Accommodationism: The Debate Continues, Part 1

Recently, in a special two-part episode of Point of Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry’s podcast, cohost Chris Mooney changed places and became the interviewee.

In the first part, an edited version of which is presented below, CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay asks Mooney about his stance of accommodationism regarding science and religion. In the second part of the interview, to be published in the next issue of Free Inquiry, Mooney discusses his recent work on the psychology of belief in general, emphasizing how our commitments and our values shape our reasoning and our processing of information.

As well as a cohost of Point of Inquiry, Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times best-selling The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, coauthored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write The Intersection blog for Discover blogs.

Ronald A. Lindsay is a bioethicist, lawyer, and president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. For many years he practiced law in Washington, D.C., and was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and American University, where he taught jurisprudence and philosophy courses. —Eds.


Ronald A. Lindsay: A controversy over so-called accommodationism was sparked at least in part by your book Unscientific America. I think the core meaning of accommodationist would be someone who maintains either that science and religion are compatible or that they should be described as compatible even though in fact there may be some tension between them. The term is also used to describe those who believe it is important to be restrained in one’s criticism of religion and that some of the so-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins are far too shrill and condescending and their criticisms of religion are counterproductive.

In Unscientific America, you state the following: “The official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are perfectly compatible. It is not only the most tolerant but also the most intellectually responsible position for scientists to take.” So is it your position that faith and science are perfectly compatible, and if so, isn’t that position at least partially incorrect?

Chris Mooney: There’s no doubt that faith and science can be compatible. There are also cases where they come into conflict, and I think we’re very aware of this. Creationism is the most obvious case. What I view my accommodationist position as stating is that because there are so many diverse world religions and they have very different relationships with science, and because people don’t even follow their own doctrines so that within religions you have many different kinds of relationships with science, you don’t necessarily have to have a conflict. Faith and science can be compatible; however, we do see faith and science conflicts all around us.

Lindsay: So would you then perhaps back off a bit from the statement that faith and science are perfectly compatible?

Mooney: The word perfectly maybe suggests that it goes a bit more felicitously than it does.

Lindsay: You say that at least in some cases faith and science can be compatible. But wouldn’t it be simply that in some situations, certain religious beliefs or certain religious people have backed off from making any claims about the natural world? When religion does make claims about the natural world—claims that at least in principle might be tested by science—doesn’t there tend to be conflict?

Mooney: What if the religion is saying it’s OK to accept evolution—it’s compatible with their beliefs?

Lindsay: In one passage in your book you say that at least on the topic of evolution, there’s no tension between some major religions and science, and you cite as an example the Catholic Church. But that’s not quite accurate, is it? Because yes, the Church says that the faithful can accept evolution, but that comes with a big asterisk. The Church insists that Catholics must also believe that God intervened at some point and put a soul in humans. In other words, the Church insists that there’s a sharp discontinuity between humans and animals, which is something that science doesn’t support.

Mooney: That depends on whether the soul is something that they claim that science can test or measure. If the soul is beyond science, then they can say that. Whether it’s really a scientific claim as opposed to a supernatural claim that’s not really testable by scientists is open to debate. If they said that God put a soul in humans and we can prove it—we have the data and this is how we do the studies—then they would clearly be putting themselves into conflict with science.

Lindsay: We take science strictly to mean something that subjects evidence to controlled experiments and testing in an effort to try to replicate results. Perhaps there aren’t that many claims that religion is making that are testable by science and then may be in direct conflict with science. I’ll give you a broader definition of science, which basically would encompass any type of secular reasoning—any type of reasoning that says that we should conform our beliefs to the evidence. If that’s the case, isn’t it true that science in that broad sense of secular reasoning undercuts support for essentially all religious beliefs because there’s simply no evidence to accept belief in a soul, immortality, or a personal god?

Mooney: Sure, but that means that every scientist who has a religious belief is not really scientific by your definition. And I don’t think they or I would like that very much.

Lindsay: I think we simply recognize the fact that people sometimes, within their own minds, can house incompatible beliefs. It happens all the time. Jerry Coyne used the example in one of his articles that people say that they believe in marriage, but there are people who also engage in adultery, and they somehow find that compatible at a certain level. There certainly are some scientists who probably believe in things such as therapeutic touch and reiki, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not scientists—it just means that perhaps they are not entirely consistent in how they apply science. Someone who would maintain that there is a conflict between science and religion could say sure, I recognize that there are scientists who are religious, but this is simply an instance of people not following the scientific method or scientific viewpoint in all aspects of their lives.

Mooney: That’s one way of slicing it. But I would say that that definition of science is not the one that has been most accepted throughout history. For instance, if you look at a Galileo or a Newton, these are people who thought God created the world and that doing science was protecting God’s plan. They also thought that they had to follow a methodology of research in order to test claims. That’s why we came up the definition of science as methodological naturalism. That has been the definition that has not only been defended strongly by a lot of people but also was the victorious definition in the Dover evolution trial. And that is a much more limited definition t
han the one you are using.

Lindsay: It’s certainly the case that some of the scientists from the early modern era such as Galileo or Newton—the latter is a great example because he spent a lot of time trying to research the Trinity—were religious individuals. Is this simply an example of how, with science’s increasing ability to explain things that previously were inexplicable, the ground for religious belief has receded so that in fact whereas people in the 1600s or the 1700s may have thought “Well, we need a god to explain the universe,” now, we no longer need a god for that purpose? So yes, some of the early scientists were religious, but couldn’t someone maintain now that that position is no longer tenable?

