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No More NOMA (Part II)

Friday, August 26, 2011 @ 07:08 AM
posted by Roger Price
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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 .

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.

Roger Price

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5 Responses to “No More NOMA (Part II)”

  1. David Teutsch says:

    A long-standing conundrum is the relationship of an amoral world to the world of meaning-driven and value-driven humans. The neo-Kantian German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen attempted to bridge that gap by describing God as the guarantor of a relationship between the two worlds. (See his “Relgion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism.”) That does not work for those of us who do not accept the neo-Kantian system, but it does illustrate the need to bridge the worlds. Moral thinking (including values, norms, ideals, beliefs, etc.) must rest on claims about the purpose of human life and the character of human nature. This links naturally with the meaning-seeking nature of human beings–think about Maslow’s hierarchy of concerns: food, clothing, shelter, meaning. While meaning-seeking can harmonize with science and claims about human nature must be modified by research in such fields as psychology, biology and sociology, the concern with ultimacy is essential to moral life. That piece of modern religion cannot be taken from it without its claims about good living dissolving. Panentheism in its many forms harmonizes nicely with science, but Gould’s claim about meaning is an unsupported assertion not essential to the rest of his argument.

    • Roger Price says:


      Thanks for another thoughtful comment.
      I am unclear, though, about your reference to “ultimacy” and its relationship to a moral life. Unfortunately, we know that there are people who have some sense of a god or overarching purpose who act wickedly. And we also know that there are people who act in a good and moral way because of their beliefs in various gods and others who are similarly decent without any regard for any god or other grander sense of purpose. Why then is “ultimacy” essential to a moral life? And why can’t “religion,” based on thousands of years of experience, teach about good living without talking about “ultimacy”?

      Roger Price

    • On David Teutsch’s Kantian remarks: Through his three critiques Kant seems to say that the modern physical sciences give us real knowledge of the empirical world but that world is only a phenomenon that reflects reality and is not itself reality (first critique), and that somehow moral judgments give us judgments that express reality even though they do not literally yield human knowledge. Different followers of Kant in Germany and in the United States have given different interpretations to these two statements, and those differences constitute different schools of thought, all of whom can be called “neo-Kantian.” For Teutsch’s purposes the three most important are Ernst Cassirer, Hermann Cohen, and Paul Natorp. Of these three, specifically with reference to modern Jewish philosophy, the most important is Hermann Cohen, since he is the teacher of Franz Rosenzweig and also because no other early 20th century Jewish thinker has been more influential in the development of Jewish philosophy than Cohen. Briefly, Cohen gives a specific interpretation to the mathematical concept of the asymptote to express a view that claims that all the descriptive explanations in at least modern physics are expressible through calculus as asymptotic functions where the infinitely remote ends themselves express reality as ideals and it is the ideal that is the subject matter of ethics, with the consequence that (a la Kant) while the descriptive statements of modern physical sentences express the truth of the world of objective appearance, the moral statements of Kantian ethics express the moral and religious values (the good and the beautiful) of reality. (See chpt 25 “Cohen and Jewish Idealism” in my Jewish philosophy, an historical introduction London/NYC: 2003.) One final point. This peculiar understanding of science, philosophy, reality, and epistemology leads (at least for this group of neo-Kantians) to the conclusion that theology and religion are ultimately about theoretical and practical ethics (viz. what is good and how is it to be realized, which is equivalent to what is God and how is he to be served). It is precisely because of this transformation of theology into ethics that liberal Jewish thinkers can find a source for their Jewish liberalism in the writings of the neo-Kantians.

  2. Bob Magrisso says:

    I think beginning this site with the discussion of Gould’s formulation of NOMA is very good. It has a “Can’t we all get along?” tone that is inclusive. So, I have been thinking to myself, “why is it unsatisfactory?”
    I think that Reality (capital R) eludes a definitive description and having various approaches to discover it is the best way. Science, perhaps 500 years old in its current form, is one of the newest approaches and it has been enormously successful. Whether its discoveries trump all that religion has claimed as its own is an open question however. But just the fact that we are discussing seems to indicate, for me, that the absolute authority that once resided religion is gone. This brings up a lot of anxiety and fear since we humans prefer certainty. The intense reaction to the doubts that science has raised and the new world it has wrought takes the form of fundamentalisms. Judaism has it own. But once we start thinking of Torah in terms of myths and stories, we have cracked the authority of religion and it becomes something other than what it originally was. It may be 5000 years old, but the earth is over 4 billion years old and humans have been around in current form for perhaps a hundred thousand years – according to science, of course. In other words, it is not that old, relatively speaking, either.
    For me, Gould’s formulation is a good starting point, but nothing is final about it. It is unsatisfactory because it seem to present a two dimensional metaphor when Reality has so many more. Is Reality God? Are we talking about the same things using a different vocabulary? How do we know what we know?
    Anyway, these are some unformed questions that come from your excellent blog.

    • Roger Price says:


      Thanks for the comments, the questions and the compliment.
      NOMA does seem quite unsatisfactory analytically. There are areas of life other than science and religion, such as art, and Gould knew that. And, as I have suggested above, morality and good behavior can and do arise in situations not necessarily governed by religion.
      You say that once we demythologize Torah, religion becomes something other than it was. That is not clear to me. Jews have been reading Torah, or certainly key portions of it allegorically for thousands of years. So, for instance, the sages read Genesis not as a scientific or historical account of creation, but metaphorically to illustrate the spiritual essence of the world. We may find the metaphors less satisfying today, and we may need to do more reinterpretation of the text, but that does not necessarily mean that the authority of religion (as opposed to the authority of a supernatural god) has been cracked.
      Moreover, a good argument could be made that Judaism, until relatively recently, was never just a religion anyway. Jews operated comprehensive communities in and out of Eretz Yisrael for centuries. Only after emancipation, and the destruction of those communities, do some tend to view Judaism as just a religion. It is well beyond the scope of this mere blog, but for those at a higher pay grade, maybe one of the challenges is to consider what would happen to Jewish life in America if it deemphasized or otherwise changed its religious component or at least sought to renew its more comprehensive communal approach.

      Roger Price

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