Wrongheaded religious accommodationism in physics

June 20, 2021 • 9:15 am

Like religion and secular government, religion and science survive best when they’re kept well apart—when there is no incursion of religion into government and science. (The other way around, at least for science, is not bad, for science has always served to show the falsity of many religious claims—claims like creationism, the worldwide Flood, Adam and Eve, and the Exodus.)

Yet the article below, highlighted by the tweet at the bottom, calls for accommodationism: for religious people to profess their faith to other scientists, and even to tell each other about “the role of faith in science” (there is none) and “the health benefits of intermittent fasting” (a sop to Muslims). This kind of well-meaning but intellectually vacuous accommodationism surfaces from time to time, and I have to whack it down.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece from Physics World from April. I couldn’t find a post I’d done on this piece, but if I have, well, perhaps some of you haven’t read it.

The article is a straight out call to mingle faith and science, a movement that I thought had slowed, and so haven’t written about it in a while. The piece first points out the disparity between the religiosity of scientists (not very religious) and the religious general public—not only in America, but in most of the West.

A British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 found that 48% of the UK population identifies as religious and that since 1983 there has been a decline in the proportion of Christians, an increase in the non-­religiously affiliated, as well as a rapid rise in the Muslim population, along with other minority religions (up from 2% to 9%). In other words, the beliefs and worldviews of the UK population are becoming more diverse as we move away from a predominantly Christian population to a more mixed one. Yet in this regard – as in other aspects of diversity – the UK scientific community is strikingly out-of-step with society. Indeed, a report from Rice University in 2016 found that just 27% of UK scientists identify as religious compared with 47% of the general population (Socius 10.1177/2378023116664353).

That is, of course, the Templeton-funded work of Elaine Ecklund, who regularly distorts the data to make scientists, irreligious as they are, seem more religious than we think.  But why the disparity between the religiosity of the average person and that of the average scientist? It is even larger in the UK and US than Ecklund admits, with the most accomplished scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society) being almost wholly atheistic (only 7% of NAS members believe in a personal God, and a similar figure holds for the RS.

There are several possible reasons for this disparity, which I discuss in my book Faith versus Fact. One is that “scientists are simply more educated than the average American, and religiosity simply declines with education.” That may be partly true, but can’t explain much of the disparity, as professors in science are far less religious than professors in other areas, who presumably have had just as much education. Second,  if you’re religious, you’re probably less likely to want to go into science. It is the nonbelievers who may be drawn to enter a discipline that discards the supernatural. Another reason, for which there is some independent evidence, that doing science erodes your religious beliefs over time. I can’t really see any other explanations, but the latter two, which I think both contribute to the disparity, show that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion. This is the case I make in Faith Versus Fact.

One suggestion that isn’t the case is that scientists demonize and/or expel other religious scientists, purging our ranks of believers. But by and large we don’t give a rat’s patootie about the religious beliefs of our colleagues. We may puzzle over them, or even make fun of them, but we don’t penalize scientists who believe in God. Often they are quite accomplished, too, viz., Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Ken Miller, cell biologist and author of widely used biology texts.  None of us claim that believing in God prohibits you from doing good science. I claim that there is a clash between science and faith, and this clash explains why, on the whole, Western scientists are so much less religious than the general public from which they’re drawn.

Here’s Wood’s “explanation”, or rather a non-explanation:

So, what is keeping religious people away from science? It is tempting to follow the Enlightenment phil­osophy that places science and religion in conflict: “as science advances, religion declines”. But that is far too simple. The Rice report compares eight countries, finding that the disparity between scientists and the general population who identify as religious is small in nations such as Turkey and India, while in others such as Taiwan and Hong Kong religious people are even over-represented in science. That picture is very different from the UK and other western countries where the religiously affiliated are strikingly under-represented. The report also finds that most scientists do not believe there is a conflict between science and religion – instead it being more a societal issue than a philosophical one.

