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

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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".

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Jon Garvey - #32043

September 26th 2010

@conrad - #32036

“Well I think atheists are idiots.”

Conrad, please, please avoid those kind of mindless judgements: it only reminds me of the Uberatheists calling themselves “Brights” and all believers, by definition, brainless. It adds nothing to the discussion, and only encourages the world to be filled with “You’re an idiot” “Well, you’re a bigger idiot.” “Well, you haven’t even got enough brain cells to make a synapse” blogs.

Respecting your opponent is a Christian virtue.

By the way, from your own study of the literature what would YOU say the relationship is between the Gilgamesh Epic, the Atrahasis story on which it is based, and the Genesis flood story?

nedbrek - #32057

September 26th 2010

Conrad, I agree, but…

Theology matters: for the Arminian, it is just a matter of getting atheists to see the light.  The only barrier is their free will, which must be cajoled or confronted.

As a Calvinist, I realize that there is no difference between myself and the hardest atheist - except God’s grace.  In fact, for much of my life I was completely blind to the nature of God.

Perhaps God will have mercy on these atheists, or perhaps not.  Our duty is to proclaim the truth boldly, and to love them.  But what is love?  It is not hand holding, and singing kumbaya!

It is important to realize that God’s Word is the only solid rock on which we must stand - all else is sinking sand.  When we step off of God’s Word (supposedly, to meet on “neutral ground”), we enter into the same quicksand they are in.

Jon Garvey - #32059

September 26th 2010

@nedbrek - #32057

Nedbrek, I agree, but…

Speaking also as a Calvinist, the word of God still has to address people where they are, and sensitively. Paul (also a Calvinist ) addressing Athenian philosophers, started from their pagan background, proceeded via a discussion of God that concurred with their own philosophy, quoted a couple of their poets (and no Scripture at all), and challenged them with the bare assertion of divine judgement and the recent-historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection. The rest he left to God.

To rustic pagans in Lystra he started with a healing, contrasted idols with the Creator God (with no specific Scriptural allusion) and appealed to this via providence and didn’t even get round to the story of Jesus (at least in the text).

To Jews he normally appealed to the OT witness to the expected Messiah and showed how Jesus fulfilled it.

At all times his message was informed by the word, but addressed the people where they were.

And of course at no time did he call them idiots (though he might easily have quoted Psalm 14 if he’d simply wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that would immediately offend them.

conrad - #32063

September 26th 2010

I think Noah’s flood and Gilgimish describe the same flood which was the flooding of the lowland around the Black sea.
the Mediterranean had risen to a level about 90 feet higher that the Black sea which was a fresh water lake at that time, as glaciers melted.

This was probably at the end of the “younger Dryas” which was a little ice age about 11,000 to 9,000 years ago which interrupted the warming trend.
The younger dryas was caused by the temporary interruption of the ocean currents when fresh water from the huge lake in the center of North America broke through the ice dam and flowed down what is now the St. Lawrence river into the north Atlantic.

The ocean currents are powered by heavier COLD SALT WATER SINKING in the North Atlantic.

Fresh water is lighter than sea water, so when the North American sea [fresh water] suddenly drained. the sinking ceased temporarily.
The ocean currents equalize temperatures betwee the equator and the poles so both have more extreme temperatures without the conveyer belt.
  This causes a NEW shorter period of glacial advancement, the Younger Dryas.
  When glaciers grow sea levels drop and conditions are dry in addition to being cold.
[To be continued]

conrad - #32065

September 26th 2010

The Descendents of Adam had already left Africa before the start of the younger dryas but they lived at low altitudes.
There was a huge temperature difference based on altitude.

Wenn the Straits of the Bosporus opened up the lowlands around the Black sea flooded.
Noah and his big boat were lifted up but everyone around him was killed.

I think Gilgimish may have been some guy living at the other end of the Black sea who had a similar experience.

I interpret a worldwide flood as being from horizon to horizon,.. all that Noah could see.

Jon Garvey - #32068

September 26th 2010

@conrad - #32065

Conrad, Gilgamesh was a guy on the Sumerian King list who seems to have existed (inscription exists of his son or grandson) around 2500BC. The legend about him says he met an ancient sage, Atra-hasis, who survived the Flood, and is basically a retelling of the Atra-hasis myth dating from around the first part of the 2nd millennium BC, but which was copied and well known down to the first millennium. Copies of the newer Gilgamesh epic have been found all over the near east, so it was very familiar.

This older Atra-hasis story also contains a creation myth, and both creation and flood stories have literary parallels with the Genesis account, though major theological differences. So as in the Bible, creation and flood are closely linked in time.

