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Rocks of Ages:

Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

by Stephen Jay Gould

Library of Contemporary Thought, Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, 1999

222 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

This book extends an idea from Chapter 14 of Gould's last book, "Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms." The idea of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) argues for a resolution that allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world while religion defines our moral world. As Gould puts it: "The chief theme of this book provides the common currency of agreement-- NOMA, and the call for respectful and supportive dialogue between two distinct magisteria, each inhabiting a major mansion of human life, and each operating best by shoring up its own home while admiring the other guy's domicile and enjoying a warm friendship filled with illuminating visits and discussions."

I agree with Gould's NOMA, but only as an attempt to find peace between religion and science. However, I seriously doubt that most believers on either side will change their minds. I have long observed that beliefs prove more powerful than reason and NOMA represents a reasonable proposition.

Gratefully, Gould clarifies an omission from his last book about the value of ethics from us nonbelievers:

"I most emphatically do not argue that ethical people must validate their standards by overt appeals to religion-- for we give several names to the moral discourse of this necessary magisterium, and we all know that atheists can live in the most firmly principled manner, while hypocrites can wrap themselves in any flag, including (most prominently) the banners of God and country."

But then why does he label his second magisteria-- religion? I take issue that religion defines our moral world. Most religionists whom I have known (and I once owned religious beliefs) act out of duty towards their belief in their God, whether it comes from fear, greed of heaven, hope, or born from youth, long before they understood morality, and not because of its moral nature. Religion, by definition, submits to the expressions of human belief in a superhuman power, not for a defining act of morality. The idea that religion defines morality comes as a relatively modern invention used today as a rhetorical defence of religion. Yes, I know that Gould aims for a resolution between science and religion, and I fully understand his use, but I would prefer the more general idea of a magisteria of ethics, rather than religion. Does not the liberal religionist view (that includes morality), fall under the generality of ethics?

As another minor criticism, Gould, throughout his legacy of essay writings, always seems to insert a religious expression, almost as if he pretends to believe. I can understand this from a person of religion, a priest, or even a scientist who also believes (such as the physicist and bishop, Polkinghorne). But Stephen Gould has clearly professed his unbelief and admits to agnosticism, yet he uses expressions such as "Lord only knows...", "God is in the details..." and sometimes ends a chapter with an "amen." I know of several atheists who do the same, but this to me, grates on the intellect like fingernails across a blackboard. As a nonbeliever myself, I simply cannot in full conscious entertain the idea of using "Lord" or amen, even as "just" an expression (although sometimes I unconsciously spurt out a "God damn," no doubt given to me through an early memetic event. Doesn't everyone have a bit of Tourette syndrome?). There stands no excuse for word play or unconscious appeals here; Gould has the vocabulary and talent to find better and more useful expressions. I simply cannot fathom his reasoning and it seems disingenuous. I can only guess that perhaps he appeals for a conscilience to his religious friends and colleagues. If this serves the case, then the snail man deserves another title-- chicken.

But I applaud this book as a noble attempt from a true irenic and I highly recommend it to those interested in science and religion, and especially those who think science should define morality or religion should determine science.

A few quotes from the book:

NOMA cuts both ways an imposes restriction and responsibility on both magisteria. The political campaigns of American creationists do represent... an improper attempt... within the magisterium of religion to impose their doctrines upon the magisterium of science. But, alas, scientists have also, indeed frequently, been guilty of the same offense in reverse, even if they don't build organized political movement with legislative clout.

The enemy is not religion but dogmatism and intolerance.

Huxley and Darwin did indeed lose any vestige of a lingering personal belief in an intrinsically just world, governed by a loving anthropomorphic deity.

He [Darwin] lost personal comfort and belief in the conventional practice of religion, but he developed no desire to urge a view upon others-- for he understood the difference between factual questions with universal answers under the magisterium of science, and moral issues that each person must resolve for himself.

A few of Darwin's well-placed friends, spearheaded by Huxley, lobbied the proper ecclesiastical and parliamentary authorities to secure a public burial in Westminster Abby, where Darwin lies today. . . Huxley must have relished the prospect that a freethinker who had so discombobulated the most hallowed traditions of Western thought could now lie with kings and conquerors in the most sacred British spot of both political and ecclesiastical authority.

I most emphatically do not argue that ethical people must validate their standards by overt appeals to religion-- for we give several names to the moral discourse of this necessary magisterium, and we all know that atheists can live in the most firmly principled manner, while hypocrites can wrap themselves in any flag, including (most prominently) the banners of God and country.

While every person must formulate a moral theory under the magisterium of ethics and meaning, and while religion anchors this magisterium in most cultural traditions, the chosen pathway need not invoke religion at all, but may ground moral discourse in other disciplines, philosophy for example.

The half-century between Pius [XII] surveying the ruins of World War II and his own pontificate heralding the dawn of a new millennium has witnessed such a growth of data, and such a refinement of theory, that evolution can no longer be doubted by people of goodwill and keen intellect.

The concept of a "day" could not be defined before the sun's creation on the fourth day of the Genesis sequence.

I must say that I simply don't understand what reading the Bible "literally" can mean, since the text, cobbled together from so many sources, contains frequent and inevitable contradictions.

"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.

Many people cannot bear to surrender nature as a "transitional object"-- a baby's warm blanket for our adult comfort. But when we do (for we must), nature can finally emerge in her true form: not as a distorted mirror of our needs, but as our most fascinating companion. Only then can we unite the patches built by our separate magisteria into a beautiful and coherent quilt called wisdom.

When we reject the siren song of false sources, we become free to seek solutions to questions of morals and meanings in the proper place-- within ourselves.

Only a moral pervert could believe that the child's handicap was meant to be because it happened, or that God followed an agenda of overall decency by purposely peppering our lives with such specific misfortune.

The Big Bang cannot be touted as a description of God's initial creation of the universe ex nihilo. The Big Bang does not set the ultimate beginnings of all material things-- a subject outside the magisterium of science. The Big Bang is a proposition about the origin of our known universe.


1. The Problem Stated
A Tale of Two Thomases
The Fate of Two Fathers
2. The Problem Resolved in Principle
NOMA Defined and Defended
NOMA Illustrated
Coda and Segue
3. Historical Reasons for Conflict
The Contingent Basis for Intensity
Columbus and the Flat Earth: An Example of the Fallacy of Warfare Between Science and Religion
Defending NOMA from Both Sides Now: The Struggle Against Modern Creationism
-- Creationism: A Distinctively American Violation of NOMA
-- Trouble in Our Own House: A Brief Legal Survey From Scopes to Scalia
-- The Passion and Compassion of William Jennings Bryan: The Other Side of NOMA
4. Psychological Reasons for Conflict
Can Nature Nurture Our Hopes?
Nature's Cold Bath and Darwin's Defense of NOMA
The Two False Paths of Irenics

To obtain this book, click below:

Rocks of Ages: Science & Religion in the Fullness of Life

Other books by Stephen Jay Gould:

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (hardcover)

Questioning the Millennium (hardcover)

Full House (paperback)

Dinosaur in a Haystack (paperback; hardcover; audio-cassette)

Eight Little Piggies (paperback)

Bully for Brontosaurus (paperback)

Wonderful Life (paperback)

Urchin in the Storm (paperback)

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (paperback)

The Flamingo's Smile (paperback)

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (paperback)

The Mismeasure of Man (paperback)

The Panda's Thumb (paperback)

Ever Since Darwin (paperback)