Religious accommodationism at Evolution 2010

Amongst evolutionary biologists, there are differing opinions on how to communicate science to the public and increase acceptance of evolution. One of these opinions is religious accommodationism, which attracts much ire from more outspoken activists such as PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. While I happen to agree with them, I do understand not everyone does. There are those who believe science and religion are totally compatible, that theistic evolution is good enough, and that we need to mince our words lest we offend liberal theists who could be on our side.
However, I was surprised to find a whole 2 hour symposium at the Evolution 2010 conference devoted to accommodationism. It was the Communicating Science Symposium, which started with a talk by Robert T. Pennock on Communication Evolution, focusing on audience and message. You all know my love for evolution and communicating it to others, so I was initially very excited for this talk. It definitely had good parts, especially about carefully choosing our wording as to not confuse others (Don’t say you “believe” in evolution, don’t call it “Darwinism,” don’t say you have “faith” in science, etc).

But it quickly went downhill. Much of the talk was about distancing support of evolution with atheistic views – that we need to stress that religion and science is compatible so people in the “middle” can still accept theistic evolution. That people are more willing to accept evolution if they hear it from their pastor. He lauded Francis Collins and the BioLogos foundation for being pro-evolution…even though BioLogos just had a piece trying to reconcile Biblical Adam and Eve with evolution.

That’s why there’s a problem with accommodationism. It’s more about winning numbers for your cause than truly communicating and educating people about evolution. Are people truly supporters of evolution if they’re not accepting it as a natural process? Do people really understand natural selection if they think God is zapping in mutations or had a plan for humans to eventually evolve? Why is it that our tactic involves people preserving their religious beliefs (which are based on faith), but molding science (which is based on facts) to fit their world view? If anything, it should be the other way around. Religion should have to accommodate science.

The reason why people feel compelled to do this is because religion holds a special status in our society where it can’t be criticized, even when it’s blatantly wrong. This really came out in the second part of the symposium, which was by a woman from AAAS (I unfortunately missed her name). She said there’s no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we’re extremists who won’t change our minds.

Yep – we don’t want to potentially alienate theistic allies, but it’s totally okay to ignore those atheist extremists. Why is theism worth accommodation, but secular opinions are not? I commented on this in the Q&A, saying if they’re accommodating religion they should also accommodate secular opinions, but all I received was an awkward “Okay” and the Q&A ended – where every other question got a long reply.

I guess it’s just disappointing seeing such a one sided representation of “communication” at a large conference. Should have spent my morning going to the research based talks.


  1. says

    Ack. That makes evolution too much like religion. Only the initiated will understand it, and they will have to hide its implications from the masses or people will lose faith. Reading a science textbook won’t make you lose your science, but actually reading and comprehending the bible or koran, or whatever, certainly could make you lose your religion.

  2. Pzmyers says

    Jerry Coyne is in Portland, too. Did he wisely skip that session, knowing what a sorry mess it would be?

  3. Katy says

    Sam Miller’s book The End of Faith talks a lot about how criticizing religion in any form is so taboo, when it should be criticized. Why should logical, evidence-based theories and ideas bend to illogical and irrational belief in things that have no evidence whatsoever? It sounds like the speakers in that session were trying to separate evolution from any “philosophical” views about the world, but I think it’s pretty silly to try to accommodate views with no basis in fact when talking about evolution, which is based on clear evidence.

  4. Angry Atheist says

    Agreed! I’d love to hear the reconciliation story. It sounds definitely entertaining.

  5. Rex says

    I am in total agreement with your post. I think it is a great example of how far the non theist community has to go before reason can truly prevail.Sadly, we are the minority, and as such we have to live in a very tainted marketplace of ideas.

  6. Vanessa says

    Well, given that we can’t prove that God or some other force isn’t behind evolution, I think it’s still a good thing to accept the religious who choose to put their own spin on evolution. I mean hey, as long as they aren’t blatantly calling evolution a lie, why should we care?

