Tom McLeish continues his accommodationism in Physics Today

Why on earth does the magazine Physics Today want to publish a piece trying to reconcile science and religion, and arguing that those who say they’re in conflict are actually damaging science? (Click on screenshot.)


The author of this accommodationist screed is Tom McLeish, professor of physics at Durham University, whose work is supported by Templeton). We’ve met him before—when I criticized his Conversation essay on exactly the same topic. Templeton is sure getting its money’s worth out of the guy! His arguments are the same as before, so I needn’t reprise them in detail. There are four:

a.) Early scientists were motivated by religious impulses. To wit (and again):

Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

Yes, they always drag Newton into this, and, like others, his urge to do science may have been motivated in part by a desire to understand God’s working. But their researches were secular, and insofar as they did sneak in divine explanations (i.e., Newton’s idea that God kept the planets in their orbits), they were wrong. Further, this “inspiration” no longer obtains, as most scientists in both the UK and US—and a vast majority of the good scientists—are atheists. So while we can give religion a soupçon of credit for inspiring science centuries ago, it does almost nothing to inspire science today. In fact, I don’t know of any scientist who has said that their religion motivated their science. There are religious scientists, but they judiciously wall off the atheism they assume when they enter the lab, and the superstition they swill when they enter their church.

McLeish even resurrects the Book of Job, as he did in his Conversation article, as a wellspring of scientific inquiry:

I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from; why stars can be clustered together; how birds navigate huge distances; how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth; and so on.

. . . Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Only someone marinated in the faith could construe Job as an inspiration for the doing of science Has any scientist ever said, “Yes, when I read Job I decided to spend my career answering some of those questions posed by God”? In fact, God is simply asking Job rhetorical questions to show that He had power over the poor boil-afflicted mortal.

b.) Even modern scientists are motivated to do science by their faith. McLeish has dug up some outliers:

. . . the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research.

Of course, if you lined up a thousand American or British scientists, and asked them “how does your faith support your scientific research?”, you’d find the vast majority, even the religious scientists, saying, “What? It doesn’t!” What motivates scientists is curiosity and ambition, not a desire to understand the workings of God. Maybe people like Ken Miller, an observant Catholic, are exceptions, but they’re few and far between. And, of course, faith can’t support scientific research as it’s actually done, because all scientists do their work as atheists—as practical materialists and naturalists.

c.) Faith is not the belief in things for which there’s no evidence. My response to this claim is “Yes it is!” McLeish likes to think that faith is more sophisticated (my emphasis):

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis—as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe—is a 20th century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science

Yes, because it’s wrong to read Genesis as if it tells a true story, but absolutely correct to read the New Testament as if it does tell a true story: a story about Jesus, his divinity, his miracles, and his Resurrection as the source of our salvation. I doubt that McLeish would think the Jesus myth is simply a “story in which we inquire about the universe.” Jesus as metaphor certainly wasn’t part of the “orthodox Christianity” that McLeish praises. Isn’t it curious that when science disproves a bit of scripture, it miraculously turns into a “story in which we inquire about the universe.”

As for faith as “reasoned hope”, that’s about the best euphemism for “belief without evidence” that I’ve seen. What “reasoned faith” means is this: “I want to believe in God and Jesus, so I reason out ways that they must be real.” To pretend that “faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science” is simply a lie. There’s a huge difference between Francis Collins’s accepting Jesus after seeing three frozen waterfalls, and physicists accepting relativity because it met several predictions made by Einstein. Until those predictions were met, relativity was a credible but unsubstantiated idea. In contrast, Collins changed from atheism to evangelical Christianity simply by gazing at frozen water, which he alone construed as evidence for the Trinity.  I’d love to ask McLeish: “What, exactly, is the evidence that have convinces you that Jesus and God are real? And how come that evidence, unlike scientific evidence, hasn’t been found universally convincing?”

d.) The claim that science and religion are at odds is dangerous to science. To wit:

Maintaining the view that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support.

. . . Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity

The reason that people don’t support evolution, vaccination, or anthropogenic climate change has nothing to do with people arguing that religion and science are at odds. It comes from pure faith: a belief in things that make you feel good, and which you’ll support in the face of evidence. Those opponents would be just as vociferous if people like Andrew Dickson White, Richard Dawkins, and I had never existed.  The problem is not science/religion incompatibilists like me. The problem is people like McLeish—people who claim that there’s scientific value, empirical value, in faith. It’s religion that’s the issue, and it poisons science by either making people deny it (creationism) or by making people think there are ways besides empirical investigation to suss out truth—the “method” of faith.

McLeish has dined well on Templeton’s largesse.  Given that most physicists are atheists, why does Physics Today publish this nonsense?

h/t: Eli


  1. Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Did he happen to note that the impetus for the “science is in conflict with religion” is not coming from the scientists? Did he happen to mention the long history of the Catholic Church in suppressing science and scientists including burning people at the stake with green wood to prolong their suffering (as if Hell, forever and ever, amen, were not enough)?

    What a piece of bullpucky!

  2. Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I imagine Physics Today chose to publish this article in order to be inclusive. They probably make a lot of money from advertising so they want to not offend people. Charles Day is the editor but I couldn’t see anything religious in his background on LinkedIn, his blog, or Twitter feed.

  3. Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    “Given that most physicists are atheists, why does Physics Today publish this nonsense?”

    I dunno but from the cheap seats I think that Physics Today isn’t a traditional science journal – it’s more like a magazine. They do publish scientific papers but much of the publication is dedicated to reviews, topics of general interest to Physicists, political and social commentary (again, as it relates to physics), etc. So while I agree that it’s ridiculous to publish a piece on god-bothering given the very high degree of atheism in the ranks, it’s not really far afield of the not-strictly-science articles that appear in the mag.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Physics Today, which I used to thumb through, often contains articles about being a scientist. I can see how this article would fall under that category.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Historically, not really. Before the internet, every fledgling physicists poured over the pages of the magazine and when articles, mostly reviews, honored the respective field they might be in it was an important part of providing continuity and pushing forward to the future of innovative research.

      The internet has made it substantially more invisible and less-noteworthy.

      This commentary would not have have been pushed twenty years ago. We are witnessing insecurity of an older generation who does not like to see their grandchildren sitting in front of an Xbox rather than at the pews.

    • Posted February 3, 2018 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      Physics Today is the house magazine of the American Institute of Physics. I used to get it as a benefit of my (now lapsed) membership of the American Geophysical Union, which is affiliated to the AIP. It does contain good articles, but as you say, it’s not a research journal.

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        It seems to be similar to Chemical and Engineering News, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.

        Any one familiar with both to comment on this comparison?

        (I’m not a chemist, but my father is [retired] and I read it when at my parents place.)

  4. Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Driving the conflict between religion and science may push people further away from curiosity. McLeish is not from America. He does not see the insular fashion by which religion can hold people’s education hostage like it does in America. There are pockets here that have no analog in the UK.

    Promoting religion and science as equals is very dangerous in America. The reverse is not true, albeit, elitism will divide our country between those who are ignorant and those who are not.

    Letting children choose their faith would be a step in the right direction, and McLeish would not like those results. Many children would choose no faith and if they did it would be some kind of Deism or another faith that has no kernel of Christianity in it.

    McLeish want’s share time between religion and science, but what he really wants is the arbitrary compatibility of Christian faith with science, not the others.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The religious must get so far into bed with hypocrisy they can make their belief compatible with science or almost anything. Sure they believe in evolution, g*d does lots of great things. Mike pence is so in with religion he won’t even sit at a table with a strange women, yet he stands with a president that breaks two or three of his sacred commandment every day. Everyday, the religious party takes us closer to disaster following this crooked president down the gold plated toilet and even becomes complicit in his Russian backers. Check out the stock market today and see which direction we are headed.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 2, 2018 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      Look at this latest bizarreness from religion – apparently we don’t need vaccines because Jesus had one for all of us. If we believe in Jesus, we won’t get the flu.

      This season one of the strains is particularly deadly. If people believe this crap, they could die. This is why religion has no place in science. It might thin the ranks of the Christian extremists, but personally I’d rather than happened because they saw the light of reality.

