Just a bit more on accommodationism

November 7, 2009 • 8:33 am

by Greg Mayer

Although Jerry’s a bit full up with the accommodationism issue, two recent items, by friends of WEIT, are worth noting. Ophelia Benson, well known to WEIT readers, has a piece in the Guardian,  and Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, editors of 50 Voices of Disbelief, with Russell also being well known to WEIT readers, have a piece in the Guardian as well. (Ophelia recently tangled with the  author of the New Statesman piece that seemed to claim UK courts had declared science to be a religion.)

Jerry at AAI

October 13, 2009 • 7:23 pm

by Greg Mayer

Russell Blackford has posted a picture of his meeting with Jerry at the AAI convention. From the right and behind is not Jerry’s good side. Or at least not a side from which he is very recognizable. And Russell does have a right hand– it only seems to be missing because the podium is the same color wood as the wall behind.

(Added note: in the original post, I spelled Russell with one ‘l’– now corrected. But since one ‘l’ is how Alfred Russel Wallace spelled his name, the error was actually a compliment!)

Rosenhouse, Benson and Blackford on Sullivan on evil

September 23, 2009 • 12:05 pm

Jason Rosenhouse, Ophelia Benson, and Russell Blackford have chimed in on the discussion (which Russell actually started) of Andrew Sullivan’s theodicy.


Update:  Sullivan battles back in two posts on The Daily Dish (see links and my response in the comments to this post).  But, like a hooked fish, he’s getting weaker as he fights. And Jason has sunk another hook here.

Russell Blackford on “knee-jerk atheism”

July 20, 2009 • 7:38 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford once again emphasizes the difference between criticizing religion and being truly “uncivil.”

I do agree that there are some people who could be said to believe in unbelief with a dogmatic and manifest sort of conviction: we even have words for them, such as “knee-jerk atheists”. There are people who will take what they imagine to be the atheist stance on any possible issue and will never be civil or thoughtful, even when dealing with the most liberal (and possibly non-literal) religionists (and I do agree that some are all-too-quick to accuse others of bad faith). . .

I do believe that religion should be challenged publicly, and I’m frankly amazed at the suggestion that nothing turns on the question of whether the epistemic content of the various religions is actually correct. Much, very much, turns on it. The Catholic Church and other religious organisations claim to be in a position to speak with great epistemic and moral authority. This enables them to pronounce in public on all sorts of issues, including abortion rights, censorship, gay rights, stem-cell research, IVF, and on and on. I can think of no more important issue for public consideration than whether or not these organisations really do possess the epistemic and moral authority that they claim – and which politicians and journalists are all too ready to assume they actually have.

There’s also a mini-kerfuffle about the new word “faitheist.”  Ironically, the faitheists themselves are using their moniker to prove that we’re uncivil.

Sean Carroll on the nature of science

July 16, 2009 • 7:22 am

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll (the physics one) has a nice essay on the nature of a scientific question.  He begins with a discussion of the empirical content of religious beliefs, which some (including journalist Jeremy Manier, who comments on this blog) seem to find unimportant or irrelevant in discussing the compatibility of science and faith:

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

Carroll then clarifies what he sees as the main endeavor of scientists; the construction of theories:

The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.

And that’s the crucial point. Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.

He says this about multiverse (multiple-universe) “theories”, which theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller dismiss as “Hail Marys,” desperation passes thrown out by scientists to explain why physical constants appear to be “fine tuned” for the existence of life. Here is what Miller says about multiverses in his book Only a Theory:

Believers . . . are right to remind skeptics and agnostics that one of their favored explanations for the nature of our existence involves an element of the imagination as wild as any tale in a sacred book: namely, the existence of countless parallel simultaneous universes with which we can never communicate and whose existence we cannot even test. Such belief also requires an extraordinary level of “faith” and the nonreligious would do well to admit as much.

In fact, multiverses are not something concocted by scientists to save their cookies; they grow naturally out of some theories of physics.  As Carroll argues:

The same logic applies, for example, to the highly contentious case of the multiverse. The multiverse isn’t, by itself, a theory; it’s a prediction of a certain class of theories. If the idea were simply “Hey, we don’t know what happens outside our observable universe, so maybe all sorts of crazy things happen,” it would be laughably uninteresting. By scientific standards, it would fall woefully short. But the point is that various theoretical attempts to explain phenomena that we directly observe right in front of us — like gravity, and quantum field theory — lead us to predict that our universe should be one of many, and subsequently suggest that we take that situation seriously when we talk about the “naturalness” of various features of our local environment. The point, at the moment, is not whether there really is or is not a multiverse; it’s that the way we think about it and reach conclusions about its plausibility is through exactly the same kind of scientific reasoning we’ve been using for a long time now. Science doesn’t pass judgment on phenomena; it passes judgment on theories.

