Was Stephen Jay Gould Right?

Was Stephen Jay Gould Right?
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In 1997, the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould famously proposed a resolution to the supposed conflict between science and religion. He called it NOMA, or the thesis of non-overlapping magisteria.

A magisterium refers to a domain of teaching authority. And the NOMA thesis maintains that "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral values." According to Gould, since these two magisteria do not overlap there is no real conflict (or at least there shouldn't be) between science and religion. As Gould put it, "science studies how the heavens go, religion studies how to go to heaven."

While Gould's attempt at a peaceful resolution between science and religion satisfied some, many were not convinced. As Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned evolutionary biologist and "new atheist," argued:

[I]t is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

Who, then, is correct? Do science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria? Furthermore, do science and religion each have a magisterium to speak of? If so, do they stay within their respective domains? This is just one of the questions considered in Science and Religion: 5 Questions, a collection I edited of thirty-three interviews based on five questions presented to some of the world's most influential and prominent philosophers, scientists, theologians, apologists, and atheists.

Certainly the relationship between science and religion has been, at least at various points in history, a rocky one. Just ask Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno, both of whom were persecuted for their scientific teachings. Or consider the debate in the United States over evolution -- e.g., the 1925 Scopes trial or the more recent 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Of course, these examples do not mean that there is an essential or necessary conflict between science and religion. Perhaps these historical cases are better explained by pointing to misinterpretations or misunderstandings, or the overstepping of one's magisterium, or political causes rather than religious, etc.

Nor does it mean that all religious traditions are created equal. Some religious traditions may be more or less compatible with our best scientific understanding of the world. Nonetheless, most religions (with perhaps the exception of Buddhism and some eastern traditions) have origin stories, cosmogonies about the origin of the universe and claims about the origin of human life. They also maintain certain metaphysical claims about the nature of the self, including claims about the existence of souls, life after death, reincarnation, and free will. The question, then, is whether these religious accounts of creation, the nature of the human mind, and our place in the universe, can be reconciled with our best scientific accounts of the same?

Given that the scientific and religious worldviews dominate our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it, it is extremely important that we ask ourselves these questions along with a host of related questions: How do the various faith traditions view the relationship between science and religion? What, if any, are the limits of scientific explanation? And what are the most important open questions, problems, or challenges confronting the relationship between science and religion, and what are the prospects for progress?

These and other questions are explored in Science and Religion: 5 Questions. The collection brings together a diversity of different perspectives and traditions and does not attempt to promote or argue for any particular point of view -- it leaves it to the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Ultimately, the book leaves it to each contributor to define what he or she means by science and religion and to judge the compatibility or incompatibility of the two. Some of the contributors characterize the relationship as one of conflict, others describe it as one of harmony, and others (still) propose that there is little interaction between the two.

Readers must decide for themselves, but given the caliber of contributors included in Science and Religion: 5 Questions, and their varied contributions to theorizing about science and religion, the thirty-three interviews provide an important resource for those seeking their own answers as well as a useful snapshot of the current state of play in the ongoing debate between science and religion.

Gregg Caruso is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Humanities Department at Corning Community College (SUNY).

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