No More NOMA
I used to have a lot of respect for Stephen Jay Gould as a science writer. I still do enjoy his books, but more recently I've come to recognize a tendency he sometimes had for oversimplification of debates and distortion of other points of view. The first thing I read in his books that bothered me, though, was his espousal of what he calls the NOMA principle.
"NOMA" stands for Non-Overlapping MAgisteria--the principle, according to Gould, that science and religion deal with discrete subjects, and cannot come into conflict simply because, when properly treated, they do not overlap. Science deals with facts. Religion deals with morality. As long as they are properly confined to the appropriate spheres, there's no reason there should ever be a disagreement between them. Gould made much of NOMA, which he called "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to...the supposed conflict between science and religion". He claimed it "follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike"--and cites as an example Pope John Paul II, whose suggestion that elements of the creation story may be best taken figuratively marks him, according to Gould, as a proponent of NOMA.
Now, at the time I first read this, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, and Gould's NOMA argument struck me as absurd. Of course religion purports to deal with matters of fact. Whether or not Jesus Christ ever existed historically (quite apart from the issue of whether he really was the son of God) is a matter of fact, and one that's very important to Christianity. If a prominent historian claimed to have proven that no such person existed, I'm quite sure that few if any Christians would shrug their shoulders and say that, well, it doesn't really matter; that's beyond the scope of their religion. The (alleged) fact that Jesus Christ existed is quite important, and indeed fundamental, to Christianity. Claiming John Paul II as a proponent of NOMA is preposterous; conceding that one particular story in one's religious texts may be largely symbolic is not at all the same thing as conceding that all the stories in one's religion are symbolic or allegorical and that the church will confine itself to morality. He may have made some allowances on creation, but I assume John Paul II still supported the idea that Christ was born of a virgin, that miracles can and do occur, and so forth--questions of fact that entirely violate Gould's NOMA principle.
Gould was not, of course, alone in espousing these ideas, though he's the one who gave them a catchy(ish) name. Michael Shermer, for instance, makes much the same mistake in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, when he writes that creationists, by interpreting Genesis literally, "missed the significance, meaning, and sublime nature of myth", and "took a beautiful story of creation and re-creation and ruined it". Their literal interpretation of scripture, Shermer says, is "an insult to myths, an insult to religion, and an insult to science". Now, again, when I first read Shermer's book, I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--but I certainly did not consider myself a creationist. (Well, more specifically, I may have believed in divine creation, because that's what the church taught, but I recognized the evidence for evolution enough to try to reconcile the two rather than denying that evolution had happened.) So I wasn't among the group Shermer was attacking, those who denied evolution because it contradicted their scriptural account. Still, it seemed to me Shermer was speaking nonsense. Myths (in the religious/mythological sense) were originally meant to be, on at least some level, believed--that's what distinguishes a myth from a mere story. Literal interpretation of scripture isn't an insult to religion, if that's what the religion teaches, and if the scriptures are meant to be interpreted literally. The "beautiful story of creation and re-creation" that Shermer refers to was originally intended to represent a factual account (even if different denominations today may quibble on the details of just to what extent), and if taking it as literally true is ruining it then it was already ruined from the get-go.
I think to some extent it's clear what Gould and Shermer were trying to do. They were trying to keep religion from attacking science, while still ceding it a place of its own in the hopes that the religious would be mollified and accept the limitations that NOMA imposed. And certainly the goal of fending off religious attacks on science is a laudable and important one; today, in America in particular, the fundamentalist attacks on evolution and cosmology and an ever-expanding set of scientific theories are relentless, and their success would mean a scientific stagnation and regression with dire consequences for the well-being both of society as a whole and of the individual. But fighting religious advances by trying to convince the religious that fact isn't part of their "magisterium" simply won't work. Religion has always dealt in fact--or in what the religious believed to be fact--and it presumably always will. It has never been only a matter of morality. And any attempt to suggest that it should be only a matter of morality cannot help but be perceived by the religious as an attack. It's not going to help, and it's only going to come across as dishonest, or even as a threat--"you stay off our turf, and we'll stay off yours".
Now, so far, I've been talking about my impressions of NOMA from a religious perspective--what I thought about it back when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon. Now that I'm an avowed atheist, though, I have other reasons for thinking NOMA is dangerous. As I said, religion does purport to deal in fact, but of course its track record for getting the facts right isn't very good. The problem is, its track record when it comes to morality isn't much better. Christianity had no problem in this nation's youth coexisting with the evil of slavery. The atrocities committed by the "chosen people" in the Bible hardly need recounting. And, of course, today, on "moral" principles, the religious right fights gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and other matters that would ease and improve many lives. If we claim that morality is the sole domain of religion, we're ceding religion the right to decide all these issues, since the religious consider them moral matters. I don't think we really want to do that.
Now, obviously--contrary to the bizarre assumption some theists seem to have that all atheists think as a group, and that what one atheist says all atheists must believe--NOMA isn't a principle that's managed to catch on as widely as Gould hoped it would, even among atheists. Dawkins--while I'm still a little undecided what I think of him (and one of these days I probably ought to read The God Delusion)--deserves some credit for distancing himself from such wishy-washy views and staking out a clearer stand. But some shadows of NOMA still show up occasionally, like those in Shermer's book previously cited. I think we'd do better without such pretense.
Religion does purport to deal with fact, and that isn't likely to change. Pretending otherwise is not only useless, but counterproductive, as it both offends religionists, and gives them more ammunition to use in their attempt to impose their own version of "morality". If we're going to try to resist the impositions of religion on all aspects of life, we're much better off being honest about exactly what it is we're opposing.
So please. No more NOMA.