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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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Cal - #32119

September 27th 2010


“(without Christian antisemitism, no Holocaust)”

I’d say you should make the major distinctions between CHRISTianity and christendom. The Christians in Germany helped fight the Nazi slaughter and were persecuted for it. Christendom on the other hand threw out the bible, painted a false aryan christ who fought the jews, and added the commandments to obey your furher and die for your country to the “gospel”.

There was a major war in Germany between Christians of organizations like the Confessing Church, and the german national “church” that was owned and run by party members appointed by Hitler.

Were there anti-semite Christians? Sure, they are mostly products of their time. Was Christianity responsible for the holocaust? I’d say no.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32189

September 27th 2010

In regards to the death of God during the Holocaust. 

Many horrifying mass murders took place during the last 100 years, not only the Holocaust. They include the atomic bombing of Haroshima and Nagasaki, the Terror Famine in the Ukraine, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and genocide of the Tutus. 

Why do these horrors cause some to lose their faith in God Who did not cause them, and not their faith in human beings who did?

nedbrek - #32203

September 27th 2010

Jon Garvey (32059) “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.”

I had in mind three Bible passages: Ps 14:1; and Proverbs 26:4 and 5

The first tells us the atheist is a fool.  This is not an insult, or even a reference to intelligence or knowledge - rather wisdom (applied knowledge).

Proverbs tells us how to deal with them.

To “not answer according to their folly” is to avoid accepting their presuppositions (abandoning the Biblical position).  Once you do that, you have become like them, with no ground of support.

To “answer according” is to show the absurdity of following their presuppositions to its logical end.  Showing their position to be arbitrary.

conrad - #32204

September 27th 2010

Thanks Ned,

Now I think I know better how to deal with those idiots,  ......

Jon Garvey - #32219

September 27th 2010

@nedbrek - #32203

You failed to add that “fool” in Scripture is a moral folly, not an intellectual folly. So “idiot” is not equivalent. And Jesus forbids himself forbids us to say to someone “You fool”.

But you’re absolutely right to say that, taking into account God’s diagnosis of their root problem, you avoid their way of thnking and speak suitably to try and change their hearts.

But that still means treating them with respect and not calling them idiots in a public forum. Not least because Jesus says it puts one in danger of God’s judgement.

Chip - #32257

September 27th 2010


Atheists don’t have to have objective, absolute evil or good.  They can settle for cultural evils and good…

I’m trying to understand the cultural/absolute evil distinction—namely, how does it apply to Ruse’s example of Bergen-belsen?

Tim - #32261

September 27th 2010


“I’m trying to understand the cultural/absolute evil distinction—namely, how does it apply to Ruse’s example of Bergen-belsen?”

From an atheistic view, to the extent that morality is informed by common human nature, it is universal.  To the extent that it is cultural, it is relative, but the two don’t operate in isolation.  Culture often draws on what is universal for humanity.  So some of the relativity still has a universal base.  Often what is “relative” is the stressing of one universal aspect of humanity over another.  Of course, culture often imposes morality in a way that is only tenuously at best linked to some universal human condition.  It varies.

...continued below:

Tim - #32262

September 27th 2010

...continued from above:

“So, how does this apply to the Bergen-belsen scenario?”

Well, on the universal side of things, humanity has, pretty much across every culture, recognized the importance of caring for others and the value of others in some way.  This is not to say that hate, devaluation, callousness, and heinous harm inflicted on others didn’t exist or weren’t morally justified in some way.  These things did exist and often were morally justified in some way.  But that is the point.  They had to be justified in some way otherwise it was usually deemed unacceptable.  The Nazis justified the killing of Jews by defining them as less than human.  That was what was culturally relative to them, and we of course in today’s culture understand that all races and ethnic groups are fully human.  The otherwise value of human life as acknowledged across all cultures was still present to some degree - this is the universal.  The devaluation of the Jews was the relative.

Of course, I’m not an atheist.  So in addition to the above cultural influences, I believe the Nazi acts of atrocity were just plain evil.

Cal - #32265

September 27th 2010


The “universal human truths” are still dug into a Christian framework that still plays a major role in deciding ethics and morals in world society. It under-girds so much of our thinking, to even find all of it would take years.

Look into the culture of Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Look at how the men of that time acted. It was completely different!

Nietzsche did not make up his ideas off the top of his head, he was inspired by Rome. The morals and ethics of today he deemed “Slave morals” of Jewish and Christian influence. To survive was key in Rome, cruelty was a virtue. It really does a world of good when looking back at ancient Rome and Greece to understand concepts of Justice, virtue etc. in their thinking and not imposing our own thought. It was nothing at all similar.

Tim - #32269

September 27th 2010


“The “universal human truths” are still dug into a Christian framework that still plays a major role in deciding ethics and morals in world society.”

I agree, but they are also “dug into” other religions as well.  And these other religions influence behavior and society as well.  Sometimes for the worse.  Sometimes for the better.  Just like Christianity.

Cal - #32276

September 27th 2010


Christianity is still different, it isn’t a religion (though some have made their own “christian religion”), a code, a set of rules. It is the literal indwelling of God into man, accepting the peace of God over ones life. Christianity is Christ, not His words or teachings.

