Accommodationism in the Religion-Science Debate: Why It’s Incomplete

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September 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Michael Ruse. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Accommodationism in the Religion-Science Debate: Why It’s Incomplete

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

The New Atheists continue to swing out against all and sundry. The Pope is an ever-popular target, especially with his trip to Britain. President Obama is another punching bag these days, what with his attempts to soothe down the row over the Muslim center near the World Trade Center site and his talk about America being a religious nation for folk of all faiths. But there is always a little venom to spare for the so-called "accommodationists," these being folk who think that one might possibly be onside with science and yet be religious. Some accommodationists, like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project who now runs the National Institute of Health, are actually practicing Christians (or members of other faiths). Others, like me, have little or no religious belief. But all of us just don't see why the two cannot go together.

Of course, no one thinks that it is possible to hold every belief that someone has held in the name of religion also in the name of modern science. You cannot believe in a worldwide flood and in plate tectonics. You cannot believe that the Native Americans are the lost tribes of Israel and in modern physical anthropology. But the accommodationist claim is that there is much left over that you can believe in: a creator god, a divine backing for morality, and the notion that there is an ultimate purpose to it all with the possibility of some kind of eternal life, for instance.

What is usually said (and I think it is true) is that science is simply not about these sorts of questions. Take origins for instance, in the news at the moment because Stephen Hawking's new book is about them. The science that Hawking talks about may well be true. It is very exciting if it is. But it simply doesn't talk about the theological issues, the issues that religious people believe in. Even if it shows how something comes out of nothing, it doesn't -- it cannot -- explain why. Here, argues the religious person, we must invoke a creator god. This is not a scientific concept, but one that in some sense complements science.

Now this is all very well and good, but at a certain level I fear that the accommodationists are missing a very important link in the argument. Why are there questions that science cannot answer, and why is it that it is these questions rather than others that science cannot answer? You can tackle some, or perhaps all, of these questions piecemeal, as it were. For instance, if there is a creator, then it is pretty clear that he (or she or it) will have to be a necessary being in some sense. Otherwise you run into the perennial question of what caused God. If God is a necessary being (which is indeed the claim of the Christian), then no answer is needed. Nothing caused God. God always was, necessarily, just like 2+2=4 always, necessarily. But now the question becomes why science doesn't deal with necessary beings? And so the discussion continues.

I think (immodestly, perhaps foolishly) that you can bridge the gap, provide the link. Start with the point made by many commentators on science, most insistently by the late Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: all science is metaphorical. It is like poetry in this respect. Gravitational attraction, work, force, pressure, genetic code, natural selection, arms race, continental drift -- the list goes on indefinitely. Moreover, although one hears periodic calls for the elimination of metaphor (Thomas Hobbes of all people, in the Leviathan of all places, was a big one on this), it is pretty certain that it is not going to happen soon, if ever. However, Kuhn would say not to worry because metaphors (which he took to identifying with his key notion of paradigm) do a lot of good in science. For a start, they have incredible heuristic value, pushing you to think in new directions. And they give meaning when you are finished.

Now follow this point with the fact that there are certain metaphors that define, as it were, the practice of science. They are what are sometimes known as root metaphors. Back at the time of the Greeks, the root metaphor was that of the world as an organism. In some sense, all matter was seen as vital. That was why Aristotle insisted on the importance of what he called "final causes." Organisms have ends, have functions. You can ask, "What is the purpose, or end, of the nose?" He (and the other Greeks) thought that you could ask such questions of all things.

With the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the root metaphor changed. Now it was the world as a machine. We had mechanism. Francis Bacon, the philosopher of the Revolution, was scornful about final causes. He likened them to vestal virgins, beautiful but sterile.

