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The trouble with NOMA
Why science and religion come into conflict

By George A. Ricker

Lately there seem to be a number of people asserting the essential harmony between science and religion and insisting the two are not in conflict but are, in fact, complementary views about the nature of reality. Advocates of this view assert that, while science deals with the natural world of matter/energy and the forces that drive it, religion deals with underlying realities and eternal verities that are not amenable to a scientific approach.

The late Stephen Jay Gould spoke of “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” or NOMA to describe the two realms. He introduced the concept in an essay with that title in Natural History magazine in March, 1997.* Ten years later (give or take), the idea still attracts some attention.

Gould wrote, “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.”

Science could speak with authority on matters of fact and interpretations of physical phenomena, Gould opined, but could not and should not address questions about the existence of a god or the matters of faith and belief claimed by religions. By the same token, religions should not presume to address scientific matters like the evolution of life on this planet.

However, it seems to be so much wishful thinking to proclaim such a separation between religions and science. While many scientists are reluctant to express opinions that run contrary to the prevailing religious orthodoxies in a given society, religious practitioners have never shown the slightest unwillingness to comment on matters that, under NOMA, should belong to the magisterium of science.

No no-man’s land between magisteria

Since the modern scientific revolution began with the publication of Copernicus’ observations, the findings of science in cosmology, biology and a host of other fields have been attacked and undermined by religionists. During its four centuries of existence, the Index Librorum Prohibitorium (the Index of Prohibited Books) of the Catholic Church included more than 4,000 volumes, many of them now regarded as classics of science, literature and philosophy. Catholics were forbidden from reading books on the Index. The list was abolished in 1966. Nor was the practice of suppressing alternative views confined to Catholics, as various Protestant sects throughout Europe and the Americas have banned—or sought to ban—books as well.

There is, after all, no great no-man’s land between the two magisteria. Gould acknowledges as much in his essay. What he fails to acknowledge, and what dooms the concept from the outset, is that science is constantly expanding the knowledge base and constantly intruding into areas that previously might have been regarded as belonging in religion’s domain.

Consider the battle over embryonic stem cell research. How would the NOMA concept apply here? The best available scientific evidence suggests that embryonic stem cells may offer potential therapies and even cures for some of the most debilitating diseases known to humankind. There are other sources of stem cells, to be sure, and research constantly adds more options to the list. Nonetheless, embryonic stem cells appear to offer the most potential.

However, in order to take advantage of this potential the embryos (which are 3 to 5 days old) must be destroyed. The embryos that will be used are excess embryos from fertility clinics that are no longer needed or wanted by the donors and are donated for use in the research. These are embryos that will be discarded eventually. There are currently an estimated 400,000 such embryos in cryogenic storage in various locations around the United States.

Yet, because of religious opposition, this resource cannot be utilized in any program that depends on federal funding, in spite of the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and the American people at large that it should be. In the first veto of his presidency, one that came halfway through his second term, President George W. Bush rejected a bill that would have allowed federal money to be used in experiments that required the harvesting of stem cells from some of those unwanted embryos. The president’s veto was based in large part on his own religious faith. As of this writing (the summer of 2007) President Bush has vetoed three pieces of legislation, and two of those vetoes have been to reject virtually identical bills approving federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Where would NOMA come into play? Should science back away because its research is intruding on the religious sensibilities of some? Should religionists stand down because this is, after all, a scientific issue? Is it a scientific or religious question whether morality is on the side of those who would preserve the embryos at all costs (in the name of preserving human life) or those who insist it’s far more moral to use the embryos for this potentially lifesaving research than to allow them to be wasted by being stored and ultimately discarded?

A fictional boundary

This is not an isolated issue. As our understanding of genetics continues to increase, many difficult moral questions are being raised. Must science stand mute on these questions because morality, after all, belongs in the magisterium of religion? Is it not the case that much of our scientific progress in the last five centuries has happened only to the extent that scientists were willing to address questions previously thought to be religious in nature?

So NOMA imposes a boundary that does not exist in reality and cannot exist hypothetically. As science continues to advance, the magisterium of science will continue to grow and that of religion will continue to shrink and, in an effort to survive, redefine itself. Science does not seek conflict with religions, but as science progresses it will inevitably poach on areas previously thought to be within religions’ domains.

What about the study of religions? Is this area of human experience to be off limits to scientific investigation because it lies outside the magisterium reserved for science? May we not ask factual questions about the possible origins of religions, the evolutionary forces that led to their development, the contributions, both good and bad, that religions have made to the development of human cultures? These are just a few of many areas of potential investigation, and if we are to take NOMA seriously, every one of them would be out of bounds for scientific inquiry.

