Warfare between science and religion has been a fundamental tenet of the history of science in the United States since 1869. During the last third of the nineteenth century, scholars began documenting the numerous clashes between the worlds of scientific investigation and religion. Focusing initially upon the Roman Catholic Church, the studies soon expanded to include Protestants as well. This effort culminated in Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), which quickly became a classic. Thereafter, history texts and science texts alike provided portraits of narrow-minded theologians preventing, or at least attempting to prevent, enlightened scientists from searching for the truth.
Various disciplines were alleged to have felt the heavy hand of theologians. The conclusions of geologists regarding the age of the earth clashed with the biblical chronology. In biology and anthropology, Charles Darwin’s theory of organic evolution as presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) generated fierce opposition, but it was in astronomy that the issue first arose. Galileo’s being forced by the Inquisition to renounce the implications of his own discoveries—the heliocentric solar system—is an event well known to science students.
For many Americans, a more recent event—both chronologically and geographically—recapitulated the conflict. The Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, over the issue of teaching evolution in the public schools, was familiar to them through the mass media, especially thanks to the fictionalized account of the trial—Inherit the Wind (pb. 1955)—which was originally a play and later a film and a television production. Science, truth, and the right of humans to think about the world they live in were contrasted with religion and narrow-mindedness.
Post-World War II scholarship has begun to question the accuracy of this inherited picture of warfare between religion and science. White, if read carefully, ultimately identified dogmatic theology, not religion, as the great opponent of science. Without denying that there has been friction between theologians and scientists, historians have found that numerous scientists during the last four centuries have seen no conflict between their search for scientific truth and their religious beliefs. For such scientists, the study of nature and the study of the Bible were two paths to truths which did not necessarily conflict. Numerous theologians have accepted, even embraced science. The motivations of the participants in the Scopes trial turn out to be much more complex than Inherit the Wind would lead its audience to believe.
However, there is no question that since the 1960’s there has been some bitter warfare. The rise of creationist science and the efforts by fundamentalist Christians and others to exclude evolution from the public school curriculum have renewed the conflict in the United States at a level of intensity not seen in years.
Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist, evolutionist, popular essayist, historian, self-proclaimed agnostic whose Jewish parents did not provide him with formal religious training, and worrier about the moral decline he sees about him, has offered a solution. He does not believe that science and religion can be successfully unified or synthesized into a single truth system, as happened in earlier centuries. Instead, he suggests that scientists, theologians, and the public accept the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (or NOMA). A magisterium “is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” Science is a magisterium for the empirical world. It answers questions concerning “what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory).” In contrast, religion deals with “questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” According to Gould, science provides no guidelines for defining human ethical behavior, while religion is useless for describing the nature, history, and future of the universe.
Gould makes and defends two claims about NOMA. The first is that the two magisteria have equal status. The second is that the two magisteria are independent. In making the latter claim, Gould does not deny that historically there has been overlap. However, logically there should not be any.
Greatly influencing Gould’s thinking about NOMA were the responses of Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s supporter and so-called bulldog, when each man was faced with coming to terms with the death of a young and beloved child. Gould found in each man’s reaction evidence of their acceptance of the principle of...
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