Rocks of Ages, by Nat Brown

Rocks of Ages

A review essay by Nat Brown

Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages - Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. The Library of Contemporary Thought, Ballantine, New York, 1999


The defining debate at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the bitterly acrimonious debate between fundamentalism and liberalism which often finds its flashpoint in the perceived conflict between religion and science. Karen Armstrong , in The Battle for God, provides a definition of this debate: it is, she argues, a battle between mythos, which is concerned with expressing the timeless and the spiritual and the origins of life on the one hand, and logos, the rational, the pragmatic, that which relates to facts and external realities, on the other. It is quintessentially a modern debate which would not have been possible in its present form before the rise of rationalism and what we understand as “modern science” at about the time of the enlightenment.

The battle lines had perhaps already been drawn at the execution, on August 13, 1600, of the Augustinian friar Giordano Bruno for insisting, “among his many heresies and blasphemies,” that the Earth traveled around the sun. More familiar perhaps is the imprisonment of Galileo, from 1633 until his death in 1642; while Galileo’s imprisonment had at least as much to do with his disobeying an edict not to publish, it nevertheless provides an ominous symbol of an essentially “religious” attempt to restrain freedom of thought in order to preserve conservative – i.e.: traditional and literal – interpretation of Scripture. It is my contention that such control is profoundly unhealthy for both science and religion, and displays as well a complete misunderstanding of what science is. Stephen Jay Gould, in Rocks of Ages , contends that with a better understanding of the complimentary roles of science and religion, the whole battle is a case of the emperor’s new clothes: there is simply no debate in the first place.

Let us look at the history of the debate, in an effort to define it more clearly:

The Enlightenment of the 18th century was marked by such degrees of material success through science and technology that science began to be regarded as the only means to truth, and religion to be seen as outdated and as the pawn, or at least the willing collaborator, of all the forces that propped up the anciene regime and conspired to keep mankind in ignorance and superstition, or, some might have argued, under the thumb of magic and mumbo-jumbo.

But a fundamental shift had taken place: the successes of science had changed irrevocably the way we think and the way we see things, and religious thinking itself began to undergo a change that would lead eventually to modern fundamentalism – for it is a very modern product – and its “war” on science and what it perceives as the challenges of a changing world. Karen Armstrong writes, “Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the myths of their faith into logos.”

The Darwin debate, the debate over evolution, is central to understanding how things went awry, and for Americans in particular, the Scopes trial of 1925 marked the beginning of the overt controversy which would pit science against religion, although the pot had been simmering for some time before Scopes was accused of teaching Darwinism. Scopes had taught Darwinism, which was illegal under Tennessee law, by assigning the chapters on evolution contained in the class textbook A Civic Biology, but the subsequent trial brought all the enthusiasts out in force, and it became not the cut-and-dried case that it actually was under law, but the focal point, or perhaps the flashpoint, in the war between religion and science. The battle is still being fought – bitterly on the one side, often uncomprehendingly and contemptuously on the other - and underlies much of the fervor and intensity of our national politics, where the Christian Right is determined to see their interpretation of what they perceive as “Biblical Law” become a part of United States law, and where candidates of both parties seem determined to prove that they are more godly than their opponents.

How did we get to this?

We live in a rationalistic society, and the mental habits of modern rationalism have lead us to a literal way of seeing the world around us – but also to a literal reading of scripture. Before the modern period, religious thinkers relished a highly allegorical, symbolic, even esoteric interpretation of sacred texts: “Since God’s word was infinite, it was capable of yielding a multitude of meanings” (Armstrong). The contemporary fundamentalist view of scripture, born of scientific rationalism, has taken exactly the same approach: if nature can be explained through scientific method, through minute and exact observation, so can scripture. We will see later that this is an unhappy misunderstanding of the scientific method.

The whole controversy would be risible were it not often so destructive, or if it did not drain so much energy away from dealing with issues such as poverty, violence, human rights, and the realities of learning to live together in an age where we communicate faster (and more) than ever before, and where we must manage to live, like it or not, increasingly closer and closer to eachother. Stephen Jay Gould contends that the controversy stems from a very mistaken concept of the magisteria of science and religion – the domains “where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution,” as Gould puts it in the preamble to Rocks of Ages. The “message” of his book is the “central principle of respectful noninterference… the Principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria.”

To understand NOMA – and to understand how the fundamentalist point of view stems from a misunderstanding and a dangerous misapplication of scientific method, we need to look at principles first formulated earlier in the 20th century by Karl Popper:

Popper’s idea was that knowledge is provisional, that most of what has been “known” at one time or another has eventually turned out not to be the case. Science is not a set of “facts” or even “truths”, but a process. Like politics, science does not arrive at The Answer, but just as politics deal with emerging problems, situations and capabilities, so also science refines itself as new theories are formulated. This is why publication and rigorous peer criticism are fundamental, even crucial, to the scientific method..