  7. Jerry Coyne says

    Naaa. . . . I had NO idea that the symposium would be like this. I don’t at all agree with the sentiments described above, of course, especially the idea that Francis Collins and BioLogos somehow represent an ideal of science communication. For crying out loud, BioLogos is, as Jen said, busy trying to show that science is consistent with the idea of a historical Adam and Eve. That kind of accommodation makes mockery of our respect for data.

  8. Tommy says

    To put your own spin on a theory that has such overwhelming evidence behind it isnt really okay in my book (that goes for any proven fact by the way). Its a dangerous path where bending of proven facts become accepted practice and nothing good can come of it. Disproving a fact sure, but untill you do you (or someone else does) accept it for what it is.

  9. Ken_Pidcock says

    But, of course, religion does have to accommodate science. The religious have had to accommodate science ever since rational inquiry proved useful, and let me tell you that they’re growing damned tired of it.

  10. says

    The longer I am alive, the more I understand accommodation as lacking the courage of your convictions. It is not compromise, but bending a knee in failure and fear.

  11. K.W. Ramsey says

    I agree that it’s sad to see such a one-sided view of communication. It’s even more sad that it seems to becoming more and more common. I can think of two incidents I was a part of in the last 6 months where this was the case. Maybe it’s just me, but I enjoy an open debate and seeing many different viewpoints. I think there is strength in that.

  12. says

    I guess it depends on what the goal is. Getting people to accept evolution is an accomplishment, but one of limited value if we are still compromising with the rest of the religious gibberish.

  13. DataJack says

    No, that’s not how it works. You don’t have to “prove” god isn’t behind evolution, just like you don’t have to “prove” leprechaun’s aren’t behind it. Evolution works as described. If you want to insert an undetectable director into it, the burden of proof is on you.

  14. says

    “She said there’s no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we’re extremists who won’t change our minds.”Er… Atheists won’t change our minds about what, exactly? As far as I know, the overwhelming majority of atheists accept science in general and evolution in particular. Isn’t that supposed to be the whole point of accomodationism? To bring people to accept science?

  15. James F says

    Are people truly supporters of evolution if they’re not accepting it as a natural process? Do people really understand natural selection if they think God is zapping in mutations or had a plan for humans to eventually evolve? Why is it that our tactic involves people preserving their religious beliefs (which are based on faith), but molding science (which is based on facts) to fit their world view? If anything, it should be the other way around. Religion should have to accommodate science.

    A few points. The “zapping” strikes me as ID and not TE, although the divine plan for humans would generally fit TE. Importantly, the latter view takes what is scientific reality (human evolution) and ascribes a divine purpose to it, rather than tossing it aside in a creationist fashion. For TE-espousing religions, religion has accommodated science with respect to evolution and natural processes, with the exceptions – depending on where along the scale of deism to theism a given faith lies – of certain historical miracles, which thankfully don’t lend themselves to science classroom discussions. So yes, I’d argue that, in this fashion, religious people can be supporters of evolution. I imagine there will always be tension in the evolution/science advocacy ranks because its members fall into different camps in the theism vs. atheism conflict, but excluding atheists from the discussion as per the AAAS speaker’s opinion is not the way to smooth things over.

  16. says

    I do wish the theists would make their minds up about whether to dismiss atheists as either dogmatic and dug-in or so weak-minded that we’re liable to be swayed by any ‘new’ religion which comes along – I saw atheists as a group described as likely to all convert to islam on CNN a few years ago by one cretin in a debate on faith which managed to go ahead and discuss atheists with no-one there to represent the position (if there is such singular thing)!Makes me glad I’m in England, which (on the whole) appears to be in a better state when it comes to matters such as this.

