Accomodationism in the New York Times: a review of "The Grand Design" and a strange op-ed

There's a rather odd and unpersuasive op-ed in the NY Times today by a self-proclaimed atheist by the name of Tim Crane. It's an odd little bit of accomodationism, essentially a retreat to the old canard that religion is about meaning, and science is about stuff:
... scientific explanation is a very specific and technical kind of knowledge. It requires patience, pedantry, a narrowing of focus and (in the case of the most profound scientific theories) considerable mathematical knowledge and ability.
Religious belief is a very different kind of thing. It is not restricted only to those with a certain education or knowledge, it does not require years of training, it is not specialized and it is not technical.
Well duh. That's because unlike science, there's no methodology to religious beliefs. There's no way of determining, in any valid or reliable way, whose theological claims are true and whose are false. What a shocker: making shit up does not require years of training or specialized knowledge.
... most people aren’t deeply interested in science, even when they have the opportunity and the basic intellectual capacity to learn about it.
Crane seems to fault human nature, but evidence abounds that we're an extraordinarily curious species, and accordingly I don't think the problem is our nature. I think the problem is how science is taught; a lack of education and a lack of exposure hinders our sense of wonder for the natural world. In the absence of the informative elegance of scientific knowledge, it's easy for people to resort to making things up instead. 
Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.
Yeah yeah... this is similar to something Richard Dawkins discusses in The God Delusion: that while for a scientist a mystery is the beginning of the question, for the religious person, the mystery is the end of the question. But I think Crane misses the side of the barn here. Religious claims that God created the world,  intervenes in natural events, answers prayers, or that are souls survive death are indeed scientific claims: they are claims about the nature of reality, and the job of science is to understand reality. But see, religious "meaning" isn't inserted as a layer of frosting on these types of claims; the meaning is found in the claims.

Take for example the oft-spouted nonsense by creationists that evolution renders our lives meaningless and morally misguided, or the simple notion that God created our universe (and by extension, us) – so that instead of being "cosmic accidents", we're the intentional product of a loving being. The whole fallacious notion that religion attempts to answer questions of meaning while science attempts to answer questions of fact is undone by the fact that once the many factual claims of religion are stripped away, it becomes... *drumroll*... meaningless. That is why Stephen Hawking's recent comment that the universe did not need a creator is stirring such ire in the religious community: it strips religion of its utility, and by extension, its meaning. Believers derive a sense of comfort from the thought that they, and the world about them, were purposefully crafted; strip away the need for such a designer in our understanding of the universe, and religion is left bereft of any sentimental or pragmatic value.

In other Times news and speaking of Stephen Hawking, some guy there reviewed The Grand Design, and he didn't like it. I think the best commentary on the review I saw was in the comments section over at Jerry Coyne's blog, from user Ben Goren:
Mr. Garner claims that it’s the tone of the book he doesn’t care for, but he reveals the true source of his dislike in the last two paragraphs of the review:
The arguments in “The Grand Design” — especially those about why God isn’t necessary to imagine the beginning of the universe — put me in mind of something Mr. Ferris said in his excellent book “The Whole Shebang” (1997).
“Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”
Or, in other words, how dare Professor Hawking discard Mr. Garner’s favorite pantheon like a used condom? Doesn’t he know that those magisteria aren’t supposed to overlap? Why, cross the magisteria like that and you could get cats and dogs living together, and we can’t have that, now, can we?


  1. I just found your blogs the other day, but I've enjoyed them very much. Thanks for the great insights!


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