Stephen Jay Gould on The Simpsons (episode 908, “Lisa the Skeptic”)
To people who, like me, are neither religious nor anti-religious, Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (“NOMA”) holds considerable appeal.1 To recapitulate it for the benefit of anyone not already familiar with it, this is the thesis that science has “teaching authority” with regard to questions of how the natural world works, while religion has such authority with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. I have argued in my two previous posts on the topic (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion” and “More on Gould on Science and Religion”) that, while a plausible rationale can be suggested for Gould’s account of the magisterium of science, his account of the magisterium of religion faces serious difficulties. Not only is it questionable whether religion has teaching authority in the domain that Gould assigns to it, but it is questionable whether religion has teaching authority in any domain whatever. In short, it is to be doubted whether there is any such thing as “the magisterium of religion.”
This conclusion can be reached by either of two ways of looking at the matter. The first way is to note the logical disparity between how the non-count noun “religion” relates to the count noun “religions” and the manner in which the corresponding nouns “science” and “sciences” relate to each other. A science is simply the science of a particular subject matter, and all sciences are parts of science. For all the differences of method and content among them, there is no incompatibility between one science and another. There are conflicts between theories within the various sciences, but the work of science consists largely in resolving such conflicts. Religions, by contrast, do not belong to a coherent whole. Different religions do not relate to one another as different sciences do, as parts of a whole, but in something closer to how one scientific theory relates to another theory concerning the same subject matter, that is, by mutual incompatibility. As a rule, one cannot coherently combine the teachings of one religion with the teachings of another. (I include the qualification “as a rule” not because I know of two religions that can be combined in this way but simply because I do not know that there are no two that can be so combined.)
From these reflections it emerges how dubious Gould’s attribution of teaching authority to religion is. Remember that his thesis is not that each religion has its magisterium, but that religion itself, in kind, has a magisterium. He elaborates what this means in the following passage:
Each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution. These accepted standards, and the procedures developed for debating and resolving legitimate issues, define the magisterium—or teaching authority—of any given realm. (Rocks of Ages, 52–3)This passage seems perfectly adequate to characterize science as a domain of inquiry; it may also be applicable to the domains of individual religions, considered separately, and perhaps even to the procedures of some ecumenical religious councils. But applied to the entity “religion” in general, it is a non-starter. Religion considered in kind, as contrasted with individual religions, plainly has none of the attributes that Gould describes as constituting a magisterium.
Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to consider the following dilemma. Take the body of beliefs that are taught by a given religion. Either that body of beliefs is founded in reason and experience—or in “natural reason,” as Thomas Aquinas would call it—or it is not. If it is, then there is no room for any specifically religious authority with regard to it: it falls within the magisterium of science, perhaps supplemented by (secular) philosophy. If, on the other hand, the body of beliefs is not founded in reason and experience, then no authority—that is, no power to determine the truth or falsehood of the beliefs—is possible with regard to it. At most, a political authority may determine what beliefs may be professed, and legislate penalties for heterodoxy. (I believe that this arrangement has been tried: it was called the middle ages, was it not?) Either way, there is no such thing as a specifically religious teaching authority. Therefore, there is no such thing as the magisterium of religion.
Those are the two arguments. What they have in common, besides their conclusion, is that they make use of two facts, (1) the incompatibilites among the teachings of different religions and (2) the unavailability of any specifically religious way—or perhaps it would be better to say generically religious way: i.e., a way belonging to religion in kind and not to any individual religion—of resolving those divergences of teaching. From these the conclusion is drawn that no teaching authority pertains to religion as such.
As with any well-formed argument, criticism of this one can focus either on the truth of premises or on their sufficiency to warrant the conclusion. Take premise 1 first—the assertion of the incompatibility among the teachings of different religions. There are those, like the present Dalai Lama, who like to emphasize what the world’s religions have in common and what adherents of one religion can learn from other religions.2 But, so far as I know, not even those who believe in a common core of the world’s religious teachings deny the diversity and incompatibility among the less central elements. Nor is it evident that these disagreements are merely peripheral. The teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate is central to the Christian religion, while Jews and Muslims stoutly deny it. Disagreement of beliefs among the world’s religions is not a mere appearance to be explained away but an undeniable and unalterable fact.
