Sunday Times gives a lukewarm review to an accommodationist book

March 12, 2023 • 11:15 am

The only reason to write books about reconciling science and religion—as opposed to, say, reconciling sports and religion or business and religion—is if the two fields conflict in some way, and thus require reconciliation. After all, if  religion were purely philosophical, lacking any empirical claims, there would be no need to reconcile science and religion, for science is not philosophy.

As I argued in Faith Versus Fact, the never-ending attempts to reconcile science and religion come precisely because they are in conflict—in conflict about what is true in the universe and about how to ascertain those truths. Science has a toolkit for (provisionally) ascertaining what’s true in the universe: a toolkit including observation, replication, doubt, testability, prediction, and so on.

Religion’s toolkit includes three things: authority, revelation, and scripture, none of which is a reliable guide to the universe.  If these were reliable, all religions would converge on the same truth claims. Jesus would be either a prophet, as he is in Islam, or the son of God/God, as he is in Christianity. Jesus would have visited America, as the Mormons claim, or not (as Christians believe.). I could go on, but of course as author, I recommend reading my book (for a cheaper take on my thesis, read the archived version of my 2010 USA Today column, “Science and religion aren’t friends.” (I’m still amazed I got that published.)

Though I claim that my book killed off any reconciliation between science and religion, the attempt won’t lie down. That’s because, except for fundamentalists, religious people, along with nonbelieving “faitheists” who think religion is false but still necessary for society, don’t want to think that their own religious delusions make them unfriendly to modern science, which WORKS. You’re not a credible human if you think science isn’t the best way to find out empirical truths.

Yet, the attempts continue, spurred on by philosophers like Ronald Numbers who argue that conflicts between science and religion are only apparent but not real. The Scopes Trial, or the saga of Galileo versus the Church weren’t really about science/religion conflicts, but were merely the results of sociological or political differences.

They’re partly right, but mostly wrong. Tennessee’s Butler Act, which forbad the teaching of human evolution (but not evolution of other species) was not about politics, but about the fact that the new theory of evolution directly conflicted with the accounts given in Genesis I and II.

And so accommodationism returns in this new book by Nicholas Spencer, an author described on Amazon as:

Senior Fellow at Theos, a Fellow of International Society for Science and Religion and a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London

Theos is a pro-religion think tank in London founded by “the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.” As Wikipedia notes, it ” maintains an ecumenical position.” That is, it’s pro-Christian.

Here’s Spencer’s book (click to preorder), which I haven’t read as it won’t be out in the U.S. until May 23. I’ll simply highlight today’s Sunday Times of London review.

The review of Spencer’s book by James McConnachie can be reached by clicking on the headline below; but for nearly everyone it’s paywalled. Fortunately, you can find it archived for free here.

Apparently Spencer doesn’t accept Steve Gould’s position that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping magisteria (a false claim advanced in his book Rocks of Ages, which I heavily criticized in a TLS review you can see here). No, Spencer thinks it’s more complicated than that, but whatever their relationship is, it’s not antagonistic. (Indeed, in some trivial senses they aren’t antagonistic, as in the observation that there are religious scientists, one that Spencer apparently makes much of. Quotes from McConnachie’s review are indented:

For Spencer, [Buzz] Aldrin stands in a long line of scientists and scientific icons whose thought and work have been inspired and shaped by their religious convictions. Through history the “magisteria”, or realms, of science and religion have not been antagonistic, he argues, still less non-overlapping, but rather “indistinct, sprawling, untidy, and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled”.

Spencer has covered some of this ground before in sophisticated and readable histories of Darwin and religion, atheism and the centrality of Christianity to western thought. This book, though, is surely his magnum opus. It is astonishingly wide-ranging — there is a whiff of the encyclopaedia about it — and richly informed.

. . . From here on the narrative of a clash between science and religion is weighed, and found wanting. Medieval Christians, Spencer argues, responded to Greek science — transmitted through the “fragile brilliance” of medieval Islamic science — with enthusiasm. They used astronomical observation to prove what the Bible told them: that “the heavens declare the glory of God”.

Renaissance astronomers thought something similar. Even Galileo — much-championed by anticlerical types — “was no sceptic, let alone a heretic”. (And he probably didn’t mutter “And yet it moves” shortly after vowing in front of the Inquisition that the Earth was at the centre of the universe.)

