In which I refuse an invitation to the World Science Festival on grounds of accommodationism

The organizers of the World Science Festival in New York invited me to participate on a panel that would discuss the relationship between faith and science.  It was an honor to get the invitation, because this is a high-profile festival, with lots of good people and publicity, that is organized by the physicist Brian Greene in New York.  The “conversation” in which I was invited to participate included a religious evolutionist, a philosopher, and a priest/astronomer (a similar discussion was held at the Festival in 2008).  Reading last year’s description didn’t give me a very good feeling, as it smacked of accommodationism.

Prominent clashes — both historical and contemporary — have led to the widely held conclusion that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Yet, many scientists practice a traditional faith, having found a way to accommodate both scientific inquiry and religious teaching in their belief system. Other scientists are bringing science to bear on the phenomenon of religion and spiritual belief — neuroscientists are studying what happens in the brain during religious experiences, while anthropologists are investigating how religion is linked to cooperation and community. This program provided an intimate look at what scientists have to say about their religious beliefs and what might be revealed by scientific studies of spirituality.

What was more distressing was that one of the Festival’s sponsors was The Templeton Foundation, whose implicit mission is to reconcile science and religion (and in doing so, I think, blur the boundaries between them).   I discussed this issue with some of my colleagues, and they were of mixed opinion: some thought that I should go and denounce the Templeton Foundation, or religion/science accommodationism in general (and thereby “enlighten” the public); others thought that I would be tainted by participating in a Templeton-funded conference.  In the end, I agreed with the latter group, although this wasn’t an easy decision.  I sent the following letter of regret to the organizers.

Dear ____________,

After much discussion with my colleagues, and some soul-searching, I am going to have to decline with great regret your kind invitation to speak at the World Science Festival.   I regard it as a distinct honor to have been invited, and under normal circumstances would not have hesitated to accept.  But two things have forced me to my decision in this circumstance.

The first is that 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).  This incompatibility was the topic of my article in The New Republic.  Similarly, homeopathy and modern medicine are philosophically and materially contradictory.  It would be just as inappropriate to offer a discussion of homeopathy versus modern medicne.

You go on to say that,

“If there is an opportunity for compelling discourse with the capacity to yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking, its role in exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place within it, then there’s room for such a program in our Festival.”

But there is no such possibility in the program you propose.  How could a dialogue with science possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking?  Such discourse would only confuse people about what scientific thinking is.  The Templeton Foundation, for example, has always sought to blur those lines!  And science’s role in “exposing the nature of reality and humankind’s place in it” has nothing to do with religion or theology.  It is a purely scientific role: to find out how the Universe works and how humans came to be.  It is telling, here, that the editorial by Brian Greene to which I was pointed–an editorial explaining to the public why science is important and exciting–said not a single word about religion.

The second consideration is that the festival is being supported by The Templeton Foundation.  I absolutely believe you when you say that there are no strings attached, and that the Foundation is not exercising any editorial judgement.  But this is not the issue.  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.  I don’t want to be one of these.  That’s just a matter of principle.  But the “no strings” argument doesn’t wash for me, for precisely the same reason that congressmen are not supposed to take gifts from people whose legislation they could influence. It is the appearance of conflict that is at issue.

To avoid this appearance in the future, I would strongly suggest that the Festival discontinue taking money from Templeton.  That foundation is widely regarded in the scientific community as one whose mission, deliberate or not, is to corrupt science.  It doesn’t belong as a sponsor of your festival.

I am sorry to go on for so long, but I thought you deserved an explanation for my waffling, and for my decision.  I certainly support the goals of the festival and hope that it goes very well this year.

Best wishes,
Jerry Coyne

So, I ain’t going, which would have been fun, especially because E. O. Wilson will be there for an 80th birthday fete.  But I just couldn’t see myself taking money from an organization that is devoted to promulgating a futile —indeed, dangerous — dialogue between science and religion.  I can never understand what religion has to say to scientists that would improve our work or our understanding of the universe, and all we can contribute to religion are empirical discoveries that force the faithful to regroup and fine-tune their theology to accommodate the new findings.

33 Comments

  1. newenglandbob
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Good for you, Jerry Coyne!

    Everyone should lobby Brian Greene to also stop accommodating religion and the Templeton foundation. I have great respect for Greene, and have read “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and he is a master at explaining complex Physics topics. Greene is also a tireless champion of science and science education, but it should not be spoiled by irrational supernatural dogma.

  2. Posted May 6, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Wow. At the end of the fist blockquote, I was thinking, “he should go and tell them all how antithetical science and religion are.” But seeing that the confrence was sponsored in part by the Tempelton Foundation was like opening up one’s hamburgher to spread on the condiments and finding a twitching cockroach. *Shudder out loud.*

  3. Posted May 6, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Wow, it takes a lot of dedication to take a stand like this. Most people would easily have accepted the invitation, and been able to justify it in their heads.

