No more NOMA

I’ve never liked dead Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria,” a move for avoiding the conflict between science and religion. I found myself explaining my views in this MeFi thread (about the religious beliefs of evolutionary biologists, and the punk band Bad Religion). I’m posting it here in case it gets deleted there, since it’s a little bit left of the topic of the thread. It was dashed off, but reflects thoughts I’ve been having for a while. You may find them interesting.


NOMA requires you to hold that “religion” doesn’t say anything about the material world, because if it does say something about the material world, then its predictions can be undermined by evidence of the physical world — the magisteria would overlap. Almost every religious person who has ever lived thinks / thought that religion says something about the material world. For example, scripture in the Jewish-etc. tradition describes many things that, on their own terms, occurred in the material world, many of them magical in character. Before Enlightenment science, these events were overwhelmingly regarded as literal truth. Today this is somewhat less often the case. But the majority of Americans believe in angels. Even liberal Christians who don’t believe in the literal truth of the (entire) Bible probably don’t qualify for NOMA, as long as they believe that some of the magical tales of the Bible are true, or are metaphorical retellings of other magical tales. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus would disqualify you for NOMA membership, for example.

If you believe that a god has any powers at all (forget omnipotence), that also defeats NOMA. If God has any ability to act in the world, the magisteria are not overlapping.

The mere notion of a true religion very probably defeats NOMA as well. To see how, let’s suppose we believe Christianity is the true religion. How do we know that? Well, someone told us and it seemed right. How did he know? Etc. etc. Ultimately, we have to answer that God acted upon the world in a way that planted the seed of Christian belief. In the orthodox account, he did this by (among other things) coming to earth in human form. But even if we don’t believe in the resurrection literally, we still have to posit that belief in the correct God came from somewhere divine originally, which would mean the divine realm acted on the material. No more NOMA! Generalizing (work left to reader), any religion which includes the belief that it — or any combination of religions — is true almost certainly is disqualified from NOMA.

I think this shows that almost all religion that’s ever existed gives the lie to NOMA. But some people will claim that Religion X is different, because it absolutely doesn’t say anything about the material world. It’s just a way of living, or something like that. This could conceivably be true for some people’s beliefs (why, though, is such a thing a “religion”?). But I think it is more often asserted for cases it doesn’t really apply to. For example, there may be versions of Buddhism that don’t make any assertions about the material world, but such a Buddhism wouldn’t look at all like the common conception of Buddhism, or the median Buddhist’s belief. For example, the transmigration of souls violates NOMA because it holds that spiritual forces influence what kind of person you are, which is a facet of the physical world (residing as it does in your brain). (If you say you’re agnostic about reincarnation, that doesn’t make you NOMA either — material evidence could impinge on your religious belief about reincarnation, requiring you to shift it from agnostic to disbelieving, for example.) I think that people who assert of themselves that their deeply-believed religion doesn’t and can’t have implications about the material world are being softheaded about either the demands of their religion, or of science, or both. This is unsurprising since even smart and wise occasionally assimilate contradictions.

That’s why I think NOMA is unsatisfying: it says that religion needn’t (properly, can’t) conflict with science, but that statement only holds for the weakest religions, religions which are not at all representative of the human religious experience.


To focus that a tiny bit, I’m saying that religion is not actually confined to the magisterium Gould assigns it to (“questions of ultimate meaning and moral value”). If religion really cramped itself into that corner, it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it has been. The fact that substantially all real religions talk about the material world suggests it’s a massive competitive advantage, and perhaps a necessity.

Of course, we may find (or hope) that religion is increasingly pushed out of the material magisterium and into the immaterial one by the march of scientific progress, but this is a result of “the supposed conflict between science and religion,” not a proof it doesn’t exist. Gould sux.

Even if he means that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion, because once science forces religion out of the material magisterium religion can continue to exist in the other one, we can doubt him. It seems almost certain that religions get their power to assign ultimate meaning and moral value from the romance of their tall tales about the world.

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