Top positive review
Science and Religion Make Poor Bedfellows
Reviewed in the United States on January 5, 2008
In this landmark work, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould offers a framework in which one may consider the relationship between science and religion. His thesis is that both subjects fall within NOMA (non overlapping magisteria) and only properly comment upon things within their own bailiwicks. Science and religion aren't even the only two categories of NOMA disciplines. Science is the domain of factual truths and religion, moral truths. Science tells us what we're made of and religion tells us what we mean. NOMA isn't an invention; it's an orthdox (if you'll pardon the term) way of looking at science and religion that's been held by many of the world's greatest thinkers for millenia. (I recall that Gustave Le Bon, a 19th century anti-religionist, correctly observed that science never promised to make us happy. Many great early Jewish and Christian thinkers recognized the creation narratives in Genesis as allegory.) While I can't claim to be a great thinker, NOMA sketches out a structure that I've for decades believed existed, but never attempted to systematize.
Gould provides such a structure and also a geneology for NOMA-type thinking. He also describes some of the problems that occur when disciplines step outside of NOMA. It's pretty well-known the errors that can arise when religion tries to become a science (intellectual repression, factual error), but Gould, an irenic non-religious scientist and famous Darwinist, also demonstrates the dangers of science as religion (eugenics, historical justifications for violence). One of the most interesting and intellectually honest parts of the book is Gould's retelling of the Scopes controversy of the early 20th century and his apologia (sort of) pro Bryant who's normally cast as an ignoramus. Gould shows Bryant as a man who was progressive througout most of his life and made some terrible logical and NOMAic errors with regard to Darwinism probably because he was blinded by what he saw as real, understandable dangers - particularly in his time - stemming from hyper-Darwinian thinking. Finally, Gould demonstrates at the end of the book that nature cannot be relied upon for providing moral models; that's up to us.
Gould has been criticized since the publication of this book (1999) by folks like Richard Dawkins for either not actually believing NOMA or for failing to take into account scientific belief systems. Since Gould passed in 2002 he's not able to directly respond to those criticisms. But I believe the text stands and is vindicated by history and reasonable thinking, and that NOMA accurately describes and limits "rocks of ages." There's no sensible way for science and religion to become bedfellows, but NOMA provides a protocol for arguing at the dinner table. This is easily one of the best 50 books I've ever read. In a year or two after more reflection I may bump it up some. This is required reading for those involved in the science-religion discussion.