Non-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.