In his book Rocks of Ages, the late Stephen Jay Gould, who had Harvard professorships in both zoology and geology, presents a philosophical thesis on the relationship between science and religion. Chestnuts don’t come much older.
Some background on Gould first. He wrote much on the influence of geological events on the evolution of life. Other evolutionary theorists – such as arch neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins – do not hold much truck with this punctuated equilibria theory, but it was influential while Gould was its champion.
In this book, Gould takes a step back from his area of expertise and looks at the idea that science and religion can play together without fighting. Moreover, he holds, they have been doing so for many hundreds of years. Now, Gould is an accomplished essayist and a fine writer stylist; he must be forgiven for his occasional pomposity.
His argument is christened the thesis of ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ (NOMA for short). A magesterium is ‘a domain where on form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for a meaningful discourse and resolution’ (p. 5; cf. Kuhn’s paradigms). Thus, the magesterium of science covers the empirical: the composition of the universe (‘fact’) and the way it works (‘theory’). Religion, on the other hand, examines questions of ‘ultimate meaning and moral value’. ‘These two magesteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how we go to heaven’ (p. 6).
Wrong. Science and religion do cover the same ground. Whereas science does not produce answers to moral and ethical questions, it is indeed the case that religion claims the patent for its ideas on the ‘composition of the universe.and the way it works’. For, without this claim, on what rock of authority does a religion found its morality? You cannot give a sermon that endorses one or more of the Ten Commandments without the concomitant assumption that Moses did indeed climb the Mountain of God, did indeed speak to God and return with tablets of stone. To deny the reality of this act – which one could do by rendering it metaphorical – is to remove its most critical component. It becomes another story. No different, no more powerful, and no more worthy as a root to moral truth than the Icelandic Sagas.
NOMA is a simple idea, beautifully expounded. It attempts to quell disquiet. It seeks to find a ‘golden mean’ between science and religion. But there can be no mean. At the risk of paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, it is not necessarily the case that a mid-point between two extremes is optimal; one extreme can be wrong. Furthermore, and more crucially, religion’s components are not discrete; though it does contain a magisterium of ‘meaning and moral value’, it cannot be divorced from its other magisteria. They are integral.
This conclusion takes no stance on the ultimate question that Gould tries to avoid, for science and religion do indeed battle for the truth. In the endeavour, each will cross the other’s path. But whereas science will remain silent on matters of conscience, religion cannot afford to remain silent on matters of fact. To do so would be to build a house on sand.