Science and Religion: The Greatest Show on Earth?

October 27, 2009

Richard Dawkins, a so-called "New Atheist", has published his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth . In a Newsweek article, Dawkins appears to say that belief in evolution and belief in religion can be compatible. Is this an atheist speaking? Newsweek asked Dawkins, "Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?" Dawkins answered:

        "No, I don't think they're incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God -- to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind." (quoted from Newsweek, 26 September 2009 )

Does the last sentence of Dawkins' answer contradict the first sentence? Probably not. 

Dawkins sees how many believers can hold a religion that is compatible with evolution. These believers have already been persuaded by evolution's evidence, which Dawkins covers in his book. Dawkins would like to increase the number of people who accept evolution. If a religious person thinks that his or her religion forbids belief in evolution, this obstacle has two obvious remedies: (1) this person can decide to abandon the religion entirely and become an atheist, or (2) this person can decide to believe in a modified religion that does not forbid belief in evolution.

If the question is whether a religious person must only choose option (1), Dawkins replies No. Obviously some people can rationally prefer option (2) instead. If the question is whether reason as a whole (and not just evolutionary biology) directs a person to abandon all religion, Dawkins replies Yes. This second reply is explained in his earlier book, The God Delusion . The upshot of this discussion is that Dawkins believes that evolution by itself is not sufficient to dictate that religion, as a whole, must be abandoned.

Does this also mean that Dawkins believes that teaching evolution is not advanced by first telling people that they must become fully rational atheists? If the real obstacle to evolution is only some aspects of some religions, why demand prior abandonment of all religion? Why must scientists be told that they must take an aggressive stance against all religion? On these questions, the debate over accomodationism begins.


#1 Luke Vogel (Guest) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at 7:56pm


As far as I know the term “accomodationist” primarily arises from Austin Dacey’s essay; “Evolution Education and the Science-Religion Conflict: Dispatches from a Philosophical Correspondent” (at least as far as framing the science and religion debate).

Dacey states: >>“I have a name for the broad thesis that there exist important conflicts
between science and religion: I call it “agonism”. Those who accept “agonism” — and also wish to publicly discuss such conflicts—are “agonists”. The view that there exist no important conflicts between science and religion I call “accommodationism”. Those who either recognize no conflicts between religion and science, or who recognize such conflicts but are disinclined to discuss them publicly, I call “accommodationists.”<< [pg. 53]

*Accomodationism: The view that there exist *no important conflicts* between science and religion.

*Accomodationist: Those who either recognize no conflicts between religion and science, or who recognize such conflicts but are disinclined to discuss them publicly.

Though, we do not see the terms “agonism(t)”, being used, I note Wilkins unhelpful term of “exclusivist” below.

Jerry Coyne who uses the terms “accomodationism” and “accomodationist” frequently provides a definition of “accomodationist” provided by Blackford.

From Jerry’s: “Accommodationism: onward and downward” blog post:

>>“Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.”<<

Worth noting, Jerry Coyne is referring back to Blackfords blog post: “More confusion in the accommodation debate” where Blackford is responding to Wilkins. Even though Blackford offers his definitions which are Coyne’s meaning, he nowhere refers to their original meanings as presented by Austin Dacey.

The blog by Wilkins is of no help either, here is how he frames the debate:

>>“That is not quite the way they would put it of course, but the divide is between “accommodationists” and “exclusivists”.<<

So, besides adding something else to the mix, Wilkins also defines “accomodationist”:

>>“Accommodationists, hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.”<<

In an interesting exchange that included Sean Carroll (who appears to be taking the same position as Lawrence Krauss) got into the mix of “accomodationism” and offered his definition in his blog: “Science and Religion are Not Compatible”.

>>“accomodationism” — the rhetorical strategy on the part of some pro-science people and organizations to paper over conflicts between science and religion so that religious believers can be more comfortable accepting the truth of evolution and other scientific ideas.”<<

In a way, it is amusing that Jerry Coyne would say “[Blackford]has always been properly concerned with definitions”, when Blackford openly holds: “I’m never happy about short definitions of concepts - I’m always mindful of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the difficulty of defining even something as simple as the word “game” (or the concept of a game). A lot of these things are cluster concepts, depending more on something like family resemblance than an easily-stated set of necessary and sufficient conditions.”

I’ll return to this later, I’m just attempting to add some of the thoughts on this discussion since you, John, wish to now say; “On these questions, the debate over accomodationism begins.”

#2 Luke Vogel (Guest) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at 9:19pm

I would like to add other relevant positions pertaining to this discussion.

Chris Mooney’s blog [Oct. 2]: “Richard Dawkins, Accommodationist”

#3 Luke Vogel (Guest) on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at 9:22pm

Well, my last post is very unfortunate indeed. I offered several links to Chris, Jerry Coyne and included a decent amount of quotes from Chris, Jerry and Richard Dawkins.

It would be better just to delete that last post, and if you do, take this one also.

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