The Rules of the Game

Continuing the discussion from Who Sponsors Peaceful Science?:

A fairly important distinction has been raised that I think is valuable. It seems that our resident atheist @Patrick and I both share a similar view of how operate, with disagreements in the public square on faith and science. I think this important to call out for several very practical reasons.

First, I agree with the distinctions being made here. Clearly making these distinctions are part of what can help bring about Peaceful Science. The fact that our resident “militant” atheist and I (a openly confessing scientist) both agree on this should be a indicator that there should emphasize the value of this point.

Second, making this clear is immensely important to students who are listening in. Not knowing the rules, it can just be frightening, not knowing what is allowed and not. Clearly laying out the rules, however, can give confidence about how we can talk about deeply held values, with calling down others who disagree with us against us.

Let me put a few quote out:

So, the way I would summarize with this:

  1. We all as private individuals can publicly talk about our religious views, including how we see scientific findings in light of our religious beliefs, and including confessing belief in miracles like the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth and de novo Adam.

  2. We cannot as representatives of science and-or science claim to be speaking with the authority of science, or using public funds, to make religious claims such as these.

  3. Given that we have multiple roles as Christians (or atheists) in science, that are also private citizens, there is value in being up front clear on what we are saying by scientific authority, what we think should be put into policy, and what is our personal (or collective) understanding from a religious point of view.

For that reason,@patrick

  1. greatly appreciated (1) my Forum Disclaimer, and (2) clarification about funding: Who Sponsors Peaceful Science?

  2. had no problem about me explaining there is “no evidence against a de novo Adam” as long as I’m clarifying (as I do) that any de novo creation event is not a scientific claim (and it is not).

  3. was opposed to Collins attending the BioLogos conference, advertised as the NIH director, as if the NIH was endorsing TE as a religious belief, and potentially using government funds

  4. had no problem with Collins going to said conference as a private citizen, even though he was the NIH director at the time.

  5. was upset by Deb Haarsma’s declaration on God and the multiverse, The Multiverse and God, perhaps because he read this as a pronouncement being made with scientific authority.

  6. would have been okay with Deb Haarsma’s article if she had clearly separated what science was telling us, from how she a private citizen would understand this from a Christian point of view. Such a distinction between what “science says” and “what Christians might think about it” is very helpful to make clear, and cannot be left tacit without increasing anxiety by others.

  7. would also have similar objections to atheists not making these distinctions clear between their atheistic beliefs, and the a neutral view of science.

  8. has similar frustration with BioLogos and other creationist groups (e.g. ID, YEC, and OEC) because they can be similarly squishy on these lines.

I think I have that right, and would just add that this is exactly how I also have navigated being an openly confessing scientist, as an untenured scientists. I’ve found that my colleagues have no problem with this, because I am (1) not misrepresenting science, (2) improving understanding and trust of science in difficult to reach groups, and (3) not claiming scientific authority to promote my personal beliefs. Now I’m getting tenured, but nothing about how I speak about this publicly is going to change.

Of course, I can speak from multiple perspectives at the same time (as a scientist, and as a private citizen), in the same talk, as long as I am 100% clear about whose authority I am speaking by at each oing, and being sure not to misuse my authority as a scientist to promote a personal belief. Being very careful not to cross this line, and clarifying publicly when ever there has been confusion, has kept people from being angry with me. I’m following the rules here.

I am okay with this because the rules are fair. Neutrality is the culture of science, and it promotes neutrality on religious matters so science can be a place of common ground. Following these rules, also, is a place of common ground with my colleagues.

That is why, even @patrick says…

Highly relevant to this exchange is this (somewhat reformatted) history:

The headline here might be “Atheists attacks Collins”, but what is here is something different. @patrick has no problem with Collin’s position and participation, as long as the lines are clear.

I’d add also that many Christians in science, including most of those I’ve met at BioLogos, have no idea how these rules works. They are often befuddled about what makes people angry, and what doesn’t. As a matter of survival, I had to figure this out early on in my career. I’ve found, so far, that as I play by the rules, no one has a problem with what I do. Many atheists are even thankful.

@Patrick, am I getting this right?


Thanks for the comment @paulnelson. I think, also that @patrick probably agrees (don’t you?). I think the point is more about not misrepresenting scientific authority to promote our personal beliefs, and being good at navigating “the line.”

