Commentary Magazine

Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
by Stephen Jay Gould
Ballantine. 240 pp. $18.95

Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard /NYU paleontologist whose formidable skills as a popularizer have made him one of the world’s most successful science writers, now deploys those same skills in discussing for nonspecialist readers the future relationship between scientists and religious believers. His aim is to resolve what he aptly terms “the supposed conflict between science and religion.”

However fevered its history, the quarrel between science and religion, is, Gould argues, “a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these . . . equally vital subjects.” The conflict, in short, is an artificial one, sustained by ignorance and bias in both camps. Resolving it involves recognizing its artificiality—something that, Gould boldly suggests, both Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, the 19th-century English biologist and advocate of scientifically-grounded agnosticism, were prepared to do.

Gould’s proposal is that both science and religion adopt a principle of “respectful noninterference” between their “nonoverlapping magisteria,” or “NOMA” (his acronym). With such a principle in place, he claims, the putative problem simply dissolves. Scientists will talk about “the factual character of the natural world,” and religious people will talk about their distinctive realm. Life will go on without rancor.

Peace-through-NOMA is suggested at the very outset of this brief book. Gould then attempts to explain and defend his principle of “noninterference” through a historical ramble in which he revisits Darwin’s and Huxley’s personal struggles with the deaths of their children, Galileo’s 17th-century battle with the Church, the Vatican statements on evolution by Popes Pius XII and John Paul II, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s 1927 Gifford lectures on science and religion, and contemporary American court battles over high-school biology textbooks.

At the end, NOMA reappears as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive concept of the human condition. We must, Gould writes, “establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes”—a universe whose indifference to human striving, suffering, and glory is, he insists, the precondition for human freedom.



One can readily agree with Gould that the alleged conflict between religion and science, symbolically represented by the Galileo affair and the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee over the teaching of evolution in the public schools, reflected misunderstandings of religious authority that need not impede a serious encounter today. (One might add, though Gould does not, that both these episodes also involved misunderstandings of the degree of certitude available to science, a subject to which I shall return.) A new conversation between science and religion, neither of which is going away and both of which will have a profound impact on the 21st century, would surely benefit all concerned.

But, on the terms that Gould suggests, a serious conversation is most unlikely. For as he conceives it, NOMA amounts to rather more than setting the rules of engagement between two teaching authorities. Gould’s NOMA comes with an intellectual price tag—namely, the admission that religion and science are two “utterly different” human enterprises, or, to use the cliché, apples and oranges.

Gould candidly admits that there is nothing original in his “blessedly simple” and “entirely conventional” NOMA principle, as indeed there is not. Like similar proposals, however, what it fails to grapple with is that apples and oranges are both fruit—which means that they have important things in common. The same must be said of science and religion, both of which aim to understand the truth of the human condition. To treat science and religion as “utterly different” is convenient for certain kinds of scientists (deeply skeptical about religion but “tolerant”) and certain kinds of religious believers (tepid and/or intellectually insecure). But it does not help us think very seriously about either realm.

Gould’s proposal unravels even as he explores the rationale for his NOMA principle. He himself is an agnostic, convinced that in matters religious, “open-minded skepticism [is] the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know.” This seems, at first blush, a humane, even a generous, position. But on closer examination, Gould’s skepticism, like Thomas Huxley’s, is not open-minded at all, but rather sets strict boundaries on the sorts of reasonableness it is prepared to recognize. One result of his particular form of skepticism—a result lethal to any serious intellectual engagement between science and religion—is that faith is reduced to fideism: a will-to-believe that is the antithesis of rationality. The assumption that one’s interlocutor is, in some deep sense, irrational is not the most promising ground on which to open a conversation.

There are other serious problems with Gould’s understanding of religious conviction and religious believers. He claims, for instance, to have a “great respect for religion,” and indeed an enduring fascination with it, because “organized religion has fostered, throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger.” Leaving aside the question of how “organized religion” fostered the Gulag Archipelago or Mao’s even more massive slaughter, we are still left here with a narrowly instrumental view of religious belief and practice: religion is interesting because it motivates people to do things, for good or for ill. Or, as Gould also stipulates, religion deals with “the realm of human purposes, meanings, and values,” a realm completely divorced from the realm of fact with which science wrestles. Alas, it is but a short step from here to the inference that, while science deals with the “real world,” religion is about, well, something else—lifestyle, perhaps.



That biblical religion has made truth-claims about the origin, nature, and destiny of the created world simply does not count in Gould’s NOMA universe. But if truth is truth and not simply a cultural construct (as Gould insists is the case with respect to scientific claims about natural phenomena), there must be a considerable, and considerably interesting, overlap between two modes of human inquiry committed to the same end. History amply demonstrates that life on that overlapping terrain can be bruising. But it need not be so if both parties maintain a certain modesty about their respective competencies.

