An accommodationist recommends five accommodationist books

Q: Why are accommodationist historians of science like Reza Aslan?
A: The historians say the Galileo episode had nothing to do with Catholicism, while Aslan says that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.

And this is by way of introducing a new Five Books piece in which a religionist recommends books on science and religion. As you may recall, Five Books is a website in which an expert in a field recommends five books (in an interview format) for the public on his or her area of expertise. Most of them are pretty good, although there are a few klunkers. (The latest post, not a klunker, is Massimo Pigliucci recommending books on Stoicism.) The interviewer, who does a Q&A with the expert, is key, and I’ve been lucky enough to have done two “Five Books” interviews with the estimable Sophie Roell, one on my first trade book and one on the second.

Sophie’s now done another interview on science and religion, but this time with an accommodationist: Andrew Briggs, an accomplished professor of nanomaterials at Oxford who is also a Christian (he studied theology for three years after he got his Ph.D). And I have to say that I didn’t know of any of the three scholarly books he recommended on religion and science (the other two are works of fiction), but those three came out recently. I’ll let you look at the books themselves; none, of course, are like Faith Versus Fact or Herman Philipse’s wonderful God in the Age of Science?, for Briggs’s thesis is that science and religion and fully compatible—indeed, they are almost the same thing.

Here are a few tactics he takes to support that bizarre thesis. Brigg’s words are indented.

Assume God exists without offering any support. Although the title of Briggs’s interview is “The Nature of Reality,” he gives precious little evidence that his Christian God is part of that reality.

Claim that religion has been a very powerful impetus for the advance of science. 

What we found as we studied more and more cases is that where you’ve got a culture or a community or even just an individual who cares a lot about the biggest questions you could ask—questions about meaning and purpose and value and our relationship with God and the nature of reality—time and again that has been conducive to advances in what we would now think of as science.

Maybe (Newton comes to mind), but this doesn’t happen much any more. I know of no scientist who has regarded their studies as a way to understand the mind of God. The vast majority of good scientists, in both the UK and US, are atheists. And, of course, there’s the whole history of religion opposing science, with creationism the most prominent example (Briggs doesn’t mention that). Further, scientific investigations from religionists rarely derive from questions about meaning, purpose, value, and the scientist’s relationship to God. They come from mere curiosity.

Avoid the question of why so many scientists are atheists, claiming that they’re really “spiritual”. This, of course, is something we’ve just discussed, and one of the dangers of using the term “spirituality”. When you do, goddies like Briggs claim us as one of their own. Here’s an exchange between Sophie (who knows the data) and Briggs:

Sophie: Aren’t most scientists atheist? The data on American scientists seems to show that.

Briggs: The scene in America is very different from the scene in Britain. There’s a very different history. In Britain we’ve got a very rich heritage of distinguished scientists who are people of strong Christian faith, and indeed of very distinguished churchmen, with a strong interest in science. One can give example after example of that. Therefore—and this is a theme running through the next two books—this enfolding of science as a religious activity and as a very strong and natural religious activity, is something that we bring out in our book, The Penultimate Curiosity, and it’s certainly something that Andrew [Steane] describes here.

That’s bullshit, of course: maybe there’s a past heritage of religious scientists, but it doesn’t exist any longer in the UK. In one study, 84% of Fellows of the (UK) Royal Society were on the “doubtful” side of the question of whether God exists while only 11% leaned toward God. Those are the facts, and so Briggs has to accommodate them. He does it by herding us all into the Spiritual Corral:

That’s not to say that all my colleagues are Christians or believe in God. Of course not — though the best surveys that have been done seem to indicate that a majority of elite scientists would describe themselves as spiritual persons. In science, there is a genuine pleasure from getting an experiment to work or developing a new technology, or solving a theoretical problem. That can be experienced by people whether or not they have a relationship with God. But I think what Andrew would say, and what I would say, is that that pleasure is hugely enriched when it’s in the context of a relationship with the Creator, whose work you’re studying.

Any data supporting that last sentence, Professor Briggs?

Assert a similarity between religion and science because “science” is a recent phenomenon. 

