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When Judaism Meets Science


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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 @ 08:08 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Stephen Jay Gould was both a solid and a popular American scientist in the late twentieth century (CE). His essays in the magazine Natural History over a quarter century on arcane aspects of biology, paleontology and evolution were models of elegant and engaging writing, proving that the pen, if not necessarily mightier than the sword, is still quite powerful.

Were Gould with us today, I would, I confess, be a Gould Groupie. Alas, he died in 2002 of cancer, at the much too young age of 60.

A few years before his untimely death, Gould published a book titled Rocks of Ages, with the sub-title Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. In that small volume, and with significant incorporation of prior essays, Gould presented a reasonably full discussion of an admittedly (at 3) unoriginal but still serious thesis: that the domains of science and religion, properly understood, were and should be separate. They are, he said, Non-Overlapping Magisteria (“NOMA”).

Each magisterium, i.e., domain, sphere or area of authority, “holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” (At 5.) But to Gould, they covered different territory. To him, science extends over “the empirical realm,” the factual characteristics of the known universe and the theoretical bases for its operation. (At 4-6.) Religion covers “questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” (At 6.) The latter are issues that science “might illuminate, but can never resolve.” (At 4.) Citing old clichés, Gould said that “science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.” (At 6.)

Consequently, according to Gould, the fight which erupts from time to time between scientists and believers is a “false conflict.”  (At 6.)  The two domains not only cannot be unified,  according to Gould,  they “do not overlap . . . .”  (At 6.) Even when he acknowledges (at 65) that “(s)cience and religion interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity,” he reemphasizes that they “do not overlap.”

Much of Rocks of Ages consists of Gould’s review of the history of and psychological reasons for the perceived conflict between science and religion. We are taken from the trial of Galileo through the Darwinian revolution, on to the horrific misunderstanding of Darwinism in pre-World War I Germany, the Scopes trial, pronouncements of Popes Pius XII and John Paul II and the judicial hearing on creationism in which Gould was an expert witness. Some of the territory is familiar, but Gould’s treatment is surely not. By the end of the journey, he is back to where he started: “The facts of nature are what they are, and cannot, in principle, resolve religious questions about God, meaning, and morality.” (At 193.)

Gould’s dichotomy, his argument for NOMA, is aimed in part at scientists who would use discoveries to deny the possible existence of a deity. He criticizes those who equate religion with Genesis literalism or “Bible codes of kabbalah” (At 209.) He chastises “some militant atheists” for having a “blinkered concept of religion” and failing to grasp its “subtlety or diversity.” (At 69.)

But it is also, and mostly, directed at certain kinds of believers, of which Gould identifies two groups. First, and foremost, are the dogmatic believers who “try to suppress the uncomfortable truths of science, or to impose their particular brand of moral fiber upon people with legitimately different tastes.” (At 210.) On these folks, Gould is merciless.

The second group is more problematic. These are people who find proof of the existence of God in the purportedly fine tuned nature of the known universe. The end of Rocks of Ages is directed at those who would conflate science and religion with “(w)oolly metaphor(s)” and find God under either a weak or strong anthropic principle. (At 208-22.)

Gould accepts that the existence of humankind, is a “wildly improbable evolutionary event,” but he denies that we are “the nub of universal purpose.” (At 206.) And while some who reject a supernatural deity may find it disconcerting that moral truths cannot be found even “in the factual construction of the natural world, ” (at 189) for Gould the neutrality of nature is liberating and exhilarating. To him, it offers “maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.” (At 207.)

Clearly these are matters about which Gould was passionate.  And he suggests, in his book’s subtitle and in a brief passage early on (at 44-45), that a “wise life,” a “full life” is one in which a person studies and resolves the complexities of these issues.

But was Gould, at the end of his days, engaged in an essentially cathartic act, seeking to reconcile in his own mind the roles of science and religion?  Or was he making one more, and final, effort to broker peace between the camps? Clearly, I do not know.

More importantly, does his argument hold up internally?  Does it have any application or utility today, almost a decade after his death? These are questions to be addressed in another post.

Roger Price

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  1. David Teutsch says:

    Gould’s argument is one with which Jews should be familiar. One of its classical formulations is in Maimonides, who encouraged active pursuit of the sciences and stated clearly that religious thinking should be updated to shed errors that result from scientific misunderstandings. One example he gave was the eternality of the world. He said clearly in A Guide to the Perplexed that once science proved that the world was or was not eternal, it would be a simple matter to reinterpret Scripture to match.

    Reconstructionists like me don’t take seriously the “get to heaven” thinking of other religious people, but from my perspective Gould is right that the scope of Judaism should be about questions of ultimacy, morality and spirituality.

    • Roger Price says:


      Thanks for your comment.

      I have checked at least five of Gould’s books, and otherwise searched, and cannot find any reference by him to Maimonides (Rambam). It is hard for me to believe that Gould, being the polymath that he was, would not have known of Rambam’s works. If Gould did, he does not seem to have drawn any insights from Rambam.

      And it is not at all clear how Rambam would have reacted to the circumstances that confront contemporary Judaism. Yes, he was not a Torah literalist, and he was willing to interpret text to conform to what science demonstrated, but our knowledge base is so much greater than that with which he dealt. And science now cuts much closer to the heart of fundamental issues. Where would his commitment to reason have led him? WWRD? is the question. What would Rambam do?

      Roger Price

      • David Teutsch says:

        If you really believe that science can be reconciled with religion for the reasons Rambam suggests in A Guide to the Perplexed, namely that religion habituates the masses to a simplified form of science by using ritual to reinforce faith claims, then scientific advances, no matter how dramatic or extensive, pose no threat to religion because they pose no threat to philosophy, except that religion adapts more slowly to change than philosophy can because it depends upon commitment to tradition for continuity.

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