Through criticism, theory succeeds theory, and each one peels back a layer. On a personal level, we all abandon the Stork Theory of birth at a relatively early stage: it covers the facts as observed at one stage, but as we get older, we observe more phenomena and much deeper wonders, and, one hopes, adjust our views. This is how science works. Darwin’s theories about evolution, for example, were never intended to be taken as “fact”, but were rather a working hypothesis formulated as an explanation of observed phenomena. For fundamentalists to reject evolution as “false” is to miss the point and the methodology of science altogether.

Let us look at the history of astronomy and physics: Ptolemy had a working theory that put the earth at the center of the universe. His theory was elaborated over the centuries, and it worked: it could predict eclipses, where the planets would be, etc. However, as technology made advances in observation and measurement possible, it began to be seen that there were things that Ptolemaic theory couldn’t explain. Copernicus and Gallileo made the jump to a solar-centric system, but again, after time, anomalies began to be observed, and finally Sir Isaac Newton proposed his system of physics (I can’t resist quoting Pope: “Nature and nature’s laws lay obscur’d in night; God said ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light”).

Newtonian physics worked and explained all the observable phenomena for over a century, but again, anomalies began to be observed. Then Einstein stepped in; in turn, his theories are being superceded, perhaps, by Stephen Hawking’s theories.

None of these men was “wrong” – each proposed a theory based on observable phenomena, and as long as their theories explained what was seen, they were accepted as working hypotheses. In time, these theories were criticized, and eventually proved valuable because the criticisms lead to further knowledge. Popper understood that “the informative content of a theory is the set of statements which are incompatible with the theory,” that a theory is valuable in proportion to what we learn by criticizing it and propounding a new, “better” theory that explains more completely what we observe.

This is where contemporary Fundamentalism misses the point. At its most extreme, it denies observable phenomena; in its milder manifestations, it limits God to the humanly understandable and to supposedly orthodox, unchanging interpretation of text. Yet we are finding the universe to be vastly larger and more complex than we had ever before been capable of thinking. We continue to find smaller and smaller wheels within the machine, while at the same time, we seem also to be finding bigger and bigger machines, and we now think the universe may be 19 billion years old, and expanding at an increasing rate.

And this is where the methodology of fundamentalist theology is a dead end: it seems to need to preserve orthodoxies, in other words, to defend and preserve a static understanding and an unchanging system of comprehension, like a fly trapped in amber, even when these systems contradict logical understanding and observable phenomena, and even more damagingly, limit growth toward understanding. In short, fundamentalist systems have a strong tendency to put a limit to our search for God.

This is precisely where Popper takes a new direction: Popper would say that our business, if we are seeking truth, is to try to disprove our theories, so that we can cut away the false and get closer to the truth. Theories, if held as "true" merely disable us in a search for truth: "doctrine" is static. Popper’s ideas might be summed up with Peter Abelard's dictum, written in 1122, "Through doubting we come questioning, and by questioning we perceive the truth."

A very great danger arises when new ideas are blocked or banned. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper predicted the fall of Nazism and all monolithic totalitarian states; if one system of thought (or politics) is the only system allowed, and if new ideas cannot be discussed or allowed to take hold, these societies he thought, would simply fossilize, and eventually die because they could no longer grow or adapt. Similarly, in religion, if we resist or ban taking on board new understandings and new discoveries, then we limit God to what we, in a given place and time, with our given culture and personal experiences, can comprehend. Our God becomes small and limited, a projection of ourselves, and we begin to worship not what is vast and mysterious, but what is small and understandable – idolatry, in short: the worship of our selves.

This is the root of the deep resistance towards science in fundamentalist circles: at one level, science seems to contradict parts of the Bible, at another, the idea of welcoming change and new ideas is frightening and deeply repellent if one believes that All Truth is given once and for all, that anything new somehow drains away some part of that Truth.

To make an analogy, fundamentalist, conservative thinking tends to regard Truth – or Virtue - as a lake into which nothing flows, and from which nothing flows out. Such lakes go stale. Liberal, truly scientific thought, tends to view Truth as a lake with water flowing both in and out: the lake remains the same, but it is continually refreshed.

Gould pulls the rug out from under the argument by simply bypassing it: he proposes that the two magisteria are not in conflict at all! He proposes that we are talking about two separate fields, both producing rich fruits; and that because strong fences make good neighbors, the best “solution” to the old debate is a good, strong fence between religion and science.

Gould examines the creationist view as exemplifying the anti-scientific attitude

… the activists of the creationist movement against the teaching of evolution have been young-earth fundamentalists who believe that the Bible must be literally true, that the earth cannot be more than ten thousand years old, and that God created all species, separately and ex nihilo, in six days of twenty-four hours. These people then display a form of ultimate hubris (or maybe just simple ignorance) in equating these marginal and long-discredited factual claims with the entire domain of ‘religion.’… Lord knows, we have the right to be wrong, even to be stupid, in a democracy!