Other Sumerian literature appears to date the flood to c3000 BC, much later than the Black Sea inundation around 5600BC. Furthermore the scientists seem to think the latter would have been a gradual sea-level rise from which one could have walked away rather than needing a boat.

What is also interesting is that the Sumerians regarded Mesopotamia as “the World”, and the kings who ruled all of it called themselves “King of the World” or even “King of the Universe.”

conrad - #32077

September 26th 2010

You make good points,... and you are probably right ,...that calling atheists, “idiots” is unwise.

So for now I shall confine myself to THINKING THEY ARE IDIOTS!

IMPRECISE DATES should be largely ignored.
So when you say that two imprecise dating methods disagree with each other it doesn’t establish anything.

  The creation myths of the ancient people omit many astoundingly correct details that are included in Genesis.

I hammer away at the 5 main statements in the account of Day One that soar into great truths of cosmology and quantum physics THAT ARE NOT INCLUDED IN OTHER ANCIENT CREATION STORIES..

There are 7 [or 8 ]statements about Day One.:
  !. “In the beginning”
  2. “God”  [and no one else”
  3.  “created the Heavens and the earth”
    4. “But the earth was without form and void”
    5. “and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the deep”
    6. “And God said ‘Let there be light” “And God saw that the light was good ” [Perhaps this should be considered two separate statements.]
    7. “and God separated light from darkness.”

Jon Garvey - #32080

September 26th 2010

@conrad - #32077

I’m very happy to agree with the uniqueness of your seven points (they’re particularly clear in contrast to the parallel passages in Atra-hasis or Enuma-Elish, which are worth reading and available online, if only to see what IS the same).

But to me they make a great deal more sense compared and contrasted with similarly ancient myths as foundational truths about the living God compared and contrasted to false gods…

...rather than compared to modern science to show that Einstein and Hawking should just have worked harder with Genesis to get to modern physics.

conrad - #32081

September 26th 2010

Genesis day one. first statement,..“IN THE BEGINNING,...”

This clearly states that there WAS a beginning to our universe AND TO TIME ITSELF!

Most of the great scientists before the 20th century would have doubted that either of these assertions was true.
Everyone believed that the universe had “always existed” [whatever that means].
And no one could imagine a beginning to time.

People believed in absolute time.

Einstein proved that time is as flexible as a rubber band.
It slows down in strong gravity.
When all of the universe was in a single point time did not run at all because of the strong gravitational force AND TIME BEGAN WHEN THE UNIVERSE BEGAN EXPANDING.

[Now find that in an ancient creation myth.]

conrad - #32082

September 26th 2010

  2. The second statement Genesis I Day one
  “God”.......well that is the disputed point so I shall move on.

    3. The third statement is “created the heavens and the earth”.
Well no one disputes that now. It is called the Big Bang.

It happened 13.7 billion years ago.
Edwin Hubble found that the universe was expanding with rates of motion indicating a simultaneous departure of all visible bodies from a central point.
The Catholic Priest Father George Lemaitre proposed the idea of all arising from a “single seed’ and identified it as the creation described in the Bible.
  He was ridiculed.
  George Gamow and Ralph Alpher said if it was so there should be light from creation at the far edges of space and certain ratios of hydrogen and helium.
Their predictions were validated in ensuing measurements.

The creation of “heavens and earth” together at a certain specific time is now in no dispute.

Many myths are not even close to this fundamental truth.
A few may claim similarity.
  [Hey a stopped clock is correct twice per day.]

conrad - #32084

September 26th 2010

  Statement 4., Genesis 1 Day One of creation.  “but the earth was without form and void”.

  We must credit Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking for taking off on this point with the Black Holes and the singularity,... [what you have if everyting is in one single black hole.]

The Hubble data had suggested every galaxy in a single mass and without Hawking that would leave the reader trying to imagine the biggest clump of rocks and boulders imaginable.

But “not so” said Penrose and Hawking.
Because in such a clump the gravity would cause matter to LOSE IT"S FORM!
  Atoms would no longer have nuclei and orbiting electrons. but would undergo compression.

If the proton in a hydrogen atom were represented by a dot,[a “period”, or “full stop” on this page, the orbiting electrons would be two miles out.

So when things are “without form” they can be scrunched into a very small space.
  Most primitive stories do not imagine anything like this.

  The singularity with a grevitaional field so strong that it stops time is only found in the Bible.

Sadly many folks see a world “without form” as the earth covered by water, in darkness and with very low temperatures.
  But the singularity is a better fit.

Jon Garvey - #32085

September 26th 2010

@conrad - #32082

“Many myths are not even close to this fundamental truth.”

