Stephen Jay Gould said that science and religion are “non overlapping magisteria (NOMA),” two things that are completely separate from each other. Here is his definition of the term, from the Wikipedia article about it:

“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, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

Richard Dawkins disagreed, saying that religion constantly inserts itself into the scientific world, and that if there were scientific proof of claims made by religion, religious authorities would quickly adopt more scientific principles, rather than opposing science, which they tend to do when it brings into question the validity of religious claims.

I agree with Dawkins, sort of. I agree that religion often attempts to hinder science — stem cell research, for example — but I am not sure I agree completely. Claims made by religions are by definition unprovable. It is scientifically impossible to prove that God or any other deity exists.

It is, don’t get mad at me for saying so. But at the same time, belief in God (or any deity or set of deities) is an actual thing many people around the world possess. The effect this belief has on them and their environment is quite tangible. Some effects of religious belief are positive, and some are negative. Some effects are constructive, many others are quite destructive.

Dawkins tends to focus entirely on the destructive effects. And to be sure, there are plenty of those to focus on. But I disagree with Dawkins on his assertion that all religion must be eliminated. I think Gould would probably agree with me there. Here’s another Gould quote:

“Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.”

Dawkins might say that Gould’s statement

“…the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain.”

isn’t strictly correct, for religious authorities, whose very authority is given by things like a “concept of souls” have used that authority to hinder scientific progress time and time again.

So anyways, on that end of the concept, I suppose I have mixed feelings. Both sides make valid points.

But what about the other side of NOMA?

“Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

I have to say I fully agree with Gould here. With regard to “values,” each religion has a set of values its followers adhere to. “Values” and “value judgments” are what produce the real-world effects of religion. The good stuff as well as the bad stuff.

That is not — is *not* — to say that one has to follow a religion to have “values” or to be “moral.” It’s a pretty common misconception among religious people that atheists are amoral. This simply is not — is *not* — true.

But at the same time, can “science” prescribe morality? Or is one’s own sense of morality, if one is an atheist, derived from a sense of compassion (or lack thereof) with her or his fellow humans?

Prominent atheist writer Sam Harris, for example, has written extensively about the real world atrocities committed in the name of Islam. And to be sure, he has a point: killing for an ideology is horrible.

But with the same keyboard (presumably) Harris uses to denounce Jihadis for killing because of an ideology, Harris also writes about the inevitability of “collateral damage” with regard to drone strikes and other such Western anti-terrorism strategies. It’s unfortunate, Harris argues, that innocent bystanders get killed when drones blow up this or that terrorist, but it’s necessary to get the terrorists.

The difference between a Jihadi and a drone pilot, Harris says, is intent. A Jihadi wants to kill innocent people and does so on purpose, a drone pilot wants to kill terrorists but accidentally kills innocent bystanders.

And there’s something to be said for that argument, but in both cases, innocent people get killed. And given that “collateral damage” is considered more or less inevitable — it’s avoided whenever possible, to be sure — doesn’t that sort of muddy up the whole “intent” argument?

Harris’ “intent” argument is based in his own moral sense. But what is that “moral sense,” and where did it come from?

From science?

Harris and Dawkins and others argue that the morality of religion springs from fear of divine punishment, and since it’s impossible to scientifically prove God or any other deity exists — again, don’t get mad at me for saying that, it’s true — then morality that arises from fear of divine punishment is an inferior sort of morality than the morality of atheists like themselves.

I disagree. I think Harris’ attitude toward “collateral damage” and whatnot springs from the same place that religious morality springs from: self-interest.

Religious people believe it’s in their best interest to please the deity they worship. They are therefore following their own self-interest by doing things they believe will please that deity.

Harris believes it’s in his own best interest that all the Jihadis get killed, even if that means some non-Jihadis get killed in the process. He was following what he believed to be his own self-interest when he wrote about “collateral damage.”

Friedrich Nietzsche once said,

“Fear is the mother of all morality.”

Do you agree with him? I fear — no pun intended — that I do.

But back to NOMA: can science prescribe morality?

A better question: *Should* science attempt to prescribe morality?

Personally I don’t see any way science could prescribe morality without degenerating into something less than “science.” Science infused with moral value judgments ceases to be objective, I mean. And the naturalistic fallacy — the way things are is the best way they could be, and anyone who tries to change things is wrong — has also been used by religious authorities over the years to justify horrible things, like slavery, subjugation of women, etc. etc. etc.

What do you think?



  1. One of my old professors once remarked that in a broad sense, science asks “How”. Religion asks “Why”. This can result in some overlapping, of course; but this seems intellectually tenable to me. How do we develop morals? Big question. We might begin with something like this: Why does Baby love Mama? Mama is Baby’s needs satisfied. How do we develop guilt feeling? Empathy for the sufferings of others? What does religion say? What does science say?


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