In the 1600s, those territories didn’t exist with those designations. Of course the bits of land, the hills, the mountains existed, the topography existed, but not with those labels. What he is showing, in an immensely scholarly way, is that these labels of science and religion—although nowadays we think we know what they mean—are rather recent and no more applicable to most of intellectual and cultural history than the labels of Israel and Egypt would have been to those territories in 1600. And therefore a lot of misunderstandings arise because people are applying incorrect categories.

They’re arguing about distinctions—in some cases they’re alleging warfare—between things they’re wrongly categorising. In fact, if you want to push it a bit further you could say that both those bits of land were part of a single Empire and much of the discussion about things that we would now think of as religious and things we would now think of as scientific, were part of a single territory.

. . . So what Peter Harrison is saying is that first of all, if you’re trying to understand these alleged conflicts between science and religion, most of what you need to do is not so much look at the details but to realize you’re just applying inappropriate categories.

Do I really need to “unpack” this? Do I need to show that science and religion are now different things with different methodologies, although both claim to tell us truths about the cosmos? Moreover, one of them gives us progressively better understanding of the world while the other produces “understanding” that hasn’t changed in over a millennium.

Claim that science and religion are compatible because we had religious scientists, like Newton, and these some of them claimed to do science to understand God’s Mind and Plan. 

[Newton] saw his scientific pursuit as very strongly religiously motivated. Like most of us, Isaac Newton was a complex person, only more so. But he wrote more about religion than he ever wrote about science. It’s for his science that we now remember him because it was brilliant. But it’s true of him and it’s true of some of the greats that we know about, like Robert Boyle. Every school child learns Boyle’s law of gases. It’s true of Robert Grosseteste who is not so well known. He was probably the first to serve as chancellor at Oxford University, before becoming Bishop of Lincoln. He saw all his life’s work as motivated by his faith in God and made some very important advances, some of them specific—such as in optics, why a rainbow is coloured—and some of them about methodology. He was the first to formulate the idea of a control experiment, which is now standard in many branches of science.

Yeah, Newton’s religion wasn’t so brilliant, and Ceiling Cat knows how much more advanced we’d be now if Newton had been an atheist and not wasted all that time on Arianism!

I’ll add just two more points, because writing about this stuff gives me a tummy ache:

Claim that L’affaire Galileo wasn’t about religion. I consider this palpably false claim the touchstone of both an accommodationist and either a religionist or a faitheist (like Ron Numbers) who can’t bear to think that religion’s had any inimical effect on science.

Another example would be the Galileo case. Over time the story has become distorted and exaggerated. Galileo was another a complex character. He was quite capable of being tactless and he got into trouble as much for his tactlessness as for his science. Although he was put on trial, he was never sent to jail. The issue was more about whether or not Galileo was allowed to teach these things. Within 12 years, here in Oxford, John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, published a book on cosmology and the title page had Copernicus and Galileo as his two heroes, with Kepler peeping over Galileo’s shoulder. So within 12 years a strong churchman and scholar who formed an experimental club here in Oxford has written a book advocating the Copernican model.

Yep, it was all about Galileo’s tactlessnes. Move along folks, nothing to see here about religion! Man, Briggs’s ability to evade the truth would have given him a brilliant career as a politician!

Finally, when all else fails, go after Dawkins. 

Sophie: What are your thoughts about Richard Dawkins’ arguments — which deny any role for religion in science? What would you want him to make of your book? [The Penultimate Curiosity by Roger Wagner and Briggs]

Briggs: We didn’t actually think much about Richard Dawkins when we were writing the book. I suppose we would want him to come away very much better informed and knowing that there is another story, which is different from one that is popularly put about, and which has the distinction of being true.