  17. L. Long says

    There is no accommodation. Even with theisium (?) the person who says g0d did it at the beginning and then used evolution and science after that. Is still nothing cuz the average person will still think ‘g0d did it!!’ S/He/It will still not bother to understand anything.The main reason is that at the high end of ANY science are the ‘priests’-‘Wizards’-‘whatever’ because how does a scientist explain a double differential equation that takes up 3 pages???It is no real difference in religion when it comes to ‘understanding it’ it must be carefully studied and researched. The BIG difference is the ‘con artist’ can make up pretty stories about how the big strong daddy will take care of his poor little kiddies and then rub their tummies to make them feel good…..Something you cannot do in science. It requires self-motivated ADULTS to face the terrifying reality of ‘MAYBE’ and then ‘nothing’. The little kiddies will not face the slap in the face of reality and uncertainty. The will fold into the fetal position with their heads shoved into a dark place murmuring prayers to their big daddy.There is no fight between atheists & theists, the fight is between the facing uncertainty and unknown and curling up in a corner and being delusional, they will always fight against ANYTHING that tries to pull the delusion from their eyes.

  18. Vanessa says

    I think my argument is moot anyway. I was trying to say that religion and science can coexist, but that wasn’t the point of this blog post.

  19. says

    She said there’s no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we’re extremists who won’t change our minds. I guess my atheism is extremist–I extremely believe in science and reason, which I thought would have been the point of that conference. Creationists are on the extreme where they, um, don’t because they make stuff up, which isn’t, as I understand it, science. I think the error is thinking that there has to be symmetry about these things: a villian at both edges.But the other problem I see with this is: the disease of thinking in terms of “framing” has really gone wide. The term “atheist” is one of those things like the label “liberal” or feminist”–people might suscribe to the concept, but they are going to go with “agnostic”, “progressive” or “not a feminist, but…” But just because people don’t care for a label shouldn’t mean that people necessarily can’t work with the people to whom that label happens to apply. It’s not like a label has “cooties.”I mean, it just doesn’t seem possible to me that atheism makes anyone less a good teacher of a thing that is manifestly correct, any more than being a “liberal” evolutionist or a “feminist” evolutionist. If the issue a person takes with something like what happens to be good science is as shallow as “clashes with my biases/lifestyle”, they possibly might not be the “reachable” people.

  20. Theron says

    It’s all about telling a despised minority to keep quiet and not annoy the bigots. It’s something every despised minority has been told, and it has never ever worked. It’s profoundly insulting, and these people need to be reminded again and again that they are accommodating bigots, which makes them bigots themselves.

  21. Zach Voch says

    Vanessa,Your model of “coexistence” is, in a nutshell, “let them twist the science around so long as they don’t reject it entirely.”Anybody, even a creationist, can pick and choose the science they like to keep their doctrines tenable. Selectively ignoring science and using arguments is not accommodation to science, it’s rejection of science if that is to mean anything at all.It’s more properly a demand for consistency. Ken Miller will happily use the God-of-the-Gaps to fit his model while criticizing it as used by IDers, for example, and there are plenty of others by various theistic evolutionists. Theistic evolutionists will often employ the same arguments based on a twisted anthropic principle that the IDers use, happily abusing Astronomy in the very same way that they so accurately destruct when done by IDers in Biology.Do we, out of some sense of politeness, say “well ok you can do it but the IDers can’t”?More accurately, some religion and science can coexist smoothly, but the range is very narrow indeed with respect to the population. For this reason, it is misleading, even dishonest, to say that religion and science are compatible.

  22. skepticalmedia says

    I am confident that the earth is a sphere, not flat. That must make me a “spherical earth extremist” since I don’t feel I need to accommodate or acknowledge the few people who believe the earth is flat.

  23. Epistaxis says

    Maybe it’s a wedge strategy…Seriously, though, does anyone actually have any *evidence* that one approach works better than the other? Even anecdotal? How many people has Richard Dawkins converted (to accepting evolution), and how many has Francis Collins converted? I honestly have no idea. My pessimistic guess is that neither of them recruits many people from the other side, but at least Dawkins gets his own side fired up.

  24. Zach Voch says

    Oblate spheroid with minor variations assuming smoothness, you dogmatic spherist!

  25. kendermouse says

    Before I was old enough to have a choice about going to church, I started to wonder if it was possible that those “seven days” might have been due to a difference between how god sees time, and how we do. After all, to us, a day is when the sun goes around the earth, and god was supposed to have created the sun. So I figured, who’s to say that one of god’s days wasn’t a few, (or even several,) thousand years to us? I still use that argument on people who try to insist that everything was made in seven days.