He’s wrong. Ecklund’s report showing a smaller disparity (which is still a disparity) in countries like Turkey and India can be explained by the fact that those countries are more religious compared to Western ones (indeed, now both are approaching theocracies), and so the disparity is almost guaranteed to be smaller. As for Taiwan, the disparity in the other direction isn’t great, and I have no explanation for Hong Kong (readers might suggest theories that are theirs). But at any rate the “conflict” is most discussed and visible in Europe and North America, and here the disparity is profound, even more profound that Ecklund pretends since she doesn’t dwell on those UK and US scientists who actually do research and are good at it. Here’s a figure from her 2016 paper using data from all surveyed scientists.


Sebastian Wood disagrees that there’s a conflict between faith and science, and asserts that harmony is possible:

Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt manifold and complex, I believe that neither society nor scientific pursuits stand to benefit from being out-of-step with each other. Rachel Brazil’s insightful Physics World article “Fighting flat-Earth ­theory” traces the rise of belief in a flat Earth back to religious convictions. It stands as a warning that we need to build bridges between scientific and religious communities rather than allowing the divide to widen further. In a society that increasingly recognizes the value of diversity, it is worth reflecting on the history of science to see that no single religion or worldview has a monopoly on scientific progress. Even a cursory glance reveals profound contributions to science from individuals representing the full range of religious and non-religious worldviews, both historic and contemporary. Clearly this diversity of thinking is of enormous and proven value to science and technology, and is something to be treasured, nurtured and encouraged.

In contrast to the first sentence, I think that science, religion and society benefit from religion not sticking its nose into science but science examining religious claims. Science doesn’t get polluted with superstition that has never helped us find truth, while religion gets its false truth claims corrected, and society becomes less religious, which I think is a good thing. (I attribute the growing secularization of the West to the increasing hegemony of and public respect for science, and here agree with Steve Pinker in his Better Angels book.) As for getting rid of stuff like creationism by “building bridges between science and religion”, that doesn’t work very well. Francis Collins and Karl Giberson founded BioLogos as a explicit vehicle for convincing evangelical Christians that evolution is both true and harmless to their faith. They failed: instead of evangelicals embracing evolution (the data shows no change in decades), the BioLogos site has become increasingly Christianized, with apparently sentient academics and scientists arguing about how Adam and Eve could really have been the ancestors of us all (a sine qua non of Christianity). While some people’s minds can be changed by telling them scientific truths, the best way to efface religion is simply to emphasize the benefits of science and wait for people over years and generations to realize that, hey, science can find truth and religion can’t.

Wood gives two other reasons why science and religion aren’t in conflict. First, many scientists don’t perceive a conflict between science and religion. That is, besides creationists, American scientists simply don’t see a “war” between the two areas on a day to day basis. But so what? If you define your terms carefully, as I do in Faith versus Fact, you see a very profound conflict between science and religion: conflicts in methology, philosophy, use of “faith”, and how we apprehend “truth”.

Second, Wood claims that religious scientists have made profound contributions to their fields. I agree, but so what? Science itself is practiced as an atheistic discipline, and these contributions, at least in the last two centuries, had nothing to do with religion. In fact, they were made despite religion. (It’s clear that in the 19th century nearly everyone was religious, so it was a no-brainer to say that religious scientists advanced their field.) But now atheistic scientists make far more contributions than religious ones—for two reasons. First, there are so many more atheistic scientists than religious ones. Second, the better a scientist is, the more likely he or she is to be an atheist.

So here’s Wood’s proposal to put science and religion in step, a proposal that seems to me useless and worthless, at least for accomplishing its aims. It wouldn’t hurt, I suppose to have tea with your religious colleagues as a way of social bonding, but best to avoid discussing faith!

At NPL [the National Physical Laboratory in the UK] we have made “inter faith week” a regular fixture in our calendar. This is a national initiative that supports and encourages constructive interactions between people with different beliefs to build relationships and mutual understanding, recognizing common values as well as differences. We also encourage colleagues to share their experiences of how their beliefs affect their work and invite guest speakers to talk about a subject relating science to religion. Over the past three years we have had talks on the relationship between artificial intelligence and religion, the role of faith in science and the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Each year we find that there is an enormous desire to learn about and discuss these topics.

