The Non-Overlapping Magisteria Myth

overlappingIn 1997 Stephen Jay Gould first introduced the notion that science and religion occupied two Non-Overlapping MAgisteria or domains, a concept he tagged NOMA. In his famous essay on this topic he writes the following.

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.
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The erroneous assumption behind this concept of separate magisteria or domains of human activity is the assumption that religion occupies merely a moral space, and makes no positive claims that fall within reach of empirical falsification. This is clearly not true.

Many religious texts unequivocally claim that faith in the god it asserts will change the lives of the faithful. Such claims can be submitted to the scrutiny of science. While the religionists lean heavily on anecdotal evidence of changed lives, science can employ the same statistical methods that are used in testing medicines and assessing social trends to determine whether the aggregate community of believers in a particular religion fair better than their secular counterparts in respect to divorce, incarceration rates, obesity rates, crime rates and so on.

It is true that many religions are softening their stance on the power of their particular god to change lives under the new spotlight of statistics. They must either invoke the “no true Scotsman” argument to circularly redefine true believers as those who act like true believers, or they must offer an emasculated version of their god’s power in this respect.

However, there are clearly stronger promises unequivocally made in many religious texts. These promises are touted from pulpits in an attempt to demonstrate the power of the god in question, yet when these promises fail, the same pulpits will emasculate the promise by repackaging it within a fog of conditions that they have conjured up through “creative” textual exegesis. This is true for Biblical promises of answered prayer, the healing of the sick, and the ability to perform miracles.

The contents of the Bible, if interpreted to retain any potency, do indeed protrude well into human affairs in a manner that is clearly testable. Christianity cannot market itself as potent, then later claim its potency is not subject to scrutiny. It cannot have it both ways. Every Sunday thousands of personal “testimonies” and pulpited anecdotes are offered as evidence of the potency of Christianity. Just as any medicinal concoction for which specific claims are made can (and ought to) be tested, so also for these religious claims. However, just as the tonic salesman slinks away under the weight of pointed questioning, so also do claims of healings, miracles and answered prayer under the scrutiny of scientific questioning. Some even go so far as to suggest that any testing of Biblical promises is sinful disbelief. This reflects an arrogance in stark contrast to the “mutual humility” that Gould mentions above.

And this does seem to be the tactic of most religions. First, offer emotional minds spectacular promises that require divine intervention or violations of the material world. Once that soul has surrendered critical thinking, you’ve won the battle. Any failed promise can then be blamed on the soul’s lack of faith, or buried in an emasculated form under a heap of dubious exegetical fine print. Faith will do the rest.

Gould also implies that religion is the only means of “grounding the moral discussion.” If this means that morality needs objectivity, and objectivity needs a deity, then morality is, by definition, dependent on the notion of a god. It is for this reason that I do not use the word “morality” when referring to a code of conduct. But this is another discussion.


Here’s another perspective by Daniel Dennett.


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2 thoughts on “The Non-Overlapping Magisteria Myth

  1. agnusstick says:

    The relation between religion and morality seems weak to me. Morality seems to work as a practical way to measure the corectness and intensity of the faith one has, but this is a superficial way to think, in my opinion. Morality can be seen as a very selfish code of coping with the threats of life — and this is clearly stated also in christianity.
    Mat 7:12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
    Out of fearing retaliation and desiring social peace, it is only natural to see evolving apes getting a sense of morality. Moreover, God himself is above and beyond moral, and asks humans to break it at His command. Or, at least, God sees morality as applying only to his chosen few — al the rest of humanity can be butchered without remorse.
    Like an extra inconsistence, we have
    Mat 22:36 …Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
    With this, provided we have a sufficiently lax definition of a neighbour, and if we hear the voice of God demanding action, we can commit really scary exploits — forget about morality, we must love God and obey Him first. God defines what is good and bad, so if He demands something we are off the hook.
    Now, for me the Bible would contain plain moral codes, placed under the absolute and arbitrary judgment of God as regards to admitted exceptions — unless it contained not the 10th commandment, and the verse cited above from Matthew 22:39. These two make christianity a special religion, because it demands not only morality, which is crap in the eyes of God and must be likewise in our eyes compared to His will, but also demands us to love the unlovable. This includes God — He can be unlovable if we think enough. If we get to love Him, much as we should hate Him for the way He designed the Universe, we get to trust Him that His will is good (for instance, He would never ask us to kill). And if we are tested in His love, against the love for the neighbour, it comes to accepting our sacrifice. (Maybe I went too far in the explanation, but for me the line of thought cannot be stopped before I clear Him.)
    Back to the NOMA, I really don’t understand why everybody expects that NOW we should be able to see everything through science? Is science that advanced to allow us to say that God will never appear on our radars? So, if the realms are currently non-overlapped, why not admit that this will be the case some time in the future? Is this unconceivable?

  2. Hi Agnusstick,

    This response it a bit tardy, but here it is.

    We can expect to see everything through science since science works. All suggestions of divine knowledge have failed to give us predictive power. Science gives us that.

    Therefore, if god it to appear on our radars, it will most likely be thought the only mechanism that has been demonstrated to work; science.

    What is not inconceivable is not necessarily likely or wise to expect.

    We employ what works, not what has the potential to work.

    Science works. Proposed supernatural sources of knowledge are merely proposed and have not been demonstrated to work. We follow what works. Science works. We follow science. We are warranted in ignoring what has not worked dispute claims of efficacy for 2,000+ years. It is reaching a point where we can legitimately say the concept is a myth. 2,000 years of inefficacy is certainly enough to warrant its dismissal for the next questions it claims it has an answer to. Too little too late.

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