How about this one:

“In the future of mankind, when the days grow old,
May this be heard without ceasing; may it hold sway forever!
Since he created the realm of heaven and fashioned the firm earth,
The Lord of the World,” the father Bel hath called his name.
(Enuma Elish, Tablet 7)

RBH - #32094

September 26th 2010

So many straw men, so little time.

nedbrek wrote

Tim, RBH had objected to God’s allowance for evil.

No, I objected to Bilbo’s equation of the slaughter of children in a concentration camp to Jesus’ 3-day experience over Easter weekend.

The problem is that he has no grounds for judging what is evil or what is not.

Leaving aside the question-begging connotations of “evil” for the moment, there is a millennia-deep body of thought in secular ethics.  For an elementary introduction see here and for a stronger statement see here.

If a culture permits something, to them it is not evil.

Baloney. While some, theists and non-theists alike, are to some extent cultural relativists, no one I know of holds that extreme view.

If our genetics dictate something, it is permissible.

More baloney.

Similarly, Richard Dawkins says at the end of “Selfish Gene” that doing the exact opposite of what genetics dictates is good.  It’s arbitrary.

“Arbitrary”?  Even more baloney.

nedbrek - #32098

September 26th 2010

Hello RBH, if you feel I have misrepresented your position, feel free to elaborate.

Your second link includes a section by Sam Harris.  He says: “In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about [maximizing] happiness and [minimizing] suffering”

Why these two goals?  Happiness is fleeting (and often driven by delusion or ignorance), and suffering is near constant.  Why not optimize for suffering?  It would certainly be easier to provide for.

What would you say to Peter Singer, who has proposed we end humanity with this generation (in order to minimize suffering)?

Bilbo - #32100

September 26th 2010

RBH:  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.

Where did I say that Jesus’s death was “comparable” to tens of thousands of children being killed in a concentration camp?  And thank goodness His resurrection was guaranteed.  That means the resurrection of all those children is also guaranteed as well.

Tim - #32101

September 26th 2010


Yes, according to traditional Christianity, the resurrection of all the dead is guaranteed, with some going to Heaven, and many more going to Hell.  So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Jewish children probably weren’t Christian (at least the vast majority of them), so their resurrection would destine them to Hell (which I imagine is worse than the Holocaust), provided they were above the “age of accountability” when they died.  To me, no God, no Heaven, no Hell, would be preferable to this.  Of course I believe in God & some sort of afterlife, but not some exclusivistic doctrine that determines that most Holocaust victims go to Hell.

Bilbo - #32102

September 26th 2010

Tim:  so their resurrection would destine them to Hell (which I imagine is worse than the Holocaust), provided they were above the “age of accountability” when they died.

I disagree with this.  Jesus said that anyone who suffered for his sake would be blessed.  Since the victims of the Holocaust were suffering for his sake (without Christian antisemitism, no Holocaust), I would say they were blessed.  Going to Hell certainly wouldn’t be a blessed state.
To me, no God, no Heaven, no Hell, would be preferable to this.  Of course I believe in God & some sort of afterlife, but not some exclusivistic doctrine that determines that most Holocaust victims go to Hell.

We agree.

Bilbo - #32105

September 26th 2010

Another way to look at this is to consider the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.  Is it Israel or the Messiah?  I like the interpretation of Messianic Jewish scholar Mark Kinzer, who suggests that it is Israel, and that the Messiah is Israel par excellence

If so, then Israel may be “in” the Messiah, and just as He is raised up, so shall Israel be raised up.  It seems that this has happened politically.  No Holocaust, then most likely no state of Israel. 

Will it happen in a fuller sense?  We shall see.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32110

September 26th 2010

Michael Ruse understands that the key to understanding is model or paradigm.

The Christian paradigm for salvation is grace made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The paradigm for salvation for other faiths is works.

He states that the scientific paradigm for the universe is the machine, mechanical.  It is my understanding that the mechanical paradigm for the universe died with Einstein’s Theory which did away with the independent absolutes of time and space, matter and energy.  The idea is that his Theory made all things relative.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32111

September 26th 2010

Part 2

Dawkins and Dennett seem to have accepted Einstein’s relativism.  They also claim that evolution is not mechanical and absolutist in that it is based on random chance.  However they do not claim that all things are relative, because the gene is independent, that is absolute.

On the other hand ecology says that all things are interdependent, that is related as Einstein’s Theory states.  It has an organic, rather than mechanistic model of reality, based on the Gaia Theory of Lovelace.  This based on symbiosis, lit. living together as opposed to competition for resources per Darwinism.

Those who favor a legalistic faith tend to favor a mechanistic, absolutist model of science.  Salvation is the prize for good beliefs or good works.  Dawkins and Dennett’s relativism seems to appeal to those who believe that there is no authority over human beings.  Christianity based on faith alone to me should favor an ecological model of reality, because we seek an organic symbiotic relationship to God and to others.

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