Science and Religion by Stephen Jay Gould

In his latest book, 'Rocks of Ages'. the leading scientific writer Stephen Jay Gould asks why religion and science cannot get along together:

"I want to set out a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to an issue so laden with emotion and the burden of history that a clear path usually becomes overgrown by a tangle of contention and confusion. I speak of the supposed conflict between science and religion.

People of goodwill wish to see science and religion at peace, working together to enrich our practical and ethical lives. From this worthy premise, people often draw the wrong inference, that joint action implies common methodology and subject matter - in other words, that some grand intellectual structure will bring science and religion into unity.
But just as human bodies require both food and sleep for sustenance, the proper care of any whole must call upon disparate contributions from independent parts. We must live the fullness of a complete life in many mansions of a neighborhood that would delight any modern advocate of diversity.

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world. Religion operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values.

I propose that we encapsulate a central principle of respectful noninterference - accompanied by intense dialogue between the two distinct subjects - by enunciating the principle of Noma, or non-overlapping magisteria (from the Latin magister, or teacher). Magisterium is, admittedly, a four-bit word, but I find the term beautifully appropriate.

To summarise, 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. To cite the old cliché, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages.

Although I deplore the current penchant for literary confession, I accept that intellectual subjects of such personal salience impose some duty for authorial revelation. Let me, then, briefly state my perspective.

I grew up in an environment that seemed entirely conventional and uninteresting to me - in a New York Jewish family following the standard pattern of generational rise: immigrant grandparents who started in the sweatshops, parents who reached the lower ranks of the middle classes but had no advanced schooling, and my third generation, headed for a college education and a professional life to fulfill the postponed destiny.

I remember two incidents that emphasize the extreme parochiality of my apparent sophistication as a child on the streets of New York: first, when my father told me that Protestantism was the most common religion in America, and I didn't believe him because just about everyone in my neighbourhood was either Catholic or Jewish. Second, when my one Protestant friend from Kansas City introduced me to his grandparents, and I didn't believe him because they spoke unaccented English.

I had dreamt of becoming a scientist in general, and a paleontologist in particular, ever since the tyrannosaurus skeleton awed me at New York's Museum of Natural History when I was five years old.

I shared the enormous benefit of a respect for learning that pervades Jewish culture. But I had no formal religious education because my parents had rebelled, too far in my view, against a previously unquestioned family background.

I am not a believer. I am an agnostic in the wise sense of  T.H Huxley, who coined the word in identifying such open-minded scepticism as the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know. Nonetheless, in my own departure from parental views, I have great respect for religion. The subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball).

Much of this fascination lies in the stunning historical paradox that organised religion has fostered, throughout western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness. (The evil, I believe, lies in the frequent confluence of religion with secular power.)

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving, concordat between the magisteria of science and religion - the Noma concept.

Noma represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution. It also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution.

As an example of Noma applied to a "core issue", let us focus on two distinct frames surrounding different questions in our search for the meaning of our relationship with other living creatures.

On the one hand, we seek information about matters of fact with potential "yes" or "no" answers. More than a century ago, for example, the basic formulation of evolutionary theory resolved several problems of this magnitude: are we related to other organisms by genealogical ties or as items in the ordered scheme of a divine creator? Do humans look so much like apes because we share a recent common ancestor or because creation followed a linear order?

Other questions, more detailed and subtle, remain unanswered today: why does so much of our genetic material (so-called "junk DNA") serve no apparent function? What caused the mass extinctions that have punctuated the history of life? Such questions fall under the magisterium of an institution we have named "science".

But the same subject of our relationship with other organisms also raises questions with an entirely different thrust: are we worth more than bugs or bacteria because we have evolved a much more complex neurology? Do we violate any moral codes when we use genetic technology to place a gene from one creature into the genome of another species?

No measure of mental power in humans versus ants will resolve the first question, and no primer on the technology of lateral genetic transfer will provide much help with the last issue. The magisterium of ethical discussion and search for meaning includes several disciplines traditionally grouped under the humanities - much of philosophy and part of literature and history, for example. But human societies have usually centred the discourse of this magisterium upon an institution called "religion".

I most emphatically do not argue that ethical people must validate their standards by overt appeals to religion - we all know that atheists can live in the most firmly principled manner, while hypocrites can wrap themselves in the banners of God and country. But religion has occupied the center of this magisterium in most cultures.

Since every one of us must reach some decisions about the rules we will follow in conducting our own lives, and since I trust that nobody can be entirely indifferent to the workings of the world around us, all human beings must pay at least rudimentary attention to both magisteria of religion and science.

The magisteria will not fuse; so each of us must integrate these distinct components into a coherent view of life. If we succeed, we gain something truly "more precious than rubies", and dignified by one of the most beautiful words in any language: wisdom.

From Mutt and Jeff, to yin and yang, all our cultures include images of the absolutely inseparable but utterly different. Why not add science and religion to this venerable and distinguished list?"

Extracted from 'Rocks of Ages' by Stephen Jay Gould

See also: Nonoverlapping Magisteria by Stephen Jay Gould