And now we have the third and final point. As Kuhn stressed, the reason why metaphorical thinking is so successful is that it focuses you on the problems; it makes and defines the problems, in fact. And it does this in major part by putting blinkers on you, like with a racehorse. (Nice metaphor there!) It excludes a lot of extraneous issues and questions. If I say my wife is a rose or a diamond, I am saying much. What I am not saying is anything about her mathematical abilities. She might be a wiz, she might be dumb. I am not even addressing the question.

What does the machine metaphor exclude? For a start, it says nothing about ultimate origins. You may (like Hawking) talk about how things are put together. You do not talk about the ultimate origins of the ingredients. Like Mrs. Glasse's recipe for jugged hare: "First take your hare." Second, as David Hume pointed out, it says nothing about moral values. A machine may be used for good; it may be used for bad. That is up to us, not the machine. Third, the machine metaphor in science says nothing about ends. This may seem a little strange because of the machines we make, we can ask about ends. What is that strange object in the kitchen drawer? It is a gadget for taking the stones out of cherries. In science, however, as pointed out already, at the time of the Scientific Revolution, people found that end-talk was not helpful.

God may have designed the world (all of the scientists of the day thought that he had) but (in the words of the greatest historian of the whole event) by the time the Revolution was over, "God was a retired engineer." Finally, let me stress that in basic respects this is an empirical matter. There is no predetermined list of excluded questions, and as science changes, we may change the list. For instance, many follow the German philosopher Leibniz in thinking that machine-talk excludes talk of consciousness. Some, like today's philosopher Daniel Dennett, would disagree. I'll leave this here as an exercise for the reader.

My conclusion follows simply (although I have written about these issues at much greater length in my recent book, Science and Spirituality). Today's mechanical science does even set out to ask or answer certain questions, and hence if the religious want to have a crack at answering them, they can. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the ultimate foundation of morality? What does it all mean? Perhaps, what is consciousness that sets animals, humans particularly, apart?

This is why I think one should be an accommodationist. I stress that none of this means that one must be religious, much less subscribe to some particular form of religion like Christianity. For myself, I simply cannot get around the problem of evil. My god died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen. And there are metaphysical questions that need answering. Grant that God must be a necessary being. Is the notion of a necessary being really coherent? Most importantly, it does nothing to speak to the virtues and evils of religion, particularly organized religion.

If well taken, what the argument I have just given does do is (in the words of the subtitle to my book) "make room for faith in the age of science." This the New Atheists would not allow, and I think they are wrong.

Michael Ruse is an author and philosopher of biology well known for his works on the creationism and evolution debate. Though not a believer in God, he takes the position that Christianity and evolution are not incompatible. Ruse's latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, published by Cambridge University Press, argues against the extremes of both creationism and "new atheism".

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Alan Fox - #32353

September 28th 2010

The New Atheists want Christian values (the primary one being that human life is valuable) without Christ.

To which I immediately wonder who are these “New Atheists” and how did you establish that they “want Christian values without Christ”?

Cal - #32356

September 28th 2010


You’re imputing a specialized meaning to the word. There are secular religions too (Humanism and Communism). It’s a set of rules, a code that fits you into a group, and that group is said to be better off than others.

Here’s an article that expresses something close to my view:

and a video that is also on the same note:

nedbrek - #32360

September 28th 2010

Alan, the four most popular New Atheists are: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris.  I haven’t read Dennett, but I have read Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene”.  I’ve also read Harris’ “End of Faith”.  I been physically present for a debate with Hitchens (against Doug Wilson) on “Is Christianity Good for the World”.

All these sources are consistent with my summary.

Chip - #32363

September 28th 2010

Are you seriously saying that the atheist position which sees humanity as eventually arising out of a a violent, lust-driven, competitive, survivalist evolutionary crucible has an insufficient explanation for evil?

I would say this.  But don’t take my word for it.  Consider what Wilson and Ruse have famously said.

As evolutionists, we see that no [ethical] justification of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends…. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. (Wilson and Ruse, “The Evolution of Ethics,” 1991)

Of course, the point is not to claim that violence and mayhem of various kinds doesn’t happen; it just isn’t evilEvil requires a moral standard that naturalistic assumptions cannot provide.

