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No More NOMA (Part I)

Friday, August 19, 2011 @ 08:08 AM
posted by Roger Price
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In a previous post (August 10, 2011), I discussed Stephen Jay Gould’s book Rocks of Ages and his support for the proposition that science and religion occupy (or should occupy) two non-overlapping spheres, or magisterial, of authority (“NOMA”). In the decade since Rocks of Ages was published, Gould’s approach to science and religion has been both praised and reviled, both followed and rejected. Some of the reaction is attributable to the form of his argument, some to the substance.

Let’s deal with form first, and briefly. There isn’t much question that Rocks of Ages is not Gould’s finest writing. Not only does Gould offer somewhat different formulations of his thesis of separation, no less than half a dozen times, he characterizes his topic, the conflict between science and religion, as a false conflict, a non-problem (see, e.g., at 3, 6, 92, 103, 111, 175). But why would one spend over two-hundred pages discussing a problem that does not exist? Having said that, Gould not at his best is still better than most.

The substance of Gould’s argument is more interesting and more important. Gould is surely correct to this extent: science and religion use different methodology when considering various issues. And here a small pause is order. There are, as William James put it, a variety of religious experiences. And there are, as Carl Sagan wrote, a variety of scientific experiences. What follows then is general, but also generally fair with respect to Gould and NOMA.

Classically, science observes empirical reality, formulates hypotheses to describe (if not explain) this reality, tests those hypotheses with experiments and repeats those tests to validate the results and the strength of the predictable quality of the hypothesis tested. The quest is to determine if the proposition tested is falsifiable. If a hypothesis fails to generate repeatable results, fails to have predictive value, that hypothesis, or at least certain elements or components of it, should be rejected as failing to describe reality accurately.

The fact that the proposition may pass one test or two or three does not mean that it is true, i.e., that it describes reality correctly. Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the structure of the universe survived many centuries before its insufficiencies were demonstrated conclusively. Sometimes, there is just not enough subject matter to be tested or evaluated or the instruments or devices used may not be strong or sophisticated enough to provide an accurate measurements or determination. If, however, tests of a hypothesis repeatedly deliver identical results, if it has predictive value, then, tentatively, it may claim to describe reality correctly. The hypothesis may then be accepted in science as a fact or a law.

Classically, religious belief goes through no such process. Adherents hold to certain propositions or principles literally on faith. The faith may often be based on a text, but the text is seen as self-authenticating. It is its own proof text. On ultimate issues there are no experiments, no tests, no efforts by the faithful regarding falsification.

Rather than explore this fundamental difference in approach, Gould spends not much time at all on it, indeed barely a sentence. (At 54.) Rather, he focuses on the separation of his magisteria by subject matter, one realm for facts and another for values. And it is this division that generates the response, especially the criticism, he has received.

While the timing may have been coincidental, the same year that Gould published Rocks of Ages, the National Academy of Sciences, when addressing creationism, adopted a proposition that is consistent with Gould’s. In the introduction to its position paper, the Steering Committee on Science and Creationism said (at ix): “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms or human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” See This is not an unexpected position coming from a group of scientists whose desire to protect science from intrusions of theologians and especially religious fundamentalist are consistent with Gould’s.
But some who might also share a similar motive do not think that Gould was strong enough. In his bestseller The End of Faith (2004), subtitled Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, author Samuel Harris complains that some intellectuals, including Gould, “have declared the war between reason and faith to be long over.” (At 15.) Such people, he argues, have no need for a coherent view of the universe, but, rather, want to have their “reason and eat it too.” (At 16.)

At least Harris takes Gould at his word, even as he calls him incoherent and a hypocrite. Richard Dawkins, a true scientist, cannot. “I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rocks of Ages.” Dawkins, The God Delusion (at 81). Rather than keep science and religion apart, Dawkins wants to investigate religion in order to refute it. And he wants to go beyond making probability judgments about God’s existence. He argues that “a universe with a creative superintendent would be a different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” (At 78.) Directly attacking Gould’s approach, Dawkins states that “even a non-interventionist, NOMA God, though less violent and clumsy than an Abrahamic God, is still, when you look at him fair and square, a scientific hypothesis.” (At 85.) How galling Gould’s tolerance must have been to the bombastic and never subtle Dawkins. And Gould’s use of religious language and references, even though Gould was a non-believer, a child of Jewish parents who received no formal or, apparently, informal Jewish education, must have driven Dawkins crazy.

Unlike Dawkins, who like Gould is an expert on evolution, Victor Stenger is a physicist and an astronomer. Commenting on Rocks of Ages, Stenger has noted, as have others, that Gould, in order to achieve his desired peace by separation, has defined and confined religion narrowly, to a domain of morals and values. But Stenger is not coming to the defense of religion. To the contrary, Stenger asserts that when religion makes statements about nature, science is free to evaluate those pronouncements. Moreover, Stenger asks, “why can’t science consider moral issues, which involve observable and sometimes even quantifiable human behavior?” See Stenger, God the Failed Hypothesis (subtitled How Science Shows that God Does not Exist) (at 10).

Putting aside for the moment the establishment on one hand and the crusaders for atheism on the other, what do most scientists say? In 2005, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund undertook a systematic study between 2005-08 of the religious beliefs of nearly 1,700 scientists at twenty-one elite research universities in the United States (e.g., Chicago, Duke, Michigan, Stanford, Yale). Describing her subjects as “elite scientists,” she then discusses her findings about them, slicing and dicing the results by religion, academic discipline, race, age and other factors.

The results of Ecklund’s study are interesting on a host of levels, especially for the Jewish community. For instance, there are a statistically significant and disproportionate number of Jewish elite scientists. Specifically, while Jews are only 2% of the U.S. population, 16% of the elite scientists were Jewish. By contrast, 28% of the population is evangelical Protestant and 27% is Catholic, but only 2% of the elite scientists are evangelicals and only 9% are Catholic. With respect to some type of belief in God, fully 94% of the general population expressed such a belief, but only 36% of the scientists. Among the Jewish scientists, almost 75% reported that they were atheists. See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion-What Scientists Really Think (at 32-36).

More generally, while about one-fifth of all scientists surveyed were involved in a religious community, over half did not identify with any religious tradition. Even then, the majority of atheistic or agnostic scientists were not hostile to religion. And while universities appear as a practical matter to have adopted or at least operate under a few models such as opposition, secularism and pluralism when dealing with science and religion, it appears that most of the scientists surveyed have not considered the roles of the two magisteria with any depth.

Gould wrote Rocks of Ages as if the separation between science and religion (actually theology of a certain sort) is, or at least ought to be, self-evident. Clearly, though, Gould has not appeased the militant atheists. Nor is it evident that he has persuaded scientists generally. Has he fared any better with the religious community? That is the subject of the next post.

Roger Price

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One Response to “No More NOMA (Part I)”

  1. David Teutsch says:

    Fundamentalist faith claims are held without regard to outside verification or contradiction, even by biblical scholarship. But there are plenty of theologians who feel an obligation for their metaphysics to fit with what is known in all fields of academic inquiry. Mordecai Kaplan and Paul Tillich are two such people. As social science better understands how to shape people into more virtuous actors, good moral theology will absorb those insights and use them to strengthen its methods of inculcating values and virtues. Gould sees that as “good” religion and fundamentalisms that refuse to grant the validity of science “bad” religion. Unsurprisingly, I agree.

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