Accomodationism for the Greater Good?

Over at, Chris Mooney takes issue with this blog post by Jerry Coyne on what Coyne calls “accomodationism” of religion in stances by the National Academy of Science and the National Center for Science Education, two leading scientific organizations in the US.

I have to side with Coyne on this one. If anyone’s attack is unfair, it is Mooney’s…

Summarizing Coyne’s point (hoping I do him no disservice): professional science organizations have no business taking a position on whether science (evolution or otherwise… but mostly evolution here) is compatible with religion- religion in general or particular religions.

Coyne and others believe that a thorough science is not compatible with religious mindsets; others, such as apparently Mooney, disagree. But whether they are compatible or not is not the issue that Coyne is raising here. In fact, I think Coyne’s point is made succinctly in this passage:

I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.

In the comments for his article, Mooney dismisses this sentiment as “absurd, and again, politically naive”:

In defending the teaching of evolution, the first question that comes up on virtually every occasion relates to religion. In public, or in court for that matter. You cannot dodge this question, because it is at the very heart of the whole controversy and the central motivation behind the anti-evolutionists. Obviously the NAS and the NCSE have to have a stance on it.

Mooney does not explain what is so absurd about the sentiment, and I don’t see why it follows that, because the question comes up, the NAS and the NCSE must have a convenient answer.

Is it not more valid (and honest) to say “we take no position as to the compatibility of science and religion”? Let individuals decide for themselves if and how they can syncretize the two domains. There is no need for a scientific institution to explain to the religious how they can have a side of science with their plate of religion.

Note also that statements of compatibility with religion in general are implicitly statements of compatibility with religions in particular- typically whatever religion the target listener/reader happens to have. Most Christians aren’t much interested in whether science and Buddhism play well together. Claiming that because there might exist a religious system that is compatible with science, therefore religion and science can be compatible is a cynical attempt to mask one’s intent, which is advocacy. You cannot one on the hand appeal to religious people (who follow particular religions) and on the other hand base your lofty assertions on religious beliefs that most of those people probably don’t follow.

Such assertions undercut scientific advancement in a much more subtle, yet more pernicious way. By telling the more moderately religious that science and religion can definitely play together happily in the hopes of keeping them open to science, Mooney is also facilitating the inverse: keeping people more open to religion. Keeping people open to religion may be fine in and of itself, but I don’t see why that should be the job of scientific organizations. That is the job of churches.

The whole agenda of the modern creationist movement has been to preserve the notion that religion can be a viable, even scientific, alternative to naturalism (see the Disovery Institute’s “Wedge Strategy”). The main difference here is that they want to redefine science so that it is in harmony with religion, whereas it seems the accomodationists would like to redefine religion for the same purpose.

I’m sure Mooney does not share their particular religious viewpoints, but by providing for ‘common cause’ with non-scientific epistemologies in order to score some points in courtrooms and school boards, he is leaving the door wide open for the very people against whom he is ostensibly making common cause. Remember that intelligent design is not on its face an anti-evolution argument; it is an anti-Darwinism argument. By inviting other non-Darwinists (such as those who believe that God worked somehow through evolution) to speak on behalf of Darwinism, Mooney may very well find himself unwittingly sleeping with the enemy. To wit, many evangelicals are against intelligent design because it contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible… but I wouldn’t invite them to testify against intelligent design on that basis.

In his article, Coyne cites several problematic passages from these organizations’ public writings, such as the following:

The Bible does not teach us the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Why has the NCSE sponsored an article describing the proper way to interpret the Bible?

Even more puzzling, an essay by Phina Borgeson regarding a theological rejection of intelligent design:

The little we know about God from “intelligent design” is not congruent with an understanding of God that takes Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously. . . In Christian scripture, the central way in which God is related to his creation is, of course, through Christ’s redemption of the suffering of the world. Out of this emerges a theodicy….

Christian scripture? Theodicy? Perhaps Borgeson’s essay is salient among Christian theologians, but please explain why it belongs in a report from the National Center for Science Education. For that matter, please explain why there is apparently a ‘Faith Network Project Director’ (Borgeson’s position at the time) at the NCSE at all. Does the above passage (viewable in full here) indicate any sort of science education is about to commence in the essay? (I’ll save you the time- it doesn’t.) Would you want this dissertation in your public school science classes, or presented for consideration by your school board?

As we can see, such accomodationism risks turning the whole scene into a theological debate. I’m sure that Rev. Borgeson is well informed when it comes to theology. In her essay, she is arguing for a rejection of intelligent design- not for its lack of scientific merit, but for its lack of theological merit. Apparently, the NCSE is okay enough with that expressly non-scientific view as a basis for argument to include it in their publications. Why not include a reading from the Gospel of Luke while they’re at it?

And what if Borgeson is wrong on the theology? By publishing her essay (and indeed, giving her an official office), the NCSE is, if not adopting outright, at least sponsoring, a particular theological viewpoint which conveniently agrees with the organization on this one issue. At the same time, it is inviting others who do not share the theological views of an Episcopal Reverend to overlook what professional scientists have to say on the matter (after all, they’re just in league with those liberal fake-Christians).

I wonder if the NCSE would publish a similar essay from a fundamentalist explaining why the Bible is literally true and that yes, in fact, a Great Flood really did cover the whole earth. If they would not, then I suggest they are being intellectually dishonest by only publishing the non-scientific essay that superficially agrees with them.

The whole episode raises the question of why the NCSE is willing to sponsor non-scientific, theological explanations at all. Within the context of science, the theological merits of Borgeson’s argument are irrelevant because they are completely non-scientific. They are just as enlightening in matters scientific as the opposite theological arguments would be.

Whether or not they convince apprehensive believers to accept evolution is not important. Much more worrying is that this Faustian bargain undermines the foundations of scientific inquiry itself. We are now willing to advance theological arguments in order to persuade more people to accept evolution? That doesn’t sound like an advancement of science to me.

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