Tim - #32399

September 28th 2010


I disagree.  I think Humanism would more properly be categorized more as a philosophy than a religion.  If you are extending religion to cover Humanism, then I feel it is you who are arguing for a special meaning.

Thanks for your links by fellow like-minded Christians meant to instruct me in your view.  But I don’t think that what I have is a lack of understanding or appreciation for your view.  What you say is commonly proclaimed across Churches everywhere.  I am familiar with it.

Cal - #32401

September 28th 2010


I wasn’t saying you didn’t know my view, only arguing for it.

Also, (though you say it proves nothing, I find it helpful), philosophy is from the greek Philo (love) and sophia (wisdom). Any science (latin for knowledge) is philosophy in that sense. In olden days, what we call Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics etc) was called “Natural Philosophy”.

However in the modern use of the word, there is really little that separates it from religion. With the more modern usage of religion, I suppose it is a God/gods/god driven philosophy.

However, look into any serious school of philosophical thought. There are reasons and explanation of why the world is where it is (Stoicism & the Great Conflagration, Hegelian & the Great Dialectic, Platonics and the World of the Ideal etc etc.).

However, again, Christianity isn’t about all of that. It’s Jesus, it’s about what God did for man and that it is Finished. Rest is finally available, God will get us all through it.

Just a note: I continue my arguments and chains of thought, though repeated, not only for our talk, one on one, but for those reading too. Trying to hammer my point out is all.

Tim - #32403

September 28th 2010


How can you make statements such as there is little that separates philosophy from religion?  Let me get this straight, you see little distinction between philosophy and religion, but you see a massive distinction between Christianity and both philosophy and religion?  I think you employ language in a very curious way Cal.

Philosophy operates from the premise that one’s mind is engaging the metaphysical (if the philosopher believes in such a thing) and the natural.  Religion operates along an entirely different plane entirely, often drawing on special revelation or sacred history, tradition, and ritual.

Also, just repeating unique Christian doctrine does not establish that Christianity is not, in fact, a religion.

Saying something like “Christianity isn’t a religion because it’s all about what God did for man and that it is finished” is like me saying “well, Buddhism isn’t a religion because it’s all about transcendent reality and explicitly denies the utility of striving for anything at all in this life, where only when one lets go are they truly free.

Cal - #32414

September 28th 2010


Well some would posit that Buddhism isn’t a religion in some cases (since there does not need to be a god).

However, I’m examining it this way:

Islam is about following rules set in place by Muhammad to be accepted into Paradise.

Buddhism is about following the “correct” path toward Enlightenment which leads to Nirvana.

Hinduism is about earning enough good “karma” that you are released from reincarnation and are absorbed back into Brahma.

Old world, Greco-roman Paganism is about earning the gods favor in ritual and perhaps attaining divinity by your actions.

See the trend? Its always man reaching up to God/gods. It’s mans ritualizations (though there are myths and stories, man is the main figure acting out salvation) about how man gets right with God/gods. But Christianity, says the opposite. There is nothing, its only vain pomp. Only God can get in there and break down the wall, humans erected.

There is a “christian religion”, but it is misguided. To take the gospel accounts of Jesus and to call it religious does an injustice to what its saying. Its mis-defining what was said.  It’s misusing the word religion.

Christianity is the abolition of religion.

Tim - #32419

September 28th 2010


What you’ve done is reduce each religion down to just one tenet, which is hardly fair.  The difference between Christianity involving accepting a “free gift” and other religions that don’t espouse a “free gift” soteriology does not qualify as sufficient difference to exempt Christianity from the category of religion.  Religions are about far more than just what one has to do to acheive Nirvana/Paradise/Heaven etc.  They often involve celebration life and communing with something greater than themselves.  There is vibrancy there that you are completely ignoring.  Would you appreciate it if people went around saying that “Christianity is all about saving your own ass by saying a special prayer to Jesus?”  No?  Then stop slandering other religions yourself.