    You, sir, are awesome!

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Perhaps they can find another prominent scientist to replace you, like Templeton Prize winner and YEC Charles W. Colson.

  5. Don
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Jerry: Very nice turn of phrase, “Templeton likes nothing better than to corral real working scientists into its conciliatory pen.”

  6. Badger3k
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I hear Hugh Ross is available to take your place. Maybe Dembski will volunteer as well. I think their effort to get Dr Hovind to speak will be a failure….

  7. Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Jerry wrote: “Science and religion are truly incompatible disciplines …”. Aside from the fact that neurological and psychological experimentation can be carried out on those who profess religious beliefs and/or those claiming to have spiritual experiences, I know of no evidence to refute Jerry’s statement. What escapes me is what the Templeton Foundation (or anyone for that matter) relies on to say that they are compatible. Can anyone help me here?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      What escapes me is what the Templeton Foundation (or anyone for that matter) relies on to say that they are compatible.

      Because the baby Jesus loves you.

  8. Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you for taking such a strong and sensible stand Jerry. You are an inspiration that I hope other scientists will follow.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    *** Templeton. Who needs them when there are ginormous trilobites to be blogged about?

    Giant trilobites and trilobite clusters from the Ordovician of Portugal
    doi:10.1130/G25513A.1

    • newenglandbob
      Posted May 6, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      shouldn’t a giant trilobite be called a triloword or a triloparagraph, trilochaper, trilobook…

  10. SeanK
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Kudos to you Jerry. If enough scientists take this kind of stance against anything the Templeton Foundation is involved in, it won’t be long before any event or festival that wants to be taken seriously won’t think twice about turning the TF away.

  11. Flea
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    You could have gone and crashed the party!

  12. Loc
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit torn. I went to one of the events during the festival last year, and had a wonderful time. I think that 80-90% of the programs are legitimate, and bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities.

    But then again, I absolutely abhor the Templeton Foundation. I’m in medical school, and during the first semester we had a lecture on how to take a “Spiritual History.” I looked up the professor, and she studied at Duke University under the guidance of a professor who is highly involved with the Templeton Foundation. They are permeating science where and whenever they can.

  13. Stuart Ritchie
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Excellent to see some principled action (or, I suppse, inaction in this case)!

    I hope lots of scientists hear about this and consider doing similar things themselves when invited to silly conferences like this.

  14. MelM
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Any Deism would have to be very watered down indeed:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism

    Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things.

    Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things.

    This stuff would conflict with scientific cosmology. Was there ever a Deist god who had absolutely nothing to do with the universe? I don’t see the point of even inventing such a god: a god who’d leave no fingerprints in reality and would be undetectable.

  15. Posted May 6, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much Jerry.

    Now, who will be the next to decline an invitation to a JTF sponsored event?

  16. MelM
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    The “Prominent clashes–” description sure looks like a sales pitch for religion. Pitching religion at a science conference is ludicrous and I agree completely with Jerry’s decision. Let the believers prattle about accomodation somewhere else. I’m in shock that a science conference would take Templeton money: unbelievable!

    For Jerry to win in a face to face discussion, the conversation would have to be rational but the pious are irrationalists. They can–and do–dump incredible amounts of evasions and fallacious thinking on the table in a very short time. So, an atheist will end up nose deep in bullshit and will only have time to rebut a tiny amount of it. This means that most of it will be left on the table unchallenged; and, some of it will be very important bullshit: including epistemological twists that are not easy to unravel–religion has had centuries to work out its frauds.

    BTW, who is the philosopher on the panel? I would not assume that a philosopher would be friendly to reason at all. Deep skepticism would attempt to take away the efficacy of reason, thus leaving religion free of any basic criticism: just what they want. (Also, a goodly part of the religious apologetics I’ve seen, attempts to attack the efficacy of reason; they know what they’re doing.)

  17. Posted May 6, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Integrous motives, wrong decision. Science illuminates important truths, and the trouble with religion (or any system of thought) is its rejection, not its accomodation, of facts science establish. Science education – and that is what the World Science Festival is ultimately about – should seek to do precisely the following for all segments of culture: “…all we can contribute to religion are empirical discoveries that force the faithful to regroup and fine-tune their theology to accommodate the new findings.”

  18. Scarlet Letter
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    If you get a reply to your refusal letter, please post it. I would really enjoy seeing how someone would reply to such a well-written and honest letter.

  19. Ralph
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Good descision! Your arguments are crystal clear. Don’t give religion a platform to match and challenge science. They are indeed incompatible.

  20. Duff
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Coyne,
    You are becoming my newest hero. All legitimate scientists should follow your lead.

  21. Diane
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    /applause

  22. AJ
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking yet another stand for us scientists and rationalists. Your blog has a new reader!

