Reader Mark called my attention to an accommodationist essay in Aeon by Tom McLeish, described as “a professor of natural philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York in the UK. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014), Let There Be Science (2016) and The Poetry and Music of Science (2019)”.
McLeish, to be sure, is a scientist of some accomplishment, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and has been awarded several academic medals. He’s also had an ecclesiastical award, having received the Lanfranc Medal from the Archbishop of Canterbury last year “as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith..” But, as you might guess from his piece, he’s also not only been funded by the John Templeton Foundation (see here, for instance), but also is a trustee of the Foundation. I suspect that be a trustee you have to have a demonstrated commitment to accommodationism.
Click on the screenshot below to read the latest attempt to show that science and religion are best buddies:
First, McLeish tries to dispose of the “conflict theory”, which is sometimes framed as the claim that science and religion have constantly been in conflict on all fronts. McLeish (all his quotes are indented):
The late-Victorian origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by the historian James Ungureanu, Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition (2019). Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic worldviews is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new book, Secularity and Science (2019).
Well, even if you frame the theory McLeish’s way, it’s clear that there have indeed been sporadic but strong conflicts between science and religion, beginning with Galileo and extending through the creation-versus-evolution battle that started 160 years ago and continues to this day in the U.S. and Muslim world. But, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, I do see the conflict as “unavoidable” in an important sense: both science and religion make statements about what’s true in the universe, but only science has a way to verify or falsify these statements. That’s why there are so many religions making competing truth claims, with no way to discern a “true” religion.
As far as Dr. Eckland is concerned, she has spent her career pushing the misleading idea that science and religion are in harmony because many scientists are religious. As I’ve argued many times before, all this shows is that some scientists can wall off a superstitious, faith-based way of ascertaining truth from a scientific, empirically-based way of ascertaining truth. It’s amazing to me that Ecklund has risen through the academic ranks by pushing this specious argument, but of course that’s what many people want to hear, including many nonbelievers who just want everybody to get along. (Ecklund, of course, is also heavily funded by Templeton.)
And so McLeish poses his questions:
It seems a good time to ask the ‘so what?’ questions, however, especially since there has been less work in that direction. If Islamic, Jewish and Christian theologies were demonstrably central in the construction of our current scientific methodologies, for example, then what might such a reassessment imply for fruitful development of the role that science plays in our modern world? In what ways might religious communities support science especially under the shadow of a ‘post-truth’ political order? What implications and resources might a rethink of science and religion offer for the anguished science-educational discussion on both sides of the Atlantic, and for the emerging international discussions on ‘science-literacy’?
Frankly, I’m tired of the claim that the foundations of modern science, and of its methods, are deeply rooted in Abrahamic religion. You can show that some early scientists, like Newton, thought that their work was revealing God’s plan, but even so they made progress by relying not on faith but on empirical observation. The methods of science are not the methods of religion, and were developed independently. Further, most good scientists in our day are atheists, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that they’re unwittingly using methods based on religion. Even if faith once motivated men like Newton, that motivation is defunct.
As for the other two questions, well, meh. How, for instance, is the creation-evolution debate going to be ameliorated and resolved by “a rethink of science and religion”?
Onward and upward. What points does the sweating professor make in his essay? I’ll give four. Briefly, they are these (McLeish’s words are indented):
1.) Without theology, the purpose of science is unclear, and even distorted.
. . . theology has retained a set of critical tools that address the essential human experience of purpose, value and ethics in regard to a capacity or endeavour.
Intriguingly, it appears that some of the social frustrations that science now experiences result from missing, inadequate or even damaging cultural narratives of science. Absence of a narrative that delineates what science is for leave it open to hijacking by personal or corporate sectarian interests alone, such as the purely economic framings of much government policy. It also muddies educational waters, resulting in an over-instrumental approach to science formation. I have elsewhere attempted to tease out a longer argument for what a ‘theology of science’ might look like, but even a summary must begin with examples of the fresh (though ancient) sources that a late-modern theological project of this kind requires.
Seriously, do you imagine that atheistic societies, like those in Scandinavia, would have a kind of science that is inferior to that of a more religious country like the U.S.? I doubt it. Britain is less religious than the U.S., and yet both Anglophonic countries do science the same way.
And if science is distorted by economic needs, well, sometimes those needs should be met, and at any rate that distortion is often the result of capitalism, or, as in the case of Lysenko’s Russia, of Communism. The fact is that any ideology can distort science, including theology.
You might be amused by McLeish’s contention that the Book of Job gives us material that is absolutely crucial to a theology of science. But I will drop that hot potato and pass on, giving just one specimen of McLeish’s muddled thought and writing:
The call to a questioning relationship of the mind from this ancient and enigmatic source [The Book of Job] feeds questions of purpose in the human engagement with nature from a cultural depth that a restriction to contemporary discourse does not touch.
I’m not sure that that’s even English. Why must these people write so turgidly?
2.) Theology also promotes the doing of good science.
