The ‘Accommodationism vs Confrontationalism’ debate in the online atheist community somewhat passed me by while I was studying Philosophy, but I wanted to offer some opinions on it in this post. The first problem I had is that since these terms seem to have evolved in the online communities, it is very hard to track down the original meaning, and one that is coherent. So I want to begin by distinguishing the two main questions that these sorts of debates try to address.
Are Science and Religion Compatible?
The first kind of ‘confrontationalism’ is the view that science and religion are incompatible. This is a very complicated issue, drawing from the philosophy of science, metaphysics, logic and theology (or, for secular folk like me, philosophy of religion). It’s something I’m very interested in, but I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer, and I’m undecided about where exactly in the ‘accommodationism vs confrontationalism’ spectrum I should stand – perhaps I lean towards (this form of) accommodationism. I think that it’s certainly possible that one might hold religious beliefs compatible with science. For instance, if God is an immaterial being existing independently of space and time, I don’t see any way that science could discover or undermine the idea of this god. This isn’t to say that it’s rational to hold a belief like this, rather that it’s not necessarily in any conflict with the findings of science. The ‘confrontationalist’ who believes that only things discoverable (or verifiable) by science are real can claim that this sort of god is necessarily non-existent, but I believe that the premise this conclusion is based on will be very hard to defend.
That said, if this god interacts in any way with the natural world, then surely we can discover at least the effects of these interactions, and infer the existence of God from that. However, to infer the non-existence of God from a lack of His interactions with the natural world, we would have to know what sort of interactions we would see if that god existed, i.e. how God necessarily interacts with the natural world. For the atheist wishing to generalise the non-existence of any god from the lack of observable evidence in the natural world, this would prove very difficult indeed. A weaker version of this claim is more defensible. If we want to show that the doctrines of particular religions were counter to observations in the natural world then all we need to show is that the events described by those doctrines didn’t take place. So, if prayer is supposed to have an effect on the recovery of the sick and injured, we should be able to witness this, and employ scientific methods to do so. We wouldn’t however, be able to falsify that a miracle occurred by treating it as a violation of natural laws. Miracles, ex hypothesi are one-off violations of natural law, so we would be unable to infer their falsehood from the regularity of the natural world*.
So, it seems, the only claims made by religion that science can assess are those describing the way the natural world is, either as a result of design (if the design arguments can be made plausible; so far they have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful) or as a result of the effects of regular and predictable interactions between supernatural spirits such as gods and events in the natural world. Also it is worth noting that these assessments can only be made in favour of religion, unless it is a particular relgious doctrine we are considering, or the necessary output of the very concept of God. Otherwise, religions can be easily adapted to accommodate the findings of science.
If this is right, it is a disappointing conclusion for the scientific confrontationalist. For me, the best arguments against religion are philosophical ones, concerning epistemology and metaphysics, rather than scientific practice. Is lack of evidence a good reason to think that God does not exist? Are God’s characteristics self-contradictory? Is there anything in the natural world (i.e. evil or suffering) that gives us reason to think that God does not exist? None of these questions are scientific questions, and I think arguments we can provide when attempting to answer them have far more potential to be successful arguments against religion and classical theism than anything offered by science.
The second kind of ‘confrontationalism’ seems to describe how it is we interact with religious people. To keep the comments focused (and because the post is already quite long), I will discuss this next time.
* I don’t see this as rejecting Hume’s argument against miracles. Hume is making an epistemic argument; i.e. that testimonies describing miracles do not provide any evidence that they occurred. What I’m saying is that to show that the findings of science and the claims of religion are incompatible, one must show that if scientific truths are accepted, one cannot also hold the claims of religion to be true.