My take on NOMA: an old book review

September 28, 2014 • 8:36 am

Several readers called my attention to a nice essay by biologist David Barash in today’s New York Times, an essay whose theme is the incompatibility of science and religion. In it, Barash takes out after Steve Gould’s accommodationist stance of Non-overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, adumbrated in detail in Gould’s 1999 book Rocks of Ages.

When that book came out, the Times Literary Supplement asked me to review it, and I obliged them. When I read David’s piece I remembered that review,  but when I tried to find it online I discovered that it has vanished. One can’t even see it in our library subscription to the TLS archives, as it’s cut off on the scanned page. Therefore, it has disappeared from the universe, perhaps remaining only on microfilm or in those libraries that have paper copies of the TLS.

As I want to discuss Barash’s essay later today, I thought that first I’d simply republish the essay I sent to the TLS. I believe a few words might have been changed before publication, or some sentences omitted by the editor, but my criticisms of NOMA haven’t much changed.

I also see in the draft below the beginning of my battle against accommodationism, for when I wrote this in 2000 I was not much concerned with the relationship between science and religion. And I was less “strident” then, for I no longer think that it’s useful to have a “dialogue” between science and religion. Now, of course, accommodationism occupies a great deal of my time, and a discussion of NOMA will be part of The Albatross.

This, then, is a draft of what was published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 9, 2000 (pp. 28-29). It is not word-for-word identical to that article, but I want the essay deposited where I (and others) can find it easily. That would be here. Reading the first paragraph, I find that I, like Gould, have entered philosopause.

Is NOMA a no man’s land? 

 by Jerry A. Coyne

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
by Stephen Jay Gould
1999; The Library of Contemporary Thought; Ballantine Publishing Group
241 pages; $ 18.95 (US)

Like everyone else, scientists have midlife crises, but ours do not generally involve red sports cars. Rather, we are seized by the urge to forsake our daily tasks and embrace one or another of the great metaphysical problems that have engrossed philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. The result is often a big book dealing with the human condition. So common is this tendency that it has acquired a name: philosopause. Unfortunately, philosopausal tomes are often amateurish, fated to become the dustiest items on the library shelves. After all, a lifetime spent driving a taxi is probably better preparation for tackling the great questions of humanity than is a lifetime spent peering through the microscope.

If anyone could buck this trend, it would be Stephen Jay Gould, the polymathic paleontologist famous for his popular writing about evolution. In his new book, Gould sets aside his usual topics and turns to one that older scientists can rarely resist: the relationship between science and religion. Sadly, I must report that Gould has foundered on Rocks of Ages, adding little to the work of those who have already addressed this perennial problem. Well intentioned though it is, and often couched in Gould’s characteristically lively prose, this slim volume is as slight in scholarship as it is in size. Ultimately, Rocks of Ages is a repository of sound ideas that are not new, and new ideas that are not sound.

Gould begins by observing that both science and religion sometimes overstep their boundaries, with religion in effect making scientifically testable statements about nature, and scientists inferring ethical or social beliefs from nature. An obvious example of the former is American creationism, recently notorious for its successful crusade to downgrade evolution in the Kansas school curriculum.   Scientists, on the other hand—particularly those adhering to “evolutionary psychology”—sometimes try to base moral or social precepts on our evolutionary history.

Using examples drawn from Darwin, Galileo, Cardinal Newman, and other scientists and theologians, Gould shows that these territorial violations have occurred throughout history. His purpose is to prevent their recurrence by proposing a principle of reconciliation called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” which he saddles with the awkward acronym of “NOMA.” This principle leaves both religion and science with important but distinct tasks:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.” [p. 4)]

Gould grants these magisteria equal status and asserts that we must accept the values of both. He calls for intense dialogue between religion and science, not to unite them, but to encourage greater harmony and mutual understanding.

This is a worthwhile suggestion, and is nearly as old as science and religion themselves. But Gould goes further and runs into trouble. First, he never defines “religion.” Although what we think of as “science” is fairly well delimited, “religion” can mean many things, including religious institutions themselves, church doctrine, beliefs of prominent theologians, practices of ordinary religious people, and so on. Gould’s failure to clarify this key term in his argument is disturbing in itself, but causes terminal confusion when combined with the second problem: his unwillingness to stick to a single notion of NOMA. Instead, he offers several versions that are used interchangeably.

