Against accommodationism: How science undermines religion

Faith versus Fact.

There is currently a fashion for religion/science accommodationism, the idea that there’s room for religious faith within a scientifically informed understanding of the world.

Accommodationism of this kind gains endorsement even from official science organizations such as, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But how well does it withstand scrutiny?

Not too well, according to a new book by distinguished biologist Jerry A. Coyne.

Gould’s magisteria

The most famous, or notorious, rationale for accommodationism was provided by the celebrity palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. Gould argues that religion and science possess separate and non-overlapping “magisteria”, or domains of teaching authority, and so they can never come into conflict unless one or the other oversteps its domain’s boundaries.

If we accept the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), the magisterium of science relates to “the factual construction of nature”. By contrast, religion has teaching authority in respect of “ultimate meaning and moral value” or “moral issues about the value and meaning of life”.

On this account, religion and science do not overlap, and religion is invulnerable to scientific criticism. Importantly, however, this is because Gould is ruling out many religious claims as being illegitimate from the outset even as religious doctrine. Thus, he does not attack the fundamentalist Christian belief in a young earth merely on the basis that it is incorrect in the light of established scientific knowledge (although it clearly is!). He claims, though with little real argument, that it is illegitimate in principle to hold religious beliefs about matters of empirical fact concerning the space-time world: these simply fall outside the teaching authority of religion.

I hope it’s clear that Gould’s manifesto makes an extraordinarily strong claim about religion’s limited role. Certainly, most actual religions have implicitly disagreed.

The category of “religion” has been defined and explained in numerous ways by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and others with an academic or practical interest. There is much controversy and disagreement. All the same, we can observe that religions have typically been somewhat encyclopedic, or comprehensive, explanatory systems.

Religions usually come complete with ritual observances and standards of conduct, but they are more than mere systems of ritual and morality. They typically make sense of human experience in terms of a transcendent dimension to human life and well-being. Religions relate these to supernatural beings, forces, and the like. But religions also make claims about humanity’s place - usually a strikingly exceptional and significant one - in the space-time universe.

It would be naïve or even dishonest to imagine that this somehow lies outside of religion’s historical role. While Gould wants to avoid conflict, he creates a new source for it, since the principle of NOMA is itself contrary to the teachings of most historical religions. At any rate, leaving aside any other, or more detailed, criticisms of the NOMA principle, there is ample opportunity for religion(s) to overlap with science and come into conflict with it.

Coyne on religion and science

The genuine conflict between religion and science is the theme of Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Viking, 2015). This book’s appearance was long anticipated; it’s a publishing event that prompts reflection.

In pushing back against accommodationism, Coyne portrays religion and science as “engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.” Note, however, that he is concerned with theistic religions that include a personal God who is involved in history. (He is not, for example, dealing with Confucianism, pantheism or austere forms of philosophical deism that postulate a distant, non-interfering God.)

Accommodationism is fashionable, but that has less to do with its intellectual merits than with widespread solicitude toward religion. There are, furthermore, reasons why scientists in the USA (in particular) find it politically expedient to avoid endorsing any “conflict model” of the relationship between religion and science. Even if they are not religious themselves, many scientists welcome the NOMA principle as a tolerable compromise.

Some accommodationists argue for one or another very weak thesis: for example, that this or that finding of science (or perhaps our scientific knowledge base as a whole) does not logically rule out the existence of God (or the truth of specific doctrines such as Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection from the dead). For example, it is logically possible that current evolutionary theory and a traditional kind of monotheism are both true.

But even if we accept such abstract theses, where does it get us? After all, the following may both be true:

  1. There is no strict logical inconsistency between the essentials of current evolutionary theory and the existence of a traditional sort of Creator-God.


  1. Properly understood, current evolutionary theory nonetheless tends to make Christianity as a whole less plausible to a reasonable person.