I’ll point out too the particular challenge of navigating the issue of de novo Adam, which does posit (non-scientifically) de novo creation, in order to examine how it interacts with genetic evidence (scientifically, at least aside from the de novo part). This is straddling the line in a way I’ve never quite had to do before, and I do have to trust poeple not misrepresent me in this. Also, I emphasize always that this is not scientific evidence for a de novo Adam, but merely showing there is no evidence against it.

I think one distinction between me, and the vast majority of my colleagues, is that I see value in this line-straddling question. They probably just do not care, though they probably do not oppose asking it, and would think I’ve approached it with high rigor. Though, if this contributes towards peace, I think most people will appreciate it, including atheists.


This is very impressive. You understand it quite well. Really this body of law has been honed for over two hundred years. It is embedded in the very short 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is your freedom of religious expression. Your freedom of religious expression and my freedom of non-religious expression is a guaranteed right that all Americans have that can’t be taken away by anyone including the Government.

While the religious freedom part of the 1st Amendment is simple to understand, it is the requirement that the Government be secular or neutral with regard to religion that is very difficult to understand. Firstly who is a Government official? Who speaks for the Government? Bringing it all the way back to here. Yes, Dr. Swamidass speaks for the government if he draws a salary, takes a grant from an institution where even $1 is appropriated by the government. So as a member of the faculty in an educational institution that receives government funding in the form of government supplied student loans, Dr. Swamidass is speaking for the government and must remain secular in all of his official capacity at WUSTL. I am sure he has signed dozens of forms where he has pledged to abide by all of the laws and regulations of both the University and the government of the United States.

In this way Dr. Swamidass is more like Dr. Collins than Dr. Haarsma. I have no doubt that Dr. Swamidass can navigate this tight rope walking. Dr. Collins has mastered it out of necessity. Right now, many Trump Administration official including the Vice President of the United States can’t seems to figure this out.

Dr. Haarsma on the other hand as head of a religious non-profit is not bound by such limitations. She can proclaim that God created the multiverse and she is protected as free speech. She is free to proclaim and I am free to bash her, mock her, challenge her. But I will fight for her right to say it freely and at the same time criticize it. Dr. Swamidass, as hopefully tenured Professor at a secular, government funded institution, has no such rights. As condition for his position (and funding) he gives up that right. He still has the right of religious expression privately but in no way can as a Government official show any preference of one religion over another and any preference of religion over non-religion. He must remain neutral.

I want to thank him for his understanding.

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Let’s say @swamidass develops a great following for his scrupulous promotion of a separation between Church and State. And let’s say an American protestant denomination, also well known for its stance on the separation of Church and State asks Swamidass to represent them at a conference on the Role of Religion in America.

If we strictly interpret your construction, I get the impression that you would not endorse his participating in that conference - - even if his only function was to deliver a speech about how important it is for Americans, even devout Americans, to defend the continued separation.


I don’t think he’d have any problem with this. I’d be explaining how to navigate that line, so we can be in a common community together, without being in conflict and protecting free speech. That is consistent with neutrality. In this story too, I’m not even using public funds.

He would have a problem, instead, with using that platform to argue against that line, or claiming that science demonstrated things it had not demonstrated.

He would have to be a big fish, before he attracts the attention of church/state separation groups like FFRF.
But let’s say he gets to Chair of the Genomic Research Department at WUSTL or even full professor with a lot of government grants. Then he become a target should he be outspoken in the mixing of science with his faith. In this case, it is both not allowed and ill advised for him to speak at a conference “on the Role of Religion in America”. The Chair of the Geonomic Research Department at WUSTL recieving government research funding and grant is forbidden to speak at a conference “on the role of Religion in America”. No government official can speak “on the Role of Religion in America”. It is blatantly illegal and unconstitutional, and he should be either removed as Chair of Department, striped of his government funding or both.

But should he leave the university and take on a role as head of a 501(c) non-profit for science and faith compatibility, he should be giving the keynote address and pocketing the honorarium. In that case He moves from being a Dr. Collins Director of NIH to Dr. Haarsma, Head of Biologos drawing a $124,000 salary for proclaiming rubbish (my freedom of expression).

We all should cherish our freedom of thought our US Constitution gives us. And realize that in theocratic countries all over the world, freedom of expression by proclaim oneself an atheist is punishable by death.
(George please don’t offer me a one way ticket to Saudi Arabia as I have been there many times. In order to get a visa I have to say that I am a devout American Catholic.)