Mooney: Well, it’s not culturally nearly as powerful as it was. “Tenable” is a different thing. But that’s not quite being fair to Galileo and Newton because actually it seemed that their religiosity inspired their science. In some sense religion was actually motivating learning, which again suggests a relationship that is a little less antagonistic.

Lindsay: Let’s turn to another aspect of the accommodationist dispute—your claim as set forth in Unscientific America and elsewhere that frank, unsparing criticism of religious beliefs is counterproductive if one of our goals is to get religious people to be more accepting of science and in particular the fact of evolution. What’s the evidence for that? Isn’t that assertion really based on just a hunch?

Mooney: No. There’s a huge amount of evidence in favor of that. It’s all basically psychology, and since writing Unscientific America, I have done more research and become more convinced of the validity of this. Basically the evidence is that religion is a deeply held belief. We know this. It’s central to people’s identity and I think that that’s obvious. So if you look at how people respond to attacks on their identity—it’s about what they perceive, not about how you perceive them, about how they feel—then we know that this triggers a defense mechanism that largely appears to be acting before people are even consciously thinking; they are emotionally in a defensive mode. It seems to be highly unlikely that taking someone on for whom identity is strong in that way is going to have any effect other than leading him or her to reinforce that identity. Now of course there are going to be people for whom identity is not strong. There are going to be people looking for a reason to change, and this might be a way of getting there.

Lindsay: In terms of specific evidence, do you have any evidence that the books, publications, speeches by these so-called new atheists have actually interfered either with the acceptance of science in general or with the acceptance of evolutionary theory in particular?

Mooney: What kind of controlled experiment would you conduct for this? Who has the funding to do it? It’s not like one can set this up very easily and prove it one way or the other. You’d have to get a big grant, and you’d have to set up a major study of polling data, et cetera. I would hope that there would be researchers out there who would be able to do that. And if I saw that study and the results were something very different from what I suspect, I would be glad to acknowledge that.

Lindsay: I was intrigued by an observation that you made in your book that residents of the European Union are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, but they have less of a problem accepting evolution. One could surmise that that’s because many in the European Union are less religious and more secular than Americans, which perhaps means that if we want to get people to understand science better and maybe accept evolution, what we should do in fact is to get them to give up their religious beliefs. So in fact the way to get people to accept evolution is not to soft-pedal criticism of religion but rather to subject religion to rather harsh criticism.

Mooney: That’s if you assume that the harsh criticism is going to change their minds, which is something that I strongly reject. I think it will backfire. I will grant you that if you have a society that is less religious, it’s highly likely to be a society that’s more accepting of evolution. But the question is, how do you get there?

Lindsay: And how would you get there, except through the critical examination of religion?

Mooney: You say “critical examination of religion” as if by suddenly making rational arguments against religion, these are going to be taken up and accepted in the minds of the people for whom religion is the center of their identity. That’s incredibly naïve psychologically. That’s not how human beings work.

I would try to empower the messengers that they will listen to—people who are more like them. People whom they trust. That means people in their community—hopefully pastors, scientists who are religious—people who are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them. It will still be hard and trigger a lot of resistance. But I think there will be more openness than one would get from a frontal assault from someone with whom they have very little or nothing in common.

Lindsay: You accepted a journalism fellowship at Cambridge from the Templeton Foundation, a very well-endowed foundation that devotes a substantial amount of its grant money to projects that are intended to show the compatibility of religion and science. Would you accept a fellowship from the Discovery Institute or Liberty University?

Mooney: No. I applied for this fellowship; I didn’t just accept it. I said, I want this fellowship; I want to go to Cambridge, and I want to work on what I ended up working on, which was a piece about the spirituality of scientists who don’t believe in God. My whole Templeton project was about atheism, which they were very happy with. It was about scientists who are not actual believers but still say that they are spiritual, which is an interesting, growing phenomena.

Lindsay: How would you distinguish between taking a fellowship from Liberty University and taking a fellowship from the Templeton Foundation?

Mooney: The Discovery Institute, as many folks have documented, including me in my first book, undermines science by pushing intelligent design, something I’m very, very opposed to. Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, a leading antievolutionist and founder of the Moral Majority.

With the Templeton Foundation, it’s a very different situation. They are generating a dialogue about the relationship between science and religion and doing it very successfully. As far as I can tell, there is nothing about that dialogue that they are controlling in the sense that they are forcing people to come up with a particular way that they view the relationship. They are just generating attention to the topic.

I don’t see anything wrong with generating this dialogue. I think some people don’t like the direction it goes when it gets generated. . . .

I’m someone who has written a lot about the integrity of science, messing with science, violations against science, and I’ve waved red flags in a number of areas. One of them is religion encroaching on science, leading to attacks on evolution and stem cell science. You know, they make up this thing about adult stem cells being as good as embryonic and doing it in the service of God. There are attacks on reproductive health science. They make up stuff—abortion leads to breast cancer, abortion makes women have mental illness, fetuses can feel pain before they have the brain configuration to do so—these are all attacks on science in the service of religion. I’ve blown the whistle on all these things, as well as the corporate attacks on science—on climate change, endangered species, mercury pollution, and on and on. I think I know it when I see it and I don’t see it here. This is a different thing. This is about the relationship between science and religion, and I don’t think that talking about it is wrong. When you talk about it, yes, people come to different conclusions. But I think it’s a good thing to be talking about.

You can hear this interview in its entirety on CFI’s Point of Inquiry Podcast.


Recently, in a special two-part episode of Point of Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry’s podcast, cohost Chris Mooney changed places and became the interviewee. In the first part, an edited version of which is presented below, CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay asks Mooney about his stance of accommodationism regarding science and religion. In …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.