The touchstone about whether one can see this history objectively is whether they admit that yes, the clash between Galileo and the church was largely about observation conflicting with religion. McConnachie continues:

“If the marriage of science and religion was harmonious across much of Europe in the Enlightenment,” Spencer writes, “it was positively blissful in England.” He traces a line of devout English theorists and experimenters from the “fiercely religious” Isaac Newton — a man more interested in theology than physics — through to a suite of English “clerical naturalists”.

This lineage culminated in Charles Darwin, who had started training for ordination as a younger man and lived in a rectory when he was older — “lacking only the dog collar and the Christian faith” to be a clergyman, as Spencer puts it. Even the older, agnostic Darwin had his religious doubts and yearnings. Spencer describes the poignant note given to him by his wife, Emma, encouraging him to leave room for faith. Underneath her words, he later wrote: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cried over this.”
Darwin was at best a deist, and trying to claim he was conventionally religious is another touchstone of academic dishonesty.

There are so many moments like that — myths not so much busted as brought down by controlled demolition. The 1860 Oxford evolution debate, which set Darwin’s monkey-descended champions up against the scoffing bishop? By the end of the century most Christians accepted evolution.

If you know about the Oxford debates, or about the initial reaction of religious people to Darwin, you’d know that the marriage was not “blissful” at the outset. Christians accepted Darwin because they had to: the evidence was overwhelming. Yet they still held onto superstitious and antiscientific notions of Jesus, so in what sense is that a “blissful marriage”? “Cognitive dissonance” is more like it.

And of course most Christians in the U.S. do not accept evolution in the naturalistic sense. A 2019 Gallup poll showed that of all surveyed Americans, 40% believe God created humans in their present form, another 33% think that humans evolved but that the evolution was guided by God, and a mere 20% held the naturalistic view that humans evolved and God had no part in directing the process. That means that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans hold a view of human origins that contravenes science (regardless of whether God was in charge, science doesn’t show that evolution was “directed” at all).

After praising Spencer’s writing, McConnachie gets down to his overall assessment of the book:

The argument could sometimes be summed up as “it’s more complicated than that”, plus “let’s replace a narrative of conflict with one of collaboration”. It’s so reasonable. So Anglican! But then Spencer is a senior fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, which exists to challenge negative representations of religion in western countries, believing that “faith, and Christianity in particular, is a force for good in society”.

In other words, Spencer’s book is tendentious, and nothing I’ve read about it in either the Amazon summary or McConnachie’s review adds to what’s already been written by previous accommodationist authors. After all, there are only so many ways to claim that science and religion are friends.

McConnachie’s final take:

At heart, then, Magisteria is a plea for religion to remain entangled in our lives and in our science. I’m not convinced. That word from Spencer’s subtitle, “entangled”, references quantum entanglement, whereby two separate particles are mysteriously linked, so that the state of one is bound up with the other, even if they are far apart. Einstein sceptically summed this up as “spooky action at a distance”, and I feel similarly about Spencer’s view of the interaction of science and religion. The two realms overlap only if you accept the validity of religious beliefs to start with. And Spencer’s own narrative, despite himself, reveals a historical disentangling — a slow withdrawal of the spookiness from science. Whether or not you see that as a good thing depends, ultimately, whose side you are on.

It sounds to me as if McConnachie is a nonbeliever, since he appears to reject “the validity of religious beliefs.” He also recognizes that the history of the “blissful marriage” is one of inevitable divorce as science pushes God back into the corner as an ineffectual deity unable to cure children of cancer but powerful at deciding who wins football games.

I’ll close with a great paragraph on this supposedly blissful marriage written by The Great Agnostic, himself, Robert G. Ingersoll:

There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

h/t: pyers

24 thoughts on “Sunday Times gives a lukewarm review to an accommodationist book

  1. Spencer’s book has received a repulsively positive review in The Times Literary Supplement, archived at

    The reviewer, Philip Ball, starts off with these paragraphs:

    ” ‘If after the fall of Rome atheism had pervaded the Western world … science would have developed earlier and be far more advanced than it is now.’ This untestable counterfactual, posited by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne in 2013, reflects a common belief that religion and science are antithetical, and that the cultural hegemony of religion before modern times retarded scientific progress. However, as Nicholas Spencer shows in his new book, the idea of a fundamental conflict between science and religion is largely a modern invention that evaporates on contact with the documentary record. The relationship between the two “magisteria” – to use the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s terminology – has certainly not been uniformly harmonious, but it is more interesting than a simple narrative of conflict.