Again, scientists are welcome to discuss these issues on their own time (I enjoyed writing my book, but I didn’t write it to “build relationships and mutual understanding”). But for Ceiling Cat’s sake keep these discussions unofficial. “Interfaith week” in a science institution is a disgrace. It’s like having Bigfoot Week, UFO Week or Djinn Week at the NIH, or Crystal Healing Week at the CDC.

34 thoughts on “Wrongheaded religious accommodationism in physics

  1. I’d like an explanation for Hong Kong too. I’ve heard the idea floated around that it’s due to the prevalence of Christianity in education but I can’t find stats for it, but it seems to me that a lot of non-government secondary schools, and especially the good ones, are Christian or at least Christian-associated. If that is the case then “educated” would likely be proportional to “Christian”, but that means we’d need stats on the religiosity of other academics.

    Or maybe (with apologies to my professors) we just have bad scientists.

    1. British rule over Hong Kong ended in 1997 and the survey responses were taken in 2010-2014. In other words, survey respondents were living under an officially atheist government. I wonder if the reverse disparity might come from scientists’ greater willingness to *report* a religiosity that is actually fairly widespread among Hong Kong residents. On the other hand, at the time of the survey the “one country, two systems” line of propaganda was still fairly believable/respected.

  2. Isn’t intermittent fasting purely a secular thing? I’m not aware of any connection to Islam. If I’m mistaken about its roots, intermittent fasting has long been secularized much in the same way yoga has been secularized. Full disclosure: I’ve been doing intermittent fasting during the pandemic. Lots of people gained weight during the past fifteen months. Me, I’ve lost weight!

      1. Ah, yes. That might be it! And if that’s case, I think Jerry could delete “intermittent.” So far as I know there’s no intermittent fasting associated with what those folks do during Ramadan. It’s just plain, uninterrupted fasting. What is it, for just a weekend? Or three days? I can’t be arsed to investigate.

          1. Right. And it goes on for about 30 days. It is important to know when the daily fast ends if you are playing soccer. Then you can get your goalkeeper to fake an injury at exactly the right time so that, while he is being treated, his team mates can feast on dates to get some extra oomph.

          2. Several of my Muslim friends admitted they gain weight during Ramadan, an orgy of succulent food after sunset. 🙂
            So much for intermittent fasting.

            1. I second that, Nicolaas. I’ve heard some of my Muslim acquaintances say that they couldn’t wait until sundown so that they could gorge themselves. Also, they can eat a breakfast before sunrise and indeed are encouraged to do so.

            2. The Ramadan “breakfasts” (after sunset) I’ve attended (because the hotel kitchens wouldn’t provide any food, regardless of who was trying to order- though they were obviously preparing the “break-feast”) were very heavily stocked with revoltingly sweet and sticky confections. There were more regular foods – cold cuts, vegetables, etc – but almost all was served cold too.
              If I’d had an option, I’d have just tried to eat elsewhere after doing my day’s work in the Customs yard etc, but expenses wouldn’t cover eating outside the hotel, since we were on full board.
              Pre-dawn breakfast was as per normal – including pork products – so we could get something before the 06:00 round of conference calls – and we kept the offices stocked with cold drinks and the coffee machine running. Irritating, but hardly a hardship posting.

      2. Yes, it seems reasonable to think that our host was thinking of Ramadan, but I agree with Barry’s main point that intermittent fasting is secular, with scientifically proven benefits. If mentioning fasting is a sop to Muslims, then it must equally be a sop to people of several other religions, since many if not all of the major religions–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, to name the obvious examples–have fasting traditions. In other words, sop for the gander is sop for the goose.

        1. Indeed, the Theravada Buddhist monks may have been the first to codify what we today call intermittent fasting, since their monastic rules include the stricture of only one meal per day.

