Columnists > Judgment Calls

Noma? No chance

Stephen Jay Gould unwittingly explains why we canÕt get along

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Some may recall the old joke about the henpecked husband. When asked, "Who makes the decisions in your house?" his reply was, "I decide the big issues and my wife decides the small ones. I decide what to do about the national debt, rising crime, and world peace, while she decides where we'll live, who we associate with, and how we spend our money."

Stephen Jay Gould, the celebrated apologist for evolution, has proposed a similar conjugal relationship. In his latest book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, he poses as a more or less impartial mediator eager to stop the bickering between two parties. To the question, "Can't we just get along?" his answer is an emphatic "Yes!" Of course we can get along, and his slim volume, written with apparent good will, sets forth a blueprint for doing so. He begins by defining the two sides of the dispute in terms of function: "Science tries to document the factual character of the world. Religion operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values." They inhabit, or should inhabit, totally different spheres of influence, which Mr. Gould calls "Magisteria." Each magisterium ("teacher") has much to offer the other, but their methods and goals are very different. Therefore, neither should muscle in on the other's territory. Science should do what science does best: determine "what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)." The role of religion is to contemplate "ultimate meaning and moral value." Once the two have agreed on mutual respect and noninterference, useful dialogue will result under the principle of Noma (non-overlapping magisteria).

Though not a religious believer, Mr. Gould professes himself to be religion's friend: "The subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, palaeontology [sic], and baseball)." Had he paid a little less attention to baseball, he might have realized that what he describes as "religion" is actually philosophy: an endless debate with no ultimate court of appeal. He might also have noticed that most of the world's religions already occupy the magisterium he has assigned to them. In his own field of paleontology, he has no kick coming from Buddhists and Hindus, Scientologists and Unitarians. Unwittingly, they've signed on to Noma.

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Evidently then, the quarrelsome partner who won't come to the table is not "religion" in general, but evangelical Christianity. And here his proposal shipwrecks on the same rock that confounds and infuriates many secularists: a God objective and absolute. Christians can't relegate their faith to a "separate but equal" coexistence with science, or anything else. Their God will have no other gods before Him.

This appeal to an authority higher than any human knowledge is the only possible check on science. One or the other will dominate; Mr. Gould's vision of joint rule, where religion doesn't dictate how to interpret data, and "scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth," is a fantasy. Whether they "claim higher insight" or not, scientists are pushing frontiers that have profound consequences for moral truth, and since religion surrendered its authority long ago, there is no one to stop them.

Recently, newspapers the world over have trumpeted such headlines as, "Destiny Is in Our Grasp, Scientists Say." The completion of the Human Genome Project has opened the floodgates of speculation about what form genetic manipulation will take, and when (not if) we'll see the first cloned human. Conspicuously lacking, at least from that "magisterium," is a sense of awe and dread. Even religious people who embrace Darwinism without a qualm and treat God's law as a matter for debate are becoming alarmed. But without a "Thus says the Lord," the power of religion is ashes. Who believes, least of all Stephen Jay Gould, that the visionaries now exhorting men to "take charge of their own evolution" will pause to listen to a bunch of theologians nattering on about "human purposes, meanings, and values"?

The henpecked-husband joke is funny because we understand the poor sap's position; he either fails to see that halter around his neck, or mistakes it for a badge of office. This is the real "Noma": Science (via technology) tells us where we'll live and who we'll see and how we'll spend our money, while Religion ends up talking to itself. The good servant that science once was, providing incalculable benefits to humanity, now looms over us with the potential to steal that humanity away, or remake it in forms that we can't imagine.


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