“Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA)

Stephen Jay Gould Natural History (1997)


1.       Editor’s summary:

          a.       Science and religion are separate domains of teaching authority that are concerned with wholly different subjects of inquiry


2.       Vatican story: Is scientific creationism trouble for evolution?

          a.       Jesuit priests (who were also scientists) wanted to know if “scientific creationism” amounted to trouble for evolution?

          b.       They thought no conflict existed between evolution and Catholic faith

          c.       Thought evidence for evolution entirely satisfactory and overwhelming

          Gould told them:

          d.       Evolution has no new intellectual trouble; no new arguments offered

          e.       Creationism is a splinter movement of Protestant fundamentalists who believe in literal truth of every word in the Bible

          f.       Evolution is true and entirely consistent with religious belief, including Christian belief

3.       Harvard proselytizing evangelical told his undergrad Christian roommate that he can’t be both a real Christian and an evolutionist (believe in evolution)

          a.       Gould rejects this


4.       “Scientific creationism”

                    i.        An oxymoron (inconsistent combination of terms)

          b.       Claims Bible is literally true about its scientific statements

          c.       All organisms were created during 6 days of twenty-four hours

          d.       Earth only a few thousand years old

          e.       Evolution therefore must be false


5.       Most religions reject scientific creationism and believe Bible requires interpretation

                    i.        Its factual sounding claims should not be taken as assertions of scientific truth

          b.       No basis for this view in either Catholicism or Judaism, or most Protestant groups

          c.       For they read the bible as containing metaphor, allegory, and demanding interpretation for proper understanding


6.       Pope John Paul II defended evidence for evolution and its consistency with Catholic religious doctrine

                    i.        In document called “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth” (1996)

7.       Gould wonders why the Pope bothered saying this and why newspapers made a big deal about his

          a.       One headline: “Pope says we may descend from Monkeys”

          b.       Catholic Church was not then opposed to evolution, and did not see science as a threat to religion

8.       Doctrine of infusion of the soul

          a.       In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of human body as long as they accepted that at some time God had infused the soul into such a creature

          b.       Science can’t touch the subject of souls, can’t be threatened by any position concerning souls for the question of souls is an intrinsically religious issue

                    i.        Because the soul is immaterial and science only takes positions on material issues?

9.       What is new (Gould thinks) is that Pope John Paul II is now claiming evolution is known scientific fact

          a.       Whereas Pope Pius XII claims (50 years earlier) said it is not yet proven and is raises a host of potentially troubling religious questions

          b.       John Paul is suggesting (says Gould) that there is so much recent data and refinement of theory that evolution can no longer be doubted by people of good will

          c.       Evolution is beyond reasonable doubt

          d.       Sincere Christians can’t just accept evolution as a plausible possibility, but as a proven fact

10.     But what authority does the Pope, in the domain of religion, have regarding this scientific question?

          a.       Inconsistency in Gould?



          a.       “Magisterium” is a “teaching-authority” (an “area of expertise” or a “discipline or subject-matter”)

12.     Can’t be a conflict between science and religion as no overlap between their domains of professional expertise

                    i.        Note: He’s claiming religion has “professional expertise” (something Dawkins would deny)

          b.       Science and religion are separate domains of teaching authority that are concerned with wholly different subjects of inquiry


13.     Science concerned with the empirical constitution of the universe

          a.       The net of science covers empirical universe

          b.       What it is made of (fact)

          c.       And why it works as it does (theory)

14.     Religion in search for proper ethical values and spiritual meaning of our lives

          a.       Net of religion concerns questions of moral meanings and value

          b.        Religion or philosophy (or both?) has professional expertise concerning proper ethical values?

15.     Wisdom requires attention to both domains

          a.       Greatest strength of NOMA idea is that it allows for respectful discourse from both important magisteria in search of common goal of wisdom


16.     The two do not overlap

17.     Just as religion may not dictate nature of factual conclusions

                    i.        (Galileo was tried by the church and found guilty of heresy for arguing that the earth was not the center of the universe)

          b.       So science can’t claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of world’s empirical constitution

          c.       But Gould does say that there are moral implications based on some facts and scientists know those facts the best.....

18.     They don’t cover all areas of inquiry

          a.       For art and the study of beauty is another “teaching authority” (area of professional expertise)


19.     Two domains do bump into each other

20.     These two areas of expertise aren’t separated by a no-man’s land and sometimes bump right up against each other

          a.       Many of the deepest questions involve both domains

          b.       Sorting these domains can be complex and difficult

          c.       For example:

                    i.        Since evolution made only humans with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are entailed for our relation to other species?

                              (1)     This is the subject of environmental ethics/philosophy

                    ii.       What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life

          d.       If scientific facts can have ethical, value implications, then in so far as religion answers value questions, it must employ science

                    i.        In so far as values depend on facts, disciplines that deal with values (philosophy and religion) must also become aware of the facts (science)



          a.       He calls himself a “Jewish agnostic”

22.     Gould is dismayed by scientists who reject NOMA and say

          a.       “Be honest, you know religion is superstitious, old-fashioned, B.S. You are only being accommodating because religion is so powerful and science needs to be diplomatic so it can get public support”

23.     Gould has enormous respect for religion, though not a believer

24.     Religion’s effects both good and bad:

          a.       Organized religion has fostered both unspeakable horrors (medieval crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings) and the most heart-rending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger

          b.       The bad tends to come when religion is hooked up with secular power...

                    i.        A reason for church state separation

25.     Religion too important to too many people for one to dismiss the comfort people get from it

26.     Gould might privately think idea of divine infusion of a soul is a way to

          a.       Quell our fears, and

          b.       Maintain a belief in human superiority in an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature

          c.       (Gould doubts that humans have souls)

27.     But souls are a subject outside science’s magisterium

          a.       Can’t prove or disprove idea of soul infusion

28.     He honors the metaphorical value of concept of soul

          a.       For grounding moral discussion

          b.       For expressing what we most value about human potentiality–our decency, care, and ethical and intellectual struggles that our consciousness imposes on us

          c.       Why need a concept of soul for these?

          d.       Perhaps one doesn’t, but the concept still functions to raise these legitimate questions/issues

29.     Gould: Nature does not care about us

          a.       Gould believes nature was not constructed as our eventual home, didn’t know we were coming, and doesn’t care about us

          b.       This is a moral, not a scientific claim

30.     Thinks lack of theological meaning is a liberating, not depressing position

          a.       Allows us to engage in moral discourse free from delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature’s factuality

          b.       Above he said those facts have ethical implications . . .

          c.       Liberating in that we must create(?) or decide upon our own values, instead of them being forced onto us by the nature of reality (God’s plan/will)

          d.       He realizes this position frightens many people and that a more spiritual view (compatible with science) that finds some intrinsic meaning in nature has broad appeal


31.     Does believing in evolution make religious belief harder?

                    i.        If there are separate domains why would it?

                    ii.       Because they “bump up into each other?”

          b.       Does believing that God created and set up the world to evolve by evolution make the problem of evil harder?

          c.       Evolution: Pain and suffering and mindless cruelty and terror are its means of creation

          d.       Evolution’s engine is the grinding predatory teeth upon the screaming, living flesh and bones of prey

          e.       If evolution is true, faith has rougher seas to sail