Rocks of Ages | Reflections & Notes

Posted on June 27, 2018


Stephen Jay Gould. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999. (241 pages)


I have been perplexed at the disdain that many have towards Gould’s construction of NOMA. As such, I may open myself up to considerable criticism for confessing that NOMA is a philosophy to which I myself adhere (currently; you never know where my mind will take me in the future). As with other intellectual endeavors, however, thoughtful critiques are not only welcome, but requested, for if there is truly an unreconcilable contention or conflict between science and religion, it would delight me to have my perspective refined, or even corrected. For now, it is sufficient for me to thank and honor Gould (posthumously) and his contribution to this area of Western thought, as “NOMA” has given language to what I had only previously felt and hypothesized, but could not articulate.


1. The Problem Stated


Our preferences for synthesis and unification often prevent us from recognizing that many crucial problems in our complex lives find better resolution under the (3) opposite strategy of principled and respectful separation. …people often draw the wrong inference that joint action implies common methodology and subject matter–in other words, that some grand intellectual structure will bring science and religion into unity, either by infusing nature with a knowable factuality of godliness, or by tooling up the logic of religion to an invincibility that will finally make atheism impossible. (4)

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. 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. (4)

I propose that we encapsulate this central principle of respectful noninterference–accompanied by intense dialogue between the two distinct subjects, each covering a central facet of human existence–by enunciating the Principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria. (5)

A magisterium…is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. (5)

A Tale of Two Thomases

Doubting Thomas by Mark Tansey

In 1986 [Tansey] depicted a man who won’t accept continental drift in general, or even the reality of earthquakes in particular. An earthquake has fractured both a California road and the adjoining cliff, but the man still doubts. So he instructs his wife, at the wheel, to straddle the fault line with their car, while he gets out and thrusts his hand into the analogy of Christ’s pierced side–the crack in the road.

The Reverend Thomas Burnet (1635-1715) | Telluris theoria sacra, or The Sacred Theory of the Earth

Giambattista VicoScienza nuova (New Science)

Archibald Geikie | Founders of Geology (1905)

So–and now we come to the key point–if some contradiction seems to emerge between a well-validated scientific result and a conventional reading of scripture, then we had better reconsider our exegesis, for the natural world does not lie, but words can convey many meanings, some allegorical or (21) metaphorical. (22)

One must not assume that a book (the Bible in this case) or a day job (as a clergy-man in this example) defines a magisterium. We must look instead to the subject, the logic, and the particular arguments. Our goal of mutual respect requires mutual understanding most of all. (26)

The Fate of Two Fathers

I can hardly think of a more common, or sillier, fallacy of human thought and feeling than our propensity to construct “golden age” myths about a simpler past of rustic bliss. (27)

For both [Huxley & Darwin], the deaths coincided with an intense dialogue that confronted their losses with traditional Christian sources of solace–and both men rejected the conventional comfort in a moving and principled manner. (29)

…the common inference that Darwin’s discovery of evolution led him both to apostasy and to a biological career cannot be sustained. In truth, Darwin had never been personally committed to theology as a calling. As a young man, his religious views remained decidedly lukewarm and passively conventional, simply because he had never given the matter any extensive thought. His designs on a parsonage arose more from an absence of alternative plans than from any active belief or desire. (30)

…if science and religion wage constant battle for the same turf, then Darwin should have become hostile and dismissive toward religion, and cynical about life in general. … But Darwin took no such position. … He lost personal comfort and belief int he conventional practice of religion, but he developed no desire to urge such a view upon others–for he understood the difference between factual questions with universal answers under the magisterium of science, and moral issues that each person must resolve for himself. … the causes of life’s history could not re-(34)solve the riddles of life’s meaning. (35)

With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world…On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. – Charles Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray, 22 May, 1860

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations. Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this. – Thomas Huxley to Charles Kingsley, 23 September, 1860

…Huxley summarizes a personal case for NOMA by stating the three non-overlapping aspects of personal integrity–religion for morality, science for factuality, and love for sanctity–that have anchored his own life and given it meaning. (41)

