A topic that comes up often in the discussion of science and religion is Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA. I’ve read many papers and books that refer to this principle – sometimes agreeing, more often disagreeing significantly from both sides. There are those who disagree with the concept, wanting to put religion out of the picture all together, and those who disagree, wanting to subject science to religious ideals or because the separation seems somewhat artificial. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and psychology professor at the University of Washington whose NY Time opinion piece was the subject of a post a few weeks ago Coming Soon … “The Talk”? finds Gould’s argument for NOMA particularly troubling.
I tend to think that the separation into separate magisteria is somewhat artificial, but had never read Gould’s argument directly from his own work. This didn’t seem wise, so I picked up a copy of his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life where the concept is explained in detail. The range in the amazon reviews, almost equally spread from 1 to 5, give a flavor for the controversy over his proposal. Gould is anything from wise and thoughtful offering a useful framework to a fool, out of his depth, misinterpreting religion, and capitulating to those who believe in bronze age myths. The most scathing reviews come from atheist readers. This may be interesting.
Before digging too deeply into Gould’s argument it is necessary to understand what he means by magisterium … which is not to be confused with the similar words majesty or majestic (apparently a confusion he encountered).
A magisterium, on the other hand, is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, we debate and hold dialogue under a magisterium; we fall into silent awe or imposed obedience before a majesty.
[The magisterium] of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider for example the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty) (p. 5-6).
Although Gould often has Christianity and Judaism in mind as he makes his argument, his definition of religion isn’t constrained to anything resembling Christian faith (or any other religion). It might be better to use the term moral philosophy rather than religion. But the Christian faith as it provides a moral philosophy is one example of an approach to the magesterium of religion. Continue reading