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Posted by on Jun 27, 2013 in Books, Debate, Philosophy, Religion, Science | 7 comments

Complementary ways of comprehending the world

I’m about to broach The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith by Robert Pollack, a book that was first published in 2000 and now reissued in a paperback edition. It is clearly an accommodationist book in attempting to show how religion and biological science are compatible or even mutually reinforcing. According to the back cover material, its author “argues that faith and science can inform each other’s visions of the world.”

Well, that’s fine. The author is entitled to argue for that position, even if I disagree with it. We’ll see what I make of his arguments when I read his book over the next couple of days. Maybe he’ll convert me to accommodationism (though don’t count on it). It also looks as if the substantive issues under discussion will be interesting to me. I’ll be reviewing the book over at Talking Philosophy, so watch out for that.

At this stage I’ve read only the author’s preface to the original edition and his preface to the new edition. Oh, and the very short series preface or description. I’m afraid that one thing about the latter rings alarm bells immediately.

First, the book is published by the university press of a very respectable institution of higher education, namely Columbia University in New York. No, that’s not, in itself, what rings the alarm. Columbia University Press has a series in which the book is published called the Columbia Series in Science and Religion (back in 2000, this was the first book in the series). The series is apparently “sponsored” by an organisational unit at Columbia called the Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR), of which Pollack is the director. We are told in the series description that, “It is a forum for the examination of issues that lie at the boundary of these two complementary ways of comprehending the world and our place in it.”

I’m not sure whether the first “It” at the beginning of that sentence refers to the book series or to the CSSR itself. Whichever it is, I object. The proposition that science and religion are “complementary”, rather than, say, conflicting or competing, is a controversial philosophical claim. There is something very wrong with the idea that an organisational unit within a major university should presuppose the truth of such a claim, rather than treating it as a controversial one that is open to scrutiny and possible objections. Likewise, a major university press like Columbia University Press should not be taking a stance in this way. By all means hire academics who, and publish individual books that, argue for such an accommodationist position, but you should also hire academics and publish books that take the opposite position. Secular institutions of higher education and their associated presses should be officially neutral on a question like that.

Note that this is not the same as an institution or a publisher that has an openly-expressed bias and agenda – perhaps as part of its whole reason for being. It is one thing for a religious press to take an openly accommodationist stance in its choice of manuscripts on science and religion, or for Prometheus Books (say) to take the opposite stance. But we shouldn’t expect such a bias from a major research university or its publishing arm.