2. The Problem Resolved in Principle

NOMA Defined and Defended

Are we worth more than bugs or bacteria because we have evolved a much more complex neurology? Under what conditions (if ever) do we have a right to drive other species to extinction by elimination of their habitats? Do we violate any moral codes when we use genetic technology to place a gene from (54) one creature into the genome of another species? (55)

These questions address moral issues about the value and meaning of life, both in human form and more widely construed. Their fruitful discussion must proceed under a different magisterium, far older than science (at least as a formalized inquiry), and dedicated to a quest for consensus, or at least a clarification of assumptions and criteria, about ethical “ought,” rather than a search for any factual “is” about the material construction of the natural world. (55)

I most emphatically do not argue that ethical people must validate their standards by overt appeals to religion–… (57)

I must defend these two key claims about NOMA in the face of an evident challenge inherent in the structure of my foregoing argument.

    • I will accept both Huxley’s view and the etymology of the word itself–and construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people. (62)

NOMA Illustrated

I will therefore discuss two maximally different but equally ringing defenses of NOMA–examples that could not exist if science and religion have been destined to fight for the same disputed territory: first, religion acknowledging the prerogatives of science for the most contentious of all subjects (attitudes of recent popes toward human evolution); and second, science, at the dawn of the modern age, as honorably practiced by professional clergymen (who, by conventional views, should have undermined rather than promulgated such an enterprise). (70)

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 (84) important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.” (85)

Coda and Segue

NOMA is no wimpish, wallpapering, superficial device, acting as a mere diplomatic fiction and smoke screen to make life more convenient by compromise in a world of diverse and contradictory passions. NOMA is a proper and principled solution–based on sound philosophy–to an issue of great historical and emotional weight. NOMA is tough-minded. NOMA forces dialogue and respectful discourse about different primary commitments. NOMA does not say “I’m OK, you’re OK–so lest’ just avoid any talk about science and religion.” (92)

As such, NOMA imposes requirements that become very difficult for many people. In particular, NOMA does challenge certain particular (and popular versions of religious belief, even while strongly upholding the general importance of religion. And NOMA does forbid scientific entry into fields where many arrogant scientists love to walk, and yearn to control. For example, if your particular form of religion demands a belief that the earth can only be about ten thousand years old (because you choose to read Genesis as a literal text, whatever such a claim might mean), then you stand in violation of NOMA–for you have tried to impose a dogmatic and idiosyncratic reading of a text upon a factual issue lying within the magisterium of science, and well resolved with a radically different finding of several billion years of antiquity. (93)

Thus, NOMA works as a taskmaker, not an enabler… (94)

3. Historical Reasons for Conflict

The Contingent Basis for Intensity

Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) | A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (

John William Draper (1874) | History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (

No matter how logical or humane we may regard the model of NOMA, and no matter how false and simplistic we may judge the alternative notion of inherent warfare between science and religion, no one can deny that overt struggle has characterized many prominent cases of historical interaction between these two institutions. How then can NOMA be defended if patterns of actual history speak in such a different voice? I (103) believe that four major reasons–all artifacts of history or consequences of psychology, rather than defendable arguments against a desirable and eminently reachable goal–can explain this anomaly and help us to grasp why such a laudable argument as NOMA continues to face so many obstacles toward acceptance, or even understanding. (104)

1. …the human mind cannot help wondering about the nature of things, both for practical reasons of planting and sailing, and for more general motives inspired by our blessed sense of wonder–as in, why does the sun shine, and why is grass green? (104)

If human nature includes such admirable features as our blessed sense of wonder, we are also driven by less estimable propensities realized in such common principles of action as “Don’t give up power or turf voluntarily, even if you hold no right to the territory.” I don’t know that we have to look much deeper in order to understand why history often features warfare, when NOMA should prevail. (105)

2. General principles don’t always animate particulars. (106)

3. When scientific conclusions have been denied on grounds explicitly identified as religious by supporters of a contrary view, the subjects involved almost always cut closest to the psychological bone of our deepest hopes and fears–to such questions as “what is man [meaning all of us, despite the language of the King James Bible] that thou art mindful of him?” (108)

