The new atheists vs. the accommodationists

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled ‘accommodationists’) who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those (labeled ‘New Atheists’) who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

While this debate has been going on for some time, the latest resurgence was triggered by Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book Why Evolution is True (which is on my reading list), who wrote a scathing review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

In the accommodationist camp are people like biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Michael Ruse, journalist Andrew Brown, and chemist Francis Collins. (You can read my detailed nine-part review of Collins’s appalling book The Language of God here.)

There have always been religious scientists who manage to find reasons to hold on to their faith in the face of the challenge posed by science. Michael Shermer puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), p. 283). More problematic is the accommodationist view taken by prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Science (NAS), which I will examine at a later date.

In the anti-accommodationist camp (sometimes referred to as the ‘new atheists’) are people like Richard Dawkins, biologist Jerry Coyne, biologist P. Z. Myers, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my sympathies lie entirely with this latter group. (Also see here and here.)

The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow’s performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.

Andrew Brown, a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, sees an even greater danger:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.

In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna’s ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that:

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.

But Brown and Ruse are wrong. The argument is not legally “fireproof” as I discuss at length in my book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, to appear later this year. It is not even a new argument. William Jennings Bryan was making it all the way back in 1922 in an essay published in The New York Times, where he said:

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

The First Amendment has long been interpreted as requiring neutrality between religion and nonreligion, even before the 1963 Schempp case. Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education (that expanded the Establishment Clause to cover the actions of state and local governments), said “[The First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.”

The first case involving evolution to reach the US Supreme Court was the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas where the court ruled unanimously that prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools is unconstitutional. But Justice Black, while agreeing with the ruling, said in his concurring opinion that he disagreed with the reasoning that it was an Establishment Clause violation, and resurrected the concerns that Bryan had in 1922 and that seem to worry Ruse and Brown now.

A second question that arises for me is whether this Court’s decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an “anti-religious” doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible’s story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines?

But while this concern did not sway the majority in the Epperson case, the issue raised by Black was well and truly settled in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman when the Court promulgated what is now called the “Lemon test” that says that for any law to pass Establishment Clause constitutional muster, it must satisfy a three-pronged test:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the purpose prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the effect prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion” (the entanglement’ prong).

In other words, to satisfy the Establishment Clause, the intent of the law must have a secular basis. In addition, simply because some law had the incidental effect of advancing or inhibiting religion did not automatically disqualify it. It also added a third criterion, requiring that the law must not result in the government getting too mixed up in the affairs of religion. Failure to meet any one prong would imply a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The guidelines set out in Lemon implies that even if a scientific theory like evolution undermines a religious belief, teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief does not violate the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause because teaching science has a clearly secular purpose, since the goal of teaching science is to advance scientific knowledge and not to undermine religion. If religion happens to be undermined because of teaching a particular scientific theory, that is an incidental, not primary, effect. By contrast, it would be unconstitutional to teach a theory whose only purpose or primary effect was to undermine or foster religion.

Since 1971, the ‘Lemon test’ has been the bedrock standard for measuring constitutionality under the Establishment Clause, with a few wrinkles added later. Teaching any theory that is well established scientifically would easily pass muster under its provisions, whatever its implications for religion.

The reason why creationists have not advanced this argument is not because they are not as smart as Ruse and Brown to have discovered this potent weapon. After all, the founder, godfather, and leading tactician of the intelligent design movement (Phillip Johnson) is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the whole intelligent design concept was invented to try and get around the Establishment Clause restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and other courts. Their lawyers must have told them that the Ruse/Brown argument is a sure loser.

POST SCRIPT: Biblical marriage

Those who oppose gay marriage like to say that it is against the Bible but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what a Biblically appropriate marriage consists of. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, makes it all clear.


  1. says

    Sam Harris just went six rounds with Philip Ball over this very issue. I’m not sure they ever got to a place where they weren’t talking past each other just a bit.

    But Harris’ point seems very much the same as yours. He’s gotten to the point of outright frustration with accommodation, and sees it as playing a role (not unlike religious moderates) in shielding religion in general -- or Christianity in particular -- from criticism. His disapproval is perhaps most vociferous when it comes to those he sees as purposefully disingenuous, such as the Templeton Foundation and those who would defend it.

    For example, regarding an editorial that appeared in Nature doing just that, Harris said “While I can imagine Campbell felt he had struck a deft balance here, all things considered, this editorial constituted as forthright an act of fellatio as Templeton could have ever hoped to receive from the world’s leading scientific journal.”

    He’s apparently decided to give Dawkins a run for his money in the grumpiness department. 🙂

  2. says

    Fantastic conclusion! This is the point that should be made regarding the teaching of evolution when discussing the problems of accommodation. Evolution itself is based on observation, testing and analysis. It is a set of understandings of how nature works to develop traits and differentiation in the biosphere and in itself says nothing about religion. It is religion that has the problem, not science. I’m all in favor of asking scientists who are religious to defend their positions as much as I try to defend mine: why should they be exempted?

    I understand the issue of working with allies among the religious in order to protect science education in the United States, but how do they get to keep droit de seigneur on the issue of origins except by default?

    Like Derek, I see no purpose in shielding Christianity (or other religion) from criticism. If their faith and their belief are strong enough, then they can hack it. If not, then don’t blame agnostics/atheists, nor science. Okay, credit science, but agnostics/atheists are just the messengers.

  3. Olorin says

    Accommodationists “seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible,…”

    I think the exercise is a waste of time. but I do not think that the viewpoints are incompatible. Where does that put me?

  4. says

    I believe the bible account is the one with less confusion. Scientists contradict one another each passing day. Whose account should be taken? At least the bible has one account.

