Book Review

Rocks of Ages:
Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

Stephen Jay Gould
Bantam, New York
1999. 222 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by
Ross Rhodes

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Dictating the Terms of the Peace

Ross Rhodes

Archaic atom superimposed over timeless cross

From the perspective of an eminent and widely published commentator on scientific matters, science and theology should be able to coexist, sometimes in the same individual, without antagonism. In Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould seeks to lay out a principled means of avoiding unnecessary conflict between theologians and scientists. Gould is an evolutionary biologist who has experienced the conflict first hand and even served as a soldier for science in the Creationist Wars. Yet, ultimately, Gould believes there is no reason for any conflict because the two disciplines do not overlap -- not in the least. To Gould, both subject matter and method of inquiry are intrinsically and qualitatively different, as far removed as ships sailing on different oceans, which can be in peril of collision only by straying far from their assigned patrols.

Gould designates this separation of science and religion as the concept of non-overlapping magisteria, using the somewhat awkward acronym of "NOMA." A magisterium is "a domain of authority in teaching." Science is allotted the domain of the natural world, and religion is allotted the contemplation of human values. "[T]he 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." Interactions among these domains should follow a principle of "respectful noninterference."

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. 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.
The premise seems unexceptional, and, indeed, Gould sees nothing controversial or even original about his proposal, which is said to follow "a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike." Gould's formulation certainly contains echoes of earlier ruminations. William James begins his 1902 lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience with the caveat: "The question, What are the religious propensities? and the question, What is their philosophic significance? are two entirely different orders of question from the logical point of view." Gould similarly urges that scientific inquiry and religious thought are different endeavors entirely.

In reading the opening chapters of Rocks of Ages, I admired the wisdom of Gould's approach. Why, for example, should the church have taken offense at Galileo's assertions that the solar system is heliocentric rather than geocentric? What possible impact could such an observation have had on the jealousy and love of our Creator? (Gould is careful to note that he considers this an example of false conflict -- more rooted in politics than either science or philosophy.) Why insist that science can or should find supporting evidence for a scripturally-calculated age of the universe (a dogma that has not been a part of my own tradition)? Why, indeed, would a religious person feel threatened by any scientific finding?

For himself, Gould professes an agnosticism that fits nicely with his thesis. "I am an agnostic in the wise sense of T. H. Huxley, who coined the word in identifying such open-minded skepticism as the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know." Wisdom, open mindedness and rationalism are the touchstones of Gould's position, and he frequently appeals to "people of goodwill" to recognize the benefits of mutual respect for the other's domain. Although Jewish by culture (not by other measures), Gould draws his illustrations largely from the Christian tradition and he demonstrates a scholar's depth of learning in this area. In an early example, he cites to the character of Thomas -- Doubting Thomas -- in the gospel of John. To the assembled disciples who had seen the risen Lord, Thomas asserts, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." This is the credo summa of the scientist, as Gould points out: empirical inquiry and experiment that is verifiable through repetition. At the same time, Gould points out that this scientific ethos is at sea in the magisterium of religion: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." This instruction, alien to science, is said to be the root of religion.

And so, Gould suggests a clean break between the methodology and the lessons of science and of religion. The religious authorities should not tell scientists that evolutionary findings or theory are either correct or incorrect; they should simply accept the lore of science as supreme in the carefully circumscribed magisterium of the exploration of the natural world. Similarly, scientists should not pretend to discover moral guidance from the dog-eat-dog imperatives of evolutionary biology. It is equally invalid, in Gould's view, for religion to hold ancient mythic texts superior to carbon dating, as it is for scientists to assert that social heirarchies are the natural and divinely ordained product of the survival of the fittest. Gould encourages conversation among the practitioners in each magisterium, and suggests that each should listen to the other with respectful attention instead of dismissive contempt, valuing the work and contributions of the other.

All of this is smoothly set out in the opening chapters of Rocks of Ages. It appeals to my own sense of the immiscibility of the two disciplines and my own appreciation for the contributions of each. Though neither theologian nor scientist, I grew up in the church and I also loved learning about the world. My early impression of Jesus was of a great moral mentor, a model of love in relating to friend and foe alike. This is the Jesus that Gould knows from story and song -- a Jesus who spoke wisely and acted with love, and who so impressed his contemporaries that they spread his teachings far and wide. The same could be said of Siddhartha Gautama, a man with no pretentions to divinity but whose words and conduct were so filled with wisdom that he is revered as the Buddha, the one who attained perfect enlightenment and showed others how they could do the same. There is no contradiction between attaining perfect enlightenment, or acting with perfect love, and learning the mechanical lessons of science which describe conditions in the natural world. NOMA holds that loving service to humankind cannot alter the amoral evolutionary imperatives which shaped our bodies and our brains; but neither does our DNA control the answers to moral questions of how to respond to the beggar on the street corner. The two magisteria are separate. Religion and science provide answers to different questions, in different contexts, for different purposes.

