It’s been a few years since I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s “Rocks of Ages”, but ever since then, the underlying premise of the book has stuck with me.  By “stuck with me”, I mean more in the manner of a popcorn kernel that gets stuck in your teeth and refuses to be dislodged, rather than in the manner of how a memorable vacation or good movie gets stuck in your mind, if you catch my drift.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or even that I think that Gould was completely off base with his idea of NOMA.  For those that might be unfamiliar, NOMA stands for “Non-Overlapping MAgisteria”, which in turn refers to the idea that the intellectual realms of religion on one hand, and science, on the other, are either in fact, or ought to be in principle, completely separate without any sort of overlap in their respective spheres of influence.  At the same time, however, they are each presumably legitimate pursuits of knowledge in their own respective spheres of influence. Sounds reasonable — on the face of it at least — right?

The problem is, during my reading of Gould’s book where he lays out this premise of NOMA, it became clear (to me at least) that, in fact, Gould had little sympathy for the idea of religion as being anywhere near the same level as science on the scale of intellectual legitimacy.  In brief, it almost seemed to me that he came up with the idea of NOMA as a means to “throw a bone” to theologians and other religious thinkers while still maintaining his view of the modern supremacy of science as the ultimate expression of human intellect.  What I mean is that Gould came at the problem with the idea that science was the de facto standard for getting at “truth” and was trying to see if there was still a way that religion could fit in to the picture, given its obvious importance in human history and current state.  It never seemed to occur to him that his whole starting point might be a little off balance, and in this way, he merely came across as condescending toward those who didn’t share his fundamental epistemology.

This starting point, it seems to me, is this implicit assumption that the explanations for reality alternately proffered by science and religion are part of a zero-sum game: that is, this idea there can be only one explanation for any given phenomenon.  On this view, if science comes along and explains something in physical terms that used to be explained by some sort of appeal to supernatural entities, then that is an example of science gaining ground on religion.  Looked at this way, it seems that religion has been losing ground for quite some time.

But not so fast.  While it is certainly true that different explanations for a given phenomenon can compete with each other, it’s not obvious that they logically are required to.  I’m perfectly fine with the idea that religion attempts to focus on the “why” questions for phenomena, or questions of purpose, while science mainly focuses on the “what” and “how” questions, as a basic starting point for trying to find demarcations between science and religion.  But it seems to me that NOMA takes this to extremes when it declares that there can be in fact no overlap.  As a quick aside, many atheists also reject NOMA, but they do so from the standpoint that religion is not a legitimate means to knowledge or truth, and thus it doesn’t even have a “magisterium” to begin with.  While I stand with these atheists in rejecting NOMA, my reasons for doing so are quite different.

As an example of what I mean, science surely has something to say about what it means to be human, by revealing our evolutionary history, and the biological underpinnings of any number of human behaviors.  At the same time, to take an example from Christian theism, religion may talk about humans being made “in the image of God”.  My point is, who’s to say that the biological explanations for our behaviors, our intelligence, and so on aren’t in fact part of this “image of God”.  In such a way, we see that there could be layered explanations for phenomena, instead competing ones, coming from science and religion.  I’m not trying here to argue necessarily for the legitimacy of particular religious explanations, but rather to argue that at least some of them can and do overlap with scientific ones, without any obvious conflict.  But, if this is true, NOMA fails almost by definition.

I doubtless will have more to say about this in future posts, but hopefully this will get things started.