4. If science and religion, when properly separated by the NOMA principle, stood far apart and never discussed the same subject again, then our long history of unnecessary and illogical conflict could perhaps be (109) closed. … Science and religion must ask different, and logically distinct, questions–but their subjects of inquiry are often both identical and maximally meaningful. Science and religion stand watch over different aspects of all our major flashpoints. May they do so in peace and reinforcement–and not like the men who served as cannon fodder in World War I, dug into the trenches of a senseless and apparently interminable conflict, while lobbing bullets and canisters of poison gas at a supposed enemy, who, like any soldier, just wanted to get off the battlefield and on with a potentially productive and rewarding life. (110)

Columbus and the Flat Earth: AN Example of the Fallacy of Warfare Between Science and Religion

Lactantius | Divinae institutiones (Divine precepts) (1541)

Washington Irving | A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828)

Defending NOMA from Both Sides Now: The Struggle Against Modern Creationism


Modern creationism, alas, has provoked a real battle, thus supporting NOMA with a positive example of the principle that all apparent struggles between science and religion really arise from violations of NOMA. (125)

I would summarize the peculiarities of our contemporary struggle with creationism in two propositions:

1. The forceful and persistent attempt by young-earth creationists to insinuate their partisan and minority theological dogma into the science curricula of American public schools cannot be read, in any legitimate way, as an episode in any supposedly general warfare between science and religion. If the issue must be dichotomized at all, the two sides might be characterized as supporters versus opponents of NOMA; as defenders of the First Amendment for separation for church and state versus theocrats who would incorporate their certainties as official state policy; or, most generally, as defenders of free inquiry and the right of (128) teachers to present their best understanding of subjects in the light of their professional training versus the setting of curricula by local sensibilities or beliefs (or just by those who make the most noise or gain transitory power), whatever the state of natural knowledge, or the expertise of teachers. (129)

2. This controversy is as locally and distinctively American as apple pie and Uncle Sam. No other Western nation faces such an incubus as a serious political movement (rather than a few powerless cranks at the fringes). The movement to impose creationism upon public school science curricula arises from a set (129) of distinctively American contrasts, or generalities expressed in a peculiarly American context: North versus South, urban versus rural, rich versus poor, local or state control versus federal standards. (130)


Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987

We misidentify the protagonists of this battle in the worst possible way when we depict evolution versus creationism as a major skirmish in a general war between science and religion. Almost all scientists and almost all religious leaders have joined forces on the same side–against creationists. And the chief theme of this book provides the common currency of agreement–NOMA, and the call for respectful and supportive dialogue between two distinct magisteria, each inhabiting a major mansion of human life, and each operating best by shoring up its own home while admiring the other guy’s domicile and enjoying a warm friendship filled with illuminating visits and discussions. (148)

The enemy is not religion but dogmatism and intolerance, a tradition as old as humankind, and impossible to extinguish without eternal vigilance, which is, as a famous epigram proclaims, the price of liberty. (149)


[Much of the material for this section comes from my essay “William Jennings Bryan’s last campaign,” published in Bully for Brontosaurus (W.W. Norton, 1991).]

How could this man have then joined the forces with the cult of biblical literalism in an effort to purge religion of all liberality, and to stifle the same free thought that he had advocated in so many other contexts? (152)

This paradox still intrudes upon us because Bryan forged a living legacy (as the preceding section documented), not merely as an issue lost in the mists of history. For without Bryan, there never would have been anti-evolution laws, never a Scopes trial, never a resurgence (152) in our day, and never a Supreme Court decision. Every one of Bryan’s progressive triumphs would have occurred without him. He fought mightily and helped powerfully; nevertheless, women would be voting today and we would be paying income tax if he had never been born. But the legislative attempt to curb evolution was his baby, and he pursued it with all his legendary demoniac fury. No one else in the ill-organized fundamentalist movement had the inclination, and surely no one else had the legal skill or political clout. (153)

Bryan’s attitude to evolution rested upon a three-fold error. First, he made the common mistake of confusing the fact of evolution with the Darwinian explanation of its mechanism. He then misinterpreted natural selection as a martial theory of survival by battle and destruction of enemies. Finally, he fell into the logical error of arguing that Darwinism implied the moral virtuousness of such deathly struggle. The first two errors may count as simple misunderstandings of a theory within the magisterium of science. But the crucial third error, the source of Bryan’s emotional and political commitment, represents his confusion of scientific with moral truth–a basic violation of NOMA, and the foundation of almost all our unnecessary strife over evolution and ethics. Bryan wrote in the Prince of Peace (1904):

The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate–the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward toward the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I prefer to believe that love rathe than hatred is the law of development.