What? TRUE? Is Briggs saying that the existence of God, or Christianity, is TRUE? (I’ve left out the parts where he denigrates Dawkins’s science writing, praising The Selfish Gene—but implying it wasn’t Dawkins’s work—and then stating that Dawkins’s other popular books were much weaker. This is the slimy way a “British gentleman” attacks somebody.) Briggs then raises the Eagleton Accusation:

If you’re going to engage in an argument with people that you disagree with—which is a healthy activity, at least at Oxford—you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments and not the weakest of their arguments and still more not with a caricature of them. Of course you can find silly Christians — you can find silly believers in any faith, and I’m sad to say you can find adherents of any religion who do bad things. You’ve only got to read the newspapers to see that. But that’s not the way to engage with the best of what they’re saying. I think most people think that he’s utterly failed to engage with the best of the theology that is espoused by Christians whose minds are scientific.

Well, Professor Briggs, I spent two years and then some reading “the best and strongest arguments” for God and Christianity, and I have to say that Richard was right: it’s still a crock.  The “best arguments for theology” accusation is just a way to suck a scientist into an infinite regress: “What, you’ve read Aquinas but not Duns Scotus? You’re IGNORANT!”

I can’t go on; my stomach hurts. It always upsets me when a scientist of the caliber of Briggs buys so wholly into medieval superstition. I just don’t get it.

Andrew_Briggs_for_Wiki

Andrew Briggs

39 Comments

  1. alexandra moffat
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    It is sad & discouraging enough to note that so many of the downtrodden, beset people of the earth believe in god(s) and all but when the educated, exposed to science and books and more spout such drivelly beliefs, it fills me with fury & despair. Ad hominem not allowed, luckily.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    (The latest post, not a klunker, is Massimo Pigliucci recommending books on Stoicism.)

    Seriously? He whines so much in an un-stoic way.

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Briggs’s thesis is that science and religion and fully compatible—indeed, they are almost the same thing.

    (insert sound clip of Jonah Hill’s laugh from recent film War Dogs)

  4. dabertini
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Andrew briggs is a typical religionist: slimeball!!

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    If you’re going to engage in an argument with people that you disagree with—which is a healthy activity, at least at Oxford—you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments and not the weakest of their arguments and still more not with a caricature of them.

    That is very interesting coming on the heels of his comments about Dawkins.

  6. Zado
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    After Newton, Britain’s most distinguished scientist is Darwin, whose faith gradually imploded as a result of his naturalistic inquiries. Where exactly does he fit into Briggs’ “rich heritage”?

    I swear, I have more respect for straight-faced creationists — or “silly Christians” as Briggs called them — than ostensibly enlightened believers like him.

    • colnago80
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Let’s be fair about this. Although it’s true that Darwin’s religious views were influenced by his horror of the wastage of natural selection, at least in part, his agnosticism was a result of his anger over the death of his daughter from diphtheria.

      • Erp
        Posted August 23, 2016 at 12:34 am | Permalink

        1. Darwin’s daughter died of scarlet fever not diphtheria

        2. He was a religious doubter even before marriage (his father advised him not to tell his future wife, advice he ignored) though how much he doubted varied over his later life. (His wife btw was hardly orthodox, obviously refusing to recite the creed during church services according to her son, though devout in her own way.)

        3. I think he is mistaking the fact that many British atheists are willing to attend church services (e.g., college fellows at college chapel) at times (if nothing else some of them have excellent music).

    • Jack
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      “I swear, I have more respect for straight-faced creationists — or “silly Christians” as Briggs called them — than ostensibly enlightened believers like him.”

      Why? Why do you have more respect for those who outright deny scientific evidence than those who honestly try to reconcile the scientific evidence with their religion?

      • darrelle
        Posted August 22, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        Honestly? How do you know that? What exactly do you mean by that in this context? In what way is this scientist being more honest about his beliefs than a “straight faced creationist” and how can you tell?

        • Jack
          Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          I did not mean that the creationist is less honest than the accommodationist in his/her opinions (though it is difficult for me to understand how an evolution-denying creationist who is not ignorant of evolutionary theory and the evidence for it can honestly deny the validity of such evidence). When I used the word ‘honestly’, I was simply assuming that the accommodationist/apologist honestly believes that science and religion (well, his religion) are compatible. I cannot say with absolute certainty that he is being honest, since I cannot read his mind, but I would presume that he means what he says unless evidence to the contrary arises.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        It’s a pretty common view. The religionist with both feet solidly on the side of god and magical causes at least is taking a side where they don’t have and defend contradictory beliefs. They are wrong, but at least their wrongness holds an internally consistent ‘logic’.
        The accommodationist OTOH must hold contradictory points of view and claim that those views are compatible. They must lie to themselves.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Yes it was really all Galileo’s fault. He just didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut and the inquisition was just a tiny detail. Just as the civil war was a states rights issue and had nothing to do with slavery.

