Saturday, June 26, 2010

An anti-accommodationist salvo

In order to give a feel of the debate, or at least parts that I've stumbled across, I want to look at an article by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic. Later I'll look at replies both supporting and arguing against Coyne.

I think it's fair to say that Coyne is firmly in the anti-accommodationist camp. He wrote the New Republic article to review books by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson that attempt to reconcile religion and science. Miller, and Giberson, both scientists, believe that religion and evolution are compatible, that is, they belong to the accommodationist camp. Being religious and scientists this would be inevitable, though many accommodationists are atheists, just not of the new variety.

Coyne's article covers the political and philosophical aspects of the debate. The political aspect is concerned with how to change the fact that many Americans do not accept the science of evolutionary theory because it conflicts with their specific religious beliefs. This means the political dispute arises from the philosophical. As I've stated before the so called new atheists, and thus anti-accommodationists, are loud and proud, or strident and shrill depending on your own vantage point. For them attacking creationism with science and rationality is par for the course. This rankles many. According to Coyne, for some accommodationists at least, the fault then lies at the feet of the new atheists. If only the uppity atheists would tip-toe around the thorny issue of compatibility so that the faithful would have no problem reconciling their beliefs and evolution.

So the obstacle to understanding is not religion, it is those aggressive atheistevolutionists who won't shut up.

If this statement is accurate then there is a denial of free speech here and an unsupported assertion that the rejection of evolutionary theory has accompanied the recent phenomenon of atheists asserting their message and challenging religious hegemony. It is easy to see that this would upset the anti-accommodationists and that they couldn't endorse a policy based upon it. One could be snarky here and suggest that given that evolution has been rejected by some segments of the religious for many decades and new atheism is so recent then perhaps it's an example of reverse causation.

It is reported that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) supports a broadly accommodationist stance as it has a statement that

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith.

but not mentioning that many scientists do not find specific religious beliefs and evolution compatible. This is problematic because the anti-accommodationists feel that the body should take no political position on the issue and solely focus on advancing science. It should not be partisan. It follows then that they would not endorse the NAS supporting any anti-accommodationist stance either.

On the philosophical side the article raises different versions of compatibility in dispute; first psychological compatibility,

there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind

and epistemic incompatibility,

[t]he real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?

Coyne continues by arguing that one way to make science and religion compatible in an epistemic sense is to redefine one to be encompassed by the other. If by religion we mean pantheism, identifying nature with god, then there is no incompatibility between science and religion for example. This point is important because there are versions of religious beliefs that are or can be made philosophically compatible with scientific knowledge. Philosopher's gods, such as deistic or ground of all being deities seem compatible with science, at least they don't contradict the knowledge derived from science specifically because they make no claims to knowledge about the observable. But these deities have lost their personal nature and thus what makes them appealing to many believers. Why pray to an indifferent force or entity? My previous post stated that epistemic incompatibility was between science and religion. But that was so indefinite as to be wrong. It is between the knowledge we derived from science and specific religious claims that incompatibility arises. A question then is whether believers are happy to alter or give up any beliefs that are incompatible with scientific knowledge. Young Earth creationists reject evolutionary theory because it directly conflicts with their beliefs about the origin of humans and the age of the Earth.

Coyne offers some more examples of somewhat procrustean attempts to make science and religious claims compatible and in the end, which is not surprising for an anti-accommodationist, finds them unsatisfactory.

I recommend reading the article as I believe Coyne shows none of the stridency or shrillness often attributed (mostly falsely in my opinion) to the new atheists while still disagreeing with Miller and Giberson. Again I'd just like to point out the above is my understanding of the issues and whilst I'm biased I hope I haven't seriously misrepresented anybody. If I have please feel free to point this out in the comments.


  1. While the comments on the political side are valid, the problem is that you do point out that politically some religious people reject evolution because they think it incompatible (in some sense) with their religious beliefs. So, if these atheist/evolutionists come in from the other side saying that they're right and implying ANYTHING like "Teach evolution means disproving religion", that's clearly going to make the political situation WORSE, since the consequences of evolution -- according to them -- mean refuting religions and so teaching evolution really is directly addressing a religious view. And then claims that even in science that has to be acknowledged and the other side presented seem valid for a society that isn't supposed to support or condemn any religions.

    So, it's far better to simply have the idea that evolution, in and of itself, doesn't address religions. There may be some potential religious consequences, but science says nothing about them. It's up to philosophy and theology to settle that. That would help settle the political issues down and still allows the atheist/evolutionists to in some sense espouse their view since they can do philosophy and theology (which are very welcoming fields [grin]).

  2. V Troll alert.
    "So, if these atheist/evolutionists come in from the other side saying that they're right and implying ANYTHING like "Teach evolution means disproving religion""

    A straw man argument. Few people do that. Most propose to teach evolution and critical thinking and let people make up their own minds. After all, evolution by natural selection is a theory based on tons of evidence, unlike faith which is based on dogma, in spite of evidence.

    Also, V fails to acknowledge the issue of the NAS, NCSE and other organizations that should be neutral but are accommodationistic.

  3. NEB -- I have read some of V blog - can I say pull your head in sir. You either discuss the relevance of the issue at all or you do not. I was taught in school evolution debunked religion and even today atheist teachers in my local schools go to great lengths to drive home their anti-religious stands. This is okay though, because it isn't a religion.

    The use of Troll alert is perhaps better suited to you, sir. so easy you call such things with out proof or evidence

  4. Robert N Stephenson, go read WEIT blog where the troll has hijacked numerous threads with thick, dense, irrelevant, theistic verbiage. He has been called a troll by numerous people. So, I stand by what I said.