In 1906, Bryan told the sociologist E. A. Ross that “such a conception of man’s origin would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth.” (155)

Consider the three principal foci of his campaign, and their links to his populist past: (155)

  1. For peace and compassion against militarism and murder. “I learned,” Bryan wrote, “that it was Darwinism that was at the basis of that damnable doctrine that might makes right that had spread over Germany.”
  2. For fairness and justice toward farmers and workers against exploitation for monopoly and profit.
  3. For the rule of majority opinion against impossible elites.

Bryan often stated that two books had altered the character of his opposition to evolution from laissez-faire to vigorous action: Headquarters Nights, by Vernon L. Kellogg (1917), and The Science of Power, by Benjamin Kidd (1918).

Evolution and Animal Life, Vernon Kellogg and David Starr Jordan

The Science of Power (1918) by Benjamin Kidd

Bryan never grasped NOMA’s chief principle that factual truth, however constituted, cannot dictate, or even imply, moral truth. Any argument that facts or (162) theories of biological evolution can enjoin or validate any moral behavior represents a severe misuse of Darwin’s great insight, and a cardinal violation of NOMA. (163)

Lord only knows, he understood precious little about science, and he wins no medals for logic of argument. But when he said that Darwinism had been widely portrayed as a defense of war, domination, and domestic exploitation, he was right. (163)

We now come to the crux of this story. Such misuses of Darwinism stand in violation of NOMA,… If scientists had always maintained proper caution in their interpretations, and proper humility in resisting invalid extensions of their findings into the inappropriate domains of other magisteria, then we could exonerate my profession by recognizing the inevitable misuses by nonscientists as yet another manifestation of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

| But NOMA cuts both ways and imposes restriction and responsibility on both magisteria. The political campaigns of American creationists do represent–as usually and correctly interpreted–and improper attempt by partisans of a marginal and minority view within the magisterium of religion to impose their doctrines upon the magisterium of science. But, alas, scientists have also, indeed frequently, been guilty of the same offense in reverse, even if they don’t build organized political movements with legislative clout. (164)

A Civic Biology, 1914 by George William Hunter

Under the heading “Parasitism and Its Cost to Society–The Remedy,” Hunter writes:

Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.

Hunter writes a single paragraph under the heading “the races of man”–in a textbook assigned to children of all groups in public high schools throughout America:

At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Bryan advocated the wrong solution, but he had correctly identified a serious problem!

Science is a discipline, and disciplines are exacting. All disciplines maintain rules of conduct and self-policing. All gain strength, respect, and acceptance by working honorably within their bounds and knowing when transgression upon other realms counts as hubris or folly. Science, as a discipline, tries to understand the factual state of nature and to explain and coordinate these data into general theories. Science teaches us many wonderful and disturbing things–facts that need weighing when we try to develop standards of conduct, and when we ponder the great questions of morals and aesthetics. But science cannot answer these questions alone and science cannot dictate social policy. (169)

Some men who call themselves pessimists because they cannot read good into the operations of nature forget that they cannot read evil. In morals the law of competition no more justifies personal, official, or national selfishness or brutality than the law of gravity justifies the shooting of a bird.  – Vernon Kellogg

4. Psychological Reasons for Conflict

Can Nature Nurture Our Hopes?

This book rests on a basic, uncomplicated premise that sets my table of contents and order of procedure, and that requires restatement at several points in the logic of my argument: NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion). (175)

The misguided search for intrinsic meaning within nature–the ultimate (and also the oldest) violation of NOMA–has taken two principal forms in Western traditions. I call the first approach the “Psalm Eight,” or “all things under his feet,” solution, to commemorate both the honest and accurate posing of the question: How, in the light of our cosmic smallness, can we even contemplate any favorable intrinsic meaning?