      • Posted February 2, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, we still die even if we don’t believe in this crap, but I know what you mean. 😉

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Lots of contemporary astrophysicists were inspired to take up their careers by watching “Star Trek” which may at this point be outdoing the Bible as an inspiration for science. (Both BBC and Fox News have done broadcasts on this, without mentioning the Bible.) (See also this from NASA website

    And as I have earlier posted here, the earliest interpretations of quantum physics were heavily influenced by the Hindu Vedas. Here is a slightly tendentious but still-useful site on the subject published by the Krishna followers

    The Book of Job is occasionally appealed to by creationists, so it is certainly inspired some pseudo-science here and there.

    Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon had some fairly eccentric unorthodox religious views. Both were Unitarian Christians (not in the denomination, but disbelievers in the Trinity.)

    It is true that the notion of interpreting Genesis as symbolic metaphor goes wayyy back at least as far as the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria,and Augustine, but other figures from ancient history such as Gregory of Nazianzus preferred to read Genesis as literal history.

    Hope, by definition, does not claim certain knowledge. Hope deals in degrees of plausibility, but not in provability. As such, JAC is correct in claiming that NO argument for religion is ever universally convincing in the same way that scientific evidence is. And I therefore disagree with McLeish that faith is like science, since science is about knowledge. (However, I don’t think I agree with JAC that “reasoned hope” is like “belief without evidence”.)

    It is one thing to say that the conflict thesis damages the public acceptance of science (maybe/possibly IMO), but another to say it damages science per se. The latter thesis is clearly false.

    • colnago80
      Posted February 2, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      It would be more accurate to describe Newton (I don’t know about
      Bacon) as an Arian, rather then a Unitarian. Clearly, Newton had religious views that in late 17 and early 18th century England would have been consider heretical. Fortunately for him, his numerous writings on the subject didn’t become known until a cache of them were discovered near the end of the 19th Century and most of which now reside in the Hebrew Museum in Jerusalem.

  7. Dave137
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Anyone feel like he or she was born a thousand years too soon?

    These NOMA mutations are boringly exhausting, and I’m sure Dr Coyne’s eyes hurt from rolling every time such is published.

  8. Posted February 2, 2018 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Faith and science can be mutually exclusive of each other. However, the caveat enters into play when science over reaches its boundaries and attempts to substitute itself as religion. Individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are few and far between. These men possessed the ability to see and fathom nature and its more esoteric aspects more deeply– so much so that we, normal humans, wanted to put language behind their skills.

    I dare to say that when we have our deeper aha! moments of solving a hard science problem—we would be hard pressed to put God or pure science as means of solution.

    The human mind is still a tough thing to understand– I do sincerely wish that people who masquerade science or religion as a means of solving our problems would step back claim a little more ignorance. And thus, question and not propose solutions.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry but I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. When does science try to substitute itself for religion? Have you lots of examples? And your last sentence, in which you claim that science should back away from solutions and ask questions, is baffling: when we found out what causes AIDS and found out how to treat it, you’re saying we shouldn’t “propose solutions” but should “claim ignorance.” Please figure out what you’re trying to say and say it ore clearly.

      And, of course, we have no evidence whatsoever for any gods.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it’d stop.

      — Dara Ó Briain


  9. Alexander
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Well, I was an editor at Physics Today during the 1980s, and I’m quite amazed and dismayed about this. I don’t believe that the editor of the magazine at that time would have gone for this (as would have any of my colleagues). She is a Jewish American, and although she participated in traditional Jewish family meetings, I don’t believe she would have allowed this to go into the magazine. At that time this would have been viewed as something you don’t dish up to physicists. But things seem to have changed, as it did for the publishers of Science.

  10. josh
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t buy this “inspired by religion” canard one bit. I’ve worked with religious and non-religious scientists and their motivations don’t differ. What they have in common is a desire to understand the world, curiosity, and general intelligence. There is no way someone as brilliant and penetrating as Newton would have sat around in a stupor in the absence of religion. It’s a baseless apologist fantasy.

  11. nicky
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Newton discovered that the ‘Holy Trinity’ was a fourth Century hoax. He dabbled in alchemy and religion. At least in the latter field he made that discovery, a discovery most Christians (I presume) would have great difficulty with. There is nothing to contend that his scientific discoveries were inspired by his religious, frankly weird (to most Christians) ideas.
    Although most physicists are atheist, they are less overwhelmingly so than biologists or serious psychologists. Biologists see there is no need for a ‘Greater Power’, while psychologists, especially evolutionary psychologists, understand why we would be religious in the first place.