          1. I generally have only one meal a day due to professional obligations. Does nothing for my waistline. though.

            1. As you know, one must run a calorie deficit per day over a long period in order to lose weight. The advantage of intermittent fasting during this period of deficit is that it keeps the body in a state of ketosis longer per day so that the body turns to burning more fat stores for energy.

  3. “We may puzzle over them, or even make fun of them, but we don’t penalize scientists who believe in God.”

    I agree with this mostly. We certainly shouldn’t make fun of or ostracize religious people. But *should* we penalize those who want to practice science and be accepted as scientists? In particular, should we spend scarce time and money on the scientific training of graduate students who are religious?

    The graduate program at my publicly-funded university frequently gets applicants from a big, private, evangelical college. It’s the kind of place that requires students and staff to pledge to live by Biblical principals (including no gay sex and no sex outside of marriage). The applicants are nice kids for the most part, and they often have what look like good credentials. But they come from a culture that teaches them to turn off their brains at will, and this particular trait is very bad training for doing research. So I’m inclined not to accept those students for graduate training.

    Admittedly there may be other religious applicants in the pool who didn’t attend an evangelical college and can’t be identified as religious from their college transcripts. And it’s possible that some students who get this religious education don’t believe all of it, or at least don’t believe the parts that would interfere with their training in our graduate program.

    I’m interested in what others think: is this a legit kind of filter to apply in selecting trainees in whom we invest a huge amount of public money (and time and effort)? or should we be more open-minded and less skeptical of students coming from that background and culture?

    1. I wouldn’t penalize them for being religious, but if they don’t have the chops or the knowledge, why accept them? I’m not that keen, though, on rejecting students who don’t plan to go into academics, as many students don’t. They could go into industry, be science writers or journalists and so on. The important thing is that they are smart, know stuff, and have a deep love of the field.

      1. Yes that’s a fair approach. I agree about not penalizing students who won’t go on in academics. That’s not the only goal of research training. Yes totally agree about smart and deep love of the field.

        But we have incomplete information about the chops and knowledge of applicants. Our graduate program is not so well funded that we can bring all applicants to campus for interviews. We often admit them on the basis of transcripts and recommendation letters plus email or zoom interactions between the applicant and a prospective supervisor (who must commit grant funds to support that individual grad student). So I’m inclined to use other available information, like an evangelical religious background.

        OTOH I don’t have any evidence that our religious grad students are less successful after graduate training than our secular grad students.

        Hmm maybe someone should study that? Does anyone have a phone number for the Templeton folks?

    2. My view is that in most cases the religious background of applicants should not be a factor in their acceptance into graduate programs in science. It has been my observation that most of the time religious people are able to separate their religious beliefs from the work they do unless the latter can be influenced by religious beliefs. Thus, I would be chary of accepting religious applicants in areas such as biology and perhaps, astronomy, if no laws are broken, but otherwise I would not discriminate against them. Also, I would be very cautious rejecting applicants with religious beliefs that otherwise would be accepted. There may be some federal laws that would be violated in this circumstance, which could result in a big law suit against the institution.

  4. “Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt complex…”

    No they’re not complex. It’s just that people who understand science and what it tells us about the world are critical thinkers not inclined to accept such fantastic human stories as anything but stories.

  5. If, per Sebastian Wood, working laboratories want to provide a quiet room where staff can go pray or meditate or read a book or snooze, swell. But that’s about as far as any accommodationism ought to go, I think.

    (Reminds of an addition to the library at the law school I attended, built with money donated by a rich alumnus with the stipulation that it bear a plaque labelling it the “Conscience Room” — a quiet place for students to contemplate how the law could be put to some social benefit. The room quickly became known among students as the “Unconsciousness Room,” since it had comfy couches and plush overstuffed chairs perfect for napping.)