I want to add a bit more, about my motivations here. @Patrick points to the constitution.

I pointed to scientific norms, and could have just as easily focused here.

However, I’d like to explain for me the deeper reason why I take this position. Yes, it is echoed in the norms of scientific community, and in the Constitution, but for me there is a more important reason. For me, I also look at Jesus, and His relationship with power brings me to the same place. So I protect neutrality of government and science, also, because I follow Jesus.

Let me explain.

Jesus, as I understand Him, renounced worldly and human power in His work. He did not come as a political leader, or use physical force or manipulation. He laid down all the power and majesty of heaven, to become a mere infant from a place far from Rome. When He rose from the dead, he came humbly too, not using political power or armies, not even using science.

For those reasons, I do not look for coercive power to promote the Gospel. Such a use of power contaminates the Gospel message itself, misrepresenting Jesus Himself.

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Let’s work this out…

Chair of Genomic Research is not a government official. Same goes if I become a full professor. We report effort percentages on every grant we get from the government. As long as one is not using that effort or money, there is no conflict here that arises. As professors, we are encouraged to engage the public on things like this, though few actually do so.

Keep in mind, also that government officials must address the role of religion in America on a regular basis. In some positions, there is just no way to avoid it. For example, if a religious person (or atheist) abuses their authority against someone with different beliefs, a committee or judge may have to rule against them. Such a ruling is a statement about the role of religion in American, that we cannot coercively use our religious beliefs against others. Moreover, this is a statement made in an official capacity. It is not that government officials are silent about religious matters; rather they must enforce fairness to protect rights here.

That being said, clarity is always helpful. Though I’m 100% convinced I could give that talk without conflict of interest, it would be critical to clarify that I am not speaking on behalf of the government (or science as a whole), and that I’m not using government funds to be there. Do you agree?

In many ways I am aligned with them (and you) on separation of Church and State. If they want allies in religious communities, if the want to build bridges, including people like me can do a great deal to protect everyone’s freedoms.

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The name of a conference is not the content of a speech by a guest speaker. I think you have drunk too much koolaid.

@swamidass, so… if we had wagered… what would I have won? A steak dinner, or a copy of your next book?

This is where I think we differ. It really depends where your funding comes from. If your funding is in the area of “the role of religion in America” Sure go ahead. But if government funding is on molecular biology and you go speak out on “the sins of homosexuality” or America is falling into moral decay because we are not Christian enough, you might get sanctioned. It is really a slippy slope. Institutions like WUSTL are very watchful on this. They will error on the side of caution. I sure they will tell you when you are approaching the line hopefully well before you cross it. Realize the line moves with the times.

I am sure you can do it adequately. But it gets harder as you advance in stature within various communities. And remember the line moves. And it is politics - a blood sport. This is NOT science, and NOT church Sunday school. This is bare knuckle politics. Not for the faint of heart and certainly not for a noble man of science.

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I think they will too.

Well, I certainly agree with you on this. Honestly I’m not sure we disagree on anything in practice.

For me, the key thing is avoiding coercive power, and the appearance of coercive power, deployed on behalf of parochial interests. Moreover, the higher we rise, the more wisdom is required of us in how we use our voice. So it is not as if “anything goes.” If I preach racism or nazism (which I do not), for example, not much “rule following” is going to protect me at all. I still have to use my voice responsibly, especially as I grow in influence.

I hope you and everyone else here can help me be a wise leader. It seems we need more wise leaders in society. Not just me, but others too.

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The higher you go up in authority, the more nuisance it gets. You can say God Bless You to a person after they sneeze and some one will say that you are pushing your religion on them.

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The stakes for Dr. Swamidass are much higher. It is called tenure.

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True enough!

This brings to mind yet another of my favorite examples from linguistics where people can easily get confused about words and their meanings. The Russian language, as spoken by the most Russians—including the last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev—is filled with idioms, many of them reflective of many centuries of Russian Orthodox Church culture and phrases. President Reagan tended to take such idioms far too literally. He assumed that Gorbachev’s frequent expressions of “God bless”, for example, revealed the personal religious thoughts of a closet Christian. Reagan’s advisers had to keep reminding him not to read anything pietistic into such idioms. However, it is not clear that Reagan ever fully grasped what he was being told about the limited “literalism” which can safely be gleaned from religious idioms in common speech.