Readers’ comments on Nature’s accommodationist piece

October 19, 2016 • 10:00 am

On September 20, the prestigious science journal Nature published an article by Kathryn Pritchard, “Religion and science can have a true dialogue“, which I found not only lame, but inappropriate for a science journal (see my post here). Pritchard is identified as someone who “works with the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops’ Council in London and with St John’s College, Durham”; and she was touting a “Science in Congregations” program in which scientists went into churches to educate the faithful about science. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Pritchard also called for the a respectful and mutually fruitful dialogue between science and religion:

Despite what the popular narrative might have scientists believe, there is a genuine hunger in the church to address the questions that contemporary research asks of religious belief. 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.

As I’ve always maintained, what is touted as a fruitful dialogue is really a fruitful monologue: science tells religion what is true about the universe, and religion either rejects those truths or modifies its theology in their light. In contrast, religion has nothing to contribute to science.

Pritchard also neglected to mention that the “Science in Congregations” program is funded by a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In effect, then, Nature was advertising a Templeton project.

I wrote to Nature asking to write a counter-editorial (ca. 900 words—the length of Pritchard’s piece) detailing the incompatibility between science and religion. That idea was rejected, and they urged me to write a shorter response of about 300 words, which they’d consider as a “Correspondence” piece responding to Pritchard.  I did that, but that piece, which I’ve put below, was also rejected with the suggestion that I add it as a “comment” below Pritchard’s piece.

I’ve now done that, and you can see all 55 comments, both laudatory and critical, on the page with Pritchard’s original piece. There are two that I want to highlight: mine and Alan Sokal’s, both rejected by Nature. (Recall that Sokal, a physicist, perpetrated a very famous hoax on a postmodern journal.) Our comments and letters are very similar:

__________________

Like Dr. Sokal, I sent a letter to Nature that the editors decided not to publish:

In her essay on religion and science (see Nature 527:451; 2016), Kathryn Pritchard promotes a “true dialogue” between these areas, arguing that they are not, as often believed, in conflict. Her examples of dialogue include outreach projects in which scientists visit churches to talk about their research. This kind of interaction, says Prichard, helps the faithful answer questions about “human origins, purpose, and destiny,” and helps science and theology to “illuminate one another to the benefit of all.”

Yet despite Pritchard’s insistence that the relationship between science and religion is harmonious, the two remain at odds in important ways. For example, 43% of Americans are young-earth creationists. Belief in a literal Adam and Eve is also common, though the idea is clearly nonsensical from a genetic perspective.

Both science and religion make claims about the Universe, and sometimes those claims conflict.  Confronted with such a conflict, whose claim do we accept?  Scientific claims are both reliable and testable – our species arose through a gradual process of differentiation within the great apes, as revealed by genetic and paleontological study—while religious “truths” are unevidenced and, crucially, differ among faiths. (J. A. Coyne, 2015, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible; Viking/Penguin 2015). According to Abrahamic tradition, for example, we are descended from Adam and Eve, with Adam created in the image of God, while many Hindus believe that males and females arose de novo from a god that split into two parts.

The “true dialogue” espoused by Prichard is impossible. Rather, we have a monologue in which science reveals features of the Universe, and liberal religions must evolve to accommodate these findings. In contrast, religion cannot usefully inform the practice of science, for science succeeds only when ignoring the supernatural. As Laplace supposedly replied when Napoleon asked him where God was in Laplace’s great work Méchanique Céleste, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

Jerry Coyne
The University of Chicago, Illinois, USA

_________________

Here is the Letter that I sent to Nature, which the editors decided not to publish:

To the Editor:

Kathryn Pritchard’s irenic call for a “true dialogue” between religion and science (Nature 537, 451; 2016) artfully evades the central issues that have divided the Church(es) from the scientific community for more than four centuries.

If all Pritchard seeks is “to give a higher profile to science” within her own Church of England, more power to her; no scientist will object. And if she wants to prod her fellow Christians to grapple with possible challenges to their belief posed by the discoveries of modern science, that is purely an internal church matter.

