Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

In a recent post I suggested an alternative take on Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA framework, in which religion and science occupy “nonoverlapping magisteria”. Richard Dawkins also has an alternative to the NOMA framework. It goes:

“Science tells us everything and what it doesn’t tell us isn’t important anyway la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you-so-stop-talking.”

I’m paraphrasing his words slightly, but I believe I have captured the thrust of his argument accurately. Let’s look in a little more detail at the perspectives of these two evolutionary biologists.

A common criticism of NOMA is that religion and science insist on interfering with one another, so we can’t really regard them as being non-overlapping. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that scientists and religious people keep commenting on each other’s fields. (Of course, when you have a scientist who is also religious, this issue becomes even muddier: my point is that we end up with a person making a religious comment based on a scientific perspective, and making scientific claims based on religious beliefs).

Note that Gould doesn’t simply say that the two fields are independent: he specifically says that they “bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border.” Of course, such a complex border would appear to be merely fuzzy from a distance, but it is exactly this interdigitation that we must explore. What Gould claims is that within every issue, whether moral or scientific, there are complex details which will fall into the domain of one or other field.

In our (very human) quest for meaning, even when operating as scientists, we have an inevitable tendency to add a moral and philosophical dimension to everything we see. It is an article of faith amongst materialist atheists that there is no deeper meaning to anything, but that is a religious statement masquerading as science. T. H. Huxley warned against this trend in his 1889 essay Agnosticism (in which he also first defined the title term):

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

If we look into areas of conflict between religion and science, I believe we generally see something like:

  1. Science announces a theory (which may or may not be true).
  2. A philosophical and/or moral dimension is added by either or both sides of the debate.
  3. Argument ensues about the philosophical/moral dimension, and is extrapolated back to the validity of the scientific claim.

It is precisely this combination of scientific conjecture and philosophical implication that Gould was referring to with his complex border. He did not believe that religious perspective would illuminate a specifically scientific question, but he also believed that it is irresponsible for a scientist to add a philosophical aspect to any thesis in his capacity as a scientist. When Dawkins claims that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”, he is most assuredly not making a scientific claim, and thus even under a NOMA framework, it is entirely appropriate to respond to him from a religious perspective.

This temptation to proclaim on topics far beyond his field of expertise seems to be irresistible to Dawkins. He further claims that: “A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion are scientific.” But different from what? We live in and experience and can observe precisely one universe. How can that possibly be a scientific statement? It is akin to saying, “The Big Bang was very different from all the other Big Bangs which have happened”; or, “Life based on complex organic molecules is very different from all the other life we observe”. It is ridiculous. Gould was more honest about the limitations of science, saying: “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.” (Scientific American, 1992)

Let us examine another pair of quotes from Dawkins:

  • “What has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (Letter to The Independent, 20 March 1993)
  • “If you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so.” (The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, 12 Nov 1996)

Thus according to Dawkins, science is morally silent, and yet theology is completely useless. But if science is all that there is, what morality could possibly guide our actions? Can science seriously hold the weight of ethical decisions? In light of these opinions, it becomes easier to understand how Dawkins reaches the conclusion that “[his] belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.” (Interview with Justin Brierley, 21st October 2008)

This is, tragically, the despairing depth in which we find ourselves in the absence of a theologically-guided moral imperative. Far wiser was Gould, who wrote in his essay “Nonmoral Nature” (Natural History, February 1982):

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”



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Overlap in the Magisterium?


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…