But Gould is scrupulous not to write from a religious point of view; clearly demonstrating that we must learn to render unto God that which is God’s, and unto science that which properly belongs unto science (again using creationism as his example):

… our struggle with creationism is political and specific, not religious at all, and not even intellectual in any genuine sense. (Sorry to be harsh, but young-earth creationism offers nothing of intellectual merit that I have ever been able to discern – but just a hodgepodge of claims properly judged within the magisterium of science, and conclusively discredited more than a century ago.)

But the problem is not just the refutation of certain oddball religious ideas. As Gould shows,

…”creation science” is nothing but a smoke screen, a meaningless and oxymoronic phrase invented as sheep’s clothing for the old wolf of Genesis literalism, already identified in the Epperson case [in 1968, a biology teacher, Susan Epperson challenged an anti-evolution law in Arkansas] as a partisan theological doctrine, not a scientific concept at all – and clearly in violation of First Amendment guarantees for separation of church and state if imposed by legislative order upon the science curricula of public school… teachers…could not practice their profession honorably if the law were upheld… And the teachers of Arkansas represent much more than “science.” They stand for toleration, professional competence, freedom of inquiry… The enemy is not religion but dogmatism and intolerance.

Gould gives the last word in the creationism versus science “debate” to Clarence Darrow, who stated in his summation at the Scopes trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools and next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers… Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and need feeding… After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Examples of this Dark-Age mentality surround us, perhaps more at the moment, with the up-coming elections, than usual. Elections seem always to raise one group’s hopes to “take back the country” just as they raise fears that “they” are taking over. Gould, with his principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, offers a way out of this slide into vindictive and destructive antagonism because “NOMA’s chief principle [is] that factual truth, however constituted, cannot dictate, or even imply, moral truth.”

NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).

Still, with the magisterium of science broadening almost day by day our understanding of the cosmos, many religious feel that the mystery, as well as the Direct Hand of God, is vanishing. This is to mistake materialism for science, and it is to cling to the “God of the Gaps”, that ever-shrinking God who is trotted out only to explain the things that science, as yet, cannot explain.

Our age is scientific in method, and pluralistic in both experience and outlook. It has taken us many painful centuries to gain this precarious foothold. We no longer accept blindly the dictates of tradition, or dogma. Dogma, after all, is the creation of man – man with all his foibles, his need for security, his need to control, and sadly, his need to escape responsibility. This is by no means to say that religion is not a strong and true current to carry us, but as Barbara Tuchman pointed out “Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception… consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish… ” For almost two thousand years theology attracted the greatest minds of Western Civilization. Unfortunately, it has lost its leading position because of this wooden-headedness.

If we are lucky, not only will religion flourish in a climate where science leaves the door open to all those issues which are not amenable to factual treatment, but religion will itself learn some of the methodology of Popper’s science, and learn to grow from the very diversity that it often, sadly, tries to stifle: to think that we comprehend God is to reduce God to our size. To hold that a religious diversity as wide as the all various branches of Christianity - not to speak of Islam and Judaism, to mention only the monotheistic “cousins” – to hold that this has nothing to teach us, is to close our ears to the enormous and rich diversity of humanity and to the breadth of human experience of the divine. It is like the poor soul who hates all but one kind of music. More things are possible than we dream of, and God is more complex than anything we have imagined or can imagine.

To attempt to proceed with religion and science in conflict is to stumble forward with mind and spirit at war, and it will dangerously limit and impoverish both. If our dogmas cannot be examined, they will not long live. If science may not be taught freely and with respect to freedom of inquiry, then it will cease to be useful or meaningful. Attempting to pit the two against eachother is to suffocate both. The only way forward is in mutual respect and forbearance. We must embrace the compassion and humility that may be learned from the one, – though these virtues are often neglected, if not completely denied by the more extreme fundamentalists - and the love of open-minded enquiry that may be taken from the other.

We are therefore left with no alternative. We must undertake the hardest of all journeys by ourselves: the search for meaning in a place both maximally impenetrable and closest to home – within our frail being.

We should therefore, with grace and optimism, embrace NOMA’s tough-minded demands: Acknowledge the persona; character of these human struggles absolute morals and meanings, and stop looking for definite answers in nature’s construction.

As a Christian myself, I might add a word from Simone Weil: “Whenever we have to choose between truth and Christ, we must choose truth, because Christ is truth, and if we choose truth, we cannot go far without falling into his hands.”

Perhaps it would be well to conclude with part of the last paragraph of Volume One of Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies”:

If we dream of a return to out childhood, if we are tempted to rely on others and so be happy, if we shrink from the task of carrying our cross, the cross of humaneness, or reason, of responsibility, then we must try to fortify ourselves with a clear understanding of the simple decision before us. We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go into the unknown, the uncertain and the insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can both for security and freedom.


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