Overlapping Magisteria?

The relationship between science and religion, and the demarcation of their fields, or magisteria, seems to be topical at the moment. On the one had the boundary appears to be violated by religious promotion of creationism and attacks on evolutionary science. On the other, scientists are starting to make assertive comments about the nature of morality and the lack of any requirement for gods in understanding the origins of the universe and life.

This has been accompanied by debates among scientists about how to relate to religion. Whether religion should be immune from criticism or not? Should we challenge religion’s fanciful claims about reality?

So its not surprising that the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” is being discussed again.

This concept has both its supporters and critics. Different people ascribe different meanings to the concept. And there are of course political and ideological reasons for this.


It’s not a new concept but today it is usually attributed to the evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould. In his 1977 essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria he proposed a system of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) as a way of avoiding conflict between science and religion. (The article actually attributed the concept in part to Pope Pius XII.) Gould also elaborated on the concept in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.”

It is important to be aware of the meaning Gould attributes to the word “religion” here:

“I will accept both Huxley’s view and the etymology of the word itself – and construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.”

So Gould was using “religion” in its widest possible meaning – one which doesn’t necessarily include supernatural propositions.

I think this explanation is important although it is almost universally ignored (and indeed was effectively ignored by Gould himself through the rest of his book).

A captured magisteria?

In effect, the prevailing interpretation gives unwarranted exclusivity to established religion. While Gould’s original meaning provided for a magisteria of an informed public dealing with the “realm of human purposes, meaning and values” it now seems almost universally assumed that this is the magisteria of established religion. A position which the established religions are of course happy to promote.

In fact some seem to have forgotten about “purposes, meaning and values.” A local Christian apologist even went so far as describing this magisteria as involving religious questions; questions about theology, about God, about questions about subject matter that’s not part of “nature.”” He was certainly clear that the non-religious have no role in this magisteria.

In my post 3 years ago, Morals, values and the limits of science, I commented:

“Few people would object to Gould’s description of the role and limits of science and few scientists would claim a sole right to solving ethical questions. Modern science is more and more raising ethical questions about application of new technologies and even the research protocols themselves. Ethical problems related to introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the harvesting of stem cells are only two recent examples. These question cannot be left to the researchers involved (how can they be objective) but should also involve an informed public.”


“So yes, let’s acknowledge the limits of science and agree that when it comes to morality and ethics there is no straightforward way of deciding what is “right.” There are no absolutes in such areas. Resolution depends on the prevailing ethics of the specific society and times, as well as the empirical indication of consequences. Consequently, society as a whole must decide such matters. Full information will assist such decisions. But, also essential, is a democratic process enabling involvement of all sections of society.

And this is where I have a problem with Gould’s presentation of NOMA. It is basically undemocratic because it grants religion (and only religion) a special role in moral and ethical questions. It defines morals and ethics as the special domain of religion (and only religion). It says we should hand these problem over to religion. It denies any role for those of us with non-religious ethical and spiritual beliefs. Surely, as humans we non-religious are as equally qualified (or as equally at a loss) on such questions. It is undemocratic to hand these problems to one section of society and deny a role to the rest of society.”

So there are huge problems in the practical interpretation and application of NOMA. Religion is interpreted in a narrow way (always a problem of trying to redefine words away from common usage). This disenfranchises the non-religious in the areas “human purposes, meaning and values.” No doubt welcomed by the religious apologist and church establishments but hardly democratic.

NOMA in tatters?

Nevertheless the NOMA concept is promoted by some scientific organisations. I believe this is largely for opportunist political reasons. An attempt to placate religious sensitivities by ruling “out of bounds” religiously sensitive subjects from scientific enquiry. As well as the disenfrachising this opportunism supports, though, it is also patently unrealistic. Out of touch with reality.

NOMA is in ruins today and it’s supporters were foolish and unrealistic to expect it could survive. There are real issues, real conflicts, between science and religion and an artificial structure like this has absolutely no hope of hiding these. Even Gould, in his 1977 essay, was clearly underestimating the religious attacks which were to come on his own field of evolutionary science.

Today religion still intrudes into areas outside it’s “magisteria.”.Evolution and cosmology are topical. As also is the history of science where apologists are attempting to excuse the persecution of Galileo and make chauvinistic claims about science originating from within Christianity!

Scientists like Stephen Hawking are prepared to acknowledge publicly (if only to sell their books) that humanity can understand reality without resorting to gods and other supernatural “explanations.” And the theological reaction to this rather obvious point has been extreme.

Science is intruding into the “religion magisteria” with modern research into human morality. We now talk about the “new science of morality.” And theologians bristle again – as do some scientists.

Also, there is less reticence among scientists about criticising religion and its claims. People like Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins get attacked for daring to suggest that the question of the objective existence of gods is a scientific question. And religionists are not at all happy about anthropologists, psychologists and cognitive scientists who have the temerity to research the origins and nature of religion as a natural phenomenon.

I think the genie is out of the bag on this one (or is it Pandora out of the box). Science will certainly make more inroads into areas religion thought it had captured for itself. This seems to be an inevitable result of the progress in scientific technology and our understanding of the brain and human consciousness.

On the other hand we can expect established religion to object to  scientific progress from time to time. But this is likely to fall on deaf ears. Humanity has too much to lose if scientific progress were to be abandoned.

I am sure theologians and philosophers of religion will continue their battle in the philosophical arena. They may even develop new and intriguing arguments.

Predictions are always difficult. But if we look at the trends over the last 400 years it seems to be a safe bet that they will continue in the same direction. Organised religion has had to make one concession after another since it disciplined Galileo in 1632 for daring to think outside the Inquisition’s square.

Surely this progress will continue, with religious leaders being forced to take note of, and accommodate, the news of new scientific discoveries. However, I can’t see physicists or any other scientists having to adjust their own theories because of some new Papal announcement or paper published by a theologian.

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Cartoon thanks to Jesus and Mo.net

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2 responses to “Overlapping Magisteria?

  1. Pingback: Chris Mooney is at it again: isn’t ‘spirituality’ really another word for ‘religion’? « Questionable Motives

  2. Pingback: Is Keith Ward really that naive about science? | Open Parachute

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