Perhaps the most eloquent critique of accomodationism available is “My God Problem“, an essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier. (It’s on the Edge website, and the piece proper begins after the “Introduction”).
When researching her book The Canon, a tour of all the sciences, Angier was dismayed to see how many scientists, though nonbelievers themselves, soft-pedal religion to keep their necks (and grants) intact. And this despite the fact that scientists have no compunction about vigorously criticizing other forms of superstition. The essay embodies her dismay.
Many of you have probably read it, but if you haven’t you must—immediately. It’s pretty short, and full of snark, humor, and truth. It originally appeared eight years ago in The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa academic fraternity.
I’ll give you just a few excerpts. I love this piece.
So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more—that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.
Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”
How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”
In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry. You, the religious believer, may well find subtle support for your faith in recent discoveries—that is, if you’re willing to upgrade your metaphors and definitions as the latest data demand, seek out new niches of ignorance or ambiguity to fill with the goose down of faith, and accept that, certain passages of the Old Testament notwithstanding, the world is very old, not everything in nature was made in a week, and (can you turn up the mike here, please?) Evolution Happens.
. . . So why is it that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set? For starters, some researchers are themselves traditionally devout, keeping a kosher kitchen or taking Communion each Sunday. I admit I’m surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph. D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like “Resurrection from the Dead,” and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn’t the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?
There’s a lot more, and the ending is great.