A project on the human purpose for science that draws on theological thinking might, in this light, draw on writing from periods when this was an academically developed topic, such as the scientific renaissances of the 13th and 17th centuries. Both saw considerable scientific progress (such as, respectively, the development of geometric optics to explain the rainbow phenomenon, and the establishment of heliocentricity). Furthermore, both periods, while perfectly distinguishing ‘natural philosophy’ from theology, worked in an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged a fluidity of thought between them.
And yet the rise of modern biology since Darwin, including molecular biology and genetics, has nothing to do with theology. Jim Watson told me that Francis Crick in particular was motivated to discover the structure of DNA by his antitheism: Crick wanted to demonstrate that the “secret of life” was purely physiochemical in nature.
What McLeish is doing is mistaking correlation for causation. As for the “scientific renaissance of the 13th century”, I know of no such thing. McLeish mentions a few names, but I’m not impressed with the work.
3.) The method of doing scientific experiments derives from theology.
The rise of experimentation in science as we now know it is itself a counterintuitive turn, in spite the hindsight-fuelled criticism of ancient, renaissance and medieval natural philosophers for their failure to adopt it. Yet the notion that one could learn anything general about the workings of nature by acts as specific and as artificial as those constituting an experiment was not at all evident, even after the foundation of the Royal Society. The 17th-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish was among the clearest of critics in her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1668).
For as much as a natural man differs from an artificial statue or picture of a man, so much differs a natural effect from an artificial…
Paradoxically perhaps, it was the theologically informed imagination of the medieval and early modern teleology of science that motivated the counterintuitive step that won against Cavendish’s critique.
Now how did that happen? Because, argues McLeish, Francis Bacon formulated his “experimental philosophy” in theological terms. Adjudicating that claim is above my pay grade, but I’ll add that Galileo (who lived at the same time as Bacon) and the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, who worked on optics, also used the experimental methods, with hypotheses and tests. And did every experimentalist rely on Bacon’s “theology”?
Finally, as I’m growing weary, there’s this:
4.) We need more than the reason inherent in science to do science properly. Here McLeish quotes the critic and philosopher George Steiner to somehow confect a rapprochement between science and theology. If you can understand this kind of postmodern obfuscation, you’re better than I:
[Steiner} Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter…
Steiner’s relational language is full of religious resonance – for re-ligio is simply at source the re-connection of the broken. Yet, once we are prepared to situate science within the same relationship to the humanities as enjoyed by the arts, then it also fits rather snugly into a framing of ‘making accessible the sheer inhuman otherness of matter’. What else, on reflection, does science do?
(The superfluous dissection of words, like that of “religio” in the antepenultimate sentence, is a marker of postmodern writing. It’s showoffy but always contrived.)
What else does science do? Is matter really perceived as “inhuman”? Are the advances of geology and physics scary unless they’re somehow “humanized”? In truth, I don’t know what McLeish is talking about here, and I have a suspicion that neither does he.
In the end, McLeish reveals a motivation for accommodationism that I suspected from the beginning of his piece: his realization that religion, which he apparently embraces, is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world; and he has to show that it’s still relevant. And so he says this:
Although both theology and philosophy suffer frequent accusations of irrelevance, on this point of brokenness and confusion in the relationship of humans to the world, current public debate on crucial science and technology indicate that both strands of thought are on the mark. Climate change, vaccination, artificial intelligence – these and other topics are marked in the quality of public and political discourse by anything but enlightenment values.
Yes, irrationality, confirmation bias, and other psychological distortions of reality are pervasive, and while philosophy itself can contribute to clearing up confusion and framing discussion, theology—which is simply philosophy bent out of shape by a belief in the nonexistent—has nothing of relevance to contribute to matters like climate change and vaccination. Look how theology has already intruded uselessly into discussions of abortion and human reproduction!
And so, and I draw to a close, McLeish’s defense of religion’s value to science strains credulity, drawing on postmodernist Bruno Latour’s “call. . . for a re-examination of the connection between mastery, technology and theology as a route out of the environmental impasse.” If you understand that, call me. But here’s how McLeish uses Latour:
What forms would an answer to Latour’s call take? One is simply the strong yet gentle repeating of truth to power that a confessional voice for science, and evidence-based thinking, can have when it is resting on deep foundations of a theology that understands science as a gift rather than a threat. One reason that Katharine Hayhoe, the Texan climate scientist, is such a powerful advocate in the United States for taking climate change seriously is that she is able to explicitly work through a theological argument for environmental care with those who resonate with that, but whose ideological commitments are impervious to secular voices.
Well, yes, theology should recognize science as a gift rather than a threat. But the fact that McLeish needs to say that already shows anti-science currents among some theologians. And really, citing one religious climate scientist shows that theology is the way forward in solving global warming? Give me a break! If Greta Thunberg—the 16-year-old whose activities have prompted worldwide activism against anthropogenic climate change—is religious, it’s news to me. Thunberg is powerful because she’s angry, highly motivated, and representative of a younger generation that will experience more serious effects of climate change.
McLeish’s piece reads to me like muddleheaded palaver. But what else do you expect when a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation has to justify the value of religion for science? Everyone else besides the faithful already knows that religion has nothing useful to say to science.