    • Posted August 23, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I’ve never understood how the “asshole Galileo” defense is supposed to work. Some guy insults you and your reaction is to want to threaten him? Great role model, Church! Also, what happened to “turn the other cheek” and all that?

  8. darrelle
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    “. . . though the best surveys that have been done seem to indicate that a majority of elite scientists would describe themselves as spiritual persons.”

    “But I think what Andrew would say, and what I would say, is that that pleasure is hugely enriched when it’s in the context of a relationship with the Creator, whose work you’re studying.”

    “What he is showing, in an immensely scholarly way, . . .”

    “I suppose we would want him to come away very much better informed and knowing that there is another story, which is different from one that is popularly put about, and which has the distinction of being true.”

    He has that knack, prized among politicians, theologians and PoMo art critics, of saying silly and or meaningless things in a convoluted way using at least twice the necessary words which reduce down to no more than 1/4 the average semantic content.

  9. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    And then there was Giordano Bruno, an astonishingly far-sighted Dominican friar, burned at the stake for his heretical views, which were largely scientific and rational.

    Accommodationists make the same excuse in the Bruno case — that it wasn’t really about his cosmology, but was about his views on core Catholic doctrine, like transubstantiation and the divinity of Christ — as though that makes it better.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      I am no historian, but I think I had read that Bruno was executed mainly for his blasphemy against holy doctrines of the Church, and only secondarily for his heretical views about cosmology. I am not sure, but perhaps he would not have been murdered if his cosmology claims were his only crimes.
      The charges against Bruno lists his most egregious crimes near the top, and those included things like claiming that Jesus was not divine, and that Mary was not a virgin. His other crimes (claiming that the sun was but a star, and that perhaps there were other worlds with life in other solar systems) were farther down the list.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but those were rational positions, don’t you agree?

        • Posted August 23, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          Even if they weren’t, so what? You don’t *kill someone* because they are irrational, you attempt *persuade* them and help us all live.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      And then there was Giordano Bruno,

      Possibly one of the first (recorded) eye-witnesses to a meteorite impact on the Moon. And hence he has a crater named after him on the Moon, an asteroid, and another asteroid for his major work.
      Is anyone masochistic enough to count up the number of objects in the (extra-terrestrial) solar system named for the 266 popes (so far). There are almost certainly to be a few – what with fear, indulgences and general butt-suckery.

  10. Taz
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    …you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments…

    I’d rather examine their evidence. Let me know when they get some.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      (Listening to the Simpsons, so adopt Homer voice.)
      If they had any evidence, don’t you think they’d present it?

  11. Posted August 22, 2016 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Why do intelligent people (including scientists) seemingly persist in believing in the supernatural and arguing for that view? Religion, you’ve got to feel it to be convinced by it’s shoddy reasoning. If you don’t ‘feel it’, then it’s all rubbish.

    rz

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Why do intelligent people (including scientists) seemingly persist in believing in the supernatural and arguing for that view?

      Ummm, bollock-shrivelling (*) fear of death and eternal damnation induced in them by their parents? Plus other PTSD symptoms induced by their childhood of abuses.
      (* Other fear-afflicted organs are available to other genders.)

  12. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Another example would be the Galileo case. […]
    The issue was more about whether or not Galileo was allowed to teach these things. Within 12 years, here in Oxford, John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, published a book on cosmology and the title page had Copernicus and Galileo as his two heroes, with Kepler peeping over Galileo’s shoulder.

