Resisting accommodationism

Jerry Coyne, after discussion with other scientists and upon reflection, refused an invitation from the organizers of the World Science Festival to participate on a panel that would discuss the relationship between faith and science. One of the Festival’s sponsors was The Templeton Foundation, ‘whose implicit mission,’ Coyne said, ‘is to reconcile science and religion (and in doing so, I think, blur the boundaries between them).’ The people at the SWF wrote to him and other concerned scientists.

[T]he Festival has programs that not only focus on the content of science traditionally defined, but programs that seek to illuminate how science interfaces with other disciplines and outlooks…For the Festival to have programs exploring the art-science relationship, the government-science relationship, the business-science relationship, the literature-science relationship, and yet to willfully ignore the prominent and tumultuous religion-science relationship would be a strange and, dare we say, cowardly omission.

No, it wouldn’t, at least not necessarily. One can organize and arrange and categorize such things in more than one way. One could decide that such a Festival should be about science and everything, so that inclusiveness and breadth would be the first criterion. But one could also and instead decide, say, that such a Festival should be about science and other human endeavors that are compatible with science. The second looks, frankly, a lot more interesting than the first. It is genuinely interesting and rewarding to explore various kinds of human activity that can co-exist with science, and enrich or illustrate or expand on it. It’s also, I would think, a better way in the long run to get people interested in science, because the science and everything idea would be too broad and undemanding to hook onto anything. Science and cookies, science and fashion, science and ghosts, science and religion…it’s everything and nothing. But science and history, science and criminal investigation, science and journalism, science and art? Those all indicate the presense of some content, and thus something to think about.

Anyway, as Coyne points out, religion has a problem in this context that dance and literature don’t.

you consider faith as a topic appropriate for discussion in your Festival. You mention that you feature programs that integrate science with dance, with public policy, with literature, and so on. But these are quite different from religion. Neither dance, public policy, nor literature are based on ways of looking at the world that are completely inimical to scientific investigation. Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines; science and literature are not. That is, one can appreciate great literature and science without embracing any philosophical contradictions, but one cannot do this with religion (unless that religion is a watered down-deism that precludes any direct involvement of a deity in the world).

That of course is just what the Templeton Foundation would like to deny and make disappear, which is why Coyne refuses to take their dime.

The issue is that, by saying it sponsors the Festival, the Templeton Foundation will use its sponsorship to prove that it is engaging in serious discussion with scientists. Like many of my colleagues, I regard Templeton as an organization whose purpose is to fuse science with religion: to show how science illuminates “the big questions” and how religion can contribute to science. I regard this as not only fatuous, but dangerous. Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.

Kudos to Jerry Coyne for blowing the gaff on them.

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