Accommodationism at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

May 24, 2018 • 10:30 am

I thought that, by and large, Aussies were nonreligious, though I’m aware of the hold that the church has on certain Australian states. I’m also aware that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the national public television network—an organ of the government. And its website has just published a pretty dire piece—in its “Science” section, of all places—showing how scientists can reconcile religion and science, and using three scientists as examples.  If there’s any freedom of the press at the ABC, perhaps they can put up an article showing the much larger number of scientists (especially accomplished ones) who don’t reconcile religion and science.

Here’s the article, by Anna Salleh, published yesterday (click on screenshot):

The article makes two familiar arguments for the compatibility of science and religion:

1.) Many famous scientists were religious:

Some argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist — but do they realise the father of the Big Bang theory was actually a Catholic priest, the pioneer of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk, or the decoder of the human genome converted from atheism to Christianity in his 20s?

Yes, we are talking here about George Lemaitre (a priest), Gregor Mendel (a monk), and Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health.  We can discount much of this argument for scientists who lived before 1900, since before that nearly everyone was religious, or if they didn’t believe they kept mum about it.

And yes, there’s no doubt that some famous scientists, even today, accept superstition. But that’s an argument not for compatibility, but for compartmentalization. If you don’t believe me, take a deep breath and read Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  The “evidence” consists of his wish-thinking, his viewing of three frozen waterfalls, a feeling that came over him at evensong, the solace that some believers got while dying, and (Ceiling Cat help him), a “deep” reading of C. S. Lewis. If you’re going to say that religion and science are compatible because some scientists are religious, then add that religion and arrant immorality are also compatible because many Catholic priests raped children.

2.) Even today, a lot of scientists are religious. 

Scientists these days may be less religious than the average person, but just over half of scientists surveyed in 2009 said they believed in some sort of deity or higher power.

The interesting thing here, which the ABC conspicuously omits, is that scientists are a lot less religious (in both the US and UK) than are non-scientists. Now why would that be? Here is the comparison from the link, a comparison the ABC doesn’t mention:

And here’s the comparison discussed in my book Faith versus Fact:

Finally, if religion and science get along so well, why are so many scientists nonbelievers? The difference in religiosity between the American public and American scientists is profound, persistent, and well documented. Further, the more accomplished the scientist, the greater the likelihood that he or she is a nonbeliever. Surveying American scientists as a whole, Pew Research showed that 33 percent admitted belief in God, while 41 percent were atheists (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or higher power”). In contrast, belief in God among the general public ran at 83 percent and atheism at only 4 percent. In other words, scientists are ten times more likely to be atheists than are other Americans. This disparity has persisted for over eighty years of polling.

When one moves to scientists working at a group of “elite” research universities, the difference is even more dramatic, with just over 62 percent being either atheist or agnostic, and only 23 percent who believed in God—a degree of nonbelief more than fifteenfold higher than among the general public. Finally, sitting at the top tier of American science are the members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization that elects only the most accomplished researchers in the United States. And here nonbelief is the rule: 93 percent of the members are atheists or agnostics, with only 7 percent believing in a personal God. This is almost the exact opposite of the data for “average” Americans.

(Even more members of the UK’s Royal Society are atheists.) One has to conclude that either nonbelievers are more likely to become scientists, that scientists tend to give up their faith or (as I suspect) both. Whatever the case, we see something about science that’s inimical to faith.

Salleh then highlights three religious scientists.

Jennifer Wiseman is an astronomer who also heads the AAAS’s “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion” program, and I’ve written about her several times. Let’s look at the “evidence” for why she believes in God (she’s an evangelical Christian). Here are a few bon mots:

While science is a “wonderful tool for understanding the physical universe”, Jennifer says her religious beliefs give her the answers to the bigger philosophical questions in life — like how mere humans can be significant at all in the context of the universe.

“In Christian faith, our significance is basically given as a gift of love from God, who’s responsible for the universe,” she says.

Her religious belief gives her one set of answers, other religious beliefs give other sets of answers, secular humanism gives still more answers. How does she know her religion gives her the right answers? And how does she know that? As for “how mere humans can be significant in the context of the universe”, that’s an ambiguous question. We are significant to ourselves and each other, but not in the grand scheme of the cosmos. After all, in a few billion more years we’ll all be incinerated—if we haven’t yet gone extinct. There’s a reason why people were drawn to Carl Sagan’s elegy about the “pale blue dot.”

But wait—there’s more!

Meanwhile, Jennifer sees her scientific work as deepening her faith.

“God’s responsible for everything. So, by studying more of nature you’re … enriching your understanding of God,” she says.

How does she know this? She doesn’t, and couldn’t provide evidence that would convince even a semi-skeptic. That is the disparity between her science and her faith!