  23. Posted May 7, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne, I am proud to be a member of the same species as you! Thank you sir for standing up for what is right.

  24. DAN MCPEEK
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I VERY MUCH ENJOY YOUR WEBSITE AND I APPLAUD YOUR STANCE.

  25. bsk
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Just want to point out an unfortunate typo in your letter:

    “How could a dialogue with science possibly yield a deeper understanding of scientific thinking?”

    I would assume you meant a dialogue with religion? Still, the meaning is perfectly clear from context. I’m just being a pedant.

    Thanks for taking a stand.

  26. Posted May 8, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Here’s the thing: Jerry Coyne is a tenured professor. If someone low on the scientific totem pole – me for example – were to write such a letter, the organizers wouldn’t care one jot and in the end I would have shot myself in the foot by turning down a choice opportunity for career networking. Full disclosure: I accepted funding from Templeton to attend the Darwin200 Anniversary Conference in Istanbul. Though I am an atheist I am also a pragmatist: I think promoting science among the religious is a good thing.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 8, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      But there is always an excuse to take Templeton money! Does “career networking” trump whatever source of money helps you network? Suppose the conference were supported by the White Citizens’ Council? Is there ANY source of money that you wouldn’t take if it helped you network your career, or “promote science among the religious”? I’m sorry, but I don’t care what the organizers think; I would have refused the money had I been untenured. I did this to keep myself from the appearance of taint, not to make a stink. I don’t think it’s shooting yourself in the foot to try to maintain your integrity.

      • Posted May 8, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        Does “career networking” [or "promoting science among the religious"] trump whatever source of money helps you network?

        Of course not. It depends on the situation. In this case, it did trump my mild nausea at the Templeton Foundation’s religious accommodationism. It would most definitely not trump my absolute abhorrence of the White Citizen’s Council, to use your example.

        No source of funding is free of negative associations, and we all make decisions like this all the time. I mean, does the fact that NIH and NSF are US government institutions, and the fact that the US government has committed atrocities mean that you refuse their money? I’m guessing not.

        Let me be clear: I applaud your action, and if I were as convinced as you are that no good can come from public discourse on science and religion, I would have done the same. But I’m not convinced. Uneasy, maybe, but not convinced. Therefore it’s not a failure to maintain my integrity to accept funding from the foundation for travel and accommodation at this particular conference.

  27. Sam Iam
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I once saw a little book titled “The role and importance of the Communist Party in the Natural Sciences” (in Russian). For some reason, Tempelton Foundation’s statement of purpose reminded me of it.

  28. santitafarella
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Really now, I think you’re overreacting. And of course discussions concerning religion and science can contribute to science. These types of discussions, especially between intellectuals, can articulate epistimological boundaries, and other philosophical matters worth reflecting on (by scientists and non-scientists). Talking stimulates thinking. Thus when you say—“I just couldn’t see myself taking money from an organization that is devoted to promulgating a futile —indeed, dangerous — dialogue between science and religion”—you are being silly. Dialogue is never dangerous. Nor is it futile. It’s fun to discuss these things. That you have no patience for such discussions is fine, but I do think that you are sounding very closed minded and dismissive of intellectual sparring with neo-conservatives.

    I, by the way, am an agnostic and a liberal, and no friend of the neo-conservative Templeton foundation. But it doesn’t hurt to talk. And I might ad that the New Republic accepts Templeton Foundation ads, and you wrote for the New Republic, and so you accepted a check from a magazine that is in the hat for the Templeton foundation (by your reasoning).

    End the purism. Enter the dialogue. Let the Templeton people get their say in also. They’ve got a rich guy’s money to throw around, and they’re trying to have their say too. They’re civil about it. Why can’t you be?

    It’s not like you’re being asked to sit on a panal with representatives from the Taliban.

    —Santi

    • anpanman
      Posted June 14, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      “It’s not like you’re being asked to sit on a panal with representatives from the Taliban. ”

      thats exactly what its like.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] mai 6, 2009 par Oldcola In which [he] refuse an invitation to the World Science Festival on grounds of accommodationism. [...]

  2. [...] Widersprüche dabei akzeptieren zu müssen, aber man kann dies nicht mit der Religion tun“, schreibt Coyne in seinem Ablehnungsschreiben. „Genauso sind moderne Medizin und Homöopathie philosophisch und [...]

  3. [...] like a who's who of science and science popularization authors. The festival is not without its detractors, partly because of the support it receives from the wealthy and influential Templeton Foundation [...]

  4. [...] a who’s who of science and science popularization authors. The festival is not without its detractors, partly because of the support it receives from the wealthy and influential Templeton Foundation [...]

  5. [...] by Templeton.)  The Festival has had a Templeton-sponsored faith-and-science-accommodation panel every year since at least 2008 (I turned down an invitation in 2009), so this is not a one-off [...]

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