Sunday Times gives a lukewarm review to an accommodationist book

Here’s the link to an interesting article written by evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne and posted to his website, Why Evolution is True.

March 12, 2023 • 11:15 am

The only reason to write books about reconciling science and religion—as opposed to, say, reconciling sports and religion or business and religion—is if the two fields conflict in some way, and thus require reconciliation. After all, if  religion were purely philosophical, lacking any empirical claims, there would be no need to reconcile science and religion, for science is not philosophy.

As I argued in Faith Versus Fact, the never-ending attempts to reconcile science and religion come precisely because they are in conflict—in conflict about what is true in the universe and about how to ascertain those truths. Science has a toolkit for (provisionally) ascertaining what’s true in the universe: a toolkit including observation, replication, doubt, testability, prediction, and so on.

Religion’s toolkit includes three things: authority, revelation, and scripture, none of which is a reliable guide to the universe.  If these were reliable, all religions would converge on the same truth claims. Jesus would be either a prophet, as he is in Islam, or the son of God/God, as he is in Christianity. Jesus would have visited America, as the Mormons claim, or not (as Christians believe.). I could go on, but of course as author, I recommend reading my book (for a cheaper take on my thesis, read the archived version of my 2010 USA Today column, “Science and religion aren’t friends.” (I’m still amazed I got that published.)

Though I claim that my book killed off any reconciliation between science and religion, the attempt won’t lie down. That’s because, except for fundamentalists, religious people, along with nonbelieving “faitheists” who think religion is false but still necessary for society, don’t want to think that their own religious delusions make them unfriendly to modern science, which WORKS. You’re not a credible human if you think science isn’t the best way to find out empirical truths.

Yet, the attempts continue, spurred on by philosophers like Ronald Numbers who argue that conflicts between science and religion are only apparent but not real. The Scopes Trial, or the saga of Galileo versus the Church weren’t really about science/religion conflicts, but were merely the results of sociological or political differences.

They’re partly right, but mostly wrong. Tennessee’s Butler Act, which forbad the teaching of human evolution (but not evolution of other species) was not about politics, but about the fact that the new theory of evolution directly conflicted with the accounts given in Genesis I and II.

And so accommodationism returns in this new book by Nicholas Spencer, an author described on Amazon as:

Senior Fellow at Theos, a Fellow of International Society for Science and Religion and a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London

Theos is a pro-religion think tank in London founded by “the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.” As Wikipedia notes, it ” maintains an ecumenical position.” That is, it’s pro-Christian.

Here’s Spencer’s book (click to preorder), which I haven’t read as it won’t be out in the U.S. until May 23. I’ll simply highlight today’s Sunday Times of London review.

The review of Spencer’s book by James McConnachie can be reached by clicking on the headline below; but for nearly everyone it’s paywalled. Fortunately, you can find it archived for free here.

Apparently Spencer doesn’t accept Steve Gould’s position that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping magisteria (a false claim advanced in his book Rocks of Ages, which I heavily criticized in a TLS review you can see here). No, Spencer thinks it’s more complicated than that, but whatever their relationship is, it’s not antagonistic. (Indeed, in some trivial senses they aren’t antagonistic, as in the observation that there are religious scientists, one that Spencer apparently makes much of. Quotes from McConnachie’s review are indented:

For Spencer, [Buzz] Aldrin stands in a long line of scientists and scientific icons whose thought and work have been inspired and shaped by their religious convictions. Through history the “magisteria”, or realms, of science and religion have not been antagonistic, he argues, still less non-overlapping, but rather “indistinct, sprawling, untidy, and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled”.

Spencer has covered some of this ground before in sophisticated and readable histories of Darwin and religion, atheism and the centrality of Christianity to western thought. This book, though, is surely his magnum opus. It is astonishingly wide-ranging — there is a whiff of the encyclopaedia about it — and richly informed.

. . . From here on the narrative of a clash between science and religion is weighed, and found wanting. Medieval Christians, Spencer argues, responded to Greek science — transmitted through the “fragile brilliance” of medieval Islamic science — with enthusiasm. They used astronomical observation to prove what the Bible told them: that “the heavens declare the glory of God”.

