Non-Overlapping Magisteria Helps Theists and Atheists

Religion vs SpiritualismNon-overlapping magisteria (strangely given the acronym NOMA) is the idea that there is no conflict between science and religion—they exist in different realms that do not overlap at all. This is an idea that is most associated with Stephen Jay Gould. And to me, it’s always seemed rather obvious. The problem is that most religions do in fact make scientific claims. What’s more, many atheists like to pretend that there is nothing outside of science. But by my definition of religion and science, Gould is completely right.

The biggest problem that I run into with Christians is that there are certain statements in the Bible that are factual claims. And if they see the Bible as literally true, we get into all kinds of problems. The most bizarre is the claim that the world has four corners and thus is flat. This brings about things like the actual Flat Earth Society. But Creationism is no more reasonable a position.

What most bugs me about this kind of stuff is that these people are clearly missing the point of having a religion at all. At one time, it might have been comforting to believe that thunder was the sound of Thor’s hammer. But it was never really useful and it never addressed actual theological questions. So such religious thought not only soils science, but it blinds believers from any theological insights they might gain from their religion.

On the other side, we have atheists who I really think are just trying to annoy me by claiming that they don’t understand basic theology. My favorite example of this was an article I saw in an astronomy magazine. It expressed amazement that people didn’t accept the big bang theory the way they did evolution by natural selection, even though the theory was as well established. The article did an excellent job of explaining why the big bang theory was correct. But the author clearly didn’t understand that it wasn’t that people didn’t accept the theory, but that they found it useless.

Too often, scientists present the big bang theory as an explanation for why the universe exists. In a certain technical sense, the theory does just that. But it is not a complete explanation. It suffers from the very same problem as the explanation that God created the universe. A child of five knows how far this gets you, “Then what created God?” Just the same, “Then what created the big bang?” And it is here that we get into theology.

I think there is only one fundamental theological question, “Why does anything exist?” And I don’t see how this is a question that science can ever address. There is now Lawrence Krauss’ feeble explanation that, “Nothingness is unstable.” And even after 200 pages of A Universe from Nothing, he still can’t see that the instability of “nothingness” means it isn’t nothingness: it has a characteristic; it is “unstable”; it has the remarkable property that allows it to spit out universes now and then.

Now I’m fine with people saying that this theological question makes no sense and there is no answer to it so it’s all rubbish. That’s fine. That is the same as saying that religion is not interesting to you. But to say that such questions don’t exist is simply wrong.

About a year ago, I heard a man I think very highly of, Richard Carrier, say that he didn’t accept NOMA. That surprised me because I have always thought him a deeper thinker than that. But maybe he has an argument I haven’t heard. The standard arguments against NOMA are all straw man arguments. They mostly come down to attacking the fact that as a practical matter, religions make all kinds of falsifiable (and thus scientific) claims. And while this is true, the atheists should be debating Denys Turner and not Pat Robertson.

What’s more, when someone is using a term as pretentious as “non-overlapping magisteria,” one is not making a practical case about what people think religion is. It is rather making a theoretical case for what science and religion both are and are not. It seems to me that atheists would want to use NOMA to convince religious people to at least stop soiling the science ground and to stay on their own very theoretical ground. But alas, they do not. Increasingly, I find the atheist community as ignorant and dogmatic as the religious community.

8 thoughts on “Non-Overlapping Magisteria Helps Theists and Atheists

  1. The real demarcation to worry about is not “religion” and “science”, but between “philosophy” and “science”. Religions are just philosophies/worldviews. And “theology” is just philosophy that is theistic (it claims there is a god). Even your talk about gaps in current published/established science (like “what happened before the big bang”) is just metaphysics, and metaphysics is just hypotheses, and hypotheses can in principle be tested scientifically. And philosophy is just science with less data, and science is just philosophy with more data.

    All questions can be answered with logic and evidence, and more correct answers can be separated from incorrect answers. And yes, “this is a meaningless question” is an answer that can be produced in the science of language. Or the philosophy of language, either way.

    Since you are a fan of Richard Carrier, you may enjoy some of his related talks on the subject where I learned most of this stuff:

    “Is Philosophy Stupid?”

    “Science Is Better Than Religion And Always Has Been”

    • I’ve seen the first. I’m not sure about the second. You are correct about pre-big-bang stuff, which I was talking about recently in another post. I suspect that we will get some indirect evidence of a multiverse in my lifetime. But that’s not what I was getting at with that claim. I just point out that you run into the same problem that you do with “God created it”: what created God. There is ultimately a paradox that does not seem to be open to scientific inquiry. I’m fine with science/philosophy. But I disagree with you that theology is necessarily theistic. There are religions that are atheistic — for example, some forms of Buddhism. Theology does not have to be stupid.

      • Ok, I can’t really tell what you are arguing for here. For one thing, I don’t know what you mean by “theology”. Or “scientific inquiry”, I guess.

