by Kenneth Marsalek
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 2.
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
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
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.
Humanism Online Library