t f p g+ YouTube icon

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

Bookmark and Share

September 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Accommodationism in the Religion-Science Debate: Why It’s Incomplete

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

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".

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 4   1 2 3 4 »
Mike Gene - #31870

September 25th 2010

Nice essay.  The key point is this:

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?

One of the questions that science cannot answer is whether or not evolution was in some way influenced by design.  It is thus perfectly reasonable to explore this question, and even reach tentative conclusions, outside the domain of science.

conrad - #31879

September 25th 2010

Well we all basically agree with that.

Hawking has this “grand design” which is basically a machine that runs by itself.

I call it the “screensaver” multiverse.

It is just like the screen saver on a computer screen.
He says it had no creator.

That is how I envision God.

beaglelady - #31916

September 25th 2010

The New Atheists continue to swing out against all and sundry. The Pope is an ever-popular target, especially with his trip to Britain.

Ain’t it the truth?  Nicholas Beale, on his blog , points out this hilarious parody of Dawkins.

Tim - #31920

September 25th 2010

Overall, I really like the articled.

However, I think there’s a big difference between an openness to ask spiritual or theistic questions in an age of otherwise mechanistic science and constant tweaking of one’s doctrinal views derived from something like scripture.

I mean, at what point do you start to question the reliability of your source material?

1)  God “accommodated” his revelation to ancient cosmology.  OK, that’s not so bad, the rest is still good.

2)  God “accommodated” his revelation’s account of the beginning of all life, including humanity, to ancient though incorrect notions (such as humans being formed from clay similar to Sumerian and Babylonian accounts).  Well, OK, that’s not too bad either.  Still lot’s of good stuff left.

3)  God “accommodated” his revelation’s account of human rebellion and divine judgment to include a fictitious flood widely believed at that time to have occurred by many ancient near eastern cultures - originally stemming from a global flood story included in the Sumerian epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

4)  God “accommodated” his divine law in the Torah to incorporate ancient prejudices and standards of justice, in many similar to the Code of Hammurabi.

...continued below:

Tim - #31923

September 25th 2010

...continued from above:

5)  God “accommodated” his revelation’s treatment of procreation to depict the womb as just an empty vessel with the sole source for life being the man’s “seed.”

6)  God “accommodated” his revelation’s conquest of Joshua to fit with the regional concept of “herem” present at the time, which entailed utter destruction of a city/people as dedication to one’s god.  This “accommodation” included allowing for historical inaccuracies such as the destruction of the walls of Jericho even though Jericho had already been destroyed in 1550 BCE, and not been rebuilt since.  Anyone starting to feel uncomfortable yet with all this “accommodation?”  There sure does seem to be a lot of it.

7)  God “accommodated” his revelation to standards of literary genre that existed at that day not just to include the great stuff like poetry, allegory, fable/morally-instructive story (i.e., Job), but also to include historical propaganda as seen in Chronicles.

8)  God “accommodated” his prophetic revelations to allow for some error/unfulfilled prophesy (e.g., destruction of Tyre) or “accommodation” to a literary genre of pseudoprophesy (i.e., the Book of Daniel).

...continued below:

Tim - #31926

September 25th 2010

...continued from above:

9)  God “accommodated” his revelation to include overly optimistic expectations of Jesus that the Kingdom of God would fully manifest during that generation’s lifetime.  Is this starting to get a little much?

10)  God “accommodated” his revelation to include differing accounts of the birth of Jesus, of the crucifixion of Jesus, and of the resurrection of Jesus in the gospels.

11)  God “accommodated his revelation to include theological differences (not strictly complementary, but actually conflicting) across both the Old and New Testaments.

12)  And depending on your interpretation of Revelation, God allowed “accommodation” there as well, if (you find as I do that) the Antichrist was predicted to be an imminent Roman emperor.

So how much “accommodation” does one accept before the credibility of the source material is questioned?  It seems that what reformulations of Christian doctrine have been doing is pulling back in the wake of scientific discoveries and modern critical scholarship, letting go of anything they trod underfoot but firmly affirming everything else.  Does this seem right?  I don’t know.  To me it seems to weaken one’s epistemological foundation a little.

