Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion


Russell Blackford

(first published 2000 in Quadrant magazine)

While there is considerable controversy about Stephen Jay Gould's contributions to evolutionary theory, he is an eminent scientist, an important sociopolitical thinker, and an exemplary prose stylist whose lucid books and essays are a source of pleasure as well as knowledge. Unfortunately, he seems to have reached such authorial prominence and saleability that publishers now allow him to indulge himself on subjects where he is out of his field, or his depth, or both. Gould remains incapable of writing a thoroughly bad book, but he's gone close to doing so with his 1999 effort, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.

The book's redeeming features include its detailed and plausible reinterpretation of the Scopes trial and the personalities involved. Though Gould has fought hard against the intellectual menace of creation science, he provides a sympathetic portrait of William Jennings Bryan the supposed villain in the Scopes case, demonstrating in passing that the high school biology text which John Scopes and Clarence Darrow sought to defend in the mid-1920s contained its share of obnoxious speculation along racist lines.

But my interest is in Gould's central arguments. Rocks of Ages advocates a single idea, that there is no conflict between science and religion:

  • Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain those 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. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.
  • Gould calls his "central principle of non-interference" that of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria". In this usage, a "magisterium" is a domain of authority in teaching; the Principle of NOMA is that religion and science are non-overlapping domains of intellectual authority. Because they do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other, and they should coexist in mutual respect.

    Readers who might be inclined to side with Gould on this are likely to change their minds once the NOMA principle is fully unpacked, for its contents are rather surprising. Anyone who expects it to harmonise religious and scientific claims will be disappointed, since it does no such thing, and Gould specifically disavows that objective. The NOMA principle makes religion invulnerable to some kinds of scientific attack, but only by ruling out many religious claims as illegitimate in the first place. By this, I mean that Gould says they are not legitimate as religious claims. He does not attack religious beliefs in a relatively young Earth merely on the basis that it is irrational to maintain them in the light of well-established scientific knowledge. Instead, he argues that it is illegitimate in principle to have any religious beliefs with empirical consequences.

    But, as H. Allen Orr has noted in a perceptive review available on the internet, "What Gould would likely dismiss as superstitious and superficial trimmings is what the actual religious world typically deems the heart of the matter."


    The best way to get a handle on the NOMA principle is to examine how Gould attempts to justify it philosophically. He does this in a strange little chapter entitled "NOMA Defined and Defended".

    The chapter takes up 19 pages of large print, and the early pages are wasted on an argument developed from the supposedly Aristotelian concept "a 'golden mean'". Gould proposes that we should adopt neither an extreme viewpoint of expecting inevitable conflict between science and religion nor the other extreme, expecting some kind of harmonious integration. Rather, we should follow the "golden mean" and find a position where science and religion do not overlap at all.

    I don't think this is even developed as a serious argument. It is more a rhetorical device to put us in a mood for compromise. Orr points out that Gould misrepresents Aristotle's actual position, since Aristotle used the concept of a mean as an approach to normative ethics, not a method of resolving competing truth claims.

    If Gould had troubled to look more closely at Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, he would have found an analysis of the moral virtues as states of character by which we "stand well or badly" with reference to passions such as fear, joy and anger. A virtue is a disposition or state of character that enables us to prosper and do our work well. Ordinarily, it is a virtue to be inclined to neither an excess nor a deficiency of the relevant passion: we should be inclined to friendliness, for example, not surliness or obsequious flattery. Nowhere does Aristotle argue that the correct or virtuous disposition must necessarily be smack in the middle of the possibilities, or that we should adopt a life of moderation in all things. According to Aristotle, some things are to be shunned completely; he lists such passions as spite and envy and such actions as adultery, theft and murder.

    These ideas make sense as a possible approach to normative ethics, but Aristotle's point is that the passions are the sorts of things of which we can have too much or too little. While the moral virtues can be thought of in this way, the same is certainly not the case with intellectual virtues, involving inquiry into matters of truth and falsity. The mean is not a principle for settling arguments about competing philosophical theories, such as those about the relationship between science and religion. I don't know how Gould received such a misapprehension or whether it is original to him, but he is plainly and badly wrong when he states that the centrepiece of Aristotle's philosophy was "the resolution of most great issues at a resting point between extremes." Aristotle's view could not be more different from this. The whole "argument" is a dead-end, and several other pages of Gould's key chapter are equally wasted on inconclusive waffle about oil and water, apples and oranges, chalk and cheese.

    What remains of the key chapter is an argument based on the "is-ought" distinction drawn by David Hume (whose views about ethical matters were totally inconsistent with Aristotle's, but never mind that). These central pages of the chapter are physically dominated by a long footnote in much finer print, which snakes across three of the book's pages and takes up about two of them in all. In this wonderful anaconda of a note, Gould more or less apologises for his argument's low level of philosophical sophistication. In mitigation, he states a wish to be understood by intelligent general readers, not just those who are trained in philosophy, but the problems he admits overlooking are not, as he asserts, marginal ones that can be ignored for the sake of simplicity. They are fundamental.

    Such as it is, the argument is that answers to "moral issues about the value and meaning of life, both in human form and more widely construed" are not logically entailed by any number of propositions about the factual "is" of "the material construction of the natural world." This is correct, but it cannot be used to prove what Gould wants.

    What is most striking about this, the central argument in Rocks of Ages, is that its author wants to equate the religious realm and that of ethical discussion. Gould believes the following impossible things. (1) Religion just is the domain of discussion about ethics (interpreted broadly to include issues of value and "purpose"), the "ought" realm. (2) Science cannot impinge on this (broadly understood) ethical realm.

    Gould rules out conflict between science and religion, not so much by holding back the long reach of science (though the book contains an element of this), but by radically constraining the claims that religion can legitimately make.


    The ethical realm is, in different senses, far narrower yet far wider than the religious realm. It is narrower because the organisations, teachers and texts of religious movements have never confined themselves to making "ought" statements or related statements about value, meaning or purpose. Rather, they have put forward factual-sounding statements about the existence of supernatural beings, such as gods, nymphs, demons and ancestral spirits. They have made claims about the dispositions and activities of these beings or have invoked over-arching forces or principles, such as Moira, Karma or the Tao. They have described unseen places, such as Hades, Valhalla, Paradise and Purgatory. They have posited deep components or aspects of the human makeup, such as the soul or Atman.

    However remote they may be from empirical investigation, these claims take the form of "is", not "ought" statements. If science is unable to dispute them, it is for reasons other than the logical gap between "is" and "ought" upon which Gould relies. Even if it worked as far as it goes, Gould's argument could show only that science is unable to criticise ethical discussion that takes the pure form of "ought" statements. It could not show that science will never collide with the very different kinds of statements that dominate religious speech and writings.

    As it happens, many of the propositions that can be derived from the holy books, taken at face value, are scientifically testable. Most notoriously, it is possible to calculate from the Old Testament at least a rough idea of the age of the Universe. As Gould points out in another of his recent books, Challenging the Millennium, there are sufficient gaps and ambiguities in the Bible's genealogies to stretch or contract the total age of the Earth somewhat, so that we are not stuck with Bishop Usher's answer that it was created on 23 October 4004 BC. However, Usher can't have been too far wrong, even if he fudged the data to obtain a neat result—the creation of the world just on 4000 years before the birth of Jesus.

    Leaving aside for a moment such possibilities as a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of the seven days of Genesis, the gaps and ambiguities are not sufficient to allow for an answer as remote as 10,000 BC or as recent as 2000 BC. Moreover, we can obtain a more precise figure by cross-checking biblical events against other, uncontroversial, historical facts. Even if the first three chapters of Genesis, the myths of the Creation and the Fall, are interpreted in some timeless, allegorical or symbolic sense, the fourth chapter moves us into a chronicle of postlapsarian history that is more difficult to reinterpret. In any event, we are told Adam's age when he died (930 years), making it harder to manipulate the biblical time scale from mankind's creation.

    Yet, for better or worse, we have well-established scientific knowledge that the Earth has been around for billions of years. A proposition that can be derived from the Bible, that the Earth is no more than, say, 10,000 years old, turns out to be unequivocally false.

    Unfortunately for Gould's enterprise, religions are not secular ethical philosophies dressed up with symbols. They are encyclopedic explanatory systems that make sense of the world of human experience in terms of a supernatural realm and its workings. They end up making statements about humanity's place in the space-time Universe that are open to conflict with scientific statements about physical nature. With the example of Genesis and its genealogies, reinterpretations are possible, and not just of the first three chapters, but it seems wrong-headed to rule out the religious legitimacy of accepting the book's literal words.

    Admittedly, not all religious propositions are like this. Some, such as the existence of the timeless, non-physical God of Thomist theology, may appear so metaphysical that scientific theory can never support or undermine them. I believe, however, that this impression is largely illusory, and I'll return to it at the end of this article.

    Gould is well aware of the encyclopedic character of actual religions, but dismisses it as a thing of the past:

  • At earlier periods of most Western cultures, when science did not exist as an explicit enterprise, and when a more unified sense of the nature of things gathered all "why" questions under the rubric of religion, issues with factual resolutions now placed under the magisterium of science fell under the aegis of an enlarged concept of religion.
  • But this is perverse. The "enlarged" concept of religion that Gould refers to is the only one with any historical plausibility, not merely for "most Western cultures" but for virtually all human cultures, Western or otherwise, at all periods of history. Nothing has been "enlarged" when we think about religion in this way. In denying the legitimacy of "is" type beliefs based on biblical authority or supernatural revelation, claiming these are violations of the NOMA principle, Gould is actually rejecting the entire historical and popular concept of religion.

    In summary, certain literal-minded religious claims cannot rationally be believed in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, so Gould would apply the NOMA principle to declare all religious claims with empirical content a priori illegitimate. But that is an artificial constriction of the range of religious claims. Across the historical and geographical sweep of human experience, religious organisations, teachers and texts have made a hodgepodge of claims extending far beyond the ethical realm.


    Conversely, much of what lies on the "ought" side of the Humean gap is secular rather than religious discussion. It is true that the institution of religion dominated ethics until recently, but that is not a reason to equate the two. Derek Parfit in his philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons, laments that (historically), "Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning." Parfit celebrates the historically recent development of non-religious ethical philosophy: "Since we cannot know how Ethics [freed of religion] will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes."

    Gould makes the historical claim that ethical discussion, including the search for meaning, has centered upon the institution of religion. Therefore, it is appropriate to use the word "religion" to denote this kind of discussion. Parfit would agree with the historical claim but add that ethical discussion has been the worse for exactly that reason. Several points need to be made here.

    First, Rocks of Ages claims to be a book about the compatibility of religion and science. It is no use Gould putting an argument that something quite different from the normal concept of religion can justifiably be called "religion", and then arguing that this is compatible with science. What a let down! Secondly, the argument for using the word "religion" in this way is appallingly weak. We might as well use the word "autocracy" to describe the study of government on the ground that, historically, most governments have been autocratic. The fact is that modern ethical philosophy is often non-religious or anti-religious, and it is insulting to thinkers such as Parfit or Peter Singer to adopt terminology that suggests they are really playing the religion game.

    Gould's shuffling of words blurs the fact that ethical thinkers may wish to subject moral claims emerging from the institution of religion to severe critique. While religious believers may be convinced that moral claims made by a church, priest or holy book are particularly authoritative, it is arguable that the opposite is true, that organised religion is a force for ethical backwardness. Readers of Justice Michael Kirby's recent Quadrant article "Remaining Sceptical: Lessons from Psychiatry's Mistreatment of Homosexual Patients" (January-February 2000), which includes some pertinent discussion of the Catholic Church's attitude to homosexuals, could be forgiven for drawing that robust conclusion.

    I should add that the Church's view has biblical support, since the Book of Leviticus, chapter 20, verse 13, has this to say on the subject: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death". Religious organisations, then, do not even have a special authority within the magisterium of ethical discussion. They tend to fossilise ancient, irrational and cruel moral viewpoints.


    Though it is not possible to infer an ethical conclusion from any number of purely empirical statements, scientific knowledge can and does overlap with ethical discussion. To demonstrate this, it is enough to point out that we all have ethical beliefs that take a conditional form: "If homosexual acts cause earthquakes then they are evil and should be forbidden." Combined with a purely empirical (though false) statement—"homosexual acts cause earthquakes"—this provides us with a perfectly valid argument that we ought to prohibit homosexual acts. If it is accepted, empirically, that earthquakes have nothing to do with homosexuality, then the argument is demolished. This kind of reasoning is typical of how real-life attempts to draw ethical conclusions rely upon empirical knowledge.

    To repeat, empirical statements alone, or assisted by purely logical statements, will not yield ethical conclusions. Some of the premises in an ethical argument must ultimately come from neither logic nor the realm of empirical fact. This is the central problem of meta-ethics and it raises the spectre that normative ethical claims may ultimately have no objective foundation at all. But what Gould has touched on here is not an argument to separate the "ought" realm only from the findings of science. If the argument works as drastically as Hume thought it does, it must also separate the "ought" realm from the "is" claims that are typically made by religion. Hume, of course, thought that ethical claims are no more than reports about the speaker's subjective feelings.

    To press this point, note that it is possible to derive a conclusion such as "we ought to execute homosexuals" from two premises: (1) "If God thinks homosexuality is an abomination then we ought to execute homosexuals" and (2) "God abominates homosexuality". Premise (2) can be found in the book of Leviticus, but it is not clear why anyone would accept premise (1). It would seem more rational to believe the following: "If God thinks homosexuality is an abomination then God is maleficent."

    If we try to base our ethical beliefs on the thoughts or commands of God, we quickly reach a series of familiar paradoxes that Plato developed in his dialogue the Euthyphro. Theologians have subtle ways of trying to get around this. Rather than saying that we ought to behave in certain ways because God commands us to do so, they encourage us to recognise God's benevolence and respond to this with love. We are supposed to do what God wants out of this love for Him or perhaps out of recognition that doing what He wants will be deeply fulfilling.

    Intellectual manoeuvrings along these lines seem to resolve the paradox, but only by appealing to our pre-existing dispositions (to please those we love) or to what will make us flourish or be fulfilled (as a matter of fact). However, if we are entitled to bring these factors into ethical discussion, it seems that the empirical knowledge made available by science can also be combined with our dispositions to act in certain ways or with prudential factors relating to our own expectations of fulfilment.

    The dilemma for Gould is that any argument based on the Humean "is-ought" gap must either make religious knowledge just as irrelevant for ethical conclusions as scientific knowledge or allow for wormholes through the vacuum that supposedly separates "is" and "ought". Once we allow for any philosophical wormholes, though, scientific knowledge becomes just as relevant to ethical discussion as religious knowledge. Whichever way we approach the problem, it is impossible to identify religion with the ethical realm while keeping science out of it. Gould should have paid attention to the subtleties surrounding the Humean argument, rather than avoiding them with the excuse that he was writing for general readers.


    The NOMA principle requires that religious teachers and organisations no longer put forward such doctrines as a particular age for the Earth or the miraculous interference of God in the processes of biological evolution. In particular, Gould describes the religious doctrine of a young Earth as "a dogmatic and idiosyncratic reading of a text upon a factual issue lying within the magisterium of science". But what does fall within the magisterium of religion if it cannot legitimately have teachings about such things?

    True, there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, that life itself has existed here for most of that time, if in rudimentary form, and that even mankind is many times older than the book of Genesis seems to allow. True, the teaching in state schools of false doctrines based upon a particular religious viewpoint would be a misuse of taxpayers' money. But Gould wants to say that such doctrines are illegitimate a priori as an intrusion into the "magisterium" of science.

    By advocating such a principle as NOMA, Gould ends up foreclosing areas of debate that his central argument suggests should fall within the magisterium of religion. For example, he castigates, as a violation of the NOMA principle, what he calls "The misguided search for intrinsic meaning within nature". But wasn't the magisterium of religion supposed to have authority over issues of value, purpose and meaning?

    He states that we must seek morality within ourselves, a proposition that Hume might have agreed with but which rules out most religious positions from antiquity to the present. The more closely the Principle of NOMA is scrutinised, the more obviously it is incoherent and intellectually untenable.


    In a chapter called "NOMA Illustrated", Gould reveals that his "skeptical friends and colleagues" do not challenge the logic of the argument for NOMA so much as his claim that "most religious and scientific leaders actually do advocate the precepts of NOMA." He devotes to the rest of the chapter to some examples which are supposed to prove this improbable claim.

    First, he examines the trial and punishment of Galileo. He states that he does "not urge a totally revisionist reading", perhaps to make clear that he does not endorse Arthur Koestler's grumpy, anti-intellectual attack on Galileo in The Sleepwalkers, for example. As Gould acknowledges, the facts are that Pope Urban VIII did defend the geocentric model of astronomy as religious dogma, that Galileo was forced to recant under threat of torture, and that he was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

    It is difficult to work out what Gould is really arguing about the clash between Galileo and Pope Urban. The best that he can do is plead that the social situation was complex and that Galileo was provocative towards the pope in his great Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. But none of this shows the NOMA principle in action. Galileo, by the way, had his own theory about how science could be reconciled with religion, but it was quite different from Gould's. His presentation of such a theory appears, if anything, to have aggravated the ecclesiastical displeasure that he experienced. If Gould had lived in the 17th century and offered his NOMA principle to the Church, he might well have found himself in much the same uncomfortable situation as Galileo.

    In any event, Gould nexts spends some pages on the 1950 papal encyclical Humani Generis, but has to concede (in a footnote) that this apparently violated the NOMA principle because it rejected the notion of human ancestry except by a single set of parents. In other words, it ruled out some scientific possibilities on the basis of religious dogma. Gould tries to get around the problem by stating that he cannot judge whether or not this was a violation of the NOMA principle because he does not know "how symbolically such a statement may be read." To this point, however, the relevant chapter of Rocks of Ages does not demonstrate that religious leaders have historically favoured the NOMA principle. On the contrary, it shows Gould trying to explain away embarrassing counter-examples.

    It took until 1950 before a pope was prepared, somewhat grudgingly, to accept that the theory of evolution might be correct. It took until 1996 for a pope to accept it as factually established. Pope John Paul II's statement in that year is, indeed, a praiseworthy case of the Church's accepting that it would be irrational to dispute a well-established scientific theory. However, as Gould says, this was "novel and newsworthy". One such novel example does not establish the claim that "most religious . . . leaders do actually advocate the precepts of NOMA". Furthermore, the basis adopted by the Church in very recent times—a preparedness to reinterpret its teachings in the light of sufficiently well-established science—is (ironically) Galileo's solution to science/religion conflicts, not Gould's new-fangled version.

    Gould finishes off the chapter by describing a disagreement between Isaac Newton and his friend the Reverend Thomas Burnet. Burnet attempted to reinterpret the six days of creation without introducing any divine interference with physical laws. Newton argued that the earth might have revolved more slowly at the beginning of creation, while Burnet objected to any miraculous explanation for the shortening of the diurnal cycle. Reading Gould's account, it is clear that Newton won the intellectual debate. If an all-powerful God exists, why should He not interfere in such matters if He so chooses? Burnet could not rebut this telling point, and nor can Gould.

    To allow scientists to appeal to miracles in their day-to-day formulation of hypotheses, design of experiments and painstaking observations would be poor research methodology, but we don't need Gould to tell us that. On the other hand, contrary to what Gould claims, there is always the theoretical possibility, within a theistic world view, of divinely ordained causal anomalies in nature. The Principle of NOMA demands that religion abandon its belief in miracles, but why should it? If an omnipotent God exists, He is no doubt capable of suspending the operation of scientific laws. Like Newton, Galileo was more rigorous in his thinking than Gould: he proposed that the miracle of God's commanding the sun to stand still at the battle of Jericho be reinterpreted in a manner consistent with heliocentric astronomy; but he did not deny that the miracle happened.


    Gould concludes by attacking some rival attempts to achieve a rapprochement between science and religion, and he hits some targets. For example, he dismisses out of hand a journalist's clumsy attempt to justify the doctrine that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine by drawing a parallel with the supposed fact that light is both a wave and a particle. As Gould says, this is just a wild metaphor. I add that light can be thought of for some purposes as like a wave in a medium, similar to water waves or sound waves. For other purposes, it can be thought of as made of tiny portions of matter, "particles". But no scientist seriously proposes that light is, by theological analogy, "fully a wave and fully a particle", which would be truly inconsistent.

    In other instances, however, Gould seems to go wrong. He brings up the strong anthropic principle, the speculative idea that the Universe has fantastically improbable features that make it compatible with the existence of us, its observers. This idea can easily be transformed into a modern version of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the argument from design. Gould, however, reduces it to the following parodic interpretation:

  • If the laws of nature were just a tad different, we wouldn't be here. Right. Some other configuration of matter and energy would then exist, and the universe would present just as interesting a construction, with all parts conforming to reigning laws of a different nature. Except that we wouldn't be around to make silly arguments about this alternate universe. So we wouldn't be here. So what?
  • The argument which Gould is rejecting here may have weaknesses. For a start, it seems to depend on the probability that fundamental physical laws and constants should turn out to be just so . . . but does it make sense to raise issues of probability about the most fundamental facts of physical nature itself? Even if it does, the evidence may lead us to conclusions other than that of design. In particular, there are theories that allow multiple universes to exist in one sense or another, in which case, it is not so strange that we find ourselves in one that happens to have physical laws consistent with our presence.

    Gould, however, does not reach these issues because he imagines that, if the physical laws of the actual Universe had been slightly different, "the universe would [nonetheless] present just as interesting a construction". But would it? The argument is usually developed along the lines that a very slight difference in the most fundamental laws of physical nature would have prevented any form of physical complexity sufficient to provide a substrate for interesting developments such as life, intelligence and consciousness. Accordingly, a universe with different laws would not "present just as interesting a construction".

    Whatever the argument's flaws, it seems to me a quite legitimate one put in support of cosmological design or even a designer. If it fails, it does so on rationally articulable grounds involving sophisticated counter-arguments, not because Gould has been able to misrepresent and mock it. This brings me to my final point.

    The most rarefied religious propositions do appear to defy empirical testing, which suggests that they may, indeed, be immune to any critique based on science. Just as no set of empirical statements, alone or in conjunction with merely logical truths, can add up to an "ought" statement, it may be that they can never add up to certain kinds of metaphysical statements or their contradictions. Gould does not make this point, but it seems a plausible reason for thinking that religion and science are compatible. All the same, scientific statements may play a legitimate part in arguments for or against such metaphysical propositions as the existence of a timeless, non-physical God. Taken together with deeply held metaphysical or epistemological beliefs or background assumptions, scientific knowledge may well provide some of the premises for appropriate philosophical arguments.

    As with the domain of "ought" statements, there seems to be a need to find a source for these deep beliefs or assumptions outside of either logic or the realm of empirical fact, and it is, once more, difficult to identify a source. However, it seems possible to argue about even the most rarefied claims of the most sophisticated and self-conscious religions, such as that God exists, but outside of time. If these claims are open at all to rational support or criticism, then the relevance of premises from the realm of science cannot be ruled out.

    Gould himself acknowledges that atheism is "in many ways my own suspicion". Where does he get that "suspicion" from? Is there any rational basis for it, or is it merely some kind of neurological twitch from which he suffers? If the latter, why mention it? I can't read Gould's mind, but I'm inclined to think that his atheistic suspicion flows from his clearly articulated vision of a universe with no discernible purpose. Whether Gould's suspicion is right or wrong, I'm not surprised that Rocks of Ages fails to establish a demarcation line between the domains of science and religion.


    Back to Home