Carroll then explains why certain religious claims are indeed empirical claims about the real world, and in that sense are scientific:

Now let’s turn to a closely analogous question. There is some historical evidence that, about two thousand years ago in Galilee, a person named Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, and later grew up to be a messianic leader and was eventually crucified by the Romans. (Unruly bloke, by the way — tended to be pretty doctrinaire about the number of paths to salvation, and prone to throwing moneychangers out of temples. Not very “accommodating,” if you will.) The question is: how did Mary get pregnant?

One approach would be to say: we just don’t know. We weren’t there, don’t have any reliable data, etc. Should just be quiet.

The scientific approach is very different. We have two theories. One theory is that Mary was a virgin; she had never had sex before becoming pregnant, or encountered sperm in any way. Her pregnancy was a miraculous event, carried out through the intervention of the Holy Ghost, a spiritual manifestation of a triune God. The other theory is that Mary got pregnant through relatively conventional channels, with the help of (one presumes) her husband. According to this theory, claims to the contrary in early (although not contemporary) literature are, simply, erroneous.

There’s no question that these two theories can be judged scientifically. One is conceptually very simple; all it requires is that some ancient texts be mistaken, which we know happens all the time, even with texts that are considerably less ancient and considerably better corroborated. The other is conceptually horrible; it posits an isolated and unpredictable deviation from otherwise universal rules, and invokes a set of vaguely-defined spiritual categories along the way. By all of the standards that scientists have used for hundreds of years, the answer is clear: the sex-and-lies theory is enormously more compelling than the virgin-birth theory.

Finally, he goes into the methodological naturalism/philosophical naturalism distinction that some people, including Mooney and Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America, use as a stick to beat those mean atheists. As Russell Blackford has shown, this distinction is really a red herring in the discussion about whether science and faith are compatible.

Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.

It’s a nice piece, and I doubt that anyone could construe it as “militant” or “shrill”. Go read the whole thing.

Accommodationism: onward and downward

June 28, 2009 • 7:03 am

Well, God may have rested on Sundays, but atheists don’t. A mini-kerfuffle has begun with yesterday’s posting of science postdoc John Wilkins at his website Evolving Thoughts.  Wilkins listed six “points” for discussion, these being reasons why accommodationism is the proper strategy for addressing the faith/science dichotomy.  They are the usual mix of I-am-a-nice-guyness, religion-and-science-both-find-truth-ness, and the-atheists-are-so-uncivil-ness.

Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers throws cold water on the feebly smoking embers of  Wilkins’s arguments, writing with his usual pungency:  “I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!” He takes Wilkins down point by point; here are my two favorites (Wilkins’s arguments in bold, P.Z.’s responses in plain type):

2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

Frankly, this is one of the more ludicrous arguments made by accommodationists. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would imply that we shouldn’t work to change any long-standing human behavior for, after all, it’s always been with us, so we should just learn to deal with it.  Had the accommodationists been around at the turn of the last century, they might have counseled us to forget trying to get equal rights for minorities and women: people have always discriminated, and we can’t do anything about it.  (And don’t tell me that this comparison is invidious because faith is much nicer than discrimination, because that’s not relevant. Anyway, faith continues to cause dissent, fighting, and murder throughout the world, not to mention the more passive forms of destruction like fighting against condoms in HIV-plagued countries.)

At any rate, we have ample evidence that societies can indeed become less religious: it’s happened over and over again in Europe.  Sweden and Denmark are now virtually atheistic countries, but they didn’t used to be.  France and Germany are on the way.  Don’t tell us that religion will always be with us.  I have faith — if that’s the right word! — that some day grownups will put away their childish faiths.   A corollary to the faith-will-always-be-with-us view is that atheists need to show the faithful how they can survive without religion. Well, that’s really not our responsibility, but clearly people can have full and meaningful lives without religion. See Ophelia Benson on this issue over at the Guardian website Comments are Free.

5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

Indeed.  Some time ago I ran a contest on this site, offering a free autographed book if anybody could come up with a “truth” about the world that was revealed uniquely by faith.  Nobody won — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!  The “truths” that are supposedly found by faith turn out to be nothing more than moral dictums like the Golden Rule.  This is not, of course,  a truth, but a guide to behavior (and rules like this come from secular ethics as well).  Religion is neither constructed in a way to promote the discovery of truth, nor is particularly good at finding it (think of the “truths” of Adam and Eve, the great flood, and the 6,000-year-old universe). And for every Golden Rule, there’s a “truth” like “adulterers should be stoned to death.” Finally, most of the “truths” of different religions are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.  Was Jesus the son of God? Christians adamantly agree; Muslims think that anyone holding that belief is doomed to eternal torment. Let me say it again:  asserting that science and faith are merely different ways of finding “truth” debases our very notion of what “truth” is.