  26. Aquaria says

    That’s a horrible argument because it’s equally as free of evidence as the 7 day proposition. All you’ve done is replace a mistaken idea with another mistaken idea. Meaning zero progress in thinking critically.

  27. Randall Morrison90 says

    Jen, I think that picture is very sexy. You have two great big…uh, eyes. Love ya.

  28. says

    (paraphrased) “Inclined to believe in evolution because they hear about the compatibility from their clergy”? Never mind the usual quibble about “believe in”, this is unfortunate – this is exactly an illustration of the incompatibility we incompatibilists have been harping on for years. I don’t want Joe and Jill Schmoe (who are often more intelligent and capable than they are often given credit for, too) adopting a view because a cleric, football player or actor tells them they should, I want them adopting a view because they have come to the view rationally.

  29. says

    It’s also a horrible argument because the word used in the original text specifically refers to a 24-hour day.So yeah, it all makes sense if you interpret it as metaphor. But then it’s a metaphor, and not literally true, and thus not useful for discovering anything about reality. It’s like getting a creationist to accept evolution by saying that when we say the universe is 13.75 billion years (or so) old, the word “year” isn’t really literally a year.

  30. says

    Theistic evolutionists who believe God planned for mankind to evolve do not believe in natural selection; it cannot be natural if it was preordained by a divine being. They also tend to presuppose that mankind is the final creation, and that nothing new will evolve from us (or, in some cases, from anything at all).

  31. Sir Craig says

    She said there’s no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we’re extremists who won’t change our minds.

    Rather sweeping BS statement there on that woman’s part. How is being an atheist “extremist”? We’re born into this world three things: 1. Naked; 2. Covered in slime; 3. Atheist. If anything, the moment religious inculcation begins marks the start of extremism.What this nameless woman and millions of other accomodationists/religionists fail to appreciate is it is up to them to prove their point when it comes to trying to marry objective science with mythological nonsense. They will fail every time, but if in the unlikely event they should actually manage to produce that proof of the cosmic teapot or the pre-cambrian bunny it would be incredibly foolish of me to deny that proof.So who is the actual extremist here?

  32. Slkiser says

    The main point is being lost in the emotional reactions to the statement. Why should evolutionary scientists need to talk to atheists? The speaker made the mistake of including this end of the spectrum being presented. The point was more about who should we target for discussions about evolution. I was at the workshop.

  33. says

    Fuck all, some people are just spineless. Since when is acceptance more important than the fucking TRUTH??? Why should I surrender my integrity in order to accommodate religious beliefs of any kind?In a court of law, any such “accommodation” would be perjury.

  34. SLC says

    1. I would appreciate a definition of “theistic evolution.” For instance, Ken Miller, who self identifies as a theist, rejected that nomenclature as applied to him in a comment on Larry Morans’ blog.2. Prof. Miller used to argue that the rise of humans was planned. However, AFAIK, he has backed off somewhat from that argument and now argues that the rise of intelligent beings was inevitable. I think that this is a defensible position which is supported by the increase in encephalization in going from Jurassic dinosaurs to Cretaceous dinosaurs and the increase in mammal encephalization over the last 50 million years.

  35. Geoff_n says

    The “woman from AAAS” sounds like it might have been Jennifer Wiseman, judging from her statements.

  36. lsmead says

    I can’t disagree more with the description of the Education Symposium – and I, like SlKiser, was there. “Much” – which according to Merriam Webster means “great in quantity, amount, extent or degree” – of the session was NOT “about distancing support of evolution with atheistic views”. Among other points mentioned was certainly the importance of communicating evolution to those people in the middle of the spectrum, those who accept evolution but somehow believe god was involved in the process. This is, after all, a large part of the American public – and to whom we must attempt to communicate the science of evolution- but the point here was to explain that even the group in the middle is diverse, and we need to acknowledge that as well. When the subject of atheists was brought up, it was in reference to the extremes of the distribution, not that atheists are extremists. I guess if you are particularly sensitive about being an atheist, you could draw such an inference – but it was not the main message of the symposium.

