Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 13 issue 2


by Kenneth Marsalek

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 2.

Supernatural Selection

Stephen Jay Gould makes the extraordinary claim in March's Natural History Magazine that there is no conflict between science and religion. According to Gould, science and religion occupy distinct domains or magisteria. Science covers the empirical universe; religion deals with questions of moral and spiritual meaning and the search for ethical values.

Eliminating the empirical universe from religion's domain represents a relatively recent redefinition of religion. Historically, religion and philosophy have speculated on questions concerning the origin of Earth, the universe, and humankind, and the nature of matter, space and time. These questions have now been successfully answered by science. Each advance in scientific knowledge has been followed by a retreat on the part of religion, requiring us to continually redraw the line between their respective domains.

Gould himself steps outside of his domain, and at time sounds more like a theologian than a scientist. Upon assuring Jesuit scientists that scientific creationism posed no threat to evolution, he proceeded to assure them that evolution is "entirely consistent with religious belief". He goes on to say that, "Creationism does not pit science against religion ... for no such conflict exists." Is he saying that fundamentalist religions are not really religions?

Pope John Paul embraces evolution with the caveat that, at some point in the process, humans are infused with a divine soul. While I join Gould in welcoming papal support for evolution, Gould too easily ignores the fact that the pope is not embracing natural selection, but rather some kind of supernatural selection. While personally rejecting the idea of a soul, Gould states that science cannot prove or disprove the notion of a soul, and cannot even "touch such a subject". He further states that, "...any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue" cannot "threaten or impact" his domain of science.

Can Gould be serious? The soul is just another term for mind/body dualism, which serves as the basis for numerous paranormal beliefs. Science is demonstrating that there is no consciousness or mind independent of the brain; furthermore, science can certainly touch on the paranormal, which surely impacts on Gould's domain. Does Gould mean that science cannot address the existence of ghosts, angels, or demons? Science can offer a position about whether there is a spiritual realm. Carl Sagan essentially discounts it in The Demon-Haunted World.

In 1984, Gould attended the Pontifical Academy of Sciences conference and was impressed that the Catholic Church values scientific study. Interestingly, Stephen Hawking, attending an earlier conference, apparently was not so impressed with the pope's concluding remarks: "He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference - the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation" (A Brief History of Time).

Gould accepts that nature is indifferent to humanity and that this view liberates us "to conduct moral discourse." However, he also states that, "If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution." This is nonsense. Scientific knowledge can be basic to the making of some moral judgments.

For Gould, the concept of distinct magisteria represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, permits respectful discourse, and is not merely a diplomatic stance. Gould points out that Sagan shared his concern for fruitful cooperation between science and religion. I certainly endorse Sagan's view, e.g., that we do not have to agree on when and why the Earth was created in order to work to save it. On the other hand, Sagan recognized, as stated in Demons, that religions are the "nurseries of pseudoscience." Oddly, he, too, later makes the incompatible statement that "there is no necessary conflict between science and religion." The conflict is exactly what his book is about.

My reading of Sagan is that his was a diplomatic stance. Sagan was primarily interested in promoting a basic level of scientific literacy. He realized that people could attain this and still believe in God. He further realized that insisting on believers going "cold turkey," i.e., giving up God too, would decrease the likelihood of accomplishing his basic goal.

Sagan's approach was based on the pragmatic assumption that it is more fruitful in the long run to wean people gradually of their superstitions. However, there is also an element of dishonesty in this approach. I attended Sagan's Pale Blue Dot lecture at the Smithsonian in which he tried to convey that humanity is not the centerpiece of creation. Afterwards, he got the inevitable question, "Where does God fit into all of this?" It was irritating to watch Sagan hem and haw, and evade the question by asking, "What do you mean by God?" He simply was not being up-front and honest about his views.

Sagan was most direct in his criticism of religion in Demons. Interestingly, James Randi reports that an earlier draft was far less forceful than the final book. Perhaps Sagan realized that this was his last chance to make his case. I noticed a similar trend with Isaac Asimov, who became far more direct in his religious criticism as he realized his end was near.

If I were a cynic I might suggest that such discretion is motivated by a desire to keep book royalties flowing. Or, it could be based on a sincere desire to avoid alienating one's audience to the point of losing them altogether, and then accomplishing nothing. Still, my preference is for more intellectual humanists to come out of the closet. It just might make humanism more intellectually respectable.

Contributing editor Kenneth Marsalek is president of Washington Area Secular Humanists and a member of the board of directors of the Council for Secular Humanism.

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