  5. says

    My views are more like those of author and scientist Bruce Lipton. Spiritual views and scienific evidence correlate more and more. Obviously, mankind slowly gets a better understanding of the nature of the universe/consciousness.. while most people are still arguing about atheism and christianity, which both offer narrow-minded dogma instead of a realistic outlook on nature.

  6. says

    Mano, you are underscoring that the weight of scientific evidence, Scott notwithstanding, illuminates no cosmic teleology: no God or Raelian extraterrestrials involved. The atelic or teleonomic argument notes that therefore there is no intent- no agency- but causalism -teleonomy- operates. To Try to conflate the two in the silly compatibilist manner bespeaks the great contradiction of teleology and teleonomy at work.That is natural selection, drift and other natural causes don’t have a Designer behind them. Thus creation evolution is indeed an oxymoron. No, this doesn’t violate the boundaries of science as Scott falsely claims but exhumes teleology as a non-starter and creation evolution as an oxymoron. Yes, creationism = theism in the wide sense; all creationists beg the question of Him intending to have us or a comparable species to evolve as Coyne in his exquisite article affirms.
    Mano and others, please check out Carneades @ Bloggers and rationalist @ Google blogs. Google skeptic griggsy who devastates theism world-wide.

  7. says


    A nice article on people who want to see science go hand in hand with religion. But if some pious scientists are trying to do that desperately, then that is not so bad, right?


  8. says

    I for one am a strong believer in the Biblical account of marriage. Without wanting to offend anyone I am sure GOD ordained and officiated the first marriage between Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve. Again I don’t want to offend anyone, it is just my view.

  9. says

    I am a Christian. I am primarily a Christian because of the work of the Holy Spirit within me. Does that mean that I lack intelligence? Thank you that your post does not completely exclude me by at least permitting me to be an intelligent defender of weird things.

    But I don’t want to defend weird things. I don’t want to pretend that just because the Bible tells tales of moral depravity that they were all sanctioned by God. I want a God that knows how powerless human beings are to resist their own desires for such moral depravity.

    In fact, I want a God that won’t sugar coat the stupidity that plagues humanity. Even if it includes the stupidity that humanity can seemingly do nothing but find points of disagreement, fallacies of bare assertion and ridicule in order to group, distinguish and isolate themselves behind their balloon-headed, egocentric patterns of reasoning and warmongering.

    I want a God that will teach me how to sort Truth from fiction, with a faith based upon evidence. And where the evidence lacks, I want my God to still be able to make Truth available to me by metaphysical means.

    I want one that will celebrate my compulsion for Truth. I want one that makes it OK for me to have screwed up my past relationships just like the Old Testament idiots that He clearly tolerated then as much as he tolerates our isolationism and petty bickering, now.

    I want a God that takes responsibility for the course of humanity in a way that is logically coherent. I want Him to come down out of heaven, live amongst us and let us hate him for reminding us of how screwed up we’ve all been. And then I want Him to let us kill him for it, while throwing off all the blame onto Him for not listening to Him when he tried to get us to Love one another.

    And after all that, I want Him to let me live forever. Yep, that’s the God I want. It’s about the weirdest thing ever, even though I did not really want it to look that way. But, hey, I got what I’ve asked for. I figure we pretty much all will.

    And yet, I wonder why this entire concept seems strangely logical to me. Perhaps what I think of myself needs a lot more modification than the human attributes that I judgmentally assign to Him and others.

    I’d have to say that Betty Bowers points out that we humans haven’t learned much since the documented days of ancient moral depravity. But hey, you guys go right ahead and teach my kids and grand kids that all these theories are pointing them in the direction of an entropic demise. Just go ahead and teach them how insignificant life is and how they should accept it. I wonder how much different you really think the world will be for the higher morality that you presume to offer them.

    I guess you can pretty much teach anything you want, now that you think we are stupid enough to believe that your principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.

  10. says

    I totally agree with the passage “those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

    They couldn’t win the war so the now with to get into bed with the enemy.

  11. says

    Governments should have neutrality when it comes to evolution and religion…
    Why in the world would the government want to get involved in this discussion in the first place.
    None of us…I mean no one can say with 100% confidence that neither is true….

  12. says

    I understand that Max has his point of view but why do people get so hung up on what was written in the bible and take it as true gospel. It is after all a document that has been written by humans and with all the interpretations and language changes made over thousands of years there have been political and religious slants and editing for gain. Sure morality is one thing but I have to question the accuracy of passages quoted?

  13. says

    “I believe the bible account is the one with less confusion. Scientists contradict one another each passing day. Whose account should be taken? At least the bible has one account.”

    Yes, and no, Resveratrol Ultra.
    The Bible has multiple accounts, there are those written in the traditional Hebrew (which many historians say is the ONLY real way to read it, as translation is in many ways subject to the translators bias) Those translated in the Old English, those translated into modern English, and those translated into virtually every common language on earth today. That is not a “single” account. If you will learn ANY other language and study the “same” bible, comparing the two, you will find many different interpretations of the passages the Bible contains.

    Secondly, you’re correct there are many different hypothesis in science that are constantly being reformed, discarded, changed, and disputed. That is because science exists that it might be exact. Science has a strong belief in self contradiction, it is willing to change at a whim dependent upon new data relating to the discoveries and survives purely as an observation of things that are. Science has many views of religion, certain fields observe that maintaining certain religious views are healthy, that it provides hope and psychological comfort to many, many people. Other scientific observations observe that some religious views, act like government, and are able to draw people together to take care of each other, to defend and advance the pursuit of freedom, or the beliefs of the people in unity. Science is not a means of hope, it is not a means of comfort, it is not a means of justification, or an excuse. It is an observation of things that are an explanation not as to why they are, (as there is no PROVEN common origin) but as to how, and why they act the way that they do. It is knowledge and data, not a belief.

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