  37. Robert N Stephenson says

    Oh well, all I can say is the Atheist will never be happy – unless happy is a scientific principle documented and testable of course.Evolutionary science needs to be taught alongside social science and even touches of anthropology.Religion didn’t just happen, it grew with people, changed as they changed. Even the modern Christian is way more with the science community that the Christian of 1950Many Atheistic views do not stop with the science unfortunately – they show the direct anti-stance no matter what, no matter what is said, offered or understood. The evolution of life the universe and everything does need to also combine beliefs when being displayed or taught in religious settings.I could give some insight into Christian history without stepping on the toes of the Atheist’s belief system – something I feel the modern Atheist is still yet to learn.It is time to climb down off the towers of righteousness on every side, give up the symbolic chest beating and learn some respect. We teach our children aspects of respect for others, then why do we, when faced with discussion dispose of it because we want to be ‘right’Generally I find some views childish and I have to wonder why bother discussing anything if the only thing you want from the discussion is for the person/persons to agree with you without question.Perhaps there also needs to be an understanding of the evolution of social communication as well.

  38. exemplify says

    Next time Jen,strap on a Bomb, blow the hell up if they refuse to accommodate atheists but allow theists.

  39. Rhb says

    And I always thought that the whole point of atheism was not having a belief system.

  40. Zenlite says

    Which is why I like the Catholic Churches official position that if it is not possible for religion and science to conflict, only appear to do to a lack of proper understanding of the both. While it is just as often used to say that our understanding of the Universe is flawed, it is also the position behind the Church’s official position that Darwinian evolution is “how God did it.” From a socio-political standpoint it was a rather genius move, but I guess Rome never really fell, did it, it just got better at being an Empire.

  41. Zenlite says

    Anyone who thinks atheists, as a group, are capable of being dogmatic have absolutely no idea what an atheist is.There’s nothing to be dogmatic about and certainly no position to be dug-in to. At least not unless we start describing not-foxholes as foxholes.

  42. says

    Robert N…some GOOD, THOUGHTFUL points there.Basically, the Catholic Church is saying we know these few points to be true. And if science isn’t arriving at the same conclusion, scientists need to do more research, make further discoveries, etc. Through Mitochondrial Eve we know that humanity did, indeed, descend from one woman. Adam becomes harder to prove. But Catholics have the inspired book of Tobit (not found in Protestant bibles) to illuminate further:Tobit 8:6 You it was who created Adam, you who created Eve his wife to be his help and support; and from these two the human race was born. You it was who said, ‘It is not right that the man should be alone; let us make him a helper like him.’That settles it for us, Catholics.Anyway, as a sidebar, the fastest way to shutdown Protestants, Jews, and their erroneous biblical exegesis is to point out to them that THEIR BIBLES WERE DELIBERATELY ALTERED at Jamnia to stop the spread of Christianity. And that’s why Protestants remain so f***ed up in the realm of faith and morals. They lean on changeling Jewish bibles!JESUS and the Apostles quoted from the LXX, but the Jews and later the even dumber Protestors quote from the Jamnia canon. Early Church Fathers immediately discovered the Jamnian errors when they got hold of copies of the Jamnia bibles. Those remaining first century Jews had deliberately changed their own bibles to remove the myriad of Christological references. The passages that back up Jesus’ claims! Even entire books had to be dispensed with!Recently, Protestant versions of the bible have been sneaking the 7 deleted books back into THEIR bibles by putting them in the Apocrypha. Like we wouldn’t notice!Anywho…atheists often quote supposed biblical errors…saying the Catholics have errors in their bibles, or are “reaching” with some biblical interpretations!And what versions of the bible do these know-it-all atheists use to show me errors?Jamnian based versions!Reconstruction is proving to be impossible…ignorance is rampant!I desperately need one of those Star Wars light sabres…A good CATHOLIC OVERVIEW of Creationism and Evolution can be found here:…BEST QUOTES:SCIENCE cannot prove or disprove God’s existence because God is outside the limits of empirical measurement. Therefore, ATHEISM is only a philosophy. Even with all the scientific quotes they use, it is NOT BASED ON SCIENCE. We must be very diligent in making sure human secularism based on atheism does not hijack science which is independent of any religious belief, including atheism.