What, then, about premise 2, the unavailability of any system of standards or procedures for adjudicating conflicts of belief among the world’s religions? Might one hold that such a system is not impossible but merely not yet formulated, or that it already exists and merely wants development? It is not easy to refute such vague and speculative suppositions. This much, however, can be said. First, the only known body of standards or procedures that can be applied to religious claims is the one that makes up the composite body of what we call scientific method, logic, and common sense. The existence of such a body of standards and procedures plainly provides no support to the idea of a specifically religious form of teaching authority. Second, if there is a body of standards or procedures belonging specifically to religion, no one has yet produced it; so to invoke it to establish the existence of a religious magisterium is as vain as to call upon a phantom to clean one’s house.
The premises of the argument, then, seem unassailable. This leaves only the question of their sufficiency to establish the conclusion. And here, as I suggested in my previous post on this topic, there is a bit of wiggle room. To begin with, suppose that we separate the idea of teaching from that of belief or truth claim. After all, there are plainly forms of teaching that have nothing to do with imparting beliefs: teaching someone how to cook a soufflé or how to play cards, for instance. The application to religion is not hard to see: religious life is manifestly not a mere matter of belief, but also, arguably even primarily, of observance. Religions are first of all practiced; to speak of “believing” a religion is surely a rather late, and I suspect a specifically Protestant, development in the grammar of religious language.
The idea here is not that religious teaching does not include religious beliefs, but that religious teaching authority does not extend to such beliefs. As far as religious authority is concerned, religious beliefs are, on this view, epiphenomena of religious practices. The incompatibility between one religion and another is then less like the logical incompatibility between two propositions than it is like the physical incompatibility between being in one location and being in another, separate location. That is, one person cannot coherently maintain two or more distinct religious practices (or at least, cannot do so in general); nonetheless, if two people practice two different religions, their mere practices are not in any inherent conflict, but only such practical conflict as may arise from circumstances.
Some people, I suspect, will find this idea far-fetched and bizarre. For my part, I find it very attractive, and I suspect that anyone who finds it unworthy of serious consideration is simply accustomed to the Protestant conception of religion as essentially a matter of belief. Still, there is no denying that it is strange, and, what is more to the point, I suspect that it fails to solve the problem at hand. The reason is that, even if we set aside the logical incompatibility between religions by making practices rather than beliefs the objects of religious authority, we still have the problem of diversity in those practices. Each religion teaches a particular practice: there is no common practice or body of practices that religion itself teaches. In fact, it is not clear that there is anything that religion itself teaches: there are only the diverse teachings of different religions. The fact of religious diversity remains a problem for the idea of a religious magisterium.
There remains, so far as I can see, one possible way out for NOMA. I have presumed so far that, where a “teaching authority” exists, only one possible teaching can be authorized. Would it make sense to suppose that mutually incompatible beliefs, and perhaps also mutually exclusive practices, can all be authorized within religion? A magisterium, according to Gould, comprises standards and procedures for “debating and resolving legitimate issues.” Well, then: why assume that incompatibilities between one religion and another are legitimate issues? Perhaps the only legitimate religious issues are doctrinal (and perhaps also practical) differences within a religion. Gould’s idea, then, would be that there is a common body of procedures or standards for resolving religious disputes, but it concerns only disputes within a religion, not between one religion and another. Disputes between religions are then not legitimate religious issues, but if anything secular issues, to be resolved on non-religious grounds if at all.
This conception of the magisterium of religion is one that I have not seen considered elsewhere. Perhaps, after I post this, I will find some fatal weakness in it, but for now, I offer it for consideration.
1See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999) and “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).
2Tenzin Gyatso (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama), “Many Faiths, One Truth,” The New York Times, May 25, 2010.
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