But her assertion that “science and theology … can illuminate one another to the benefit of all” is unsupported by any argumentation, and constitutes in fact a serious danger to the practice of science. Pace Pritchard, there is a unbridgeable methodological and epistemological gulf between science and religion: namely, science is founded on the rational evaluation of publicly available evidence and the search for purely naturalistic explanations, while religion goes beyond this to invoke the authority of purportedly sacred texts (even if those texts must sometimes be interpreted figuratively) and divine revelation.

My apologies for being a party-pooper, but science has nothing to learn from theology.

Alan Sokal
Professor of Physics, New York University
and
Professor of Mathematics, University College London

_____________________

I love Sokal’s last line about being a party-pooper!

But not all the letters are as critical of Pritchard’s stance. When I sent the link to a science friend, who read all the responses to Pritchard’s article, I got this response (redacted for family viewing):

“But f*ck me, the quality of the thought in most of those comments makes the folk who go on the Guardian website when there’s an article about climate change look like Einstein.”

I’ll put up but one of those letters (I’ve refuted the premise of “science is based on faith” in a Slate article).

________________________

It seems to me that scientists have faith. They have to, otherwise they wouldn’t even bother looking for a cure for cancer, or peering into the stars for the unseen.
And religionists benefit from discoveries made through science on a daily basis. You can believe I appreciate travel by airplane rather than covered wagon or boat, all of which function according to laws supported by science.

Both science and religion have a track record of blunders and harmfulness, only because its human beings at the helm. We just aren’t that smart and science and religion in and of themselves have no power. But most of us are trying, trying to improve and learn and get those pesky questions that plague us answered. Why not do it with respect toward one another? Kudos to the author for attending a science conference if she previously had believed she couldn’t.

We are all different and not everyone is cut out to be a scientist or religionist.

The conflict isn’t between science and religion, but between human beings who think they know everything.

__________________________

What’s the upshot? It’s that Nature has published a long op-ed extolling the comity between science and religion, but won’t publish an op-ed of equal prominence denying that comity. By this action, they are taking an editorial stand in favor of religion and religious accommodation with science. Further, that op-ed is a thinly disguised ad for a project sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Finally, one has to ask why Nature published Pritchard’s piece in the first place. What is an article about the supposed harmony between science and religion doing in a science journal? If they must publish tripe like Pritchard’s editorial, the least they can do is to give equal space to the many scientists—perhaps most of us—who feel that religion and theology have nothing to contribute to science.

I’m frankly surprised that Nature, which comes out of secular Britain, is so soft on religion. But that seems to have been true for a while. All I can say is that by publishing Pritchard’s article but relegating the counterargument to mere comments, Nature‘s editors are practicing lousy science journalism—and giving credence to fairy tales.

 

39 thoughts on “Readers’ comments on Nature’s accommodationist piece

  1. I’ve learned over the years that writing to Nature to tell them they have published absolute nonsense in their editorial and opinion pages is quite hopeless. You always get the “Post a comment under the article online” reply, as if that has any meaning…

  2. “The conflict isn’t between science and religion, but between human beings who think they know everything.”

    Haha that’s funny because I thought religious people claim to ALREADY have the answers to the universe through their faith and that all the other faiths are wrong! Kind of f*cking ironic don’t you think?

  3. Science and religion “can illuminate one another to the benefit of all”. What road map does religion have that does not, that cannot lead to God as an answer?

    If there is any answer to the way existence is it is always science, otherwise it is something we do not know, relegated to God by the faithful.

    Accommodationists, let me, it would help us all if you just learned to say, “I do not know”.

  4. I’m alm for scrapping the word ‘faith’: it blurs the distinction between ‘trust’ and ‘belief’.

    When faithists declare their faith in god they are declaring a trust in the benevolence of god: the actual existence of god is simply taken for granted.

    When we talk of ‘faith’ in science we mean confidence in an epistemology with a proven track record. There’s no assumption about the benevolence of the phenomena science describes. It is a basic tenet of science that the universe is indifferent to us.

    1. Faith is marred too much by religion. Of course, it should have the capacity to be used for epistemological circumstances describing physical phenomena, but it is so hijacked now that it is misleading to use.

      Faith is now a pejorative to reason.