  6. I notice that Mr. Wood drops in a mention of “diversity”, but neglects to mention “equity” and “inclusion”, equally popular buzzwords in academia these days. Perhaps the next such essay, beside deploring the asymmetry between theism in the general population and among scientists, will suggest the need for DEI activity in science departments and institutions. DEI committees could act to disrupt the system of oppression which limits the representation among scientists of believers in miracles, angels, demons, and bronze age texts. They could, for example, hold mandatory “training workshops” on the evils of empiricism and the virtues of Faith.

  7. Like slipping on an old worn pair of comfy slippers, Templeton the Rat is trying to chew holes in science again…plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Except their is a distinct odor of wokeness emanating from this particular little rat hole. Is this really Conservative Christians cuddling up with control leftists for the sake of attacking atheist science? Whoddathunkit?

    1. Well, they are schmooching with fundamentalist Islam, so why not fundamentalist Xianity?

  8. “Yet in this regard – as in other aspects of diversity – the UK scientific community is strikingly out-of-step with society.”

    This is a despicable swipe against UK scientists. Wood makes sure the reader understands that he considers the scientists’ lack of religious views as a failure right up there with racism (those other aspects of diversity).

  9. Jess Wade is clearly correct: look at how poorly non-religiosity or outright atheism correlates with major scientific achievement in the cases of Paul Dirac, Philip Anderson, Erwin Schroedinger, Neils Bohr, Louis de Broiglie, the Curies, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, Murray Gell-Mann… uh, wait a second… let me think a bit here …. 😀

  10. It is odd isn’t it, that there is this continual effort among religionists (and “I’m an atheist but-ers”) to broaden comity between science and religion, while it’s pretty clear that science is toxic to religion.

  11. I am British the figures from that Social Attitudes Survey are misleading to the point of being worthless. As Richard Dawkins demonstrated 10 years ago when he got his foundation to commission a reputable polling company to actually ask how religious people who said they were actually were. This was following a census where people were asked what their religion was. He asked questions about what they believed and knowledge of the bible etc. He found as any sensible Brit would know that people are not as religious as they claim. They say they are christians for cultural reasons.

  12. The business of providing religious opportunities at the workplace for scientists reminds me of Crick’s famous letter-in-cheek to (then?) Prime Minister Winston Churchill. I think it was Cambridge—they were starting up a new college (called Churchill College IIRC), non-denominational and emphasizing science. Then some private money tried, succeeded later I think, to get one of the buildings to accommodate a chapel, of course for the convenience of–THOSE faculty who might enjoy it.

    The clever letter was an initial small donation and plea to start a fund for the establishment, of course for–THOSE faculty who might enjoy it, of space for the establishment of what was formerly known as a house of disrepute or perhaps elsewhere as a harem.

    The cheque was returned, from 10 Downing Street, I think.

    I don’t know whether Crick’s later smear or whatever as being anti-feminist was partly to do with that as well as the Rosalind Franklin matter.

    Writing from the internet and/or the book/essay at bottom (letter there IIRC as well):

    “The Astonishing Hypothesis he called his idea that a marker of consciousness must physically exist: astonishing because so few people were even prepared to entertain the idea at the time. But it had worked with the gene, so why not with consciousness? He disliked religion even more than philosophy, but he wore his lifelong atheism lightly. His letter to Churchill suggesting that Churchill College build a brothel rather than a chapel (Churchill had written saying “no one will be required to enter it against his will”) was hilarious rather than offensive.

    Apropos: How I Got Inclined Towards Atheism, by Francis Crick.”

  13. The quote picked up by the tweeter (and which I lit on, before getting down to the tweet), has a distinct air of the “iron fist in the steel glove”. “When society demands scientists follow religious norms, the scientists will. Or else.
    The tube has just started showing series 4 of the Handmaid’s Tale here, and that’s making me think down particular lines.

  14. I can’t imagine my company telling us all we’re going to have an “interfaith week”. It seems to go directly against professionalism to force your employees to discuss their personal lives with their co-workers. How inappropriate for the workplace.

    …For any workplace…

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