Finally, she uses the “metaphor” escape:

While some point to statements in the Bible as evidence Christianity is incompatible with science, Jennifer says the book has to be seen in its historical context.

“You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes … the message that was meant to be conveyed by it,” she says.

“The Bible’s not a science text.”

Okay, so is it a science text about Jesus and his miracles (which Wiseman accepts), and about the Resurrection? Remember, the statement “The Bible’s not a science text” really means “What the Bible says is true isn’t really true. But some parts are true!” The question, of course, is “Which parts are true, and how do you know?” Wiseman is unable to winnow the true from the false, which again underscores the incompatibility between science and faith. After all, science has ways to determine whether an asteroid hit the Earth about 65 million years ago. Wiseman has no way to determine if Jesus was the son of God, or was resurrected.

Andrew Harman is an immunologist at the University of Sydney who is also a Buddhist. He apparently doesn’t believe in God, but adheres to the practices of Triratna Buddhism. Given that he sees Buddhism as answering questions (but really, his gloss says it provides methods to help answer questions), yet he abjures the supernatural and doesn’t proselytize, I don’t have much of a problem with his beliefs, which may not be at odds with science if meditation does work in the ways he claims:

Buddhism, Andrew says, is interested in “creating the conditions for enlightenment to arrive” — a state in which people feel “unconditional love, deep spiritual peace, completely free of inner conflict”.

The trick, he says, is to understand and accept “the true nature of reality” and that attachment to things — like our youth, loved ones, jobs or money — is the source of suffering.

“We’re psychologically dependent on things that, at any moment, could be taken away from us,” he says.

“But they are all impermanent, so you will suffer if you depend on them.”

For Andrew, religions that require “blind faith” in God are at odds with science.

“Science is about seeking truth and testing a hypothesis. I don’t believe you can prove the existence of God.”

By contrast, he sees Buddhism as “very compatible” with science.

“I think Buddhism and science are absolutely in tune with each other fundamentally,” he says.

“They’re both driven by the idea that you can’t just believe something without any evidence.

“The Buddha was very clear that you follow a system of practice and only when you’ve experienced those things for yourself is your faith then justified — because it’s a faith that is based on experience.”

Well, that depends on what form of Buddhism you accept. I presume that Harman doesn’t accept woo like karma and reincarnation (stuff that Tibetan Buddhism accepts),and if he does reject that kind of stuff, you can hardly call him religious! He claims “Buddhism is a faith based on experience”, but “faith” and “experience” are somewhat at odds. If by “experience” he means “this practice often has results X and Y on your mind and behavior”, then that’s not faith, but evidence. If by “experience” he means “revelation”, then yes, he’s religious. But I suspect he’s not religious—at least not in the conventional sense of accepting a supernatural being to whom fealty must be given and who provides a moral code and who takes a personal interest in the believer. And what he means by faith is “confidence born of repeated experience,” which is a far cry from religious faith.

But one thing he says does disturb me:

But, says Andrew, there are some clashes between Buddhism and the idea that we can be reduced to a bunch of particles, and that studying matter will ultimately explain the whole of our reality.

“There’s still a very strong current in science that thinks everything can be broken down into bits and put back together,” he says.

But science is changing, says Andrew.

“I think Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory show you can’t reduce everything to the sum of its parts,” he says.

I’m not sure that he means what I think he means: that there is something beyond the laws of physics. Regardless, he’s not what I’d call “religious”

Fahad Ali is a a graduate student in genetics at the University of Sydney who is also a Muslim. (He’s also been investigated for misconduct and anti-Semitism, but has been cleared; see here.) Again, it’s not clear how religious he is, at least based on his statements. He sees the Qur’an as metaphorical, something that about 90% of Muslims disagree with (the vast majority see it as having to be read literally). He also ignores the nasty bits of the Qur’an, saying that the book encourages “compassion, common decency, generosity and intelligence.” Well, only under the most blinkered reading can you conclude that: compassion towards women, unbelievers, and apostates? I don’t think so.

Ali credits Islamic scientists as having contributed to world science, which is true, but again, that doesn’t do anything to show that the tenets of Islam are correct. After all, in those countries and in those days, virtually everyone was a Muslim. Why should the religion get credit for the scientific advances? Was there something about the Qur’an that brought about algebra and geometry? I don’t think so.

Further, Ali abjures the God of the gaps, but gives no evidence for The God Who is Outside the Gaps:

“Science closes the gap, and then there’s one less place for God to be found.

“Eventually God will vanish entirely — removed from the picture by science — and then people get aggressive and say science is wrong, which doesn’t help anyone.”

While some see evolutionary theory as threatening faith, Fahad disagrees.

“I think it’s a testament to God more than anything — that we can bring about all life on earth from a single origin.”