Gould's premise, however practical and wise, becomes problematical when he leaves behind the straw men of past conflicts and embarks on his formulation of NOMA for the modern world. Fresh from his wise and reasonable explication of the difference between natural fact and moral truth, Gould proceeds to lay down a "First Commandment" of NOMA:

The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as "miracle" -- operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat. . . . NOMA does impose this 'limitation' on concepts of God . . .."
When I came to this passage, I had to go back and start it again once, twice, and more. Gould appears to be saying that I am allowed to be a wise and reasonable religionist -- and that he will respect my views in this regard -- but I may not believe in miracles affecting the natural world. For myself, I am something of an agnostic on the subject of most reported physical miracles, as I do not believe my faith is dependent on them. Nevertheless, here I began to have a problem with NOMA, and it took me some time to sort out how the seductive wisdom and reasonableness of the opening chapters could have brought us to this pass.

My early view of religion, which I have mentioned, granted the historical Jesus of Nazareth a superior moral authority based on my own evaluation of his moral teachings: I tested them against my own world and found them to be true. I revered Jesus the rabbi, the teacher, but I did not exactly venerate the Christ. In part, this was due to my intellectual difficulty with the "miracles" that pepper the gospels. Some were arguably possible -- the health-related miracles in particular. Casting out demons might be plausible as hyper-applied-phychology by imagining that Jesus instinctively knew just the right words to shortcut a lifetime of psychoanalysis to achieve a behavioral adjustment in the traumatized individual. Curing leprosy, healing the lame, making the blind to see -- all fit plausibly within the placebo effect whereby nothing really happens beyond the individual's receiving an enabling confidence. Even the Christian Scientists can do that. Raising Lazarus from the dead ... well, how do we know he was really dead? After all, it's not as though there were any trained physicians around to record his electroencephalogram. Maybe Lazarus was just really sick, comatose, which would bring us back to the placebo effect, and to the remarkably wise Jesus who knew just how to bring him out of it. Mark states (6:5) that Jesus could do few miracles when the people did not believe. Belief, perhaps even credulity, was the key to the miraculous healings, just as it is the key to the healing power of the sugar pill.

For the rest -- water into wine; a shriveled fig tree; a walk on the water -- in my youth I tended to think of these as rhetorical flourishes, conjuring tricks such as Pharoah's court magicians might have managed, which were used by Jesus or his biographers to illustrate his teachings. No other explanation was possible, because these events as described are patently impossible. So highly did I value the moral teachings of the gospels, and so deeply had I absorbed the lessons of science, that I was unwilling to undermine scriptural authority by crediting the literal words of the evangelists in the matter of physical miracles.

In short, for some twenty-four years I found that I could hold to my religious principles and to my scientific beliefs with a respectful appreciation for the value of each -- each within its separate magisterium. I was Gould's perfect exemplar who, one would have supposed, wisely and reasonably would have chosen my true faith in science over my professed adherence to the sectarian dogma of Christianity in the event of any conflict. As I later realized, however, this peace was gained only at the cost of detaching at the sore spots -- the points at which my religion and my science seemed inexplicably to rub.

The choice that I made, when I made it, surprised even me. As I recall, I was riding as a passenger along Interstate 90, traveling from Hartford to New Haven. I watched the scenery rolling by and I allowed my attention to relax so that the scenery blurred. A thought intruded. It occurred to me that for many years I had been avoiding the question of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. Resurrected, yes, in the sense that his spirit lives on in the sense that my mother's spirit lives on; but resurrected, in the sense that he was dead and then got up three days later and his body no longer lies in the grave? I had been avoiding this question. I had been avoiding it out of respect for the man of Nazareth. I had been avoiding it for ten years or more. As the thought earlier had occurred, I had always instinctively clicked to change the contemplative channel, to change the subject. For some reason, the question now insisted. The story was either true or it was false. I wanted to know which I believed, because, in the case of this particular miracle, I felt that equivocal appeals to scientifically plausible scenarios simply would not answer.