Bilbo - #31927

September 25th 2010

Ruse:  For myself, I simply cannot get around the problem of evil. My god died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen.

My God died circa 30 CE.  We do not know why God allows the innocent to suffer and die.  But at least He was willing to take His own medicine, as Dorothy Sayers once said.

RBH - #31965

September 25th 2010

Bilbo wrote

My God died circa 30 CE.  We do not know why God allows the innocent to suffer and die.  But at least He was willing to take His own medicine, as Dorothy Sayers once said.

Jesus, a God-man guaranteed resurrection, having a bad weekend is comparable to a child—really, tens of thousands of children—being killed in a concentration camp?  That’s close to obscene.

conrad - #31968

September 25th 2010

Tim I do not see any facts to back your claims.

You seem to see erroneous scripture writings where they do not exist.

The first one about cosmology is definitely off base.

The Biblical account of creation is correct based on current cosmology.
So where is the accommodation?

Tim - #31969

September 25th 2010


Of course you don’t see the facts.  I didn’t list them That would be a very long, drawn-out conversation - and just listing some selected instances of “accommodation” spanned 3 comments.  The long and short of it is, my post was aimed at those who already have an accommodation view of scripture to start with.  So it was not meant for you Conrad.

conrad - #31984

September 25th 2010

I don’t think you have the facts Timmy.

Tim - #31987

September 25th 2010


You are free to believe whatever seems best to you.  When my goal in conversation is to validate any of the above claims for accommodation, I’ll do so at that point.  It also likely won’t be with yourself, however, as frankly I don’t have any further interest in conversing with you.  I’ve mentioned as much on a prior thread and gave my reasons for it there.  You can say whatever you like in reference to my points, but please stop attempting to engage me in conversation.  Think what you will, though as I’ve said I’ve given my reasons.  Cheers.

conrad - #31994

September 25th 2010


Your list of “accommodations” is bunk.
The Bible is the most amazingly accurate ancient document one could ever imagine.

BTW the atheist who wrote the blog is all wet too.

Questions like “why is the Bible so full of errors” deserves a rejoinder.

nedbrek - #32008

September 25th 2010

RBH (31965)

The problem of evil is real.  Tip toeing around it gets us nowhere.  It either makes no sense (the atheistic position), or it makes sense in the light of sin (the Christian position).

Tim - #32016

September 25th 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 can’t see how.  But you’re free to support your argument.

Proofreader - #32024

September 25th 2010

I think there’s a typo in the article:

“Today’s mechanical science does even set out to ask or answer certain questions…” Seems like the “does” should be “doesn’t”.

nedbrek - #32027

September 25th 2010

Hello Tim,
  The problem is that without a sufficient definition of good, you can’t have evil (unless you alias it to “unpleasant” or “unsatisfying” - but these are subjective).  If there is no God (which defines an absolute good), then there is no evil.

Batches of chemicals doing chemical things are not evil.

Tim - #32032

September 25th 2010


What’s your point?  Atheists don’t have to have objective, absolute evil or good.  They can settle for cultural evils and good, as well as those aspects of humanity that seem ingrained in our species as innate biological tendencies, such as lust, aggression, love, and even altruism.  For instance, Bonobos display altruistic qualities and live relatively peacefully in social groups and they don’t require any knowledge of an absolute moral law (though they are lustful as all hell).  The atheists don’t see why they need an absolute moral law to govern their behavior as a species either..

nedbrek - #32033

September 25th 2010

Tim, RBH had objected to God’s allowance for evil.  The problem is that he has no grounds for judging what is evil or what is not.  If a culture permits something, to them it is not evil.  If our genetics dictate something, it is permissible.  Similarly, Richard Dawkins says at the end of “Selfish Gene” that doing the exact opposite of what genetics dictates is good.  It’s arbitrary.

conrad - #32036

September 25th 2010

Comment removed by moderator.

Page 1 of 4   1 2 3 4 »