosophy, public understanding of science, etc, fields) where one can publish theistic or accommodationist articles.

        The militant atheists tend to be working scientists who, first, have better things to do with their time, and second, there can be no journal of militant atheism because there wouldn’t be much to say there.

        So if an uninformed person is reading the literature on the subject, he can easily get the impression that there is a vast organized attack on religion, simply because of the overwhelming volume of publications defending it from such attacks.

        In reality, that attack consists of a few scattered academics here and there, whose mission was dealt a major blow by the split in the community caused by the SJWs, i.e they are hardly a major force, and they hardly constitute the “mainstream”.

        The actual mainstream position is to defend religion.

        And that’s what you get from Science and Nature

  11. I am not surprised when the Science publishes such gibberish. It is an American journal, America has a high proportion of believers for a Western country, and you cannot completely isolate yourself from your physical surroundings. But the Nature is a British journal, firmly rooted in secular Europe. So I do not know what to think about it.

    Anyway, from now on, I have a ready rebuttal if someone tries to shame me for having never published in the above two journals: the journals where I publish may be obscure and their impact factors may be low to zero, but at least they do not publish accommodationist crap!

    1. But the Nature is a British journal, firmly rooted in secular Europe.

      Science is published by the AAAS. Which is at least nominally a non-profit. And it’s accommodationism is the result of the first letter “A” in its name, as you correctly point out.

      Nature, on the other hand, is a purely commercial entity out to make a profit. Its behavior has to be understood in that context.

      1. Science is published by the AAAS. Which is at least nominally a non-profit

        Moreover, science PhDs in the US are predominantly nones, so to me its a bit of a head-scratcher why the leading science PhD organization goes out of its way to be compatibilist.

        I think it has mostly to do with accommodationism being perceived as good PR for science overall. The organization is not just about supporting science, its about promoting science to others, and accommodationism is a way they see to promote science to religious believers who might otherwise have nothing to do with it.

        Very much like NCSE. And the same criticism applies to both: the set of [religious believers] and [don’t currently accept mainstream science] and [but not Ken-Ham-fanatic] is pretty small.

        My outside guess is the only people such efforts ever really convince are teens who are growing up in religious households and who have accepted fundamentalism more out of habit and lack of information on other ideas than true fanaticism. To them, the concept “you can believe in God while not accepting all this other stuff” might be an eye-opener.

        1. Science research funding is subject to political influence. So the high number of atheists in the science community is something that gets obscured by outfits like AAAS or NCSE.

          I wish it were not so.

  12. “… (even highly scientifically literate) religious figures …”

    Yeah, “her tedious prose,” all right. It’s what happens, you do stuff like pile three adverbs and an adjective into a parenthetical and plow it into another adjective before getting to your lazy noun, with nary a person, place, or thing, or even a concrete idea, anywhere in sight.

  13. What might one do about the problem with Science and Nature? What I would like to see is some prominent scientists publish letters in the editorial section of these journals, calling them out on the vice that they have been toying with. Perhaps this can be a joint letter signed by a number of prominent people.

  14. Her choice of the ‘ethics’ argument is a sleight of hand. By and large, ethics is not a scientific question. Science can inform ethical decisions, but (as the trolley car problems show) ethics relies on deep seated emotional ( instinctive?) senses.

    Science can define the stages of human development, but cannot tell us when abortion becomes essentially infanticide. At that point, humans can only resort to gut feelings, or arbitrary definitions. There is no scientific rule that can say one thing is permissible but another is not.

  15. Maybe auntie Kathryn should read “Faith vs. Fact”? She obviously hasn’t.
    Not having read that is like not having done your homework in this subject, methinks.

  16. When still a student Nature was one of my favourite journals. One could read it for free in the library. After my studies
    I thought of taking a subscription, but I could not really afford it. So the last decades I haven’read it .
    However in the late eighties I remember a debate in Nature about ‘why religion’?.
    Sadly I can’t remember all the details, but at the core was ‘innate tendency’ caused by evolution of a social animal vs. the ‘realisation of inevitable death’ by a sentient animal.
    Nowhere in that discussion religion was considered as ‘real’, as other than what Dawkins later coined ‘a Delusion’. Not mentioned, but like going without saying.
    It appears times have changed.

    1. Well, its possible to be both accommodationist and atheist. That just takes the belief that ‘that other guy’s wrong belief is compatible with science.’ So there’s nothing logically inconsistent about publishing articles describing the social origins of religion with publishing articles about how those religions are or are not compatible with the results and methods of modern science.

  17. there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny.

    How will that work? The scientists will give a very general overview of human evolution and the theologians will mention Adam and Eve?
    And why do they even need theologians? An anthropologist couldnt possibly explain all they know about human origins in 50 such meetings, but anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the Bible could summarize the religious “understanding” in 5 minutes

    1. Here’s a challenge: develop a talk that ties together the big questions about oranges, porpoise, and density and is more amusing than the one given. 🙂

  18. I’m a bit curious about what Francis Collins thinks about the obvious signs of a rudimentary sense of fair play and justice among both dogs and apes.

    And what does the Vatican with its claim of an ontological leap between humans and animals do with the enormous vocabulary of dogs (re listening not speaking) and a limited tool-making ability among apes.

    Not to mention all the evidence that the mind and the body are deeply interwoven. I wonder if Pope JP2 ever read Antonio D’Amasio’s book “Descartes’ Error”?

    “I don’t know what’s going on with Science and Nature—”

    ” Science and its sponsoring organization the AAAS have a program, funded by Templeton”

  20. “to paraphrase C. S. Lewis”

    That’s not a paraphrase, it’s hijacking his phrases for a totally different end.

  21. The article by Kathryn Prichard shows how one sided the interaction is. It shows the Church of England accepting science wholesale, without anything to contribute to it and without any dialogue. It clearly shows science has won.

  22. Pritchard talks about “the conviction that science and theology … can illuminate one another to the benefit of all” and promises to “report on the results”, but, as enjoyable as it might be to reconcile interpretations of quantum mechanics with the stories of Christianity (or Scientology, or Harry Potter), I highly doubt the cosmologists are awaiting the outcome with bated breath.

    I’ve written a full critique here.

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