Rather than examine directly whether I believed in the ressurection, I allowed myself only to ask what the consequences would be if Chist really had risen from the dead. I reasonably determined that, if that were the case, then everything I saw as I looked out the car window was somehow different from that which it appeared to be. And as I allowed that answer, I realized that everything before my eyes was not what it appeared to be; that, in fact, everything was quite different. In an instant, the world for me was changed completely from the independently real, to the dependently real; from a world bounded by what is possible, to a world of the infinitely possible; from a material universe, to the mind of God.

It is with this background that I approach Steven Jay Gould's wise and reasonable formulation of the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion. In Gould's view, any insistence on miracles affecting the natural world would intrude upon the magisterium of science, which is to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not possible in the natural world. It seems to be Gould's view that science finally and definitively has ruled out the possibility of any such divine intervention in the material world, so that any religion insisting on the reality of miracles -- and here we must include a bodily resurrection from the dead -- is contradicting, and therefore intruding upon, the proper magisterium of science. Theology shall not be allowed to posit a God capable of disrupting the progression of the universe as dictated by generally applicable natural laws derived by science. This is Gould's "'limitation' on concepts of God."

Gould is never explicit about how he derives this limitation, which seems to reach beyond his special field of evolutionary biology and into the realm of physics. Physics, after all, is the scientific discipline best positioned to suggest or to rule out any mechanism of divine intervention, yet Gould makes no appeal to findings or theory in that field. He seems to speak from a more general, but nonetheless overwhelming, impression that no such theory of physics is possible. This is particularly unfortunate in view of the current unsettled state of theoretical physics. Certainly, it would not be difficult to obtain a widespread scientific (or lay) consensus that miracles (in the sense employed by Gould) cannot, and therefore do not, occur in nature. The apparent lack of room for God in the natural universe has led at least one scientist to develop an elaborate construct whereby the traditionally ascribed attributes of God -- omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence -- can be simulated by a computer program at the end of time. Frank J. Tipler's 1994 speculation, The Physics of Immortality, looks forward to a time when the universe itself can transform into a computer with the power to emulate the universe and all beings who ever lived. Tipler's computer God would need no miracles, no divergence from the natural laws of the natural world, in order to resurrect all persons from the dead by recreating their essence in an infinitely detailed virtual reality. The path leading Tipler to such a scientific Tower of Babel is illuminating, and parallels Gould's own apparent inclinations. The first tenet is that, in the natural world as we know it, miracles are impossible, and so we must acknowledge that they do not occur and never have occurred.

But the sincere scientist always must be willing to acknowledge, at least in principle, that human knowledge is subject to constant and sometimes drastic revision. If presently there does not appear to be any serious challenge to evolutionary theory, we may take it as an excellent working hypothesis and explanation of the natural order; we may not, however, take it as an article of faith -- as many scientists appear to do -- because that would be, in Gould's phrasing, an intrusion upon the magisterium of religion. Perhaps because his own field of evolutionary biology is a relatively youthful 140 years old and is now triumphant, having swept the field, Gould may not be mindful of the broader history of science which is littered with discarded theories once thought incontrovertible. To cite one example only, physics in 1899 was thought to be a dead field because all of physics had been thoroughly and finally understood by expansion and refinement of Newton's magnificent summation; between 1900 and 1905, the entire structure of physics was overturned; by 1927, a new structure was proposed, so profoundly different from the conventional wisdom of 1899 that science has yet to make sense of it all. I do not mean to imply that the same fate awaits evolutionary theory; I mean only to caution that placing limits on God -- even based on firmly established scientific theory -- is both perilous and, at its root, contrary to the noblest traditions of scientific inquiry.

Upon reflection, it appears that Gould's professed respect for religion actually relies on a carefully circumscribed notion of religion. The religion of his argument is the religion of the reasonable people he has known and historical figures who have impressed him with their moral virtue. William Francis Newman is praised for his ability to take the spiritual journey that ends in intense religious belief while rejecting "dogmas and harsh traditional doctrines (particularly the idea of later reward or eternal punishment for earthly deeds) -- all in favor of a system consistent with rational thought and the findings of modern science." Those who adhere to "traditional doctrines," harsh or otherwise, are dismissed as "sectarian" and therefore, somehow, not religious. From Gould's examples (in contradiction of his thesis), it seems that any religious principle which cannot independently be derived from or validated by the secular social sciences must be disallowed. Religion, in this sense, is an organized system of moral values, difficult to distinguish from what others might term philosophy and ethics.