If 1. and 2. are both true, it’s seriously misleading to talk about religion (specifically Christianity) and science as simply “compatible”, as if science - evolutionary theory in this example - has no rational tendency at all to produce religious doubt. In fact, the cumulative effect of modern science (not least, but not solely, evolutionary theory) has been to make religion far less plausible to well-informed people who employ reasonable standards of evidence.

For his part, Coyne makes clear that he is not talking about a strict logical inconsistency. Rather, incompatibility arises from the radically different methods used by science and religion to seek knowledge and assess truth claims. As a result, purported knowledge obtained from distinctively religious sources (holy books, church traditions, and so on) ends up being at odds with knowledge grounded in science.

Religious doctrines change, of course, as they are subjected over time to various pressures. Faith versus Fact includes a useful account of how they are often altered for reasons of mere expediency. One striking example is the decision by the Mormons (as recently as the 1970s) to admit blacks into its priesthood. This was rationalised as a new revelation from God, which raises an obvious question as to why God didn’t know from the start (and convey to his worshippers at an early time) that racial discrimination in the priesthood was wrong.

It is, of course, true that a system of religious beliefs can be modified in response to scientific discoveries. In principle, therefore, any direct logical contradictions between a specified religion and the discoveries of science can be removed as they arise and are identified. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere (e.g., in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (2012)), religions have seemingly endless resources to avoid outright falsification. In the extreme, almost all of a religion’s stories and doctrines could gradually be reinterpreted as metaphors, moral exhortations, resonant but non-literal cultural myths, and the like, leaving nothing to contradict any facts uncovered by science.

In practice, though, there are usually problems when a particular religion adjusts. Depending on the circumstances, a process of theological adjustment can meet with internal resistance, splintering and mutual anathemas. It can lead to disillusionment and bitterness among the faithful. The theological system as a whole may eventually come to look very different from its original form; it may lose its original integrity and much of what once made it attractive.

All forms of Christianity - Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise - have had to respond to these practical problems when confronted by science and modernity.

Coyne emphasizes, I think correctly, that the all-too-common refusal by religious thinkers to accept anything as undercutting their claims has a downside for believability. To a neutral outsider, or even to an insider who is susceptible to theological doubts, persistent tactics to avoid falsification will appear suspiciously ad hoc.

To an outsider, or to anyone with doubts, those tactics will suggest that religious thinkers are not engaged in an honest search for truth. Rather, they are preserving their favoured belief systems through dogmatism and contrivance.

How science subverted religion

In principle, as Coyne also points out, the important differences in methodology between religion and science might (in a sense) not have mattered. That is, it could have turned out that the methods of religion, or at least those of the true religion, gave the same results as science. Why didn’t they?

Let’s explore this further. The following few paragraphs are my analysis, drawing on earlier publications, but I believe they’re consistent with Coyne’s approach. (Compare also Susan Haack’s non-accommodationist analysis in her 2007 book, Defending Science - within Reason.)

At the dawn of modern science in Europe - back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - religious worldviews prevailed without serious competition. In such an environment, it should have been expected that honest and rigorous investigation of the natural world would confirm claims that were already found in the holy scriptures and church traditions. If the true religion’s founders had genuinely received knowledge from superior beings such as God or angels, the true religion should have been, in a sense, ahead of science.

There might, accordingly, have been a process through history by which claims about the world made by the true religion (presumably some variety of Christianity) were successively confirmed. The process might, for example, have shown that our planet is only six thousand years old (give or take a little), as implied by the biblical genealogies. It might have identified a global extinction event - just a few thousand years ago - resulting from a worldwide cataclysmic flood. Science could, of course, have added many new details over time, but not anything inconsistent with pre-existing knowledge from religious sources.

Unfortunately for the credibility of religious doctrine, nothing like this turned out to be the case. Instead, as more and more evidence was obtained about the world’s actual structures and causal mechanisms, earlier explanations of the appearances were superseded. As science advances historically, it increasingly reveals religion as premature in its attempts at understanding the world around us.

As a consequence, religion’s claims to intellectual authority have become less and less rationally believable. Science has done much to disenchant the world - once seen as full of spiritual beings and powers - and to expose the pretensions of priests, prophets, religious traditions, and holy books. It has provided an alternative, if incomplete and provisional, image of the world, and has rendered much of religion anomalous or irrelevant.