Renaissance astronomers thought something similar. Even Galileo — much-championed by anticlerical types — “was no sceptic, let alone a heretic”. (And he probably didn’t mutter “And yet it moves” shortly after vowing in front of the Inquisition that the Earth was at the centre of the universe.)

The touchstone about whether one can see this history objectively is whether they admit that yes, the clash between Galileo and the church was largely about observation conflicting with religion. McConnachie continues:

“If the marriage of science and religion was harmonious across much of Europe in the Enlightenment,” Spencer writes, “it was positively blissful in England.” He traces a line of devout English theorists and experimenters from the “fiercely religious” Isaac Newton — a man more interested in theology than physics — through to a suite of English “clerical naturalists”.

This lineage culminated in Charles Darwin, who had started training for ordination as a younger man and lived in a rectory when he was older — “lacking only the dog collar and the Christian faith” to be a clergyman, as Spencer puts it. Even the older, agnostic Darwin had his religious doubts and yearnings. Spencer describes the poignant note given to him by his wife, Emma, encouraging him to leave room for faith. Underneath her words, he later wrote: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cried over this.”

Darwin was at best a deist, and trying to claim he was conventionally religious is another touchstone of academic dishonesty.

There are so many moments like that — myths not so much busted as brought down by controlled demolition. The 1860 Oxford evolution debate, which set Darwin’s monkey-descended champions up against the scoffing bishop? By the end of the century most Christians accepted evolution.

If you know about the Oxford debates, or about the initial reaction of religious people to Darwin, you’d know that the marriage was not “blissful” at the outset. Christians accepted Darwin because they had to: the evidence was overwhelming. Yet they still held onto superstitious and antiscientific notions of Jesus, so in what sense is that a “blissful marriage”? “Cognitive dissonance” is more like it.

And of course most Christians in the U.S. do not accept evolution in the naturalistic sense. A 2019 Gallup poll showed that of all surveyed Americans, 40% believe God created humans in their present form, another 33% think that humans evolved but that the evolution was guided by God, and a mere 20% held the naturalistic view that humans evolved and God had no part in directing the process. That means that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans hold a view of human origins that contravenes science (regardless of whether God was in charge, science doesn’t show that evolution was “directed” at all).

After praising Spencer’s writing, McConnachie gets down to his overall assessment of the book:

The argument could sometimes be summed up as “it’s more complicated than that”, plus “let’s replace a narrative of conflict with one of collaboration”. It’s so reasonable. So Anglican! But then Spencer is a senior fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, which exists to challenge negative representations of religion in western countries, believing that “faith, and Christianity in particular, is a force for good in society”.

In other words, Spencer’s book is tendentious, and nothing I’ve read about it in either the Amazon summary or McConnachie’s review adds to what’s already been written by previous accommodationist authors. After all, there are only so many ways to claim that science and religion are friends.

McConnachie’s final take:

At heart, then, Magisteria is a plea for religion to remain entangled in our lives and in our science. I’m not convinced. That word from Spencer’s subtitle, “entangled”, references quantum entanglement, whereby two separate particles are mysteriously linked, so that the state of one is bound up with the other, even if they are far apart. Einstein sceptically summed this up as “spooky action at a distance”, and I feel similarly about Spencer’s view of the interaction of science and religion. The two realms overlap only if you accept the validity of religious beliefs to start with. And Spencer’s own narrative, despite himself, reveals a historical disentangling — a slow withdrawal of the spookiness from science. Whether or not you see that as a good thing depends, ultimately, whose side you are on.

It sounds to me as if McConnachie is a nonbeliever, since he appears to reject “the validity of religious beliefs.” He also recognizes that the history of the “blissful marriage” is one of inevitable divorce as science pushes God back into the corner as an ineffectual deity unable to cure children of cancer but powerful at deciding who wins football games.

I’ll close with a great paragraph on this supposedly blissful marriage written by The Great Agnostic, himself, Robert G. Ingersoll:

There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”