    “With patience, balance and deep learning, Spencer – a research fellow at the London-based think tank Theos who presented the BBC radio series The Secret History of Science and Religion (2020) – dismantles the myths that have accumulated around Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin and other scientific figures widely held to have fallen foul of religious dogma. “The science and religion debate has been much like a swimming pool, with most of the noise up at the shallow end”, he says. Magisteria is a guide to the depths, filled with wit and wisdom.”

    Notice that Ball doesn’t let his reader know what sort of think thank Theos is!

    Ball mentions PCC again near the end: “For the likes of Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, fundamentalism is an easy target, albeit sometimes a necessary and dangerous one. It remains debatable, however, that the solution to such travesties of theology is the abolition of all religion. Contests of power and authority have motivated plenty of secular assaults on science too, whether in the Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist China or Nazi Germany.”

    Well, the solution to such travesties of government is the abolition of all totalitarian dictatorships!

    1. One of the most popular criticisms of the view that there’s a conflict between science and religion is that this only applies to Fundamentalist religion. Dr. Dawkins and Professor Ceiling-Cat aren’t really dealing with the liberal, tolerant forms of religion in which adherents love, love, love science. If they were, the pro-Harmony folk insist, then their pro-Conflict arguments melt away.

      Such adherents only love, love, love science, however, when it isn’t used to form the existence of God into a hypothesis and proceed on from there. And this fundamental aspect of religion — its basic truth — is more basic than an offshoot of form like Fundamentalism. Examining it with a scientific approach is far more devastating to even the most liberal of religions than is toting up examples of religious people stifling scientific findings.

      You’re fine with science? Then turn it on God. Listening to the faithful contort themselves into verbal knots explaining why “it’s more complicated than that” is like listening to a Trans Rights Activist trying to avoid defining “woman.”

  2. I haven’t read Spencer’s book, so I can’t argue the specifics. Suffice it to say that if science and religion make conflicting empirical claims (and they do) and if science and religion employ conflicting methodologies (and they do), it follows that there is no reconciliation possible. The fact that many scientists throughout history and even today claim that there is no conflict does not make the conflict go away.

    1. As a scientist and a Christian, I beg to differ.
      Christianity (I can’t speak for other religions) and Science have the same tool kits.
      Both start with authority, revelation (or inspiration) and scriptures and use observation, replication, doubt, testability, prediction as tests of truth.

      1. If Christianity and Science have the same tool kits, then why does only Christianity valorize Faith as one of the most significant tools?

      2. Some good examples of scriptural ‘testability’ and Yahweh’s thinking. A. Instructing Abraham to abuse his son B. Testing Job’s faith by instigating his family being wiped out.

      3. No. A scientist who is inspired to have a new idea — call it revelation if you like — has a completely different approach to handling that idea. They test it against reality. They actually try to ‘break’ it with controlled experiments. That is why at their feet lie many subsequently smashed and falsified hypotheses.
        A religious person with a revelation about religion goes in a completely different direction with it. They instead try their damndest to preserve it against all opposition.

      4. Marc, you assert that both religion and science start with authority, revelation (or inspiration) and use observation, replication, doubt, testability and prediction as tests of truth but don’t give any examples of what you mean. Religions tend to make untestable predictions – “the Messiah will come again” or “the devout will be rewarded by an eternal life in heaven” and when real World events do appear to be at odds with religious teaching this is explained away as “God’s mysterious ways”.

        I am sure you are sincere in your assertion but I (and I suspect most other readers here) am highly sceptical of the notion that that religion and science really share the same methodologies. Can you point to any examples of where theological understanding has been advanced by an honest and objective attempt to test predictions against observed facts?

  3. That Ingersoll quote pretty much sums it up. The accommodationists don’t spend their time looking for negative evidence. When it’s assembled, it paints a grim picture. I know White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology is out-dated, but a catalog like that presents strong evidence that the adversarial nature of Science and Religion as arbiters of truth is not just about misunderstanding.

    1. I agree that one intellectual sin might be accommodationism where it’s not due. But then I also think that White is not the best (or even good) recommendation for getting at reliable history. Lawrence Principe, in one of his chapters discussing White, writes that “White’s warfare model for science and religion … resulted from a range of personal issues and experiences, and not from historical evidence.” It’s not just him but all historians of science today concur on White’s general (un)reliability.

      1. Yes, but his argument that science and religion are in conflict is correct. And a lot of historical stuff White recounted was correct; those “historians” are often people like Spencer who have a pre-existing interest to show that science and religion are friends.