Cal - #32422

September 28th 2010


I’m not boiling it down to one tenet, I’m taking a generalization and pointing out the fact that all of them are about man proving himself to the divine, and not that God is the one who did the rescuing.

And you don’t understand my argument if you think I’m saying salvation is just a “free gift”. You are disconnecting the idea of salvation apart from Jesus Himself.

There are some who connect to the idea of a free gift, or God as a dispenser of gifts. This is paramount to the “christian religion”. Your brief description, while a caricature, is pretty much on track to those who are still not understanding the freedom that Christ brings.

I’ve laid down my argument, present me counterpoints in such religions like Islam or paganism that bring it to Christianity’s unique principle. Show me where it is God saving by love of man, indwelling Him, and walking with Him, through everything.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32423

September 28th 2010


You are correct that philosophy is about engaging the metaphysical.  As I expect you know, “meta” means “beyond,” just as “super” does and “physical” means “natural,” so the metaphysical and the supernatural mean much the same. 

The primary difference in between philosophy and theology is that philosophy sees Reality as an impersonal system, while theology sees a personal God as the Source of Reality.  This can be seen as a model of Reality which has up to three levels or aspects.  Science studies the physical level of Reality, Philosophy studies the ideational level of Reality, and Theology studies the spiritual or meaning level of Reality.

Materialists or physicalists deny that the the universe has a rational, intellectual structure, because nature cannot think.  They say that the physical is the only real level of Reality and anything else is bogus.  Others look for the meaning of Reality in Philosophy and ideas.  They often base their concepts of traditional western dualism.  Contemporary science has pretty well undermined this view of Reality.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32424

September 28th 2010

Part 2

Others look to the Spiritual as the source of true Reality.  While Christian theology affirms the importance of the Spiritual, it also clearly states that the Physical and Intellectual are also basic to the right understanding of Reality.  Christianity rejects one sided views of reality and seeks to integrate all three into its understanding of life.  That is why science is important to Christianity and we seek to resolve any serious dissonance between our faith and our knowledge about the universe.  We seek to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength; spirit, mind, and body; spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of our person.

This is the way science, philosophy, and Christian theology are interrelated.

BenYachov - #32566

September 29th 2010

>And what is the difference between a “New Atheist” and any other sort of atheist?

I reply: It’s the moral & intellectual difference between Bill Mahar vs someone like Proffessor JJC Smart or a Quintin Smith.

New Atheists are the fundamentalists of Atheism.  They have a simplistic idea of religion(examples: they equate the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle reasoned out by great philosophy with some tree spirit worshipped by some barbarian, they confuse religion with philosophy, thus they reject philosophy in favor of finding all knowledge via a neo-logical positivist empiricism) & an equally simplistic idea of Atheism(which they Ad Hoc dogmatically define in purely negative terms).  They tout science but treat it as a fetish & ignore the philosophy of science.  They also believe you should act like a jerk to all religious people, teaching your children religion is child abuse & they dream of a day when religion will be held to be as credible as holocaust denial.

This is by no means a complete discription but after dealing with them here and elsewhere I thank God for non “New” Atheists whenever I find them.

PS.  They also believe if you criticise New Atheists you are somehow attacking all Atheists & lumping them in.

BenYachov - #32567

September 29th 2010

Like I’d ever lump the likes of Dawkins or Marhar with great philosophical minds like JJC Smart or Smith?  I would just as soon equate Ray Comfort’s bad theistic arguments with Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Linda - #32582

September 30th 2010

I would say the New Atheists are out of touch, and the person who believes that God used evolution is out of touch with God and the Bible (but they are trying to hide the fact that they are out of touch).

Make sure you are not out of touch! (enjoy the song)....

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