    2. Religion, science, and philosophy all seek explanations and have theories about the world. These theories, what counts as knowledge, are conjectures – basically guesses.

      It is the tradition of criticism that took hold in the Enlightenment that really matters. Science and philosophy embrace this at their core. Knowledge cannot be justified, there is no supreme authority to vouchsafe truth – only conjecture alternating with criticism. When criticism topples some theory, it must be modified or abandoned. The more criticism a theory withstands, the surer we can be of its truth.

    3. exactly -whereas science depends on empirical testing and is always open to refinement or even abandonment of theories in favour of ones that better fit evidence and explain things better (I would not agree philosophy admits of testing because much of it relies on a priori first premises and none of it is empirically tested or even tested on a basis of assessment of likelihood). This is not to say science can explain everything – I think there is an infinite amount to know and human behaviour is so unpredictable and societies so complex that value systems have some place. However traditional religion has in addition to moral premises both bad and good, a completely unscientific view of the natural world. Sometimes it may influence a moral argument which is not a science argument, or even some applications or potential applications of science. It should not be allowed to influence natural science. Its dodgy moral arguments should be challenged on rational grounds of what is and is not desirable for people.

  5. Scientists have faith the world in knowable because it has shown itself to be over centuries of study. Scientists have faith that they can do things like cure cancer, because study and experimentation have worked over the years in curing other diseases. What scientists really have is faith in Man. Looking at it that way, I would argue that theists don’t have faith.

    1. Religious people often use the term faith to mean compassion. “Person of faith”, to many, connotes being a good person – a compassionate individual. So, not much imagination is required to figure out what they think of those without faith.

      1. Really? That makes sense only if “compassion” is strained through doctrinal lens to mean “agreeing with my sectarian view of caring about others”. Or, simply “agreeing with my sectarian views..” As in “Mother Teresa was exceptional in her oompassion..”

        If compassion and faith are conflated, actual empathy goes out the door.

        1. Well, perhaps, but for the individuals I have in mind they do not think faith and compassion need any dogma or philosophical underpinnings. From what I can see, they simply enjoy the comfort of a close nit social group. They respond emotionally to their immediate surrounding. They don’t necessarily worry about relating these feelings to any complex reasoning process. Furthermore I doubt they give much thought to any logical inconsistencies about their religion when such are pointed out to them.

    2. Really? I thought any view with them on top like a super alien was by default all about them and total faith in themselves! There is such a thing as monomeism and then there is monotheism. Religion tends to say its monotheism as it describes it in mono-me-ism ways. So a mono-me-ist religious fanatic is co equal to a mono-me-ist atheist the agree starting with ME they just disagree which me is correct.

  6. Such a disappointing result from Nature. When even sound evidence and clear reasoning does not cause at least, some publishing of the argument, what is left to say? They are bound to claim compatibility where it does not exist.

  7. “But most of us are trying, trying to improve and learn and get those pesky questions that plague us answered. Why not do it with respect toward one another?”

    As long as the term respect is falsely promulgated as an accusation against people instead of ideas, those pesky questions will most certainly be accompanied by a resurgence of the plague.

  8. Perhaps the sabateurs can be beaten at their own game. I propose that Nature launch a new periodical called “Nature: Quantitative and Experimental Phophecy and Revelation.” Suggestions for a snappier title accepted.

  9. Apropos of Sokal – good to see he’s still got it – his book _Beyond the Hoax_ has a great analysis of religion as a *pseudoscience*, in case anyone wants to follow up.

  10. Why not do it with respect toward one another?

    Respecting *you* is quite different from giving credence to your belief. If someone says “I believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden,” I respect that person by replying with a calm and relaxed “oh really? Why?” (rather than laughing at them). But respecting them does not require that I give serious thought to whether there are fairies at the bottom of their garden.

    The conflict isn’t between science and religion, but between human beings who think they know everything.

    The conflict is between science and religion as methods for understanding the world. Both sides have arrogant people in them. Both sides have humble people in them. But being more humble is not going to change the fact that one method says “give heavy weight to an authoritative text and introspection” while the other says “don’t give any weight to authoritative texts and introspection, give weight to reproducible observations instead.”