In their more lucid moments, accommodationists recognize this, but you never see them attacking the common claim (made by, among others, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and others) that science and religion are merely different ways of seeking truth.

On his website Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford has two relevant posts.  The first is an analysis of Chris Mooney’s position on the faith/science dichotomy.

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist – it’s difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world’s phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical . .

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking – as far as I can work out – the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it’s bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up . . .

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas – so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument. . .

I’ve given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney’s judgment.

Yes, that’s right.  Although Mooney has repeatedly claimed that he’s not telling any atheist to shut up, I can’t see that he’s saying anything else.  As far as I can make out, Mooney wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it’s strategically bad. If he is saying something else, what is it?

In another post, Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

And then Blackford notes that although Chris Mooney and others deny that they were practicing a form of intellectual censorship, they really were:

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can’t see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that “secularists should not alienate religious moderates” and gave Coyne’s book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don’t know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her – I’m relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala’s recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus “alienate” the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne’s review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala’s book would be such an example).

I have to agree here (surprise!).  What is Mooney asking me to do?  I have tried long and hard to figure it out, but have failed.  If it’s something other than keeping my mouth shut about the irreconciliability of science and faith, I’d like to hear it. I can’t engage in debate when I don’t know what the other side is saying.

(n.b.  Chris Mooney thinks that Wilkins’s post is “brilliant”)

Science and “the transcendent world”

June 17, 2009 • 7:24 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford takes on the idea that only faith can tell us what’s true about the transcendent world.

. . There is no good reason for scientists or advocates of science to suggest that a so-called “transcendent world” exists, that there are spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and the rest, or that religion in general, or any particular religion, can give us reliable information about anything of the kind. Stories of such things may well be charming, they may have cultural and aesthetic value, they may be worth preserving and studying. I don’t say that such stories are entirely without value. On the contrary, I love myth, legend, and folklore as much as anyone. Ask my friends about it if you don’t believe me. But that’s not the same as suggesting that any of these stories are actually true.

Exactly.  I have been reading posts on other websites attacking New Atheists (they’re “new” because their books make money!) for not dealing with the subtle theological issues involved in the science/faith debates. This is the famous “courtier’s reply” described by P.Z. Myers.  But all of these critiques neglect one important point: is there any evidence for the reality of the divine?   It’s the hallmark of a desperate argument to worry about philosophical nuances when the big elephant in the room– the evidence for God — goes unmentioned.  Philosopher Anthony Grayling said it well when, in a letter to the London Review of Books, he defended Richard Dawkins against critic Terry Eagleton:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

Anthony Grayling

Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part I: Throat-clearing

June 16, 2009 • 12:35 pm

The recent debates about accommodating scientific with religious views have been scattered across several websites.  The whole megillah began with a post on Chris Mooney’s site, arguing that the atheist attack on accommodationism was inimical to our joint interest in promoting the understanding of evolution. Mooney also characterized anti-accommodationists as “uncivil.”  Since then, the arguments have bounced between this site and those of Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Russell Blackford, “Erratic Synapse,” and others; I’ve assembled the posts in chronological order here.

In his last post, Mooney called my attention to a recent posting by Kenneth Miller at Brown University responding to my critiques of accommodationism and especially my piece in The New Republic discussing two books, one by Miller and the other by Karl Giberson. I have promised to respond to Miller, although both P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have already published critiques of Miller’s posting.  Indeed, they did such a good job of refuting Miller’s claims that I’m not sure I have much to add. However, I promised to respond and so I will, though with an increasing sense of languor and futility.

Miller’s piece is in six parts: an introduction and five sections, each of the latter having a bold heading.  I propose to respond to each section in turn.  Today I’ll make a few introductory comments, and will tackle Miller’s own introduction tomorrow.  Bear with me: this will take a few days, and I have a day job. 

Revisiting Miler’s prose from his first book, Finding Darwin’s God, through his most recent posting, I observe what others like P.Z. have noticed: Miller is increasingly backing off from the theism he previously espoused. (Indeed, P.Z.’s response is called “Theistic evolution beats a hasty retreat.”)

My theses are these:

1.  While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.  I’ve argued this ad nauseum (as in the New Republic piece) and so won’t go into all the details again.

2.  Miller, as a scientist and a theist, is guilty of diluting (indeed, distorting) science by claiming that God interferes in nature in certain specified ways, and that these ways are in principle detectable.  Some of his assertions, such as that of the inevitability of humanoid evolution, are scientifically insupportable.

