In the course of a long and often annoying back and forth with Jerry Coyne, Chris Mooney comes up with a succinct explanation of where science/religion accommodation comes from:
Insofar as I?m an accommodationist, then, it?s not because I don?t see the incongruity between relying on faith, and looking for evidence, as bases for knowing. Rather, it?s because I know that many very intelligent people are struggling all the time to make their peace with this incongruity in their own way?a peace that works for them. And so long as they?re not messing with what our kids learn?or, again, trying to ram their views down our throats?then good on ?em.
His point about whether science and religion are different “bases for knowing” is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s question to Mooney: “Does Mooney sign on to [Peter] Hess?s statement that the faithful and the scientists are all really engaged in the same endeavor?” FWIW, Hess’s quote was that “Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths,” which is not really saying it’s “the same endeavor.”
The bigger thing about Coyne’s question that grates is that it pretends that “scientists” and “people of faith” are non-overlapping sets. That everyone under discussion is either a scientist or religious, and a religious scientist is no more than a theoretical possibility. But we need not even choose a different surname to disprove that. Fr. George Coyne is an astronomer. He was, for many years, the director of the Vatican Observatory, and was a Jesuit priest for even longer. Does he see any conflict between his study of the heavens and his belief in heaven? Not at all:
the International Theological Commission, under the presidency of Cardinal Ratzinger, and less than a year before he was elected to the Papacy, issued a lengthy statement in which it saw no incompatibility between God’s providential plan for creation and the results of a truly contingent evolutionary process in nature. ?
There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe? in which life? evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection, escapes God’s dominion. That fear is groundless. Science is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications that may be drawn from its conclusions. Those conclusions are always subject to improvement. That is why science is such an interesting adventure and scientists curiously interesting creatures. But for someone to deny the best of today’s science on religious grounds is to live in that groundless fear just mentioned. ?
It surely sounds like he sees science and religion as paths to truth, though not (as Jerry Coyne seems to think) to the same truths. Coyne’s exploration of the concept of creation is also worth considering:
It is unfortunate that creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaeo-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor [metaphysical] naturalism is true. But, if we confront what we know of our origins scientifically with religious faith in God the Creator ? if, that is, we take the results of modern science seriously ? it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the believer, science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as seen by them.
This stress on our scientific knowledge is not to place a limitation upon God. Far from it. It reveals a God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God. Such a view of creation can be found in early Christian writings, especially in those of St Augustine in his comments on Genesis. If they respect the results of modern science and, indeed, the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words. Scripture is very rich in these thoughts. It presents, indeed anthropomorphically, a God who gets angry, who disciplines, a God who nurtures the universe, who empties himself in Christ the incarnate Word. Thus God’s revelation of himself in the Book of Scripture would be reflected in our knowledge of the universe, so that, as Galileo was fond of stating, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature speak of the same God.
He ends with an endorsement of process theology which is worth reading, but which I won’t quote. The point here is not that science and religion give you the same answers, or that they answer the same questions. It is also not that religious knowledge is static, as some new atheists often claim. Theology responds to new scientific discoveries, just as it reacts to cultural shifts. Claims about theology are tested in a different way than scientific claims, indeed cannot be tested as scientific claims, but that does not mean they are invalid. He sees science and religion as connected, as informing one another in certain ways, and as rooted in the same reality, therefore incapable of contradiction. Apparent contradictions must be addressed by further study.
For my own answer to Jerry Coyne’s questions, I want to point again to the analogy between reading about San Francisco and driving up to visit the city. A Dashiell Hammett mystery is not a slalom down Lombard Street, and the experience of being a tourist in San Francisco cannot be replaced by Mark Twain’s tales. But you can’t visit the San Francisco which gave birth to the Grateful Dead except by reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Literature and travel are, in some sense, different ways of getting at related truths. Which is not to say that there was ever an actual Maltese Falcon, or that everything Tom Wolfe describes happened just as he wrote it. That’s not the point.
But Coyne sees it differently:
The methods of ascertaining ?truth? via faith are either revelation or acceptance of dogma. These methods have produced ?truths? like a 6,000-year-old Earth and the Great Flood. Not a very good track record. In fact, I have yet to find a single truth about humans, Earth, or the universe that has come uniquely from faith.