In his recent work, Breaking the Spell, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett makes the case that religion is a natural phenomenon and should be studied with the same tools and methodology as other natural phenomena. He rejects the argument that religion should be studied only by those who treat it affectionately because only those who are, at least, sympathetic can truly understand it. If religion is as important as religionists claim it is, then surely it deserves serious consideration by our best scientific minds. Surely we need to ask the kind of questions that were asked by the child in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

And what of the god idea itself. May it not be considered by science at all? Those who insist that questions about the existence of a deity should be off limits would more than likely change their tune if there were some genuine evidence to investigate in support of the idea. If we cannot test the reality of a god, can we not, at least, test the likelihood of one’s existence, as Richard Dawkins suggests in The God Delusion?

The real battle

In today’s world, while fundamentalist religions are being held up in many nations as the standards to which all must rally and religions are either causing or contributing to some of our most serious human problems, we simply cannot afford to leave religions to the religionists. When religions attempt to dictate how modern secular societies should conduct themselves and claim to represent a moral authority who must be obeyed, we cannot simply leave the field and resign ourselves to allowing religions to dictate our laws and moral codes because, after all, such things fall within the magisteria of religions.

The so-called “harmony” between religions and science can exist, but only when understood properly. The personal beliefs of religionists are their business. The affirmations of religious congregations are their business. So long as neither threatens or harms other human beings, then they may coexist with all other aspects of human existence, including science. There are, after all, many scientists who still follow religions or worship a deity of some description.

So science and religions need not be at war. However, science cannot yield the field on matters of fact, no matter what conclusions those facts may suggest. Religionists may speak on such matters as they see fit. However, they should not expect to do so with impunity. In studies of human morality, human consciousness, human psychology, and so on, science is learning more and more about how we function.

Areas that once were thought much too esoteric for science are now beginning to yield their secrets. Through the rational application of the methods and tools of science, we have begun to unlock some of humankind’s deepest mysteries. We must not, we can not turn away from that quest because it discomfits the religious sensibilities of some people.

In reality the war between science and religions is a continuation of the age-old battle between reason and superstition. Though superstition has had the better of it for much of human history, modern science has given us powerful new weapons to aid in our struggle to advance rational alternatives and understanding for human societies.

NOMA cannot aid in this effort because it attempts to create a boundary that does not exist and glosses over important differences between religions and science in an effort to keep a peace that is more honored in the breach than in the observance. It also ignores the compelling truth that for many among the religious, modern science is an enemy that threatens their dearest beliefs and undermines the faith of their children. In their view, science can only exist in subservience to their religions and may not contradict or challenge the teachings of their respective faiths.

While it is certainly true that we must respect the rights of the religious to hold their beliefs, as we should honor the rights of conscience of all of humanity, that respect cannot translate into automatic respect for the beliefs themselves. Just as it is unfair to dismiss all religionists as superstitious idiots, so is it unwise to ignore the truth that much religious teaching really is superstitious nonsense.


Gould was a kind man and preferred to think the fundamentalist attacks on science were safely restricted to a small fringe among the religious. That sentiment is clearly stated in his essay and is echoed by many in the scientific community, some of whom may fear a confrontation with religionists because they fear such disputes may cost them valuable allies and because they know they are badly outnumbered in such struggles. However, by failing to speak with clarity and conviction on these issues, scientists have themselves left the field to the fundamentalist minority who have no such scruples and have no hesitation about attacking science that does not appear to conform to their religious ideology.

With the exception of a few able champions like the late Dr. Carl Sagan, Dennett, Dawkins and Gould himself, most scientists have been content to stay in their labs and focus on their own concerns. They have left the public perception of the scientific enterprise and scientists themselves at the mercy of the popular media. The media, in turn, are easily exploited by a constant campaign of disinformation and misinformation from the advocates of religious fundamentalism, who are experts at skewing the information to suit their purposes and have no qualms about distorting the findings of science or the words of scientists.

When the advocates of reason are willing to leave the field to the champions of superstition, they can have no real cause for complaint if superstition carries the day. By ceding important areas of human understanding to the magisterium of religion, NOMA actually aids the purveyors of superstition by making it more difficult to counter their claims. Learning science, after all, requires some work. Doing science demands even more. It’s much less taxing to spend one’s time on those pursuits in the magisterium of religion where there are no facts and one opinion is as good as any other. And why should we not, since the clear implication of NOMA is that both are of equal value?

* Gould, Steven Jay, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History, (#106; March, 1997; pp 16-22), online at http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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