59. Thinking about Religion: 3. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould

I have been discussing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) [57, 58].  Dawkins’ argument is anti-theistic and points to the social and personal harm that stems from religion and religious belief.  Other research (and contrary to Dawkins’ position), however, has demonstrated that religious belief may in fact offer positive social and individual benefit [56].

It is perhaps most reasonable to maintain a balanced perspective between, on one hand, extreme religious belief and, on the other, a complete disregard of the potential value of religion.  Although, this view of moderation and tolerance reflects the heart of liberal democracy (and most likely the majority of people), it can be repellant to those whom profess either strong theist or anti-theist beliefs. To wade in the middle of the river is not acceptable, you must pick one shore of the other.

For Dawkins and other anti-theist writers, Stephen Jay Gould and his thoughts on the intersection between science and religion represents the epitome of all that is dislikable about moderation.  Gould argued that religion and science can peacefully coexist and that their areas of focus and intent do not overlap by nature.  Religion and its methods cannot overcome science any more than science and its methods can overthrow religion.  According to Gould, they neither share the same language or architecture of knowledge and, therefore, are not in conflict or necessarily in opposition to each other.

Dawkins was dismissive of this perspective.  Here, he quotes Gould through secondary and primary sources:


McGrath goes on to quote Stephen Jay Gould in similar vein:  ‘To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.’  Despite the confident, almost bullying, tone of Gould’s assertion, what, actually, is the justification for it? Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn’t Russell’s teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific skepticism? As I shall argue in a moment, a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?

Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths in one of his less admired books, Rocks of Ages.  There he coined the acronym NOMA for the phrase ‘non-overlapping magisteria’:

  • The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).  To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.

That sounds terrific – right up until you give it a moment’s thought.  What are those ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honored guest and science must respectfully slink away?

Dawkins refers to the origination of the term nonoverlapping magisteria or NOMA as stemming from Gould’s 1999 book Rocks of Ages (see also http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Non-Overlapping_Magisteria).  This is, in fact, incorrect.  Gould originally introduced science and religion as nonoverlapping magisteria in one of his regular Natural History essays from 1997.  That essay was titled (wait for it):  Nonoverlapping Magisteria.

59. Gould NOMA

As well, Dawkins’ quote from Rocks of Ages is not precise.  The actual paragraph does not begin with “The net, or magisterium, of science … ” but with the words “To summarize, with a tad of repetition, the net, or magisterium, of science … “.  Here, by using the term repetition, Gould is referring to his earlier essay in Natural History.  Gould essentially copies his text from his 1997 Natural History article, changes one word (instead of “arch cliches”, he uses “old cliches”) and reuses it in his preface of Rocks of Ages.

59. Gould Rock of Ages 1

It is also intriguing that Dawkins’ interprets Gould’s position on religion and science as proscriptive.  Dawkins responds to Gould by asking the question:  Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists?

However there is nothing in Gould’s original essay or his later book that would suggest that Gould is arguing that scientists (or anyone) should not discuss the presence or absence of God.  Instead, he was making the point that science can not comment on matters religious due to limits inherent within the scientific method [see 57]. In fact, this is the whole point of Gould’s 1997 essay and 1999 book.

When discussing Gould’s suggestion that religion and science are not in conflict, Dawkins is somewhat mean-spirited.  He refers to Gould as both a bully and as logically contorted.  In later pages, he suggests that Gould probably did not believe in what he wrote and that Gould most likely was being disingenuous in order to throw a consolation prize to the religious lobby. (However, Dawkins provides no evidence to support that argument.)

That Gould was respectful of religious beliefs, there is no doubt.  To suggest that Gould  deferred to those holding these beliefs, however, represents a misread of Gould’s position and is inconsistent with Gould’s arguments and court testimony against the inclusion of biblical creationism within the public school curriculum.

In terms of Gould’s bullying tone, let me provide you with the final paragraph from Gould’s preface to Rocks of Ages.


I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving, concordat between the magisteria of science and religion — the NOMA concept.  NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not merely a diplomatic solution.  NOMA also cuts both ways.  If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing within 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 leads to important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.  We would do well to embrace the principle and enjoy the consequences.



Here I see tones of respect, love, and humility.  Bullying, not so much.

In terms of the entirety of Dawkins’ book, these points are fairly trivial and, in any other circumstance, would not be worth mentioning.  However, Dawkins does spend considerable time discussing (and rejecting) Gould’s NOMA in his argument against reasonable accommodation between science and religion.  If one wishes to make a counter-argument it might be a good idea to be sufficiently familiar with your opponent’s perspective.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that Dawkins did not read either Gould’s article (at all) or his book (in its entirety).

But Dawkins is not alone.   It seems that many who reject Gould’s thoughts on NOMA do not appear to have read them.

So, in the next few posts in this series, let’s read Gould shall we?

But, of course, is as my nature, I am going to first go off on a tangent and look at free will and determinism.

59. Gould Rock of Ages 2