Overlap in the Magisterium?

Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of NOMA (nonoverlapping magisteria), in which science and religion address different issues and have no point of contact, is an interesting position. Despite contentions from leading atheists that Gould was just “trying to throw a bone to the religious camp”, if we read his original essay it is clear that his intent was very different: despite his own position as an agnostic, he was actually addressing concerns from Christian believers who had been told by their co-religionists that to believe in evolution was to deny Genesis.

But I would distinguish between “religion” and “theology”, as Gould does not (and nor do most who discuss this topic). Let’s unpack these terms a bit. Although “theology” is often used in common parlance as a synonym for “religious studies”, it’s really something quite different. Augustine of Hippo (aka St Augustine) defined the Latin term “theologia” as “reasoning or discussion concerning God”. Note that it’s not reasoning/study/discussion about religion, it’s study of God. “Religion”, on the other hand, could perhaps be defined as:

A set of beliefs, typically dealing with the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and thus often (but not always) concerned with the Creator of the universe.

I know that Greek-derived words sound wonderfully academic, but the correct name for the department in most schools and universities would thus be “Religious Studies”, not “Theology”, as they tend to involve the study of belief systems.

Back to NOMA.

Although he specifies that they are non-overlapping, Gould does note that:

“…the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.” (Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History, 1997)

I would suggest that the difficulty in sorting the legitimate domains comes from our shift from a fully Theistic worldview to one which, while it is not actually atheistic, holds the question of God’s existence and agency as undetermined.

I believe that the difficulty in disentangling religion and science comes from trying to view the world without an understanding that it is all created by God. I would extend the NOMA concept: I would say rather that both science and religion are sub-sets of Theology.

This will raise difficulties. Unfortunately, “theology” as a word has been watered down to the point where it implies wondering vaguely about whether God exists and what He’s like, rather than “studying God”, without any unnecessary qualifiers. Likewise, “theologian” is basically understood as a synonym for a religious scholar, and I am certainly not saying that a student of scripture is ipso facto qualified to make pronouncement on scientific issues. And as for the reverse, I would again hold with Gould on the applicability of Science to religious questions: “Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The agnostic naturalist T. H. Huxley shared Gould’s view of Science and Religion operating in tandem, writing:

“True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis.” (Science and Religion, 1859)

But without confidence in the existence and goodness of God as a starting point, nothing makes any sense, either in the scientific world or in the affairs of the human soul. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”



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Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


9 thoughts on “Overlap in the Magisterium?

  1. Theology actually makes use of the scientific methods and contributions and is more inclusive of such than many non-theologians think.

    I like the phrase “I would say rather that both science and religion are sub-sets of Theology”. In Solomon’s historical period the extension of Godde’s reign results in the prevalence of learning, art and science.

    I’d love to hear more of your musings on this subject 🙂

    • Absolutely. I guess what I’m trying to clarify is the distinction between:
      Theology – which accepts the existence of God and is trying to understand Him more deeply, either through personal experience, revelation, or study of his created works, and
      Religion – which may include God’s existence as one of its beliefs (as in Christianity and Judaism, for instance) or may not include such a notion (as in Buddhism, Scientism, etc).

      Within that understanding, the “scientific method” as derived by Bacon, et al. is actually rooted in theological inquiry. Specifically, as C. S. Lewis put it “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a law-giver.” Thus faith in a creative God who is reliable and purposeful is what inspired the scientific movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.

  2. Wonderful essay, Michael! I appreciate your distinction between “religion” and “theology”. Also, I am happy to learn more about Stephen Jay Gould’s writings. I am both an electrical engineer at a United States National Laboratory and a devout Roman Catholic, and grew up in a devout Lutheran household where there was never any conflict between the “subsets of theology”. The current battles in the media are frustrating to me — they seem so unnecessary. Thank you for exploring this area! You might enjoy “The Catholic Laboratory” podcast by Ian.

    St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Amen.

  3. Great piece and I agree wholeheartedly. I may refer to Gould as more of a “soft atheist” than an agnostic. You have proposed a category of definition that just about every atheist I have been in contact with would deny vehemently but that I have insisted on–that is, atheism is not only theological but religious based on the premise that there is a specific set of beliefs regarding the ideas of God, eternity, origins, etc.

    If you have watched some taped comments by Sam Harris you will see how he has taken Gould to the opposite extreme. That is, science can answer every question we ask regardless of how transcendent it may be.

    I’ve actually written on this idea of atheism and belief/philosophy/worldview that I have not posted yet but I think you have “inspired” me to do so.

    I am not advertising here but the clip of Harris is posted on my blog if you have not seen it already.

  4. Pingback: Two evolutionists walk into a bar… « Spiritual Meanderings

  5. Thanks for stopping by my site and linking to this insightful post. I think you’ve come upon something quite interesting, though I personally agree more with an idea that theology specifically, and at least parts of science (taken broadly to include the methodology) actually fall under the overarching scheme of philosophy. I realize others historically have disagreed (including Husserl, who felt that philosophy, or at least phenomenology, was a part of science), but I see that things like theology, science, and religion are governed by philosophical understandings, even if the practitioners do not realize or acknowledge it.

    I note I’m not trying to place philosophy as more important than God, by no means. I’m just classifying fields.

    Anyway, very insightful post! I’ll be watching this site.

  6. Pingback: The Life Dialogue: The Interaction of Science and Faith «

  7. Pingback: Believing and understanding « Spiritual Meanderings

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