Sunday, January 20, 2008

Look, Ma, No NOMA

Stephen Jay Gould was a fine writer. He could also be a pompous ass, a quality that especially came out in the coining of rich, ringing, overblown phrases. One of his richest and ringingest and most overblown was “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA)—the one true key, Gould proclaimed in Rocks of Ages (1999), to peace in the evolution wars. Science and religion, he said, have disjoint areas of authority, that is, non-overlapping magisteria: science pronounces on facts, religion on morals. Since science can’t produce or sift values, religion can say whatever it wants about them: and it should never enter religion’s sweet little head to make claims about genes, fossils, or the Big Bang, concerning which it knows absolutely nothing. NOMA is, Gould said, a “blessedly simple” solution to the science-religion feud.

NOMA has many pleasing qualities, including obviousness and familiarity: even Gould admitted in passing that it is “entirely conventional.” A version pops up in the latest edition of the widely-hailed pamphlet
Science, Evolution, and Creationism, from the US National Academies of Science (NAS). Much reporting has hailed the pamphlet’s soothing message that religion and science need not be mad at each other: “Evolution Book Sees No Science-Religion Gap,” says the New York Times (Jan. 4). But there are problems with NOMA. It is confused, unreal, and insincere.

NOMA Is Confused. The NAS announces that “Science can neither prove nor disprove religion” (p. 54). Why? Because “Religious faith, in contrast [to science], does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities” (p. 12). So far so good (although we might note that Gould, unlike the NAS, would rather have religion drop the “forces or entities” altogether and stick to flower-arranging). The NAS adds a further distinction: the supernatural forces or entities with which religion concerns itself, because “they are not a part of nature, . . . cannot be investigated by science.”

In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. (p. 12)

But whoa: later on, we read that “Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question” (p. 54). What happened to separateness?

The confusion arises because of a hidden fallacy: when it claims that no controversy need exist, the NAS is assuming that because the “forces or entities” with which religion are concerned cannot be investigated by science,
none of religion’s claims can ever be investigated by science. This assumption is false because some religions are interested not only in supernatural entities per se but in what those entities might do. God might make rocks fall up, create a new planet during the halftime break, or pull Adam and Eve out of her hat. Claims that such things have happened are scientifically testable, in principle, and are exactly the sort of claims that some religions have made. Which is why there is all this fuss to begin with.

And Unreal. The discomfiting nub is that although one can imagine forms of religion that do not conflict with science, some forms of religion do conflict with science. When science kicks against Creationist claims, it is obviously, necessarily, and properly in conflict with at least some claims made by at least one form of religion. In a country where over 40% of the electorate polls Creationist, this is a politically ugly fact, but it is a fact that the NAS can’t help but acknowledge: hence “Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question.” But the NAS also wants to give the comforting impression that there is, as the Times put it, “No Science-Religion Gap.” (“Nice, Wide Science-Religion Gap” would have been a more accurate characterization of the NAS’s claim.) So it ends up dithering back and forth between defining the conflict out of existence and admitting that it exists.

All NOMA-type declarations purport to be descriptive but are in fact prescriptive. They do not simply describe what religion and science are, though they pretend to; they say what science is and what religion should be. In doing so, they plump for certain types of religion and against others. They are not neutral or above the fray.

It’s not necessarily wrong to make prescriptions, but to confuse them with descriptions is the definition of wishful thinking. Religion and science are not going to retire to neatly non-overlapping magisteria just because it would be nicer if they did so. Things are messy and are going to stay messy. NOMA boils down to the trivially true idea that things would be swell if Creationism would only go away—but it won’t.

And Let’s Not Forget Insincere. What most wrinkles my nose about the attempt to define the evolution-Creation feud out of existence is its condescending let’s-pretend quality. Let’s pretend that science-friendly types of religion define what religion essentially is, not just what we would like it to be. Then let’s conclude, logically, that conflicts arise only because certain fools make “attempts to pit science and religion against each other” (mere “attempts,” note). And then let’s admit in passing that, of course, some beliefs that are clearly religious by any scholarly or commonsense definition, such as the tenets of Creationism, do indeed conflict with science. And then let’s hasten to claim again, inconsistently, that religion and science can’t be in conflict, they simply can’t, and so they aren’t: the Creationists are merely confused. They only think that their beliefs have something to do with their religion. This is exactly how the NAS proceeds: a paragraph after stating that “scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question,” it states that explaining gaps in science by divine action, as Creationists do, “confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of the other” (p. 54). The sillies!

A Creationist might reasonably reply that the NAS has no brief to say what religion is allowed to talk about and what it isn’t. When religions make claims about physical reality, scientists may refute those claims if they can—they’re very good at it, I’m happy to say—but if they declare that such claims aren’t really religious at all they are (a) denying the obvious and (b) implicitly declaring that some kinds of religion are more authentically or
properly religious than others. And that is an essentially theological declaration, a type of statement that, on the NOMAzoids’ own showing, they have no brief to make.

So let’s ditch the phony, politic peace-pipe. There is a real collision between some statements of science and some forms of religion. It’s too bad, it sucks, it makes many decent people feel bad and commits some to a lifetime of delusion, but it happens. The NAS should admit consistently that it happens. It should also admit that there is a difference between saying that religion
need not be in conflict with evolution, which is a factual observation, and saying that religion should not be in conflict with evolution, which is advocacy of one class of religious beliefs (the science-compatible ones, like my own liberal Episcopalianism) over another (the Creationisms). That’s theology, not science—even if some of us think it's good theology.