But again, Ali simple presumes there’s a God—he was an apostate until his mother got cancer, which brought him back to Islam—and I’d ask him, “How do you know that there is a God? Isn’t natural selection capable of bringing about all life on earth from a single origin? And why do you think that Islam is the right religion?”

Nevertheless, if we must have Islam, then I’d rather have a questioning and thoughtful Muslim like Ali than a fundamentalist who simply accepts the Qur’an.

So of the three scientists who supposedly demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion, only two are really religious. And those two make statements that are insupportable by evidence, but are based purely on wish-thinking—on what they’d like to believe and what makes them feel good.

As Richard Feynman pointed out, science is a way of avoiding fooling ourselves by accepting what we want to accept. That is why science and religion are truly incompatible. And that point is demonstrated by both Wiseman and Ali.


h/t: Phil

33 thoughts on “Accommodationism at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

  1. “… or the decoder of the human genome converted from atheism to Christianity in his 20s?”

    Wouldn’t “the decoder of the human genome” be Craig Venter (an atheist), not Francis Collins? 😉

  2. “I think Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory show you can’t reduce everything to the sum of its parts,” says Andrew Harman.

    I find statements like this immensely irritating, especially coming from trained scientists. I never like to discount someone’s opinion about a subject that is not their stated field of expertise, but I can’t help but think that this kind of statement is borne of complete ignorance of the theories it cites. “…Can’t reduce everything to the sum of its parts” – in what way, exactly? This reeks of the old canard that quantum stuff isn’t deterministic; therefore, there are ghosts in the machine.

    1. Things are greater than the sum of their parts. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms, when put together, form water molecules which have properties that are different from the component atoms found in water. But there is nothing mystical about these ’emergent properties’. Of course, those who wish to find spiritual woo will seize upon such simple facts and insert mysticism into it.

    2. I can’t think of anything from relativity, but he might mean quantum entanglement. The statement sounds profound but doesn’t really mean anything.

  3. Except for that part about “broken down” and “put back together” (which I also find vague, but then I think many arguments for “holism” verge on incoherent mysticism) Andrew Harman seems to be describing something a lot like Epicureanism, the ancient worldview that seems most attuned to science.

  4. I don’t have much hope for an article that cannot write a good title. The line “Here are three scientists that don’t think so.” should be “Here are three scientists who don’t think so.” My Gramma told me to do it that way.

  5. “he was an apostate until his mother got cancer”

    Ah yes, God’s precious gift of cancer.
    Reminds me of that Monty Python song “All Things Dull and Ugly”:

    All things sick and cancerous
    All evil great and small
    All things foul and dangerous
    The Lord God made them all.

  6. ”Some argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist”

    Strawman. No, we argue that science and religion are incompatible epistemologies. We acknowledge that this doesn’t prevent people from using both, at different times.

  7. Jennifer Wiseman says:

    “You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes…”

    Yes, you do. And you have to take into account everything that we now know about those cultures; and you have to do that with an open but critical mind. And if you really do that, you might come to some interesting conclusions, not many of which will support her simplistic views about God’s loving gifts.

    Even though she’s an astronomer, I don’t think she has much intellectual curiosity. 

    1. Yeah she’s like Captain Obvious. “You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes…” Ummmm… okay thanks Captain Obvious?

    2. I believe it is said that one of the greatest discouragements of Christian faith is to study the historical roots of the chapters in the bible, and its subsequent evolution over the centuries, by its very human authors.

  8. I have noticed a real but invisible rift in the Bay Area Buddhist community between what I would call: a) skeptical Buddhists and b) New Age Buddhists. The latter might be reading Deepak Chopra while the former do not, though both have many moral values in common with secular humanism.


    Carl Sagan once asked fellow CSICOP member Martin Gardner if he was saying that he believed in God because it made him feel good.
    Gardner said sort of but in the deeper sense that theism gave him a sense of the right alignment of the universe, that it was not feeling good in the sense of feeling good after three beers.
    So there is a sort of wish-fulfillment here, but of a rather subtle kind entailing looking for a fairly primal sense of groundedness and purpose.

    Charles Darwin seems to have ultimately concluded that religion is all guess-work:

    “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice….On the other hand, I cannot be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—Let each man hope and believe what he can.”

  9. The poor old ABC in Australia is under the thumb of a deeply religious federal government – an irony given the secular nature of many Australians (largest ‘religious’ group*). This is not a representative sample of scientists – no doubt the program makers could have just as easily cherry-picked to find those who like eating lemons or keep bats as pets, and implied that is the norm.



    1. While I grant that many in the federal government are religious (and many, like the Mad Monk, deeply religious) I think “deeply religious federal government” is a bit of an overstatement. I think a lot of the problem is that the religious factions exert undue influence, way more than the proportion of their electoral support should allow. In the current government this effect is greatly magnified by the barest majority (one seat) that the gov’t enjoys. This was also the case with the Gillard gov’t which only held power with support of independents (but still it was possibly the most legislatively productive gov’t Oz has ever had).