        1. Would it change your mind if these “historians” (I presume you mean Harrison, Numbers, Principle, and the like) were not associated with the Templeton Foundation and had different religious worldviews than they have? They are surely biased (aren’t we all?), but isn’t it the arguments in the form of historical evidence that matter the most?

          As for me, I might disagree with the implications they write about, that is, what these historical interactions should mean for today, but I think their historical evidence is as good as it gets. Of course, it’s also provisional, and there’s always room for novel approaches, discoveries, and reinterpretations (I’m thinking of Ungureanu’s recent book, which you had mentioned here just once and very incidentally in a quote, I think)

          1. Umm. . . I have no fricking idea whether any of these people are associated with the Templeton Foundation. I am judging them by what they write. I don’t know, for instance, if Numbers is religious or not–perhaps he is a faitheist.

            Before you go psychologizing me, why don’t you ASK whether I knew that information or not. I have to say, you are not making a very good debut on this website.

            1. I didn’t mean it that way since I certainly do not want to assume what you know or don’t. I meant all in the friendliest way possible. My intention was not even to challenge you, but to ask you how you see things. I apologize if it came across differently.

  4. While we debate the relative merits of religion versus science, if indeed there are any, we are engaged in an incredibly dangerous distraction from the perils we face as a species. The threat from climate change, may well precipitate the displacement of many millions of climate change refugees, raising the threat of war on an unprecedented scale, and given the proliferation of nuclear weapons, our species may soon face an existential crisis, if it isn’t in one already. This, for me, is the greatest danger of the historical, cultural, and religiously inspired worldview. Around the globe in universities’ humanities departments, where science is often treated with scepticism if not outright denial, professors, tutors and students earnestly debate what it is to be human. Given that we know we evolved this is the wrong question, we should be asking what it is to be this kind of animal, which requires engaging effectively with the science of human origins. On this analysis, if humankind is indeed in such a crisis, it suggests that there might be something badly wrong with our species, and time is running out if we want to find out what that might be.

    1. I’m not sure if you’re implying that the science vs. religion debate is a distraction from the REALLY IMPORTANT ISSUE of climate change (and I agree that it is one of the most important challenges that face us), then you are engaging in whataboutery and are at the wrong website.

      1. No, I agree that the science vs. religion debate is vitally important in of itself, and I am completely on board with your stance on it. All I am saying is that, relatedly, the general failure of an scientific/evolutionary understanding of what it is to be human could have wider and more dangerous consequences.

  5. Thanks for the heads-up about the book. I have, of course, read your Faith versus Fact some time ago and had a quick refresher now by re-reading your USA Today article.

    I’m curious about what you think about the following. You mention the challenge for a believer to tell us what would make him abandon his religious beliefs. My curious question to you would be this: What do you think would have to change about the nature of religious belief to live at peace with scientific knowledge? (Is it enough for religion to stop making epistemic claims? Or is there nothing that could bring about this peaceful co-existence?)

    1. Two things:
      1. Stop believing in stuff without evidence for it and making up stuff with no evidence behind it. That is, no more faith. Of course that rips the viscera out of religion.

      2. Stop making epistemic claims (like you go to Heaven after you die) unless you have a good evidential basis for them.

      In short, you can’t have religion living in peace with science unless it’s not religion as we know it. A very few religions, like Quakerism, may be like this. But even Buddhists believe in stuff like karma and reincarnation that is at odds with science.

      1. Thanks for your replies. This could open up an interesting discussion, of course, but for now I’m happy about you sharing your view

  6. There seems to be a worrying resurgence of theism in the UK. Not least because its population is increasingly atheist.
    There’s been several books by popular historians on how Christianity made us great, the dropped quran nonsense, but worse of all there’s Christians ruining women’s lives by spreading misinformation about abortions. See link for more details.

    1. I’d argue (in support of your views) that the UK is not increasingly atheist but increasingly non-theist. While trying to avoid duelling dictionary definitions, in my opinion many people don’t consider god to be worth ‘being against’ – the concept of god (for or against) is just not part of their worldview.

  7. “…lived in a rectory when he was older…”

    Darwin’s home of 40 years, Down House, had, for a few years in its long history, belonged to the local vicar. To spin that small fact into a claim that he was all but a clergyman is a pretty desperate example of motivated reasoning.


    1. Yes, excellent point. In this country (UK) many churches have fallen into disuse as congregations have fallen and a fair number of these buildings have been repurposed as restaurants, offices and even dwellings. It would clearly be absurd to identify the residents or customers in these repurposed buildings as ‘church goers’ and therefore all but religious!

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