This is a tricky question. I could point to the Golden Rule, which seems to crop up in lots of different religions, and emerges pretty naturally from evolutionary game theory under conditions that model early human societies. So it’s some sort of truth, and Jews had written it down long before anyone invented game theory. But it isn’t unique to faith. Indeed, any empirically testable claim cannot be unique to faith; it is in science’s realm (too?), and will be tested and found either valid or false. Claims which are not testable, like the divinity of Jesus or Mary’s conception free of sin, may or may not be true, but since we can’t test them, Christians believe them to be true and non-Christians don’t. That revelation cannot be tested means it is not science, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
It is a truth of a different sort, but not an unrelated truth. If Jesus lived, he walked the same world I do. If he was divine, the words he spoke struck ears like mine. His miracles were either sleight of hand, embellishments by later storytellers, or suspensions of natural laws. If I could take James Randi back a couple thousand years, I could figure that out, but as it is, all I can do is believe what I believe and let Christians believe what they do.
Randi and I could surely figure out what the score is with the loaves and the fishes and the wine. I don’t know any way that we could test Jesus’ divinity, or whether Mary was born with or without original sin. I kinda think that since neither of us places much stock in the notion to begin with, we’d find her just as lacking in it as we find everyone else. And this may be too post-modernist of me to say, but maybe it’s true for Christians and not true for me. If that’s the case, I don’t really see the harm in it.
The analogy to reading works here, also. I don’t quite understand the life of an illiterate, but I know that there are people who can’t read, or who can but don’t. When I was tutoring grade schoolers, I had one kid who could read well, but just didn’t care to do it. He wanted to draw teenage mutant ninja turtles for himself and his friends, but he just had no interest in the books his mother wanted me to have him read. Maybe he grew out of it, or maybe he still doesn’t understand why anyone should want to read. And we know there are plenty of Americans who simply can’t make any sense of letters on paper.
The closest I can come to either of those feelings, and I think the anti-accommodationist atheists feel like this about religion, is dance. I’ve never been able to dance, and never much minded that. I watch people dancing, and I see that they enjoy themselves. But I can’t fathom why, nor can I quite sort out what it is that they are doing. I can appreciate the technical challenge and the aesthetic merits of ballet, other stage dance styles, and what happens on dance floors at clubs, weddings, or bar mitzvahs, but I can’t quite understand why anyone chooses to do those things, let alone how I might replicate it. In any event there are lots of things I’d rather do. No harm done.
As best I can tell, opponents of compatibility look at religion roughly the same way, except that the see some ill-defined harm being done. They see religious practice as meaningly jabber, barely worth treating seriously. Grand metaphysical questions are declared irrelevant if they can’t be scientifically tested, or if they introduce causative agents whose existence and actions in the world are beyond scientific detection. Truths that can’t be verified aren’t deemed worth considering.
Ask me why I read, and I can tell you about worlds I’ve experienced and people I’ve met, despite the centuries or leagues separating us. I can tell you about the excitement of placing myself in epic battles, and the contentment of sitting next to Thoreau at Walden Pond (contentment occasionally interrupted when my companion says something foolish). But to someone who can’t or won’t read, that makes no sense. Ask me why people dance, and I can’t do much more than speculate about the historical role played by rhythmic movement in our ancestral culture. I suspect there’s more to it, I just don’t know what it is. But it would be wrong of me to dismiss it. It’s just as wrong, I think, for the anti-accommodationists to simply dismiss the possibility that religion does something useful for some (but not all) people.
George Coyne doesn’t want to push creationism in schools. He doesn’t try to siphon my tax dollars off for Catholic schools, he doesn’t chain himself to the doors of abortion clinics, he doesn’t try to make me go to his church, and he doesn’t hold back his scientific work because of his beliefs. He believes what he believes, he doesn’t impose it on others, and it would be as wrong for others to impose their beliefs about science and religion on him as it would be for him to impose his beliefs on me. Unless there’s some empirical, scientific test that would resolve this question, it falls in the same category of untestable claims as the Immaculate Conception. And the Golden Rule tells us that we should discuss this issue with the same civility and respect that we wish occurred in discussions of religion.