    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Don’t know about psychologists but it looks like physicists are less believers than biologists. See

    • Posted February 3, 2018 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      In fairness to Newton, he died before the principles of modern chemistry were established.

      • colnago80
        Posted February 3, 2018 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        That’s something that many of Newton’s critics fail to grasp. In his time, there was no conception of the periodic table or the atomic structure of atoms. The notion that, for instance, lead could be transmuted into gold was not at all an absurd concept based on the knowledge available at the time.

        • harrync
          Posted February 3, 2018 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

          colnago80 – Actually, I think you can transmute lead into gold. It’s just very expensive, cheaper to just mine it.

        • Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

          Or rather, nothing that was known ruled it out.

          One of the great parts of the scientific revolution that is little appreciated sometimes is one of the things Boyle did – getting the chymists and the natural philosophers talking, or at least reading each other’s work, and realizing that *neither* understood matter and its transformations very well at all.

  12. Charles Sawicki
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    The Trump administration is working to decrease funding in all areas of science. I wonder if this article is partly a cover your ass operation in a hostile religion-soaked environment. The National Academy of Sciences has avoided surveys of the religiosity of its members since 1998, possibly for the same reason.
    Larson and Witham (1) found that 92% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject a belief in God or a higher power. (1) Larson, E. J. & Witham, L. Nature 394, 313 (1998)

  13. Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    faith physicist!!??
    the entanglement of dumb and smart.

  14. Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I went looking for a breakdown of religious belief by scientific discipline. Instead, I ran into this poll done in 2009:

    I am surprised and saddened to see that more US scientists believe in God or believe in a “universal spirit or higher power” (51%) than don’t believe in either (41%).

    At the end of the article, it shows that Physics and Geosciences have less belief in those things than Biological, Medical, and Chemistry.

  15. rickflick
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    McLeish uses special pleading and a sloppy use of language that is vomitous to read.

    “needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of.”

    Thoughtful understanding – Just supposition.
    Painstaking engagement – looking for scraps of evidence to support your presuppositions could be rather painful.
    True stories – like Adam and Eve and the talking snake – and I was there.

    Unfortunately, I suspect there are people who read his stuff nodding blankly.

  16. Posted February 2, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Science and religion don’t conflict as long as your version of religion accommodates science.


    • Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

      ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality


      • Posted February 3, 2018 at 12:09 am | Permalink

        Then that could be your new region….


      • Posted February 3, 2018 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        He can talk the talk, which I admit is one of the reasons I like him more than other religious leaders, but can he walk the walk?

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Nice to say, but reincarnation (for example) and subjective idealism are both false and I don’t see the Tibetan Buddhists giving them up!

  17. David Evans
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis—as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe—is a 20th century aberration away from orthodox Christianity.”

    I’m amazed when people say this. Have they not heard of the trial of Galileo, in which a large part of the prosecution case was that the Earth does not move because in the book of Joshua God made the Sun and the Moon stand still?

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      For centuries (at least since Philo, as pointed out) “reading literally” has always been about “reading what *the authorities say to be literal* literally”, and not anything else or anything less.

  18. Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    My alma mater … 😢


  19. Sastra
    Posted February 2, 2018 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to ask McLeish: “What, exactly, is the evidence that have convinces you that Jesus and God are real? And how come that evidence, unlike scientific evidence, hasn’t been found universally convincing?”

    I’d love to ask McLeish “What, exactly, is the evidence which would convince you that Jesus and God aren’t real?”

    Anyone who boasts that their views are reasoned has to consider alternatives and appreciate the live possibility of being wrong. If “hope” trumps the capacity and willingness to change your mind, then you shouldn’t dare invoke the lie that you’re being reasonable.

  20. Posted February 4, 2018 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    In defence of Physics Today, the current edition contains a wonderful article on how snowflakes form. It contains enough technical detail to satisfy to anyone with a science background, whilst not requiring a physics degree.

    This is more typical of Physics Today than the piece by McLeish.

  21. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted February 4, 2018 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Religion is baby food for adult minds. It allows you to believe reality is different than the way it is when some aspects of reality (eg the finality of death) make you uncomfortable. (Paraphrasing Godless Mom of the Common Heathens podcast)

%d bloggers like this: