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Nonoverlapping Magisteria

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

In 1997, noted biologist and author Stephen J. Gould wrote an essay titled, Nonoverlapping Magisteria (sometimes abbreviated as NOMA) ( In it, Gould claims that science and religion should be able to peacefully coexist because of, “. . . a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise - science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” However, it is perhaps a fatal flaw of his essay that he never establishes that religion actually has a legitimate “domains of professional expertise,” he merely states it.

Magisterium is defined as a “domain of teaching authority.” As Gould put it, “No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.”

The short version of my response to Gould’s NOMA thesis is, “Bollocks!”

Now, to begin the longer version, let’s look first at Gould’s claim that religion has a domain of professional expertise as regards ethical values. I would argue that religion has been virtually useless in determining sensible ethical values.

Religiously determined ethical values depend on revelation; the values espoused are believed to come from a god or gods. But religious revelation has never even been proven to exist. Did Paul receive sacred knowledge from god, or did he have an epileptic vision, or did he eat mushrooms containing psilocybin, or was he over-imaginative, or was he simply a liar? No one knows or even could know; there is insufficient evidence existing today. Much the same can be said for Mohammed or Jesus, or any other alleged “prophet.”

Secondly, let’s look at some of the supposed “revealed” ethical pronouncements of religion. The bible commands believers to kill homosexuals, kill adulterers, kill disobedient sons, kill non-virginal brides, kill blasphemers, and kill people who work on the Sabbath. Does this indicate the bible is a reasonable source for ethical values? I would argue that these pronouncements provide overwhelming evidence that the bible’s ethical values are the product of primitive men who had no special expertise. Note now that every one of these actions, if undertaken today, would land one in prison in nearly every country in the world. It seems obvious that the further our ethical systems deviate from the bible, from religion, the more truly ethical they are. And much the same useless, ancient ethical pronouncements can be found in all the other “holy” books.

Gould claims that the other “domain of professional expertise” of religion is in the search for the “spiritual meaning of our lives.” “Spiritual” means of, or relating to, the spirit. And “spirit” essentially means either (1) an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms, or (2): a supernatural being or essence.

This “animating or vital principle” has never been found. The latest biological research indicates that life is a property of certain chemical aggregations, and nothing more. That is, there is no special “breath of life,” or spirit, or soul, which animates these chemicals. The second meaning, which we might describe as, “things having to do with the supernatural,” is also a non-starter, because no supernatural realm has been proven to exist; the supernatural or spiritual realm may well be only make-believe, since its existence has never been unambiguously established.

So, the “domain of professional expertise” of religion dealing with the spiritual apparently involves expertise concerning things which have never been proven to exist. Let’s think about this a bit. What is the domain of professional expertise of the witch doctor, whose methods have never cured anyone of anything? Or what of the expertise of the ghost hunter whose methods have never found a ghost? Clearly it makes little sense to say that an expertise can exist about something which doesn’t exist (the supernatural), or cannot be demonstrated to have an effect on the world (ghosts and other spirits).

So then, just what is the domain of professional expertise of religion? Gould suggests the search for the spiritual meaning of our lives should qualify. But, as we have discussed, there is no solid evidence that the word “spiritual” even deals with anything real. Secondly, talking about the meaning of life would seem to get us nowhere either. True, the religious ascribe great significance to the “meaning of life.” Yet, many atheists claim that life has no meaning, that life just is. Can they be proven wrong? It can certainly be argued that “meaning” is always subjective. For example, some scribblings on a stone in an ancient language would have no meaning to me, but might yield a message of great wisdom to an archaeologist. Is the archaeologist’s “meaning” any more valid than mine? Only if we specify, to whom.

It seems Richard Dawkins has a valid point when he suggests that theology, in the end, is no more useful to the world than fairyology, since both deal with, and are based upon, the nonexistent.

Now, some would say that since religion deals with revelation, which science cannot disprove, then science has no valid voice concerning religion. But, as Greta Christina has pointed out in her blog, “Religion is not a subjective personal opinion, like taste in music. Religion is a claim about cause and effect in the real, non-subjective world. And as such, it's reasonable to expect it to be backed up with solid arguments and evidence.”

Okay, perhaps science has nothing to say about the deist god, which (or who) no longer intervenes in the universe, but it certainly has a legitimate interest in any other god. If a god is an active force that causes or influences events here on Earth, then we can examine these effects in a scientific way, just like any other phenomena. And, if we try, but cannot definitely establish any such effects, then the favored scientific theory, and operating principle, should be that there are none. Failure to find such effects does not prove there is no god, but it leaves us with no compelling reason to give it any more authority or respect than astrology, fairyology, homeopathy, or any other evidence-less theory, until something can be proven.

I believe it is more than just a coincidence that every scrap of "evidence" that there is for religion comes from human beings. It comes from parents, religious teachers, prophets and other believers, and “holy” books. It NEVER comes from the objective world itself, but always from the claims made by people. And none of those people have ever been able to actually prove anything of substance concerning the existence of a god or any revelation.

Why do I care about this? Why do I care whether Gould is right about NOMA? I care because I think the NOMA philosophy has some very serious negative effects on our society. Gould would say, if people want to believe in a soul, that’s not a matter for science. I would say that whether people believe there is a soul or not can be extremely important. Many believe that all abortions should be outlawed because the fetus has a soul. I believe the soul is nothing but a superstition based on ancient primitive writings, and should have no influence in our laws.

The Pope and his followers preach to the Africans that condoms are against God’s will, because he allegedly commanded us to, “be fruitful and multiply.” I say this opinion deserves no respect because it is based on mere superstition, and because such a philosophy causes untold misery to millions of Africans. Clearly, Gould’s idea that religion has “domains of professional expertise,” is not only demonstrably false (does “expertise” in make-believe have any real meaning?), but it is also dangerous.

The conviction of the faithful that their “holy” books and religious leaders have special expertise concerning how we should live and treat each other is not merely wrong, it is seriously harmful to society. Perhaps this is the real message of the 9/11 tragedy.