      As the article you cite suggests, the problem is in part that the gov’t feels it has to satisfy a populace which it (incorrectly) perceives as majority christian. Of course christian pollies would usually support such behaviour.

    2. “Deeply religious”. Not really. Going to church on Sunday and being deeply religious are two different things. I’m more worried “deeply atheist” people. They have shown me that religious people haven’t cornered the market on being close-minded.

      1. Yes, but “deeply atheist” countries, as all studies show, are those with higher well being for their inhabitants. That hardly buttresses your worries about how harmful atheism is.

        1. I’m not religious myself. I just worry about any movement and it’s capacity for coopting a worthwhile cause or principle for the lower aspects of human nature. Any belief system is harmless. It’s when more extreme elements use it to further their own agendas at the cost of stability and community that things go wrong.

          1. a. Atheism is a NONBELIEF system–in gods. That’s as far as it goes
            b. And can you name the harms of “extreme atheism” (don’t rely on those bogus chestnuts of atheism and Stalinism). Tell me what is so harmful about Denmark, Sweden, France, and Iceland being made up largely of atheists? You’re just mouthing generalities with no evidence behind them. As someone said, “No society has ever been ruined because its inhabitants are too reasonable.”

            As a new commenter, realize that you are not supposed to dominate a thread. (Read the commenting Rollz on the side.)

  10. You see little grasshopper, you must view the Bible like it’s not the Bible. Only then will you see the Bible is the Bible, grasshopper.

  11. “Organ of the government” has connotations that imply that the ABC is a mouthpiece of the government, when nothing could be further from the truth, IMO. The ABC is a government-owned corporation but takes no direction from the government, and, indeed, often upsets the government of the day. So I don’t think it is appropriate to use that phrase.

    1. I concur. The ABC’s recent woes with funding cutbacks would be seen by many as an indication of the gov’t’s revenge over the usually unbiased reportage (as frequently demonstrated whenever there is a review into ABC bias) of the ABC.

      Part of the problem is that much of the commercial media are own by Citizen Murdoch, and they are rabidly anti-ABC.

  12. “Jennifer says her religious beliefs give her the answers to the bigger philosophical questions in life — like how mere humans can be significant at all in the context of the universe.”

    Short answer – we’re not.

    Longer answer – we won’t be until we can figure out how to shift galaxies around. 😉

    I guess we might be significant in ontological** terms as the only confirmed example we know of intelligent life. We could be the sole unique example, or we might be no more remarkable (in the Universe) than yet another species of snail is to us.

    (** is that the right word?)


    1. Afterthought – we are of course significant to us, just as I am significant to me, but that’s another matter entirely.


    2. But lots of things might be unique in that sense. There might be an atom with the largest existing atomic number, for example. (Which just changed as I wrote this. ;))

  13. Theists are always telling us that, throughout human history, most people have believed in some sort of god(s). That’s all very well,if you put much stock in human intuition about whether the god(s) actually exists, or not.

    But science has taught us our intuitions are often wrong when it comes to understanding reality.

    So Jerry is essentially correct: Science and faith are incompatible.

  14. I’m not sure about the central premise of this article. The ABC is a very left wing entity that is more obsessed with pushing diversity and some really over the top political correctness. As part of its mandate it has to have at least token representation of all religions here, but take it from someone who lives here, it is not interested in giving “traditional” ways much due. In fact, true to form it’s usually pushing a bit of a Marxist/socialist viewpoint across.

    1. The “premise” of the article–that religion and science are compatible–is not a particularly left-wing concern,and is not a Marxist-socialist viewpoint, which, if anything, is that religion is out the window.

      DId you even read the article?

  15. “He claims ‘Buddhism is a faith based on experience,’ but ‘faith’ and ‘experience’ are somewhat at odds. If by “experience” he means ‘this practice often has results X and Y on your mind and behavior,’ then that’s not faith, but evidence. . . . And what he means by faith is ‘confidence born of repeated experience,’ which is a far cry from religious faith.”

    Yes, it is. Religious faith (e.g., in dogmas or teachings such as the Resurrection or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the Immaculate Conception) by definition allow for no evidence. By contrast, a belief in God or Creative Spirit or Force or whatever you want to call it can be based on experiential evidence (as opposed to revelation or authority or even scientific evidence)—a point I’ve tried to make several times on this site without, I think, much success. This is largely because beliefs based on experience are largely non-transferable and therefore of little use in debate.

    Speaking just for myself, claiming the there is no evidence for the existence of a Creator seems a bit like coming out of an art museum and saying, “There’s a lot of lovely stuff in there, but I see no evidence whatsoever of an artist.” Look around!

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