He first conceives of NOMA as a utopian vision. In an ideal world, religion and science would logically form harmonious, nonoverlapping realms of activity. If this was all Gould were saying, we could accept it as a pleasing platitude and pass on. However, he believes that this utopia must be realized:   science and religion should be structured to allow peaceful coexistence. He therefore redefines NOMA as “the potential harmony through difference of science and religion, both properly conceived and limited.” [p. 43]. The word “proper” is the red flag here. Imagining “proper” science is easy—the vast majority of scientists are happy to pursue their calling as an entirely materialistic enterprise. But what is “proper” religion? It seems to be religion that does not overlap science.

Unfortunately, real religion is frequently and stubbornly improper, for the religious beliefs of many people are in absolute conflict with the findings of science. Evolution provides the most prominent example—not only fundamentalists, but also many mainstream Protestants and Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, Native Americans, Scientologists, Muslims, and Hindus, subscribe to creationist narratives. Beliefs about human origin are not the only religious violations of NOMA. Christian Scientists, for example, entertain a spiritual theory of disease, and many Hindus share Glenn Hoddle’s belief that disability is a sign of past spiritual transgression.   The fact is that religions worldwide often stray into scientific territory, sometimes with tragic results. Who knows how many have died because a bacillus is misdiagnosed as spiritual malaise?

Gould apparently limits religion to the views of liberal Western theologians, many of them agnostics in all but name. But of course there is far more to religion than the opinions of scholars. Religion encompasses beliefs that help people make sense of personal reality, regardless of whether these beliefs overlap with science. By casting himself as the arbiter of “proper” religion, Gould simply redefines terms to satisfy his utopian vision. Thus NOMA undergoes another metamorphosis—from an achievable utopia to an actual description of reality. That is, the apparent clashes between religion and science create genuine discord, but in reality involve neither science nor religion. Referring to those who oppose religions with naturalistic tenets, for example, Gould notes:

“If these colleagues wish to fight superstition, irrationalism, philistinism, ignorance, dogma, and a host of other insults to the human intellect (often politically converted into dangerous tools of murder and oppression as well), then God bless them—but don’t call this enemy “religion.” [pp. 209-210]

Improper intrusions of scientists into meaning and morals are fairly rare, and nearly all of us decry or rebuff them. But many religious people will surely be insulted to hear that NOMA requires them to abandon essential parts of their faith. Nevertheless, that seems to be Gould’s prescription.

Gould’s example of an illusory violation of NOMA is American evangelical Christianity and its belligerent creationism.   To maintain the reality of NOMA, he contends that creationism is neither proper religion nor even an outgrowth of religion (“Religion just can’t be equated with Genesis literalism. . .” [p. 209]). To support this view, he first argues that creationists form only a vocal minority of American believers and are nearly absent elsewhere. There are indeed relatively few creationists who try to sneak their misguided “science” into public schools; yet surveys consistently show that nearly 50% of Americans believe that humans were directly created by God within the last 10,000 years, and 40% think that creationism should replace evolution in the biology classroom. Without the support of this silent plurality, creationists would be powerless. Gould also demotes creationism by noting that its opponents include “the great majority of professional clergy and religious scholars.” [p. 129] Again, “religion” is construed as the views of intellectual theologians. Finally, he maintains that creationism is actually a sociopolitical movement having nothing to do with real religion. Many of us who have fought creationism would disagree. Indeed, so would creationists themselves, who sincerely believe that teaching evolution undermines Biblical authority, morality, and the spiritual meaning of life. But Gould is right to recognise that fundamentalist views have sociopolitical repercussions. In a speech that would seem surreal anywhere but in the United States, Congressman Tom DeLay pointed an accusing finger at Darwin after the Littleton, Colorado school shootings: “our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud.”

Questionable analyses similarly characterize other arguments given by Gould. I limit myself to one example: his claim that religion is (and should be) the main source of morality. This assertion ignores an intense debate about the wellsprings of ethical belief. Does religion directly create moral views, or does it only codify and buttress morals taken from secular sources? There may be some ethical beliefs deriving largely from religion, but in many cases (e.g., the idea of equal rights for women and ethnic minorities, and of the immorality of slavery) one can argue that religious institutions simply embraced earlier changes in secular morality. And I need hardly point out that atheists are not automatically amoral.