3.  Miller denies #2, but the evidence is against him.  In particular, he has suggested a). that God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level; b). that God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends (e.g., the evolution of our own species), a view that cannot be defended as scientific;  c). that the physical constants of the world were constructed by God, or “fine tuned,” to permit life to exist in the Universe;  and d.) the fact that there are “laws” (regularities, really) in the Universe can be understood only as an act of God. The last claim is in fact a God-of-the-gaps argument, since it asserts that the best answer to the question, “Why are there scientific laws at all?” is “God made them.”  Here Miller merely swaps ignorance for “God,” just as creationist Michael Behe swaps ignorance of biochemical evolution for God.

4.  When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities.  I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists.  I further argue that since Miller has made his theism a centerpiece of this debate, he must do more than obliquely suggest “possibilities” for the theist.   He must state publicly what he actually believes vis-a-vis #3, and tell us what reasons he has for his beliefs.  It is my opinion that his failure to ever have done this reflects more than a desire for privacy of faith — after all, Miller is the one who wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God and has made much of his own reconciliation of Catholicism with science. I believe it also reflects an understanding that if he publicly revealed what he believed, he would lose stature, for his beliefs would be seen as  not only unscientific, but embarrassingly superstitious.

5.  The behavior seen in #4 constitutes what I call “wink wink nudge nudge” theism.  Without ever defending his beliefs — or indeed, telling us what they are — Miller nevertheless offers a kind of coded succor to his fellow theists.  This is manifest in his recent string of lectures, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the universe shows “design,” but then backs off, claiming that “I didn’t really mean, folks, that God actually did anything.” Let me repeat — I think this is disingenuous, and that Miller knows exactly what he’s doing.  I suggest that such behavior promotes public confusion about what science does and does not tell us about the universe.  Miller’s “suggestions” for fellow theists involve pointing out ways that nature attests to God.  And, in the end, this is nothing more than a form of creationism.

I have stated many times before that I have enormous admiration for Miller’s accomplishments: he has not only written several excellent biology textbooks (no mean feat, believe me!), but has vociferously defended evolution in the classroom, the courtroom, and other public venues.  I gladly join him in opposing those creationists who want to take good science out of the classroom and replace it with medieval theology.   But we differ in how we view this battle.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will be won until religion’s hold on America loosens.  As a theist, he obviously feels otherwise.

Now that the throat is cleared, more discussion tomorrow.

Blackford 10, NOMA 0

June 14, 2009 • 7:41 am

Over at his website,  Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford (who has been out of town), finally weighs in on the debate about accommodationism. His tactic is to take on Steve Gould’s concept of NOMA, or religion and science as “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

There is more to be said about this, but I’d like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority and that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.

In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.

(Snipped . . . a lot of good arguments)

. . . I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.

Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I’m convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.

All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

I reviewed Gould’s lame book on NOMA, Rocks of Ages, in the Times Literary Supplement some time ago (need I say I was critical?), but it doesn’t seem to be online these days. You can find other reviews here.

Does religion have greater “epistemic authority” than science in some areas?

June 14, 2009 • 5:40 am

Take a look at this article by Tom Clark at Naturalism.org; it’s about the misguided notion that in some areas faith can give us genuine answers to questions before which science is impotent.   This is the NOMA (“nonoverlapping magisteria”) refrain that we hear constantly from organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Are there “ways of knowing” that are not only unique to faith, but provide real answers about the nature of the universe?  I have long thought  that this notion is completely misguided, a conclusion reached in the article. A snippet:

A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural. Some recent statements about the relationship of science and religion make this point:

Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes.  – National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. . . . Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.  – National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58

These statements suggest that faith-based religions, or more broadly, non-empirically based worldviews, might have domains of epistemic competence, for instance in knowing about the supernatural, paranormal or astrological. This in turn suggests that there might be reliable and objective understandings of these domains, lending support to the idea they actually exist. In the last quote above, the National Academy of Science (NAS) contrasts religious and scientific ways of knowing, and says science can’t pronounce on the nature and existence of the supernatural. This implies that religious ways of knowing can, and might be authoritative in confirming its existence the way science is when describing nature. But this is exactly what should not be conceded. By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist.

Note that Eugenie Scott’s quote (she’s director of the National Center for Science Education) clearly implies — if not states outright — that religion is able to tell us something true about the transcendent world.   Really? What is that?  Can it settle the question of whether Jesus or Mohammed was the real prophet? (Note that the Qur’an states flatly that anyone believing  Jesus to be the divine prophet will burn in hell for eternity.)  The “claims” of all major faiths are in direct conflict, so what are the “truths” they tell us?

Thanks for Tom Clark and Ophelia Benson for calling this to my attention. And be sure to bookmark Ophelia’s site, Butterflies and Wheels.