    Ummm, I’m trying to work out which of Wilkin’s works he’s referring to, but it doesn’t really matter to my point.
    Galileo was in Florence and Rome while under investigation by the Papal authorities. Wilkins was living and writing in a dominantly Protestant country with authorities vehemently opposed to “Popery”. Comparing the cases is like saying that Professor Ceiling Cat lecturing on “Faith Versus Fact” in Ravenna (Italy, or any namesakes in the USA) is the same as making the same lecture in Raqqa.

  13. loren russell
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    What amuses me is Briggs’ insistence that eminent British scientists are more godly than American — despite the UK public being much less religious than the US at present. He does that by citing examples, one after another, from the pre-Darwinian era.

    He knows, of course, that living British scientists are likely to be at least as god-free as their American contemporaries.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    The cognitive dissonance is strong with this one.

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Galileo may not have been sent to jail, but he WAS put under house arrest!!!!! (and remained under house arrest for all his life from 1615 till his death in 1642). WhoTF cares then if he wasn’t sent to jail?????)

    Memo to Reza and Briggs: In both Islam and the 16th century you cannot separate religion and politics so nicely, so ergo the existence of a political dimension in these debates does NOT exclude a religious one.

    Thus, You can’t have it both ways!!!
    You can NOT BOTH say “these labels of science and religion—…are rather recent and no more applicable to most of intellectual and cultural history than the labels of Israel and Egypt would have been to those territories in 1600.”
    AND
    say the Galileo affair is not about religion.

    Galileo DID overturn the medieval world picture which the Catholic church had massively invested in.

    A concession from my comment defending “spiritual” a day or so ago:

    There really DOES emerge a problem with the world “spiritual” if it is simply used to designate the ghost of a dying or dead religion, a kind of left-over remainder salvaged from a moribund faith.
    When Nietzsche (and various Romantic poets) talk about their idea of a “spiritual” man, he has an ideal that is actually in some ways opposed to Christianity. I think this is a problem with how the term is used by folks like Tippett and this guy. For them, spirituality is just Christianish attitudes without Christian theology, the result of a salvage operation on Christian culture.

    Finally, there are a reasonable numbers of skeptics who have engaged with the better theologians.
    I actually would like Dawkins to have engaged more with a wider spectrum of popular Christian opinion, and more with the social history of Christianity, but I don’t think his lack of study of theology is really a problem.

    Briggs’ comments on RD’s science writing are just beyond the pale!!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 22, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      and re briggs:
      “enfolding of science as a religious activity and as a very strong and natural religious activity, is something that we bring out in our book, The Penultimate Curiosity,”

      The last cool scientist who described science as a religious activity in this way also rejected Abrahamic monotheism altogether.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted August 22, 2016 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        Albert Einstein

    • Draken
      Posted August 23, 2016 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      I think his house arrest started in 1633, not in 1615. In practice, being an old man, I suppose it didn’t mean that much. But to see his work banned…

  16. Hempenstein
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    So we’ve only had science for the last 400yrs, eh? Well, they didn’t leave lab notebooks, but I think it’s safe to point to the nameless, faceless plant and animal breeders of far earlier times, whose work over past millennia brought us maize from Teosinte, domesticated dogs from wolves, and so forth, by taking the best examples from the current generation and crossing/mating them with each other for the next.

  17. Adrian Barker
    Posted August 23, 2016 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    With regard to putting labels on territories and push it back further to the Empire… Science is trying to remove ALL those labels to start with continents, planets and how they even got there. It then tries to label Egypt and Israel etc correctly. Science and religion aren’t different things, science has replaced religion.

  18. Posted August 23, 2016 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    I know it is not very scientific, but what a Dickhead Briggs is.

  19. Mike
    Posted August 23, 2016 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    “Although he was put on trial, he was never sent to jail” No, but his House became his gaol cell for the rest of his life

  20. Posted August 23, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    )To the accomodationist)
    Ok, this really ticks me off. It is not just us “new atheists” who think that Galileo’s conflict was about ideas, not personalities (alone). The (recent) biography, _Galileo, Watcher of the Skies_ makes the “new atheists” claim and so does the _Cambridge Companion To Galileo_. Simply ignoring the scholarly work does not make it go away.

  21. Mark
    Posted August 24, 2016 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Reza Aslan is a FRAUD!


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