The principle of NOMA, then, allows a reasonable and rational science to coexist with a reasonable and rational religion. Much as I would like to join Gould in this celebration, I find I cannot, because my religion is neither reasonable nor rational. It is not reasonable and it is not rational to believe that a man once rose from the dead; it never has been, and it never will be. It was "foolishness to the gentiles," which is to say, to the eminently reasonable and rational Greek philosophers of St. Paul's day. It remains foolishness to the people of goodwill and keen intellect of whom Gould speaks, which is to say, to the scientific agnostics who are the linear descendents of these same Greek philosophers. Tipler has a much firmer grasp of religion than Gould, and a much more forthright approach: he agrees with St. Paul that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." Tipler's own point of view is that "the empirical fact -- dead men do not rise -- must be given due weight against the testimony of men," and so he does not believe in the resurrection of Christ and, therefore, does not consider himself a Christian. Thus does principled empiricism ever lead to unbelief, from the time of Thomas and Paul to the time of Stephen and Frank.

Gould sees clearly the vice of religious intrusion into science, but is less perceptive in assessing the corresponding vice of scientific intrusion into religion. He cites some peripheral examples from his own field, as when he decries the misapplication of evolutionary biology to social science (which he sometimes equates with religion). He agrees, for example, that we are unlikely to discern proper human moral underpinnings in the essentially amoral natural imperative of reproductive success; he further agrees that the Imperial German philosophy of "might makes right" (together with a host of related justifications for racism and economic oppression) perverted evolutionary theory by generalizing it into a system of so-called natural values which constituted an unwarranted intrusion into the magisterium of religion.

These admissions, however humbly offered, do not approach the heart of the problem, which is the supplanting of one supreme faith by another -- the substitution of a faith in the verifiable materialism of science for faith in an unseen God. This is only implicit in Gould's discussion, but it is made explicit in Tipler's. Tipler, after confessing his own conclusion and belief that Jesus did not really rise from the dead -- that, in fact, his corpse rotted in the grave while his followers suffered a mass hallucination -- makes the astonishing assertion that "[m]ost modern Christian theologians agree with this assessment." Mr. Gould appears to travel with the same crowd, and he is thus able to equate "religion" with these emminently reasonable theologians, and to marginalize all others as sectarian. He does not appear to see any intrusion into the religious magisterium when, appealing to the wisdom of science, he limits concepts of God to the nonintrusive and the unresponsive; nor when he altogether does away with the concept of a personality-inflected God in favor of a "religion" consisting of nothing more than a wise and reasonable system of human values.

It may be that Tipler's assertion about the true faith of modern theologians is accurate for many (I recoil from the implications of "most"). If so, the reason lies in the very violation of NOMA that Gould professes to deplore but spends most of his book promoting. Science, for at least the past few hundred years, has successfully narrowed our cultural understanding of what is possible, even while it has continually expanded our knowledge of what can be accomplished within those shrinking bounds. Miracles are impossible; ah, but unseen forces which can lift a garage door or change the TV channel are possible. This weight of conventional wisdom cannot have failed to impress itself on the mental habits of theologians any less than on the mental habits of evolutionary biologists. One superficial result of this intrusion of science into the magisterium of religion is the rule of priority implicit in Gould's first commandment of NOMA, which is that the theologian must not hold a religious belief unless and until the scientist has reported a supporting theoretical basis. First comes science, then comes religion. In the 1920s, it would have been forbidden for a theologian to assert that God could invest a glass of water with the power to destroy entire cities; since the 1950s, we are allowed to fear the 2H2 in H2O because science has demonstrated the frightening atomic energy of deuterium with the hydrogen bomb. Similarly, I am sure that Gould would dismiss as sectarian nonsense the Christian Science doctrine of an illusory material universe subsumed in the Mind of God. (The very name of the church is probably sufficient to make Gould uncomfortable.) Yet this doctrine, founded in faith and not in the laboratory, anticipated by at least fifty years some of the more "shocking" aspects of the consensus Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Was Mary Baker Eddy, then, wrong to go public with the revelation she believed had been given to her? Was she being unreligious in doing so? No, her NOMA violation appears to have been that she got her priorities wrong and asserted that God has the power to act in the natural world in ways unknown (and perhaps unknowable) to science, and that she did so before physicists came tentatively to some strikingly similar conclusions.

