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No More NOMA (Part II)
In previous posts (August 10 and 19, 2011), we have considered Stephen Jay Gould’s promotion of NOMA, the proposition that science and religion occupy two equally important but non-overlapping magisteria, or domains of authority. We have also considered how scientists have acted with respect to Gould’s promotion of NOMA. Yet if Gould and NOMA have some trouble on the science side of Gould’s aisle, it is nothing compared to what has been said or done on the other.
Remember that NOMA depends on a separation of science and religion each as “properly” understood. (At 43.) But despite his favorable references to religion generally, Gould has clearly attempted to define religion in a way that reduces it beyond the recognition of many of the faithful.
Indeed, the “first commandment” of NOMA imposes a limitation on concepts of God, prohibiting any claim that “’God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.’” (At 84-85.) For instance, NOMA specifically challenges and precludes a belief, which might be based on a literal reading of Genesis, of a young earth. (At 93.)
While many might argue with that limitation, there is a clear scientific basis for making it. But Gould goes farther. Not only does he reject all supernatural miracles because they are not testable by science (at 85, 94), he would limit religion to “purposes, meanings, and values” (at 4).
This latter formulation is a cramped, even shallow, view of religion, one which consistently calls on religion to modify itself. As University of Rochester evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr put it, “Gould’s position is not . . . so much, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ as ‘ Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that Caesar says he can have.’” “Gould on God” at http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/orr.html .
The Zoo Rabbi, Natan Slifkin, having referenced Gould on several occasions with respect to evolution, accuses Gould of being disingenuous when Gould asserts that science and religion are of equal importance, but then, in Slifkin’s view, not only constricts religion but invades even that small domain that he has presumably set aside for religion. See Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation (at 189, 248, 300-01 ).
Where Gould argues that science deals with “factual reality” and religion with human morality, Slifkin claims that “most people who believe in God would be horrified to be told that their belief has nothing to do with factual reality!” For Slifkin, religion is “objective reality rooted in a real God.” (At 301.)
By this definition, Slifkin fully accepts naturalistic Darwinian evolution, but attributes the original force behind that evolution to God. In so doing, Slifkin can concede the arguments of Gould and others that the designs of various life forms are “imperfect,” and even that such physiological features argue against the “direct design” of every organism by a Creator, yet still believe in the God who brought forth the governing law of adaptation and heredity. (At 300-11.)
Gould’s trespass into the domain of religion, which he himself circumscribed, occurs in Slifkin’s view, when Gould concludes that humankind is not unique and that the world has no purpose. See Gould, Rocks of Ages, at 206. There are, of course, ample instances in Jewish tradition that equate human beings and other animals, and Slifkin acknowledges them (see, e.g., at 333-34). But the tradition also teaches, he points out, that humanity has at least the capacity to be so qualitatively different from other animals due to its intellectual and spiritual nature as to be different in kind. Slifkin believes that there is such a difference and that it demonstrates purposefulness. In short, he incorporates scientific fact (evolution) into an untestable proposition (God’s purpose) as part of his faith claim.
While Slifkin writes from a traditional viewpoint, Rabbi Arthur Green takes a different tact, one which is also a direct, although not necessarily intended, attack on NOMA. Green is a creative and challenging Jewish thinker, currently Rector at Hebrew College in Boston. He is not a theist, like Slifkin is. To the contrary, he characterizes himself as a panentheist, albeit a mystical one, and sees God’s presence throughout all of existence, underlying and unifying all that is.
Green’s recent book Radical Judaism begins with what he calls a “theological assertion.” He believes, meaning he holds as a religious belief, “that the evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time.” (At 16.) That is, Green not only completely accepts the “scientific consensus” on origins and natural history, he considers that unfolding process as both meaningful and a way to understand his God. (At 20.)
Green does not affirm a personal God or “a Being or a Mind that exists separate from the universe and acts upon it intelligently and willfully.” (At 17.) Consequently (and consistent with Gould), he rejects the claim of the “intelligent design” community that more complex or higher forms of life, specifically human beings, emerged as a result of conscious planning. (At 21.) But (contrary to Gould) he does hold to “the presence of divinity within nature,” to the “inner force of existence itself,” who “underlies all being,” who “is and dwells within . . . the evolutionary process . . . .” (At 17, 19.) Acknowledging the difficulty of language, Green elects to call this phenomenon “God.” (At 19, n.8.)
With his willingness to embrace scientific explanations of origin events, Green states that we may have reached “the end of a long struggle between so called scientific and religious worldviews.” (At 17.) Somehow, though, I do not think that Gould, were he with us, would necessarily agree. Yes, at one point Gould acknowledges that a version of creation which holds that God works through evolution is consistent with NOMA. (At 126-27.) But he might instead rail against Green’s approach for one of two reasons, either as erroneously conflating amoral facts with values and meaning or as engaging in flawed syncretism, perhaps invoking “woolly metaphors” and attempting to reinterpret God in the “spiffy language of modern science.” See Rocks of Ages (at 193-95, 215, 217).
What Gould means by “woolly” metaphors is not clear, however. Metaphors, of course, are by their nature concepts that are used to help in the understanding of another term or thing. They convey information from one subject to a lesser understood target. Perhaps “woolly” metaphors are fuzzier than non-woolly ones, but the real question is not their degree of fuzziness. Rather, it is whether they serve a purpose. And if believers reinterpret their faith based on some scientific fact or principle, what is wrong with that? After all, what is the alternative? To hold to a no longer tenable thought or to abandon their faith?
Stephen Jay Gould’s efforts to bring decency into the discourse about the relationship of science and religious faith are truly admirable. In many ways, religion and science do occupy different spheres of interest and do approach their respective subject matters with different methodologies. Ironically, however, the intersection or overlap of the two spheres may well have increased in recent years, or at least become more apparent, as science has advanced its understanding of the two prime origin events, that of the universe and that of life on this planet. And as new discoveries are made, one can reasonably expect that the field of engagement will be altered again. And one can also expect that believers will adapt.
Rabbis Slifkin and Green have quite different conceptions of God, but both are true believers in what each calls God. In addition, far from rejecting science, avoiding science or engaging in linguistic gymnastics of pseudo-science and concordism, both are more than comfortable with real science. Indeed, they embrace science. It more than informs their faith. It provides a factual underpinning for their faith. Consequently, they and people like them present a special challenge to NOMA.
When religious faith is defined by someone like Rabbi Slifkin or Rabbi Green, someone who actually believes in what s/he calls God, and who does so within a science friendly framework, then science and religious faith do more than “interdigitate,” more than merely “press hard” against each other as Gould suggested. Rocks of Ages, at 65, 77. For people such as these, at least, the need for NOMA and even its applicability may be questionable.
Perhaps Gould could have anticipated this challenge had he been more attuned to the rich texture of Judaism, including those elements of the Jewish tradition that were open to and influenced by science. That he was not was not only Gould’s loss, it was ours as well.