NOMA? No Thanks!

Spencer Tracy, as Clarence Darrow ("Henry Drummond") weighing Darwin vs. the Bible in the final scene of "Inherit the Wind"

I just turned down yet another invitation to debate a creationist.  I have long made it a policy to decline such events, not because I fear my prospective opponents but because I’m afraid of myself.  (More accurately: I worry about the effect I might have on others.)

Jean-Paul Sartre made an intriguing distinction between what is often translated into English as “fear” vs “anguish.”  Applied to mountaineering, fear is anxiety about what the climbing community refers to as objective hazards—wind, avalanche, rock fall, lightning—whereas anguish relates to a distrust of oneself, concern about how one might behave in a situation of freedom.

My problem is that I can’t bring myself to tow the biologists’ party line when it comes to evolution and religion; namely, that science and religion can and should co-exist quite nicely.  The late Stephen Jay Gould called it a matter of Non-Overlapping Magesteria (NOMA), having derived the word magisterium from the papal encyclical, Humani Generis, authored in 1950 by Pius XII: “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Gould proposed the NOMA principle as follows—”the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

It’s a view with significant support, even among biologists.  Thus, in 1999 the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report titled Science and Creationism, which stated that “scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.”

The National Center for Science Education, which has done much of the heavy lifting in defending the religion-free teaching of science, essentially concurs, urging its members to stick with NOMA—at least as one’s public stance—because in a country as benightedly religious as the U.S., to argue that people must adhere either to science or religion, because the two are incompatible (“You are free: choose!,” to quote Sartre once again) is to push them into the arms of the latter.

It may well be true that an either/or insistence will have this self-defeating effect; hence, my decision to decline such debates.  Pace the National Academy of Sciences, however, I do not demand that “science and religion be combined”—quite the opposite.  Rather, let’s acknowledge the truth: Science and religion overlap substantially, notably whenever religion makes “truth claims” about the world.  And when that happens, time and again, religion has a long track record of being simply and irretrievably wrong.

It’s not just a question of ignorant fundamentalism, as in the case of “young-Earth creationists,” but the basic fundament of every organized religion, all of which make supernatural claims about things that did or do happen in this world, whether Mohammed taking dictation from the angel Gabriel on behalf of Allah and then later ascending to heaven on the back of a flying horse, Gautama Buddha taking seven steps immediately after his birth and then announcing “I alone am the World-Honored One!,” Moses chatting up God on Mt. Sinai and then carrying back tablets of “The Law,” or Jesus turning water into wine and bringing back the dead, later ascending to heaven but in his case without any aerial equine assistance. (Which ascent, by the way, Mohammed’s or Jesus’s, seems more likely to have been accurate?)

Of course it is possible to argue that God created evolution by natural selection—presumably, along with Newton’s Laws, relativity, quantum mechanics, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, coordinate covalent bonds, and so forth—and then backed away, letting the system run according to these accumulated natural laws.  But the reality—at least in my not-so-humble opinion—is that anyone who claims to espouse both science and religion is being intellectually dishonest or else lazy, and is necessarily short-changing one perspective or the other.

NOMA is merely another version of “God of the gaps” thinking, which employs the deity as needed to plug the temporary vacancies in our science-generated knowledge.  It seems to me that this is neither good science nor good theology, since—in the first case—reliance on the supernatural is simply inconsistent with anything remotely approaching a scientific world-view, and, in the second, such a God would necessarily shrink as our science-based knowledge grows, so that eventually, we’ll be left with a bunch of teeny weeny elfin godlings crammed into an oddly distributed array of little cavities in our otherwise expanding knowledge.

In the final scene of the movie version of Inherit the Wind, the Clarence Darrow character (brilliantly portrayed by Spencer Tracy), stands in an empty courtroom, picks up a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s Origin of Species in the other, gives a little half-smile, claps them together, then thoughtfully departs with both … an effective, wordless vignette and a perfect embodiment of NOMA, but something that neither Darrow nor Darwin would ever do.  And neither will I.

Spencer Tracy, as Clarence Darrow, weighing The Origin of Species and the Bible
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