Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Overlapping Magisteria

Back in 1997, Stephen J Gould published his essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria, in which he proffered his accommodationist views, giving encouragement to the church - that their increasingly anachronistic beliefs are still relevant, and that they still offer a kind of knowledge that science can't.  Gould claimed that there is no conflict between science and religion, because they have different areas of "expertise" that don't overlap.
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise.
We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.
There was a time when religion laid claim to many kinds knowledge, especially that which we now place in the realm of science.  The church tried to tell us how the earth was made and where people came from, and all kinds of things that science has shown to be absolutely false.  The "magisteria" of religion has steadily shrunk as science continues to advance.  Science provides superior answers to questions that used to be solidly within the "magisteria" of religion.  And as this trend has continued for centuries, what reason do we have to think that science won't continue to encroach upon the remaining areas of knowledge that religion claims as part of its own realm?

It may be true that science can never conclusively disprove the existence of spirit beings with supernatural powers, but it can demonstrate that the things we see in the natural world can be fully explained without any need to resort to such fantasies.  Science doesn't observe, doesn't postulate, and has no use for mythical supernatural beings, so this is the one area where there is truly no conflict between science and religion.  Let religionists go on believing what they want as long as they stay out of the way of the true pursuit of knowledge.

But in Gould's view, the church has expertise in things related to human morality, and science should have nothing to say about it.  Whether he likes it or not, the ability of science to investigate the origins of human morality and its effects on human behavior is likely to eliminate any illusions that morality is something other than a natural evolutionary response to pressures that influence the survival of a social species.  That being the case, what reason do we have to think that it comes from God, and that religion is better equipped than science to answer questions related to morality?

The reality is that the idea of NOMA is just the accommodationist's way of propping up religion in a world where science has proven its own merit, and time after time, religious "knowledge" has proven to be nothing more than superstitious hokum.  There is conflict between them.  Whenever science challenges yet another  area of traditional religious belief, religion has always interfered with the progress of science.   That interference continues to this day.

And even when the scientific view is grudgingly accepted by the church, they still try to put their own unscientific twist on it.  The church now accepts evolution, but it is a theistic version where God guides the outcome.  So if you look at it superficially, science and religion are in harmony.  But if you look at it more scientifically, what the religionists believe is not the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.  It is ideologically opposed to the very basis of evolutionary change.  This isn't harmony - it is conflict, and it certainly isn't science.  It's religion intruding into science and dictating the outcome of scientific investigation to be consistent with religious beliefs.

Among the many persistent religious concepts that are incompatible with science is essentialism.  With regard to the evolution of humans, the church continues to insist that God has endowed our species with a soul that makes us unique.  The essentialist idea is that the first humans were distinctly different from other animals.  These humans were supposedly the ones who committed the "original sin" that was passed down to all of us.  But this religious story is not consistent with any scientific understanding of the emergence of mankind.  Evolution is gradual.  There was no first pair of humans.  There was no first instance of a different kind of animal that suddenly was endowed with a human soul.  This is nothing but unscientific pablum.

And as with evolution theory, morality is very much subject to scientific understanding.  We know that animals have evolved cooperative behavior that appears to be precursor to a human sense of morality.  We may not have all the answers yet, but the presumption that religion has the answers is certainly not based on fact, either.  They don't have "expertise" in this area.  All they have are religious explanations that are no more fact-based than their tales of Adam and Eve.  As scientific understanding grows, religious explanations will fall by the wayside.  And the idea that this is an area of knowledge where science has no right to intrude is ridiculous.

To anyone who respects the enterprise of science, it is clear that religion is an impediment to scientific knowledge and understanding.  The conflict between them is real.  The notion of NOMA is a fantasy.  Any aspect of religious belief that is empirically observable is subject to scientific investigation.  That includes all the things that God supposedly does to influence human behavior.  To say that science has no business trying to understand these things is the height of arrogance.


  1. Superstition and Religion flow from the same wellspring of the human imagination- mythology:

    "As discussed above, there is little distinction between superstition and religion. What is fully accepted as genuine religious statement may be seen as poor superstition by those who do not share the same faith. Since there are no generally agreed proper or accepted religious standards among people of different cultural backgrounds, the very notion of what is a superstitious behavior is relative to local culture. In this sense, Christian theology will interpret African cults as pure superstition while an evangelical Christian will see as meaningless the Catholic ritual of crossing oneself (the Sign of the cross) when going by a church. With the development of folklore studies in the late 18th century, use of the derogatory term superstition was sometimes replaced by the neutral term "folk belief", an attempt to go over local cultural biases. Both terms remain in use; thus, describing a practice such as the crossing fingers to nullify a promise as "folk belief" implies a neutral description from the perspective of ethnology or folklore studies, while calling the same thing a "superstition" implies its rejection as irrational."

    Succinctly and most eruditely explained here:

    "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. " Dan Barker, former evangelist.

    Slowly but perceptively, the reality of the flaw that is religion is sinking in.

  2. "all kinds of things that science has shown to be absolutely false."
    Science doesn't do absolute proof. On the speculation of an omnipotent being Ptolemy might have had it fundamentally correct, we are standing still and the universe is spinning around us, driven with ease by the hand of infinite power. Of course, there is no positive evidence for any such thing, and all our science converges on the modern scientific model of the universe, but I think the word "absolute" is too strong if we are going to get into a non-overlapping magesteria discussion.

    "what reason do we have to think that it comes from God,"
    On an absence of absolute or objective morality the answer is "none". Unfortunately, humans have a pervasive craving for an absolute reference of right and wrong. There is the sense that our innate sense of ought must have some root in an objectively true set of moral propositions, owing to the commonality of our sensibilities.

    Many atheists trap themselves logically by asserting an absolute or objective morality, which on atheism is an irrational assertion (one of the few things William Lane Craig is correct about).

  3. Science doesn't do absolute proof.
    - I never claimed that it does. But proving something and disproving something are two different things. In many cases, it may be impossible to prove a proposition, but disproving it requires only one example that doesn't bear it out. Scientific theories are always considered to be tentative, which means that they are not proven. But any theory can be disproved by showing a case where it fails. This is the nature of science. So, too, with religious explanations of nature, many of which have been shown to be false.

    1. " But any theory can be disproved by showing a case where it fails."
      But showing that case is itself not absolute. Absolute is a very strong word that I reserve for a very few things based on my own self awareness.

      A theory can be scientifically disproved with a scientifically demonstrated counter example. That is not, however, an absolute disproof, because science is inherently provisional.

      "science has shown to be absolutely false"
      Science does not show things to be absolutely false. Science shows things to be scientifically false.

    2. Have you ever heard the term "figure of speech"?