At the recent Evolution 2010 conference, there was a two hour talk on accommodationism. There’s been plenty of scuttlebutt on the blogosphere about it, too. I was not there, so I can’t comment on the specifics of this particular talk, but this seems like a good time for me to discuss my views on accommodationism, with particular focus on two areas — science and politics.
Let’s begin with the obvious question: What does “accommodationism” mean?
To be fair, there isn’t an official definition. If you ask Michael Shermer, Francis Collins, PZ Myers, and Ken Ham, you’ll probably get four different definitions, each with their own political and scientific implications. However, I think we can start with very broad strokes and try to work our way down to more precise meanings as the word applies to different situations. Let’s start with this basic working definition: Accomodationism is the position of attempting to reconcile science and religion in the spheres of personal beliefs, political agendas, and cultural memes.
Right out of the gate, I have to own up to my own words, and I’ll do so with pride. I maintain that as worldviews and philosophies, faith based religion and science are dichotomous. They are incompatible at the most fundamental level. There is no way to do science with faith, and vice versa. But we shouldn’t just dismiss accommodationism so glibly.* Life isn’t just about philosophy. A completely accurate philosophy and a quarter still won’t buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. We have to think about some of the things accommodationists are trying to accomplish in the less than philosophically perfect world of irrational humans.
Let’s begin with the biggest problem for “separationists.” (I don’t really know what to call folks who hold the position opposite accomodationism.) Somewhere around 4 out of 10 Americans are not scientifically literate enough to accept evolution as a fact that is as certain as gravity. Of the remaining 6 out of 10, perhaps 2 or 3 are perfectly willing to suggest that evolution and some form of creationism are compatible. (Check out BioLogos arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin… er… I mean… whether or not there was a real Adam and Eve.) In a nutshell, strict separation of religion and science is a pipe dream right now. We can talk about how great it would be, but we can’t sell it.
So the question becomes one of practicality. This, I believe, is where the most outspoken accommodationists are coming from. They don’t care so much about being completely right as they care about having more people on the side of science. What they’re suggesting is a less binary approach to the question. Better to get people closer to our position than to remain in a deadlocked ideological battle.
So let’s ask the question: Can we improve the perception of science and scientists by leaving religion some wiggle room? I’ll admit to being stumped on this one. Part of me wants to believe that no self-respecting biologist would bother with a discussion of a historical Adam and Eve based solely on trying to interpret the Bible. But then I remember Francis Collins and his intensely scientific observation that a beautiful waterfall proves that Jesus is the savior of the universe.
How can we be true to science while entertaining non-scientific ideas? On the one hand, we can appeal to the peer review process. Presumably, any attempts to introduce Adam and Eve into the scientific literature would be met with immediate and derisive scorn by any competent peer review panel. But lest I become too smug, I need to remember that there is still an unspoken “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the social sciences. Just let it go when therapists and researchers start talking about the “human soul,” or the uniqueness of “higher morality” in humans. Don’t rock the boat.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Aren’t the hard-line separationists trying to say that science is being hindered by giving too much ground to religious ideas? Don’t the social sciences prove that? Again, we’re back to the question: Is it better to give some ground and hope that in the long run, science will win by virtue of its correctness and reliability?
I have some doubts. For one thing, science has become incredibly compartmentalized. While it’s true that all science majors have to take introductory courses outside of their field, we have to acknowledge that it’s possible to be a published, peer reviewed physicist, astronomer, or mathematician and know next to nothing about evolution. And let’s be honest: The debate between science and religion is over evolution, not physics or chemistry. Theists are perfectly happy to use their IPhones, hybrid cars, and tankless water heaters. They just don’t want to talk about the equally valid conclusions reached by biologists about the origins of man.
For another thing, (and I honestly hate to go back to the already dying horse, but I have to) there’s an inherent bias against atheists in the accommodationist position. Or, to put it another way, since we’re talking about popular opinion, not philosophical accuracy, we are giving the advantage to the theists. Let’s imagine a conversation between a hardliner atheist scientist and an agnostic accommodationist:
Atheist: I’m perfectly willing to accommodate as much religion as you can prove. Frankly, I’m willing to accommodate anything at all, so long as you can show me that it’s true.
Agnostic: You’re being too hard-nosed. We have to be open-minded to other points of view. You’re being absolutist and exclusionary. You’re a radical. Be nice.
Atheist: But… I just said that I’m perfectly happy to accommodate any point of view that can be demonstrated as true. Show me god, I’ll believe. Show me that religion is good, and I’ll believe. I’ll believe absolutely anything as long as it can be demonstrated. How is that being an extremist?
Agnostic: You just can’t tell other people that their position is wrong.
Atheist: I don’t say that! I say that until it’s proven right, we shouldn’t treat it as if it’s true.
Agnostic: But that’s not true! You do say some things are not true… like a historical Adam and Eve.
Atheist: Well, yeah, because that’s not just about speculation anymore. All the evidence proves that it is a false claim. I’m sorry, but I can’t just pretend the evidence isn’t there.
So, if we’re supposed to include every point of view, why can’t we include PZ Myers’ opinion? It’s ok to argue over a real flood that covered the whole earth (even though it’s physically impossible with the volume of water on earth) but it’s not ok to say, “I’ll believe anything as long as you prove it”?
It’s a horrible catch-22 with science. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But what about politics?
Here, I’m a lot more flexible. Politics has almost never been about facts. It’s about who wins and who loses. Is it ok for a politician to talk about accommodating religious views so long as he supports science and refuses to back non-scientific agendas like abstinence-only education? I think so.
Let’s face it: Politics has always been about manipulating the masses of ignorant voters. With all of our scientific advances into the workings of the human mind, we’re much better at manipulating masses than we used to be. For example, we have recently discovered that there’s a small bias on voting slips based on the ordering of the candidates. Controlling for other factors, the candidate at the top of the ballot gets more votes than the other candidates. If we apply this principle to the 2004 election debacle in Florida, Gore would be president by 50,000 votes, and no amount of recounts or hung chads would have mattered. (Bush was listed first because he was a member of the same party as the current governor, his brother Jeb.)** So for all the hubbub and vitriol, it’s fair to say that political agendas weren’t the deciding factor in the election. As close as things were, Bush’s win can be scientifically justified as an unconscious effect of positioning on ballots. So much for being right, eh?
We also know that for the most part, the ignorant masses will go along with whatever is shouted the loudest for the longest time. If it takes a certain amount of accommodationism to get some “hard-line” science advocates into office, then I’m ok with that. Granted, there’s a line in the sand somewhere. I don’t think it’s possible to have a successful career after championing an anti-abortion position and then becoming an abortion-rights “activist politician.” But politics is about saying only as much as necessary to get elected. This seems a natural fit for accommodationism.
In any case, this is all a bit of thinking aloud. What do you readers think?
* Hi, George.
** This data comes from an advance copy of a book I’ve been reading. Details to follow in an upcoming blog.