  43. Theron says

    Um, NeverwasanArrowII, wrong, wrong, wrong. “Atheism is only a philosophy, blah, blah, blah.” No, there is no evidence for God. Thus not believing in God is no different than not believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or Leprechauns. It is absolutely NOT a religious belief. Religious beliefs are based on faith despite a lack of evidence. Atheism is simply a result of empiricism, and has nothing to do with faith. This notion that atheism is just one more religion is utter nonsense. You might as well say that American’s general willingness to eat pork and beef is “religious,” since some people have religious bans on eating same. Really, religious folks need to get off their high horse – it ain’t all about you.

  44. Jim says

    I’m going to reply directly to the original post.So why is “accomodationism” a better strategy?1. Multiple mainstream religious organizations have already officially embraced evolution. Therefore, they are willing to work with science educators, and this has been empirically proven. If the goal is for people to be more scientifically literate, whatever else they may or may not believe is irrelevant, and no one else’s business.2. If a religious organization has established that they believe evolution is compatible with their beliefs, disputing that claim then becomes a religious debate. That is, you would be telling them what you think they are supposed to believe, and that is never a winning strategy. Furthermore, you will look just as stupid as intelligent design advocates when they try to argue that evolution is pseudoscience.

  45. RLynde says

    Isaac Asimov quote “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

  46. Skywalker says

    “Evolutionary science needs to be taught alongside social science and even touches of anthropology.”No, it needs to be taught in biology class. It has nothing to do with social science. Some studies of very recent human evolution do intersect with anthropology.

  47. Skywalker says

    “Basically, the Catholic Church is saying we know these few points to be true. And if science isn’t arriving at the same conclusion, scientists need to do more research, make further discoveries, etc”And that’s totally backwards – you’re starting from your conclusion and then looking for evidence to support it. Rational inquiry works the other way.

  48. says

    It takes far more faith to be an atheist, than to be a believer in the divine. Atheism is a delusion. Atheists are more about venting…than proving.Atheists spend an awful lot of time in the religious sphere. Without qualification. Course, I can’t blame’em. Science is a dreadful bore.Dawky has made some incredibly stupid statements.”What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.”And I’M supposed to take this guy, seriously?”Really, religious folks need to get off their high horse – it ain’t all about you.”Theron, you’re right about that. It’s all about God.

  49. Pablo says

    2. If a religious organization has established that they believe evolution is compatible with their beliefs, disputing that claim then becomes a religious debate. That is, you would be telling them what you think they are supposed to believe, and that is never a winning strategy.

    This is true, but it cuts both ways. At the same time, telling others that their religious beliefs ARE compatible with evolution is equally religious.The proper answer is to say, “Here is what evolution is. ” and give them the facts of it. How people compartmentalize that within their religion is their issue, not scientists.Scientists have no business telling others whether evolution is compatible with their religion or not. Evolution is what it is, and is a scientific fact. The religious implications are up to religions to decide.

  50. furiouslysleepy says

    There’s no “force behind evolution”. That’s the whole point.

    Ultimately, saying god guides evolution is to say that god guides probability, which means that you don’t understand how probability works.

    You cannot reconcile god with the idea that humanity’s existence is not inevitable, in fact it’s distinctly unlikely.

  51. furiouslysleepy says

    On Earth, mayyyybe. In the grand scheme of things, Earth is very unlikely. We’re still not sure how frequent intelligent life is in the universe, so claiming that it is inevitable seems like a scientific claim.

  52. furiouslysleepy says

    Too detailed to be a troll, too funny to be believable.

    If you’re real, here’s a starting point: mitochondrial eve was not a human being. Think about that.

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