Stephen Jay Gould sheds new light on a dilemma that has plagued thinking people since the Renaissance. Instead of choosing between science and religion, Gould asks, why not opt for a golden mean that accords dignity and distinction to each realm? At the heart of Gould's penetrating argument is a lucid, contemporary principle he calls NOMA (for nonoverlapping magisteria) - a "blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution" that allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion, our moral world, in recognition of their separate spheres of influence.
Some may never realize that - taking a long view - the "respectful - even loving concordat between science and religion" that Gould hopes for will doom religion to irrelevance.
Which is a pity. While I didn't find Gould's particular formulation entirely convincing, his starting point: that it would be a great shame if neither of the two greatest intellectual traditions on the planet could rest without destroying the other, seems to me to be thoroughly pragmatic and worthwhile, since each has an awful lot of merit and utlity if only they could agree a means of peacable separation.
The likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, of course, will have none of that, and while the great majority of the liberal religious happily would, this only furthers the militant atheists' conclusion that they are therefore right, and the god-botherers must be crushed. Very childish indeed, if you ask me. For the record, I'm not religious myself: just more pleasantly disposed to religious people than some of my atheist confreres.
All the same, I'm not persuaded by NOMA, because, like all the participants in that pointless debate, Gould believes he can hold onto transcendental truth, and is therefore hoist by the same petard: using NOMA simply as a means of deciding which truth is the province of which discipline is as forlorn as the forensic search for any kind of transcendental truth, and worthy of the same criticisms that Rorty, Kuhn, Wittgenstein and others make of that idea.
But enough of what I think. NOMA is, at least, a good try and along the way Gould has written an elegantly phrased, beautifully learned, contemplative, reflective book and made some very pithy observations, that Richard Dawkins might have done well to note.
In particular, the observation that hardly any of the modern religions take young-earth creationism literally. Once it is seen as metaphorical (and this may be heresy in the deep south, but it's been taken as read in all of the churches I've ever been to), the atheistic thrust of Darwin's Dangerous Idea (a wonderful book in other respects) comes to nought. Gould notes that it can only be taken figuratively, if for no other reason than that it makes no sense whatsoever otherwise: the literal text refers to the making of the sun on the fourth "day" - but it's difficult to see how days 1-3 could have been measured! Additionally, pretty much the only place where religion strays more than nonchalantly into the scientific magisterium (certainly the only one you'll find Dawkins obsessing about, since it is his chosen field) is in the creation myth, which as far as I know is over and done with in about ten pages, which leaves much of the balance of the Good Book unscathed.
Erudition of Gould's sort (absent without official leave in the The God Delusion) lives on every page, and the book is worth its value for these alone. The myth of the flat earthers is similarly surprising: read it and see.
Lastly, I found Gould's book valuable because it faces up to and accomodates what, for fundamentalists (of either stripe) is a rather uncomfortable fact: there are millions, if not billions, of thoughtful, well educated, scientifically literate, liberal people who are able to hold to religious devotion and scientific practice contemporaneously, without unease or mental torment. Dawkin's best guess is that these people are systematically deluded: hardly a useful or scientific approach, you would think. Gould's more mature reaction is to say: these are the facts: science has not supplanted religion; these ideas can co-exist in our heads; now how can we reconcile that.
There are better explanations, I believe, of the particulars, but Gould's book is a worthwhile and charming entry all the same.
Gould has a track record of writing well -- sometimes brilliantly – both about broad, abstract concepts and about small, telling details. He writes well -- though not brilliantly – about both here. His explanation of the “separate spheres” argument is clear and careful, and his analysis of the Galileo and Scopes affairs vivid and compelling. Neither will surprise professional historians or philosophers, both neither is meant to. Both, however, will come as revelations to much of the general public that is his intended audience.
Both book and author, however, get into trouble in the broad middle ground between abstract philosophical arguments and concrete historical details. Gould offers up his two-spheres model as a solution to the real-world conflict over science and religion in late-twentieth-century America. If only both sides would see the truth of it, he argues, the conflict would evaporate, and “intelligent design” advocates like Michael Behe would be free to lie down (metaphorically, anyway) with militant atheists like Richard Dawkins.
Alas, it’s not that easy, particularly in large swaths of the American South and Midwest. Gould – culturally Jewish and religiously agnostic; New Yorker by birth and Bostonian by choice; grad student at Columbia and professor at Harvard – fatally underestimates the commitment of culturally conservative evangelical Protestants to the idea that science and religion do overlap, pronouncing on the same questions of fact. For the substantial number of Americans who see Biblical texts as literally true, the core ideas of a half-dozen scientific disciplines – which flatly contradict them – must then be false. The encounter between science and religion thus becomes, for such believers, precisely the zero-sum game that Gould wishes it were not. Rocks of Ages, eloquent thought it often is, stands little chance of reversing that position.