Gould senses this difficulty, but again finesses it by redefinition, claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise.   To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels,” and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people.” [both quotes from p. 62] Well, if this is religion, we can guiltlessly forsake Sunday services for a lively discussion in the pub.

Gould owes his readers more than oversimplified and dubious arguments cobbled together in the name of a good cause. Short though it is, Rocks of Ages is a scrappy affair, seemingly assembled in haste. Three of the chapters are stitched together from his earlier essays, and the seams are readily discernible. The writing, too, is well below Gould’s usual high standards; all too often his pen seems to be on automatic pilot (e.g., “Science and religion interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.”). [p.65]

In the end, Rocks of Ages is an unsatisfying quarrel about labels and not a substantial contribution to the science/religion debate. And NOMA ultimately becomes an irritating acronym for a utopia that, like all utopias, never did and never will exist. Religion will forever encroach on the territory of science, and scientists will forever wave a flag against creeping obscurantism. As Isaiah realized when prophesying harmony among the beasts, it takes a miracle to reconcile the irreconcilable: “And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”


17 thoughts on “My take on NOMA: an old book review

  1. So SJG thinks religion is OK as long as it sits quietly in a corner, doesn’t get in anyone’s way and makes no testable claims that contradict reality. Sounds fine – but it seems to contradict the reality of religion.

    Now I’m off to spray the dust off the red mustang on the driveway. I guess I had a menopause rather than a philosopause. Seems there is dust involved either way 🙂

  2. That was lovely. I thought being 14 years old the review might seem different from your current writing, but instead it shows your well honed gift for insightful, clear prose. It is a great take down of NOMA, all placed in context. Now I really can’t wait for the Albatross to be published.

    1. Seconded–except I didn’t expect it to be any less readable than his current stuff. 🙂

      For my money, Jerry is the clearest, most interest-sustaining writer we have today on the science/religion conflict. (And on many other subjects as well, of course.)

  3. Jerry,

    this is part of my (negative) comment on the book. I fault SJGould for having failed to see (ans he was in a positoon to do so) that NOMA can’t work as long as the Church insists on the semi-dogma of Adam and Eve/original sin/salvation.

    The author – a distinguished paleoanthropologist and, if I’m correct, at the time Member of the Papal Academy of Sciences – has read the (semi-infallible) utterance of John Paul II that God zapped souls into the original primeval couple (hominids may have been animals before), who then proceeded to commit original sin. Pius XII and John Paul II, enthuses the starry-eyed evolutionist, did not condemn evolution – their condemnation only referred to “polygenism” (pg. 77)! In other words, the Church has made it a quasi-dogma that a primeval couple existed, was laced with a soul. Alas, the coupla promptly proceeded to sin.

    In an unbelievable footnote he then admits “I do not understand the details of Catholic theology and therefore do not know how symbolically such a statement may be read” (pg. 78). Holy mackerel on a Friday! On the factuality of the primieval couple original sin hinges the whole of the Christian religion. His Jesuit friend could have told him that over the phone.

    Now, “primeval couple” as the origin of a “be-souled” species is evolutionary and paleo-anthropological nonsense, and the author should have said so loudly and clearly, for he has inveighed too many times against scientists imagining “saltation” in species formation. Paleoanthropology and DNA analysis furthermore concur in the hypothesis that at no point could there have been just a couple of hominids – absconded in Eden or anywhere else. Whether we emerged through “polygenism” or otherwise is not matter of faith, but of fact – and so far all the facts are all with “polygenism”. In this case, no NOMA is possible, for the Church tells us what happened x eons ago.

  4. David Barash is a wonderfully humane teacher. He used to post to a Chronicle of Higher Education weblog that I followed.

  5. And NOMA ultimately becomes an irritating acronym for a utopia that, like all utopias, never did and never will exist. Religion will forever encroach on the territory of science, and scientists will forever wave a flag against creeping obscurantism.

