Stephen Jay Gould: conflict between science and religion not necessary

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 24 07:07:23 MST 2001


In his latest book, 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

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even
synthesised, 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 fulfil the postponed destiny.

I remember two incidents that emphasise 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 palaeontologist 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

I am not a believer. I am an agnostic in the wise sense of TH 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, palaeontology, 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

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 centre 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, published by Jonathan
Cape on February 1, £14.99

Louis Proyect
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