Rocks of ages : science and religion in the fullness of life

by Stephen Jay Gould

Hardcover, 1999




New York : Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member AsYouKnow_Bob
Gould is attempting something subtle here: by arguing “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, he's confirming that science and religion are non-overlapping realms.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member ElectricRay
If you've read any of the clutter of recent books on evolutionary science or popular atheism, you'll know that Stephen Jay Gould - and particularly this book, Rocks of Ages comes with something of a health warning: Gould, despite great eminence and magisterial publishing history, is seen by a certain clique of like-minded authors within the biological community as being damaged goods and this attempt at popular philosophy, with its central thesis of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" ("NOMA") - an attempt at peaceful mediation between science and religion - is given short shrift by such authors, and elsewhere tends to be put down to Gould's compromised situation when he wrote it (terminally ill with cancer). Since his death a few years ago, Rocks of Ages has lost an able champion and as a result looks set to disappear quietly beneath the waves of the current, squally debate.

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.
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LibraryThing member carlym
Gould, an agnostic, argues that there is no need for a war between science and religion: each should stay in its own sphere, or "magisterium." Science describes the natural world but should not draw any moral conclusions from it (i.e., the mechanisms of physical evolution should not be used to justify intentional "survival of the fittest" behavior), and science has no business looking for the meaning of life or the universe. Religion deals with morality and meaning and has no business trying to explain the observable world and natural processes. I generally agree with him (although I think, for example, that belief in Jesus' resurrection, something that cannot be explained by natural laws, is a necessary part of being a Christian). The really interesting part of the book for me was Gould's explanation of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church and also the Scopes trial. In both cases, the real story is more nuanced than the commonly-known account and involves less actual conflict between science and religion.… (more)
LibraryThing member ABVR
Stephen Jay Gould’s central theme in Rocks of Ages is that – far from being in eternal, irreconcilable conflict – science and religion are non-overlapping realms of human endeavor that proceed from different premises, ask different questions, and use different methods to seek answers. Not only are the two realms (he calls them “non-overlapping magisteria”), not in conflict, they cannot be in conflict. Episodes like the trial of Galileo in 1632 and the Scopes Trial of 1925 – routinely cited as major battles religion’s in eternal “war” with science – have their real roots, Gould argues, in the cultural anxieties of specific places and times. So, for that matter, does the idea of the “war” itself.

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.
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LibraryThing member amaraduende
This got repetitive, it was very simplistic. Obviously its a great topic that needs to be written about, though. Interesting ideas. Gould says religion and science occupy totally different spheres and the truth of one does not reflect on the other. The problems come because humans occupy both spheres and have a hard time wanting to reconcile them.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
Clear cogent argument in favor of keeping science and religion separate. Gould considers the peculiarly American phenomenon of creation science and biblical literalism in its historical and cultural context, correcting some popular myths about its history along the way.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
Gould hits a sour note in this book, presenting his idea of Non-Overlapping Magesteria, totally ignoring the fact that for many religiously devout, there is considerable overlap, since science touches on our origin through the despised theory of evolution. When Gould discusses his own experience with a creationist student, it is important to remember that he was teachign at Harvard, not at a small college in the Midwest or the Bible Belt, and that as a well-known evolutionist, his classes were probably already somewhat self-selected. In fact, as I read this book, I began to wonder if Gould had ever actually met any "true" Christians in his life.… (more)



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