At the opening of the modern scientific age, the Church made a serious error by failing to heed the advice of the great Counter-Reformation Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine. During the Galileo affair, Bellarmine argued that, faced with scientific proofs that seemed to contradict religious truths, it was better for believers “to say that we do not understand, rather than affirm that what has been demonstrated [scientifically] is false.” The Church has since learned Bellarmine’s lesson in epistemological humility. Gould’s proposal—that religion cede the “real world,” and indeed anything properly describable as “knowledge,” to science—suggests that the shoe is now on the other foot, and that a dose of Bellarmine’s caution is needed in the laboratories.

Gould’s skepticism also distorts his view of intellectual history. Although you will not learn it from Rocks of Ages, biblical religion has done more for Western civilization than motivating men and women to noble (or reprehensible) behavior. It has, for example, helped make science possible. Absent a culture influenced by three biblical truth-claims—that the natural world is a “creation” (i.e., an ordered reality); that history is linear; and that human beings have a unique place in the created order—it is not easy to see how what we know as the scientific method could have emerged. The scientific method was not, after all, the product of cultures formed by the notions that Fate is in charge of things, or that humanity is a plaything of the gods, or that the natural world is an accident, or that history is cyclical. It was the product of an intellectual universe shaped in no small part by Genesis 1-3 and John 1.1-14.



Although he strives to keep his rhetorical equilibrium throughout Rocks of Ages, the bile rises in Gould’s throat when politics enters, stage left, and he reviews the recent battles over public-school curricula between defenders of evolutionary theory and advocates of “creation science.” His narrative of one struggle in which he personally took the field against the unwashed fundamentalist rabble—a 1981 Arkansas textbook controversy that resulted in a major defeat for “creation science”—further defines the boundaries of Gould’s tolerance, and suggests that, for him, respectful noninterference means conceding the entire public square to one account of humanity’s origins and nature.

One need hardly hold a brief for “creation science,” which muddles both creation and science, in order to notice that there is far more going on between today’s “evolutionists” and “creationists” than a debate over the age of rocks—just as, in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” there was more going on between the contending attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan than a debate over the pedagogy of a teacher named John Scopes. However clumsily, advocates of “creation science” have rung a bell alerting the rest of us to the fact that, as taught in many elementary- and secondary-school science classes, evolutionary theory carries with it a lot of philosophical baggage. Many science texts today do not simply propose that an evolutionary mechanism explains certain aspects of the material world (which no thoughtful person would contest). Rather, their implicit claim is that the material world is all there is, period. And that, irony of ironies, sounds like an establishment of religion, or at least its functional equivalent.

Materialism is an idea with large consequences. Any all-purpose explanatory scheme for grasping things as they are implies an anthropology, a concept of the human person. Take, for example, Stephen Jay Gould himself, who tells us more about his metaphysics and his anthropology than he perhaps realizes when he writes, quoting the poet Robert Frost, that “Homo sapiens . . . ranks as a ‘thing so small’ in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event, and not the nub of universal purpose.” Gould finds this notion of accidental man “exhilarating” and “a source of . . . freedom and consequent moral responsibility,” though he concedes that some may find it “depressing.” But “depressing” hardly seems the mot juste. To think of human beings as congealed Stardust, the accidental by-products of random biochemical processes, is to think of ourselves, in the final analysis, as meat. The history of this bloodiest of centuries is replete with examples of the devastation that follows upon such a—there is no other word for it—desecration of the human person.



There will indeed be a new conversation between science and religion in the 21st century. Developments in physics, astronomy, biochemistry, theology, and biblical studies are inexorably recasting the hoary either/or debates between scientific materialists and religious believers. And the new conversation will require more scientific literacy than many religious philosophers and theologians have managed to acquire in the past. But the fact is that, in recent decades, there has been far more intellectual openness on the religious side of this cultural divide than there has been among many scientists. If you are looking for the exhilaration of intellectual freedom these days, you are more likely to find it at the Vatican Observatory than in most university departments of paleontology. And if “fundamentalism” is the willful suspension of critical judgment because of prior metaphysical commitments, then one need go no farther for examples than today’s legions of materialists and naturalists.

This materialistic fundamentalism is a severe obstacle to what Stephen Jay Gould states as his heartfelt goal: “a respectful, even loving concordat between . . . science and religion.” Respect, much more love, would seem to require taking others for what they claim to be—in this instance, in touch with the truth. Biblical religion has long since granted that to science. It remains for science, at least as represented by Rocks of Ages, to reciprocate.


About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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