  11. It may be true that ethical philosophers, both secular like John Stuart Mill and even some religious ethicists have something useful to say about the ethical application of technology, but I’d say no more than that.

    Pritchard may have this in mind when she talks about “important public discussions on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to medical ethics”.

    Thus if religious scientists want to chime in on the ethical usage and/or conduct of science, fine.

    But Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation amply shows that also here that track record of churches isn’t the best (I would expect Pritchard’s Church of England to do better), and there isn’t any reason for scientists to prefer religious ethical thinkers over secular ones.

    The modern Christian writer on ethics who seems to be highly admired by many atheists is Reinhold Neibuhr, but I don’t think I would heed Leon Kass on such issues.

  12. Good comment, but I have one minor quibble about the line “science succeeds only when ignoring the supernatural”. Some religious people will read this as support for their claims that science DELIBERATELY ignores the supernatural, which makes us seem close-minded. Or it could be interpreted to mean that science does not deal with the supernatural by definition, leading to NOMA. But as Jerry has often written here, we don’t deliberately ignore the supernatural, we just don’t see that it helps explain anything. It COULD HAVE, but in this world it does not. We don’t reject it by definition, we reject it by testing and observation.

  13. Nature publishing Kathryne’s piece is very ok with me, what is not ok *at all* is that they didn’t publish Jerry’s and Alan’s rebuttals. Not only depriving their readers, but also
    totally against the spirit of the Journal as I knew it a few decades ago.
    Shame, shame, shame, shame on Nature.

  14. Has the magazine, Nature, taken the tack that some cable TV channels (Discovery, History, & The Learning Channel for example) have taken? They’re no longer sources of credible information because their programming is often nonsense (ghosts, Bigfoot, Toddlers & Tiaras).

    1. Nature is a soulless corporate entity whose primary motivation is profit maximization.

      They maintain scientific rigor to the extent that it is necessary for achieving that goal. But not more than that.

      This is how such nonsense makes it way to the editorial and opinion pages, and it is also why it will not give a platform to voices that are openly confrontational with religion (that sort of controversy is not seen as good for the bottom line).

      Science, on the other hand, is not a soulless corporate entity (although it behaves like one when it comes to paywalls and open access), but it is run by the AAAS, which apparently lives in mortal fear of offending the religious. So you won’t see anything non-acommodationist there either.

      Thus the two top science journals have largely abandoned defending science as part of their mission.

  15. In general, the laws of nature are pretty well understood, unlike the plethora of religious beliefs, we do not have alternative “laws” and I think this is what annoys the religious, who when it suits them, demand that natures’ laws be arbitrary.The consequence being the farcical idea that true believers can fly, walk on water, raise the dead, heal from a distance, talk to an invisible superbeing etc.

    1. This is the metaphysical incompatibility that leads to the epistemological one, etc.

      Someone who really thinks miracles are possible *cannot* do science (or even craft or technology) without compartmentalizing.

  16. I have a suspicion that over the last couple of decades or so more and more ‘science articles’ are being written by humanities trained people, and as a consequence the ‘science content’ has dropped and the ‘opinions about science’ has increased. Opinions are easy, well written opinions rather more difficult, but not as exacting as proper science articles where you can’t just make stuff up.

    I fell out with the New Scientist (“Darwin Was Wrong”) over just this move into more gossip and less science.

  17. “It seems to me that scientists have faith. They have to, otherwise they wouldn’t even bother looking for a cure for cancer, or peering into the stars for the unseen.”

    This is idiocy and the desperation of the theist for anything to keep their nonsense viable.

    It’s also notable that science rarely, if every, comes crawling to theology to validate itself.

  18. Its really disturbing to see a first rate science journal like Nature openly pandering to the ignorant, allowing no counter article and even batting away expert comment. Including such an article is completely inappropriate -at least appearing without a counter article. An article that invites such comments is an excruciating embarrassment. The editors have derogated from their responsibility to science in favour of political power. In this era of competing fundamentalisms its a disgrace.

  19. Oh you’re just “believing … the popular narrative.” And atheism is just “fashionable”. Nothing to see here. You are getting sleepy.

    (~~~ fingers transmit supernatural religion waves to your brain~~~)

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