Science and religion may play on different stages for the most part, but pretending there is no interaction is futile. It is only that the sore spots, the points of contact, differ from one individual to another. Recently, it was "scientifically" proposed that racial differences in human achievement, and even in human potential, are inherent. I know that this is not true regardless of what any scientist may say based on any data whatsoever. I know this because God created humans in God's image, and there is but one God, so that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. I do not need validation from the scientific community to dispute the theory of inherent differences and, in fact, I have no need to disprove it at all because it is simply wrong. As it happens, this particular theory and the data on which it is based have been widely ridiculed in scientific circles (I am sure that Gould would have no part of it); but what is to prevent another sincere NOMAist from laying down a Second Commandment: that I should not mix the magisteria by claiming that God created all humans equal? Would I add a jot or a tittle to the scientific debate by citing scripture? Not at all. Would I be intruding upon science by asserting that the scientific claims were incomplete, misinterpreted, or in some other way just plain wrong for no other reason than that God decreed otherwise? Yes, absolutely. This is really no different from the scientist who does not even bother to examine the data underlying the so-called "Bible Code" theory because such a thing is simply impossible and must be wrong. (However, it is to be distinguished from the equally widespread phenomenon of the believer who cites the Bible Code theory as scientific proof of God, also without examination of the data.)

If some theologians have accepted limitations on their concepts of God, others plainly have not. It seems entirely presumptuous for Gould to limit permissible concepts of God to those acceptable to a reasonable agnostic. What to make of the Holiness tradition, so uncompromisingly depicted in Robert Duval's The Apostle? What to make of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States regardless of how one reacts to their views? What of Christian Science? What of orthodox Judaism, which places observance of the Sabbath on an equal moral plane with forbearance from murder for no other reason than that God commanded it (and emphatically not, as Gould might approve, because enforced periodic rest might give the society a competitive advantage)? What of Islam's insistence that the Quran was received by the Prophet from God? What of Shinto's God Emperor? What of Voodoo? What of Rastafarianism? Latter Day Saints and the Book of Mormon? By what intellectual sleight-of-hand are these placed outside of the definition of "religion"?

Gould can understand the Thomas who doubts, and had Thomas gone on to found an academy for the propagation of the moral teachings of Jesus, Gould could approve. But what are we to suppose Gould can make of the Thomas who, after his encounter with the risen Christ, went on (according to tradition) to spread the gospel as far as India in the hope that those who had not seen would yet believe? Gould's account of Thomas's life is more than restrained in its "respectful" forbearance from comment on this matter. Yet, it is an inescapable fact that no one who has experienced the risen Christ, or who has believed in the resurrection, can afterward accept any limitation on the power of God.

In the final analysis, I believe that Mr. Gould sadly misses the entire point of religion. There is no God who can be "limited" by the understandings of science, because that is no God; that is only an amoral principle of social conduct which, if benevolent, might furnish the larger community with an adaptive advantage. There can be no final authority or justification for any such set of rules except that the end (vibrant society) justifies the means (self-sacrifice and love) -- a whimsical variation on the old Imperial German logic. Though Gould does not see it, this is science arrogating to itself the magisterium of religion by confining religion to the comfortably scientific realm of reason and wisdom and analysis. But human knowledge cannot surpass the wisdom of God, and it can no more judge what is reasonable for God to command than it can delimit the power of God to be at work in God's creation. "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." (Luke 17:6 [NRSV]) If I believed that the magisterium of science finally had put the lie to this possibility (I don't), then I would have to abjure science finally. The First Commandment was and is and will remain that we shall have no other gods before the one God, and that means that the conversation between science and religion is not and never can be a debate among equals. There is one God, over all, encompassing all, and above all. By any definition, "all" must include the understandings of science. Gould may study the rocks, but God created the rocks and, if it pleases God, those rocks can shout and sing or be raised up into sons of Abraham.

I find that I have exactly the same interpretation of NOMA as Mr. Gould, which is that either science or religion must be supreme. NOMA fails for me as it fails for Gould because, "No one can serve two masters." (Matt. 6:24 [NRSV]) Gould does not apologize for his service to the rational master of science, even to the point of claiming limits on concepts of God. Others will choose to serve God without apology, even to the point of claiming that God directly ordains all things regardless of whether God's action is accessible to science.

Great Neck, NY
May 24, 1999

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