    Well put. Religion automatically encroaches into both rational territory in general and scientific territory in particular because it introduces the supernatural into reality. And reality is simply not the sort of thing which can be carved out into personal spaces of different “truths.” NOMA only makes limited sense if every time Gould mentions “religion” we mentally substitute something like “ethical philosophy” or “aesthetic preferences.” Science can’t directly tell us how we ought to live out the nitty gritty of our individual lives. Granted.

    I used to be somewhat sympathetic towards freethinkers’ long history of helpfully trying to refine-redefine terms like “religion,” “God,” “faith,” and “spirituality” in order to make them more reasonable and thus co-opt all the warm fuzzies and public approval which goes with them. Wouldn’t it be great if religious people drop the bad parts of religion (ie everything which makes religion unique)and just keep all the good stuff — the fine and noble values and practices which appeal for their own sake? Let’s encourage this! Being good is my religion and nature is my God! Instant harmony!

    But it doesn’t work that way. Not when religion is in power and you’re the despised minority who has closed your heart to God. Instead of us leading them towards rationality the religious simply translate the change in vocabulary in their favor. Atheists have doubts. Atheists believe in God. Atheists believe in God every time they do good. They admit it.

    And “God” is taken out of the hypothesis category and faith-fully placed into the area of values, virtues, morals, and feelings. Believing in God is like believing in love. This mental confusion lies at the heart of belief in the supernatural and the denigration of nonbelief. Atheists should call it out — not help it along.

    1. I’d go further and claim that even the area of values, virtues, morals, and feelings is no longer an adequate hiding place because that distinction relies, sooner or later, on a form of dualism. At some point, a science of morality will most likely arise and close off even that refuge, because any theories about value, virtue, morality, and emotions – and therefore any application of those theories to real world problems – must at some point be answered with reference to brains, biology, and other physical bases amenable to science (though this does not exclude abstract speculation, instead making stronger demands of it). To do otherwise is like doing biology in the days when consulting traveller’s tales of one-footed men and putting sea serpents on maps was considered acceptable.

      It’s not that there’s no distinction between the two smorgasbords. There obviously is, since both require different approaches. But I think the one for cultural diversity is a conclusion to a problem of co-existence and prejudicial attacks (both verbal/non-violent ones and violent ones). It’s borne from the fact that most cultural practices are morally neutral, the fact that one’s “choice” and one’s favourite flavours bear little to no connection to one’s moral standing, and the fact that prejudice against different “flavours” causes more problems than it solves (and it solves none to begin with).

      It might not be science but rational inquiry per se that covers meaning, values, etc., as opposed to what I suggest above. But either way, the solution to the application of NOMA is the counter-measure of wresting every last claim of ethical and philosophical monopoly from religious and other non-rational speculation. Just because science doesn’t commit to a morality, and is based on assuming moral neutrality before proceeding with fact-based explanations and inquiries, doesn’t mean morality et al are suddenly outside of science’s domain. By that logic, everything is outside science’s domain, since it remains neutral about the conclusions of every single field it operates in, as evidence by the fact that it would abandon those conclusions at the drop of an evidence-based hat.

  6. I was always a fan of Gould, but I disagree with him here. “Religion just can’t be equated with Genesis literalism”? Obviously, for many people, it can be and is. How could Gould, who was an agnostic, decide what is and is not religion? Wouldn’t that be up to the religious? It would be like a liberal defining “conservatism” and ignoring what actual conservatives believe. Or vice versa. It’s amazing how often people feel entitled to tell other people what they [the other people] actually think. “Now, you atheists don’t believe in right and wrong . . .”

    1. “How could Gould, who was an agnostic, decide what is and is not religion?”

      He’s not alone. Karen Armstrong and a host of other faitheists do the same thing.

      1. Similarly, there’s an old (~1960s, if I recall) called _The Sciences and the Humanities_ which tries to do a NOMA type thing by calling all religious statements as being analogous to poetry. I thought immediately at the time that I read it first (1999 or so) that this was not only wrongheaded to for the Gould-like reasons but *really* insulting to believers.

  7. a discussion of NOMA will be part of The Albatross.

    Huh. The Albatross will soar on mighty wings!

    Look forward to its first flight.

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