Science and Religion: Are They Separate Spheres? / by Tyler Wood

Stephen J. Gould in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, argues that Science and Religion occupy separate magisterium in his "Principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria (pg. 5)." He believes that these two ideologies should have no quarrels since they each have their own domain of teaching influence to deal with, and, if they are practicing properly, they should never meet to argue because they never overlap. 'Never' is a hard word to defend for Gould and I shall put this argument to the test and conclude with a position that allows a little more room to breathe for each discipline.

Gould comes from a science point-of-view, but he has a fascination with religion. He uses some examples to illustrate the NOMA principle; one would be, Pope John Paul II, taking up where Pope Pius XII's Humani Generis (1950) left off, said that the Catholic Church has no say over the science of evolution since it has become "more than a hypothesis (pg. 81)." How do we know which discipline should deal with what? Gould lays that out very concisely by saying that "if some contradiction seems to emerge between a well-validated scientific result and a conventional reading of scripture, then we had better reconsider our exegesis, for the natural world does not lie, but words can convey many meanings (pg. 21)." He plays off the Catholic reading of the Bible as allegorical as thrust for this argument. He makes a strong case because, indeed, science has overturned many strongly held beliefs in the history of the church (Galileo is one such example) but is this a universal truth of science as 'fact' and religion as 'meaning or morality'?

One event that we can comment on to figure this out is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gould would argue that miracles are impossible since God does not interfere with our everyday lives. Gould holds the Hellenistic God idea here; once the world was made it took to its way and natural law and God can no longer affect it in any way. So Gould would have to hold to the fact that Christ could not have risen from the dead. Maybe it was a hallucination, he didn't really exist, or even that he may have been in a coma and came to or some other scientific explanation. This topic becomes a very interesting topic, regardless of explanation, since it is the basis for the Christian religion, and as such, must be the domain of religious teaching. This becomes trouble for Gould's NOMA principle. Christians need to have the resurrection in their teaching sphere, but clearly a dead man coming back to life is a physical phenomena, especially if you hold, as Gould does, that miracles can't happen (or at least don't). Gould would have to then dismiss the Christian religion as a whole since its inception event is no longer their domain of teaching. Without Jesus' miracles and resurrection there is no Christian faith. This can be dealt with by his principle, but it entails there be no Christian faith, but a more natural religion, something more like Hume's natural religion. However, the Pope might not be too excited to give up his own faith's inception story as allegorical entirely. This would mean that the whole Christian faith is based on stories of miracles and not actual miracles which would have a devastating effect to faith in a God who cares about us. If God can't be a part of our lives then why worship it at all? Gould seems to be shrinking the religious ideologies to things that can never be proven, like morality or meaning, but in doing so he is undermining the very institutions that study these things, and that give him his illustrations of separation. This is a problem for his separation that would seem to lead to religion just not being important, but who decides morality? According to Christians it is God's word – the bible (a miracle) that dictates (or relays) the morals for us. But without the miracle of God's word being passed to us we wouldn't have it at all.

What makes us think there is a moral code of any kind? Some people would argue that morality is based only on genetics and/or social interaction. If one believes in evolution, as Gould does, then it isn't hard to fathom there being no morality outside our own heads. This would just eliminate religion from being involved at all. Gould argues that the two spheres of influence, religion and science, are equal. He believes that the morality that comes from religion, but not necessarily from religion, are equally important than the facts of science. If evolution is the only 'thing' out there this becomes a false hope. If the beginning of time is the beginning of anything, this becomes meaningless, as many would argue. Christians would say Gould is giving too much power to the science side for being able to negate the resurrection, but some scientists (and Atheists) would say that he is giving religion too much power because God might not exist. This would mean that there aren't separate spheres but just the one. Relativists would argue that there isn't a universal morality (if that in fact means anything to us). They would argue that it is all relative to the culture or person. The reason for the similarities can be explained by social interaction and natural selection (for example, maybe people who didn't believe that killing was wrong killed each other into extinction, or because society is a powerful protection for the species, getting along became more important than primitive 'kill or be killed' mentalities). These ideas would lead to a different kind of problem to the NOMA principle - why is there two spheres? If miracles don't happen and morality can be explained by science then there is no need for a second sphere.

Another objection to Gould's NOMA principle is - when is it science? What if it is just a theory in science? At one point, namely when Pius XII was writing, evolution was regarded as just a theory. If it is religion until science proves otherwise, isn't that just a God-in-the-gaps argument? It seems that God is just a placeholder for science and not equal to science in Gould's world. Also, if religion has its own sphere that science shouldn't enter, shouldn't science have stayed out of certain areas? This would lead to a couple doors being closed on what science can study. For example, as I was saying in the last paragraph, morality. If science can find morality in the brain and histories of humans then it would then be treading on religion's ground, so should science ask permission first to study such things? Or should they leave it alone and assume (have faith) that religion can handle it? This can get very confusing if they are supposed to be in separate spheres. It seems that one would have to cross that line in science to study something new. And since Gould gives the room for science to study things, he is either weakening religion's hold here or shutting off scientific progress.

Another pressing detail that one might propose is the problem with induction. It is always a problem when saying something will or should do anything. All our (and Gould's) knowledge (other than revealed) is from experience of the past and the way things have been. We can't know for sure that the sun will rise tomorrow; we just know it always has in the past. If this be so, then how can we even draw lines of any sort for these two disciplines not to cross? We will never know where science may take us, or if God will reveal more to us tomorrow. It seems futile to try and draw any distinction between them that might last for more than a day.

 My opinion is of the kind that the western God doesn't exist. I find no fault in Gould's NOMA principle if his second sphere is for tolerance of religious belief. I believe science is it in the natural world, there is no evidence for anything else in the nature of the world; however, metaphysically it is hard to fend off the existence of something else or something even creating the physics of our world. It seems understandable to let the metaphysical realm be dealt with in any such manner. Science can say very little outside the way things are. Science may find morality in genes or social structure (I think this may be true) but it won't say anything about why we are here. It may be a nonsensical question, but it can be asked and discussed outside of science for now. I think Gould can be right if we eliminate organized religions that are different only because of different miracles they believe in. Once miracles are not an option then they are really the same religion, they believe in something greater than ourselves - this may be true. I think science is the sphere of nature and universal facts of this world and universe, and religion/spirituality is the realm of unverifiable questions of metaphysics. I think, however, that Gould is overstepping by saying the two disciplines can never come into contact, which is more impossible than miracles. Contact will happen for good reason, but it can be figured out with open discussion and understanding. I really disagree with drawing any lines or distinctions in stone and Gould doing it here is too much for me, these lines should be hazy at best, but I agree in general with his ideas. I agree that if science proves something contrary to the Bible that is proof enough to re-read the book, not the data. But science and free-minded thinking will always involve crossing lines and opening up doors that Gould might think should be locked. That is the nature of 'new'; we even have a saying for a paradigm shift "we've unlocked a whole new door." These 'new doors' shouldn't be disregarded because of some arbitrary line drawn in the cosmic dust by Gould.