Stephen Jay Gould (source)
As I explained in a previous entry (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion”), Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria” (“NOMA”) is meant neither as a description of the actual scope of claims made by practitioners of science and religion nor as a proposal for how those two activities can stay out of each other’s way, but rather as an account of the range within which each of the two has “teaching authority.” Science, on Gould’s view, has such authority with regard to questions of how the natural world works, and religion with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. There is, according to Gould, no conflict between science and religion as such, because their respective domains, though they adjoin each other, do not overlap. Claims about the natural world made on the supposed authority of religion as well as claims about ultimate meaning and value made on the supposed authority of science are one and all void.
Interestingly, while many defenders of science have been highly critical of Gould’s thesis, their principal complaint has been not that it grants too little to science (though some have made this objection: more on that on another occasion) but that it grants too much to religion. The objection is that, even if questions of ultimate meaning and value lie outside the competence of science, it does not follow that they lie within the competence, much less the exclusive competence, of religion. After all, such questions are and always have been prominent concerns of the discipline of philosophy. To hold that they can only be resolved by reliance on religious sources is itself a substantive philosophical position, and an unpopular one among professional philosophers at that.
At the same time, as I noted in my previous entry, these critics find fault with Gould for drawing the boundaries of religious authority in an implausibly utopian fashion. To hold, as Gould does, that such authority pertains only to questions of ultimate meaning and value and not to questions of natural fact excludes a vast body of actual religious claims, such as the historical narratives on which the Abrahamic religions depend. Gould’s assertion that the conflict between science and religion “exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects” (Rocks of Ages, 3) requires so vast a disparity between the supposed “logic or proper utility” of religion and how religion “exists . . . in people’s minds and social practices” as to make his conception appear more wishful thinking than historical or philosophical analysis. In the satirical summation cited by Daniel Dennett, the thesis of NOMA says in effect: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have.” In other words, while Gould’s formulations make a show of giving to science and to religion each their respective shares, in effect it only allows to religion a portion of what is left over after science has done its work.
In this light it is all the more remarkable that religionists (if that is the term for those who follow some religion or other) who have commented on Gould’s thesis seem to be content with his delineation of the religious magisterium. Yet it is not difficult to guess the reason for this. Presumably, it is only the exponents of modern, liberal, intellectually catholic (with a small “c”) interpretations of religion—religionists well up in secular learning, who will not feel pinched or chafed by the strictures of NOMA—who have anything to say about Gould. For them, the role of the defender of the faith in relation to scientific findings that conflict with traditional beliefs is not to refute those findings but to reinterpret the tradition to accommodate them. By contrast, creationists and other religious reactionaries, who take their favored scriptures or clerics to be authoritative for all time and in all questions whatever, are not likely to pay attention to what an evolutionary biologist—a proponent of the hated doctrine of “Darwinism,” which they equate with atheism—has to say about the proper scope of religious claims. It’s either that, or I just haven’t heard their grumblings because they have not carried beyond their closed circle of communicants.
So, to sum up, the objections to Gould’s thesis of NOMA are (1) that it grants religion an authority that it lacks in questions of ultimate meaning and value, and (2) that, however attractive it may be as an ideal scheme, it is too remote from the actual practice of religion to be credible. Alternatively, one can sum up all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis by defenders of science in one rhetorical question: By what right does Gould assume that religion has teaching authority about anything? Why, in other words, should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?
There is an evident contrast with science on this point. Science, one could argue, is defined by a body of methods that can be derived from the inherent requirements of human epistemic rationality. Thus the definition of science—not the definition of the word “science” but the rule by which in practice science is identified—explains why science has the magisterium that it has, and a fortiori why it has any magisterium at all. Science has teaching authority with regard to how the world is because its methods are derived from the requirements for learning about how the world is. This is true not only of science as a whole but of any particular science. Particular sciences are individuated not as competing claims (there are competing claims in the sciences, but there is a commonly accepted methodology for adjudicating among them), but as the science of this or that particular subject matter.
With religion, things stand on an entirely different footing. The various religions of the world are not parts of a whole called “religion” except as a matter of verbal classification. As far as their beliefs are concerned, religions are not complementary at all but conflicting, and there is no common method or practice or principle of operation among them by appeal to which differences of doctrine can be resolved. Gould defines a magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (Rocks of Ages, 3). It may be fair to say that religion or the religious mode of teaching, whatever exactly that may be, holds the tools for meaningful discourse, but resolving differences of belief is precisely what it cannot do. Each religion may contain the tools for resolving internal doctrinal disputes, but no religion contains the tools for resolving differences between religions, except to the utterly parochial satisfaction of its particular adherents; much less does the abstract generic entity “religion” possess any such tools. Thus, while the existence and extent of the magisterium of science can be derived from the nature of science, consideration of the nature of religion only makes it difficult to sustain the claim that religion has any magisterium at all.
There is, I think, a way out of this, both for Gould and for religion. In making the case for the pedagogical incompetence of religion—the non-existence of anything that can be called its magisterium—I relied on a restriction of religious teaching to beliefs, or truth claims. If religious teaching is essentially concerned with telling us how things are, whether in “this” world (as if there were another) or in some putative world beyond it, then, I think, Gould’s atheistic critics are surely right, and religion has no teaching authority at all. But the assumption that religious teaching concerns beliefs may be called into question. Religion may have teaching authority with regard to something—I am not venturing to say what—that is not essentially a matter of belief at all. Another possibility is that the proper task and scope of religion is not captured by the idea of a magisterium. I hope to explore these possibilities in another entry.
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Correction, added June 10, 2010: I overstated matters in my final paragraph, above, when I equated the non-existence of a religious magisterium with the “pedagogical incompetence” of religion. To lack teaching authority is not the same as to lack competence to teach. Any religion is competent to teach what it will, in the sense that there is nothing inherent in religion as such that prevents given religious teachings from being authorized by some non-parochial standard. But the only non-parochial standards available are (as the term suggests) non-religious ones. Thus, for instance, the fact that certain histories offered in the Bible are incorporated into Jewish or Christian doctrine does not render those histories rationally untenable. The point is merely that their religious status does not confer any authority on them either: whether they are true or false can and must be settled by the same standards as any other historical claims.
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