Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Not So Gnu and Different

I seem to have helped touch off another round of the accommodationist / incompatibleist wars.

Josh Rosenau and Jerry Coyne have been going at it and others are chipping in. The posts I've noticed so far:


Minor Coyne snark

The danger of certainty

Gnus can be gnice!

Accommodationist statements by scientific organizations
Others include Sean Carroll, Russell Blackford and Larry Moran.

As usual, there is much talking past each other.

I think Russell Blackford has, perhaps unintentionally, hit on the problem that we "accommodationists" see with the "incompatibleists." In defending Coyne, Russell says: the "anti-accommodationist camp ... see a genuine and serious difficulty in reconciling a worldview based on science and reason with worldviews based on religion." I agree!

But the question really is whether "a worldview based on science and reason" is the same thing as "science." I fully accept that the worldviews of Coyne, Blackford and the other Gnu Atheists are incompatible with religion of any sort ... and will fight for their right to express it. They do not, however, have a right to identify, particularly in public schools in America*, their worldviews with "science" ... any more than the IDers do.

If the Gnu Atheist "worldview" is not the same as "science," then how is it wrong to point out that science is not incompatible with all religious worldviews? In that regard, Coyne makes a strange claim. He begins:

My view, which is similar to that of people like P. Z. Myers and Larry Moran, is that the NCSE should stay away from what is essentially a theological pronouncement and stick to science itself. If they discuss religion at all, I think they should limit their words to something like, "There is a diversity of opinions about the compatibility of science and faith."

But then he cites as "accommodationist" statements those that include caveats such as:

The sponsors of many of these state and local proposals seem to believe that evolution and religion conflict. This is unfortunate. They need not be incompatible.

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith.

To be sure, disagreements do exist. Some people reject any science that contains the word "evolution"; others reject all forms of religion. The range of beliefs about science and about religion is very broad. Regrettably, those who occupy the extremes of this range often have set the tone of public discussions. Evolution is science, however, and only science should be taught and learned in science classes.

Clearly, Coyne is demanding more than that there be an acknowledgment of a diversity of opinions about the compatibility of science and faith ... either that, or he is incapable of reading.

The bottom line is that, if Coyne can dialogue with theists with respect, despite his differing worldview, then anyone, including science organizations, can dialogue with theists by recognizing the difference between worldviews and science.

I do agree with Coyne on one point: it is one thing for a science education organization to make broad statements that there may be a way to hold a religious worldview and still accept the results of science and quite another to have a "Faith Project," seemingly dedicated to making theological arguments for accepting science.


* A point Michael Ruse tried to make recently, though clumsily.


Meh. Those statements seem to me to be carefully obfuscating the distinction between what I call "social" compatibility (ie. that many people do, in fact, arrive at a reconciliation satisfactory to themselves) and "logical" compatibility (ie. whether any such reconciliation is actually sound). If Coyne et al are reading them one way it's because the statements -- typical of PR statements -- are in fact, ambiguous.
If I understand your criticism, it seems you are misunderstanding Coyne. You said:

“Clearly, Coyne is demanding more than that there be an acknowledgment of a diversity of opinions about the compatibility of science and faith ... either that, or he is incapable of reading.”

Yes, of course he is demanding more than the acknowledgement of a diversity of opinions. In the passage of his that you just quoted, he is asking for the removal of the explicit statements that Compatibility is the only correct view. That is why he says they should limit their statements to describing the diversity.

These statements that he quoted do, as you say, include caveats. However the exclusivist claims they also include clearly negate those caveats for each institution.

AAAS: “Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

Nat’l Academies
“Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true.

If they are to avoid making a statement that enshrines Compatiblism as their official stance, they need to keep the caveats, but remove the exclusivist claims. As it is, don't the caveats suggest that some people INCORRECTLY view religion and science (evolution, really) as incompatible?
One thing I noticed in all of those statements to which Coyne objected is that they were about whether evolution conflicted with religion, which is a far more straightforward question than whether science conflicts with religion. Indeed, all the statements that Coyne quoted about how evolution need not conflict with religion are, well, true, since conflict between evolution and one's religion depends on the particulars of the religion.

The one statement that did discuss science and religion at length said both that "science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways" (which is technically true, FWIW) and also "Religious faith ... is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence" (which is somewhat damning of religion). Even this statement only said that conflict between science and religion don't necessarily conflict.

None of these statements say that science (or evolution, as J.J. points out) and religion are compatible or what is the "correct" view. Even the AAAS statement, that arguably comes closest, is supporting the claim that they "need not be incompatible." (The National Academies statement is about how newspapers portray the issue and I always assume that the media gets it wrong.) We might quibble over whether "the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view" but not over whether that is one of of the "diversity of opinions about the compatibility of science and faith." Coyne's view seems to be that it is wrong to discuss the diversity of views and I still don't understand why.


I think you need to rename your categories. It is easy to make something "logically compatible" ... just adjust your premises, as in Omphalos. I think your groping for something like "worldview compatibility."
NCSE is not really a "science education organization" in its broad sense, educating people on science and science alone. Rather NCSE has a different focus (http://ncse.com/about).

"The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents and concerned citizens working to keep evolution in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific, educational, and legal aspects of the creation and evolution controversy, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 4000 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious affiliations."

NCSE does not deliver science education, rather its purpose is to foster education about evolution in US public schools. With that purpose, rather than that of being being a repository and distributor of science information. the NCSE's efforts to reach out to religious folk through things like their "Faith Project" and make them allies in the fight to preserve good evolution (and thus science) education in US public schools make perfect sense. Frankly, failing to make such efforts would be negligent of them.
What was encouraging to me was that Coyne has finally noticed what some have been pointing out for years, namely that, regardless of whether the issue is religious belief or political ideology, the real danger come from unwarranted certainty or absolutism.

In the end, it struck me that the harmful and destructive nature of faiths may be correlated with how much doubt resides in their adherents...The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know God’s will and God’s mind. It’s that certainty that leads to suicide bombing, repression of women and gays, religious wars, the Holocaust, burning of witches, banning of birth control, repression of sex, and so on. The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others.

The same could also be said of atheism, of course, particularly the gnu species.
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