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers; the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

and also the boastful answer of our vainglorious dreams: (178)

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor,… (179)

In other words, “all things under his feet” finds meaning in nature by touting our superiority over other creatures, or advocating the more extreme position that nature exists to serve our needs. (179)

For if we allow nature to define morality, then we must either claim that nature’s way embody traditional values of love, kindness, and cooperation–or we must admit that Kellogg’s German (181) generals were right after all, that the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments represent unattainable fantasies, and that the moral order includes frequent murder and rapine. (182)

Nature’s Cold Bath and Darwin’s Defense of NOMA

I view Darwin in an entirely opposite manner. He maintained, throughout his life, a basic human fascination for the great questions of morals and meanings, and he recognized the transcendent importance of such inquiry. But he knew both the strengths and the limitations of his chosen profession, and he understood that the power of science could only be advanced and consolidated on the fertile ground of its own magisterium. In short, Darwin rooted his views about science and morality in the principle of NOMA.

| Darwin did not use evolution to promote atheism, or to maintain that no concept of God could ever be squared with the structure of nature. Rather, he argued that nature’s factuality, as read within the magisterium of science, could not resolve, or even specify, the existence or character of God, the ultimate meaning of life, the proper foundations of morality, or any other question within the different magisterium of religion. If many Western thinkers had once invoked a blinkered and indefensible concept of divinity to declare the impossibility of evolution, Darwin would not make the same arrogant mistake in the opposite direction, and claim that the fact of evolution implies the nonexistence of God. (192)

I propose that we call Darwin’s view the “cold bath” theory of nature. (193)

  1. The basic statement of NOMA. The facts of nature are what they are, and cannot, in principle, resolve religious questions about God, meaning, and morality.
  2. Two alternatives for nature. Unconstrained by our religious hopes and needs, nature remains free to assume any appearance when read in the invalid light of human moral or aesthetic judgment. …we all recognize primary foible of frail humanity–our propensity for embracing hope and shunning logic, our tendency to believe what we desire rather than what we observe.
  3. Better an invigorating cold bath than a suffocating warm embrace. Nature is amoral–not immoral, but rather constructed without reference to this strictly human concept.

T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 1893

Homo sapiens also ranks as a “thing so small” in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event, and not the nub of universal purpose. Make of such a conclusion what you will. Some people find the prospect depressing. I have always regarded such a view (206) of life as exhilarating–a source of both freedom and consequent moral responsibility. We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes–one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way. (207)

The Two False paths of Irenics

…defined in opposition to polemics as a branch of Christian theology that “presents points of agreement among Christians with a view to the ultimate unity of Christianity” (Oxford English Dictionary). (208)

This book (208) promotes an irenic solution under a large umbrella extending far beyond the purely Christian realm of official definitions cited above. (209)

Religion just can’t be equated with Genesis literalism, the miracle of the liquefying blood of Saint Januarius…or the Bible codes of kabbalah and modern media hype. If these colleagues wish to fight superstition, irrationalism, philistinism, ignorance, dogma, and a host of other insults to the human intellect (often politically converted into dangerous tools of (209) murder and oppression as well), then God bless them–but don’t call this enemy “religion.” (210)

Call NOMA irenics with a punch. The dialogue will be sharp and incisive at times; participants will get riled up, as a blessed consequence of our unextinguishable human nature; but respect for legitimate differences, and a recognition that full answers require distinctive contributions from each side, should maintain a field of interest, honor, and productive struggle. (211)

However, among those whop reach irenicism, two (211) prominent approaches would undermine NOMA from within by seeking peace between science and religion under strategies that paralyze the principles of NOMA. I view these two alternate irenicism as the extremes within a common domicile (the house of peace, in this case) that Goldilocks rejected for a middle way. (212)

| The first alternative–too hot, too soft, and too much–continues to amaze me by persistence, even growth, in the face of massive internal contradictions that should have driven such a misguided notion to extinction ages ago. This syncretic school continues to embrace the oldest fallacy of all as a central premise: the claim that science and religion should fuse to one big, happy family, or rather one big pod of peas, where the facts of science reinforce and validate the precepts of religion, and where God shows his hand (and mind) in the workings of nature. (212)

…at least we can now be certain about one of God’s attributes: he sells newspapers and magazines. (214)

I do know, of course, that the phrase bears another meaning in its original context, but John also acknowledged the same precious uniqueness–the key to resolving our conflicts, and the positive force behind NOMA–in starting his gospel with a true guide to salvation: In the beginning was the Word. (222)