It was the leavening effect of the downtrodden becoming the glorified, it flipped the whole world on its head. No man made system ever did something like this. Muhammad was vaunted because he conquered Medina, Buddha was vaunted because he became superior to both gods and men, he found the way. It is always man reaching up to heaven, thinking he can grab divinity, nirvana etc etc.

Christianity isn’t about what men do, it’s about what God did. It’s about God showing love, becoming the lowliest of servants, with no lovely trait addable to his aesthete.

Though the consumerist appeals of some eastern religions and the modernized, moderated forms of Islam both seem to take the shape of some basic Christian truths, and interpreted right some do. None claim to have God step into the shoes of man to do what man is incapable of doing, that is showing perfect love.

Tim - #32278

September 27th 2010


If you think religions are merely “a code, a set of rules”, you don’t understand religion.  Religion is meant to inform people about their place in this world, how they can relate to something bigger than themselves, how they can live meaningful, fulfilling, spiritual lives, and how they can best live amongst each other as fellow human beings.  Christianity addresses these concepts just as does Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Earth-based religions, etc.  They are all religions.  I vociferously deny that Christianity deserves to be a class in its own in this regard, and I consider this assertion extraordinarily and unfairly insulting to other religions.  You can surely argue that Christianity is the one “true” religion.  But don’t draw a distinction among what Christianity attempts to do with respect to other religions when no such distinction exists.

Cal - #32280

September 28th 2010


There are distinctions, that’s why Christianity is so strange. Christianity is God doing the job, not man. There’s nothing we can do to reach up and grab “divinity”,nirvana, etc etc. God did that for us, as it is written: “It is finished”

“If you think religions are merely “a code, a set of rules”, you don’t understand religion.”

This is exactly what it is! Religion comes from the Latin “Religare”, which means “To tie up” or “be bound to”. Religion gives a meaning to the world in this certain rite, code, ritual etc. that we are bound to. Every religion says, “This is the list of things to do to get in good with god/gods/universe”. However this is the detachment that makes men so full of himself. Christ did not just die to “dispense” grace or salvation, it becomes apart of the Christian because God has become apart of the Christian, He indwells him/her, being welcomed back into the arms of a loving Father.

I’ve read into alot of different religions, and they all say the same thing. Deep down its man’s attempt to reconcile the turbulence that is caused by the Spirit, that need to worship. However God has solved that, He doesn’t want rituals. He wants you.

Tim - #32282

September 28th 2010


Examining the etymology of a word rarely gives you an adequate meaning.  Again, if you think religion is about all the things one needs to do to get in with god(s), then you are sorely mistaken.  I think the idea of religion you have in your own mind is a caricature, not a reality.  No wonder you don’t want to classify Christianity as a religion!  Also, a reading of Christianity as God doing all the work is erroneous to the extreme.  The NT clearly requires quite a lot, in fact, of “man” to allow God’s work to flourish in them.  Or is maintaining a soft heart, contrite spirit, and submissive will easy as pie?  The difference in effort between Christian vs. non-Christian religion in this regard is actually quite subtle.  And you can ALWAYS point out some aspect of any single religion that sets it apart as unique from others.  This doesn’t mean its not a religion.  Buddhism is unique.  Hinduism is unique.  Christianity is unique.  They’re all unique, and all religions.

Alan Fox - #32335

September 28th 2010


Baloney… more baloney… ..even more baloney…

I guess being an accommodationist is politely listening to alternative points of view and then politely pointing out the baloney.I’d be interested to hear others views on where to draw the line between free expression and tolerance of contrary views.

I think the French system of strict secularism in education and politics, whilst respecting individual privacy is an effective approach.

Alan Fox - #32336

September 28th 2010

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

Alan Fox - #32338

September 28th 2010

Does anyone self-declare as a “New Atheist” is what I mean or is it another pejorative like “Darwinist” has become?

Alan Fox - #32341

September 28th 2010

Did anyone read Jerry Coyne’s piece that Michael Ruse links to? He seems to make the simple point that factual claims about religion should require evidence. Is this what those who regard Coyne as a “New Atheist” object to?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #32344

September 28th 2010

Clearly, all religions are unique.

In my opinion Christianity is unique in that inherent in its theology is the understanding that “All humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable right, including life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is based on the fact that God created humans, male and female, in the divine image.  It is reinforced by the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of all humanity, not some.

Evolution indicates that all humans are created equal because it is based on inequalities and the survival of the fittest.  Therefore one cannot say that science indicates that all people are inherently equal.  Darwinism does the opposite.  Ecology teaches interdependence and equality, which is why it ie compatible with Christianity while Darwin is not. 

The problem with Islam is that Allah does not love the “unjust.”  The problem with Judaism at the time of Jesus was that God did not really love the gentile pagans. 

Jesus reminded us that when we dehumanize others by stereotyping or demonizing them, we are out of God’s Will.  This is a moral and spiritual issue, not a knowledge or scientific issue.

nedbrek - #32345

September 28th 2010

Alan, the “New Atheists” are distinct from “Old Atheists” in the mold of Nietzsche.  Nietzsche was more consistent, in that he rejected Christianity and everything that follows from it.  The New Atheists want Christian values (the primary one being that human life is valuable) without Christ.

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