        Anyways, what isn’t open to scientific inquiry anyways? The question of “ultimate origin”? What isn’t “open to scientific inquiry” about it?

        What do you think we disagree on?

        • I have no idea what we disagree on. I don’t necessarily think we do disagree on anything. There are certain questions that don’t seem to have a scientific answer — they are more along the lines of mathematical constructs. One can’t answer questions that are outside the context of the mathematical formalism. I simply think that there are certain questions that come up that fall into this category. The ultimate question of existence is not one that is part of the physical world, and thus not one that would be answerable. It would be like trying to answer geometry questions in the the context of an arithmetical system.

          These are not considerations I have answers to. But no one I’ve ever read has answers to them either.

  2. Hi Frank. It’s been a while since we fell out of each other’s orbit in the blogosphere. Good to see you’re still at it.

    The primary purpose of NOMA is to inoculate religionists from criticism. Science gets no tangible benefit from it that I can tell. Sophisticated theologians and deists might be willing to play along with “stay in your lane” thinking but monotheists generally routinely make claims about reality that can be exposed to empirical rigor and dismissed as nonsense. Intelligent Design would be a good example, Or transubstantiation. Answered prayer. The list is near endless. The test for whether these claims involve a crossover into the naturalistic world is whether or not behavior or belief is proscribed due to a spiritual authority. There are direct cause and effect things like “sin” leads to “death” and “punishment”. I.E. the supernatural having dominion over the natural world.
    There was a time when I agreed with the idea generally and still do to some extent, but I’ve since evolved in my position. A better way to break down the differences between religion and naturalism is to identify the things that can be objectively true, comport with reality, and things that are subjective and can’t always be demonstrated to be true. Where they “overlap” is in the use of reason and logic. They both are products of conscious thought and can’t exist in humans without it.

    I really tire of the use of “new atheist” by accommodationists as a shallow sneering implication that their thinking is somehow substandard to Socratic reasoning or is reductionist in a fundamentalist way. Both gentlemen in your video seemed enamored with that idea, and it’s annoying to the point where I stopped watching.
    One doesn’t “practice atheism”. You either believe in a god or you don’t. The question “why does anything exist” has absolutely nothing to do with atheism. Atheism isn’t a mechanism for explanations of things. It’s a label describing a state of disbelief. Nothing more. That science hasn’t provided an answer yet for why things exist doesn’t mean it never will.

    Internet [twitter] atheists *can* be guilty of rigid thinking because it’s a closed self reinforcing loop of information. That’s not fundamentalism or dogma, that’s a state of ignorance that can be corrected by looking at new information from time to time. It certainly doesn’t represent a philosophy of mind.

    • Welcome back!

      I disagree. NOMA actually constrains religion far more than it constrains science (if it constrains it at all). What I like about it is that Gould is arguing with the most sophisticated theists. We are never going to improve religious thinkers by arguing with those who (I understand are the vast majority) are at the bottom of the intellectual feeding chain.

      I think you need to think of religion the way you think of math. Math can be wonderfully useful, but that isn’t what it’s about; it’s about creating universes and describing them. And the more we understand math, the more we understand the ineffability of the universe. If a system as simple as algebra is ultimately inconsistent and riddled with paradox, what does that say of the known universe — much less the unknown.

      Yes, I am one of those who use New Atheist as a pejorative. That’s because the New Atheist writers are a distinct step back from the Old Atheist writers of a few hundred years ago. Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins? Not one of these men understand religion better than an average person sitting in a pew on Sunday. But I disagree with you about Jonathan Miller. You need to understand that this interview is over 12 years old — basically when New Atheism was just becoming a thing.

      I just don’t understand you when you say that atheism has nothing to do with the question, “Why does anything exist?” As an atheist, what is it that you are against? Are you against the imagine of the Abrahamic god? Well, that’s a pretty silly imagine and not believing in it doesn’t say much. I have read a bit of Denys Turner and he is a Christian — but not one that you would likely recognize. It would be impossible for me to summarize his thinking. But consider that existence itself is a gift from God. This is not God in the sense that Sam Harris sees it. I’m an atheist because I think it is wrong to think about the cause of the universe. I think more of a snake swallowing its tail. Yet such thinking is never discussed in atheist literature. But it doesn’t matter: I am an atheist and a mystic. Most atheists would think the idea absurd. But most atheists aren’t aware there there are atheistic religions, like some forms of Buddhism. If you just don’t care about the nature of existence, that’s fine; but admit that you take that question off the table. But if you are not willing to do that, I don’t see much choice but to be a theist or someone like me. Otherwise, you simply have faith (!) that one day science will answer the question. And it won’t.

      These are important issues to me. But I don’t see what the New Atheism is doing other than making fun of the theologically bankrupt. And maybe there is a point to that. I’m just not very interested.

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