Stephen Jay Gould: conflict between science and religion not necessary

Lou Paulsen wwchi at
Wed Jan 24 23:19:48 MST 2001

-----Original Message-----
From: Juan Fajardo <fajardos at>

I wrote that S. J. Gould argues that

>> "religion" can be peaceably purged of all
>> statements about real-world fact, such as "Jesus rose from the dead," and
>> that believers have no reason to object and will all go along with it.
>> sorry, this is just too implausible.

Juan responds,

>What about "New Age" religion?

In my opinion there isn't a real distinction between "New Age" religion and
"Old Age" religion here.  "New Age" people can be equally prickly when their
'factual' beliefs are challenged.  I am thinking of one guy who was really
angry when I asked him what data he had that some purple mineral (I forget
which) has mystic healing powers.

See, here's the thing.  What Gould wants to do is to 'reconcile' science and
religion by carving the world of beliefs into two parts.  "Science" would
get exclusive domain over questions of, well, science.  "Religion" would get
exclusive domain over moral teaching.  But Gould forgets three points:

(a) Although he is primarily concerned about natural/biological science,
there is a whole host of other questions of objective fact - matters of
history, biography, etc. - about which religions make claims.  Did Joseph
Smith really translate the Book of Mormon from golden plates?  Did a man
named Noah take animals onto a boat?  etc.  Such matters are, in Gould's
scheme, the concern of social/historical science, and religions would be
unable to hold opinions on them.

(b) Many or most religions are not only about moral teaching, and not only
about 'spiritual matters', but are about Deities or other spiritual beings.
The question of whether such beings exist as they have been described by
religions is a matter of objective reality.  People in many religions are,
RIGHTFULLY, concerned about whether their god or gods exist; that is, they
believe that the question of whether they exist is an important question,
one that should not be brushed aside or called 'a matter of personal

(c) Finally, by attempting to separate the 'world of morality' from the
'world of fact', Gould demands of religionists that they unilaterally
surrender an important point.  Many religionists believe that questions of
morality ARE questions of fact.  In fact, the idea that you can make a
distinction between 'moral teaching' and 'teaching of facts' is a very new
idea, and one which rather does violence to the way in which people's minds
are organized.  There is not a 'moral part' of the brain and a 'factual
part'.  To most people, the statement 'it is wrong to torture people without
reason' seems like just as much a statement of fact as 'the sun appears to
rise in the east (outside the polar regions)'.

Having said that, I will say that there are SECTIONS of religious people to
whom Gould's ideas might be acceptable. I am referring to those people whose
religious experience/observance is basically emotional and affective, and
lacking in factual structure.  For example, suppose you ask a Christian if
he/she thinks that a man named Jesus actually died of the effects of
crucifixion and was then miraculously healed and had his bodily and mental
functions restored, and you get an answer like 'well, the important thing is
not so much the biographical fact as the idea that the Jesus story has a
healing message which resonates in us' and so on.  Or you are told that the
important thing is to have 'a loving community of faith, and the love is the
important thing, not the doctrinal elements.'  In other words, to take it to
its logical conclusion, it doesn't matter whether there is a God, because
religious activity can be enjoyable and therapeutic even if there isn't one.

Maybe this is the kind of thing Juan is referring to as "New Age" religion,
although it isn't all that new.  In fact, I believe this kind of
de-factualized religion is a product of the bourgeois order and goes back to
Spinoza and maybe further.  Its material basis was the insight that if you
can find some way to avoid factual disputes among religions, you can make
your city (Amsterdam) hospitable to Jewish, Islamic, Protestant, and
Catholic merchants and get a lot of trading done.

However, in every religious tradition, there is a 'fundamentalist' strain
which is unwilling to accept such evasions; and ultimately it is the
fundamentalists who keep religions alive, not the diluters and the
ecumenicals.  From the point of view of people who actually take religion
seriously as a matter of real-world fact, Gould's proposed "peace treaty" is
an insulting and hostile ultimatum.

L. Paulsen

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