By now, the balance of evidence has turned decisively against any explanatory role for beings such as gods, ghosts, angels, and demons, and in favour of an atheistic philosophical naturalism. Regardless what other factors were involved, the consolidation and success of science played a crucial role in this. In short, science has shown a historical, psychological, and rational tendency to undermine religious faith.

Not only the sciences!

I need to be add that the damage to religion’s authority has come not only from the sciences, narrowly construed, such as evolutionary biology. It has also come from work in what we usually regard as the humanities. Christianity and other theistic religions have especially been challenged by the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and academic biblical scholars.

Those efforts have cast doubt on the provenance and reliability of the holy books. They have implied that many key events in religious accounts of history never took place, and they’ve left much traditional theology in ruins. In the upshot, the sciences have undermined religion in recent centuries - but so have the humanities.

Coyne would not tend to express it that way, since he favours a concept of “science broadly construed”. He elaborates this as: “the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.” On his approach, history (at least in its less speculative modes) and archaeology are among the branches of “science” that have refuted many traditional religious claims with empirical content.

But what is science? Like most contemporary scientists and philosophers, Coyne emphasizes that there is no single process that constitutes “the scientific method”. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is, admittedly, very important to science. That is, scientists frequently make conjectures (or propose hypotheses) about unseen causal mechanisms, deduce what further observations could be expected if their hypotheses are true, then test to see what is actually observed. However, the process can be untidy. For example, much systematic observation may be needed before meaningful hypotheses can be developed. The precise nature and role of conjecture and testing will vary considerably among scientific fields.

Likewise, experiments are important to science, but not to all of its disciplines and sub-disciplines. Fortunately, experiments are not the only way to test hypotheses (for example, we can sometimes search for traces of past events). Quantification is also important… but not always.

However, Coyne says, a combination of reason, logic and observation will always be involved in scientific investigation. Importantly, some kind of testing, whether by experiment or observation, is important to filter out non-viable hypotheses.

If we take this sort of flexible and realistic approach to the nature of science, the line between the sciences and the humanities becomes blurred. Though they tend to be less mathematical and experimental, for example, and are more likely to involve mastery of languages and other human systems of meaning, the humanities can also be “scientific” in a broad way. (From another viewpoint, of course, the modern-day sciences, and to some extent the humanities, can be seen as branches from the tree of Greek philosophy.)

It follows that I don’t terribly mind Coyne’s expansive understanding of science. If the English language eventually evolves in the direction of employing his construal, nothing serious is lost. In that case, we might need some new terminology - “the cultural sciences” anyone? - but that seems fairly innocuous. We already talk about “the social sciences” and “political science”.

For now, I prefer to avoid confusion by saying that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, forming a unity of knowledge. With that terminological point under our belts, we can then state that both the sciences and the humanities have undermined religion during the modern era. I expect they’ll go on doing so.

A valuable contribution

In challenging the undeserved hegemony of religion/science accommodationism, Coyne has written a book that is notably erudite without being dauntingly technical. The style is clear, and the arguments should be understandable and persuasive to a general audience. The tone is rather moderate and thoughtful, though opponents will inevitably cast it as far more polemical and “strident” than it really is. This seems to be the fate of any popular book, no matter how mild-mannered, that is critical of religion.

Coyne displays a light touch, even while drawing on his deep involvement in scientific practice (not to mention a rather deep immersion in the history and detail of Christian theology). He writes, in fact, with such seeming simplicity that it can sometimes be a jolt to recognize that he’s making subtle philosophical, theological, and scientific points.

In that sense, Faith versus Fact testifies to a worthwhile literary ideal. If an author works at it hard enough, even difficult concepts and arguments can usually be made digestible. It won’t work out in every case, but this is one where it does. That’s all the more reason why Faith versus Fact merits a wide readership. It’s a valuable, accessible contribution to a vital debate.