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Religion is not incompatible with Science: 'Non-Overlapping Magisteria' - Comments

Jolly Bloger's Avatar Comment 1 by Jolly Bloger

As Dawkins himself says, a universe with a god will look very different from a universe without one. Science is concerned with explaining what exists, so the truth claims of religion are directly in conflict with empirical science. Those elements of religion divorced from testable truth claims are often no different from secular philosophy.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 13:27:00 UTC | #77526

gingerhawk's Avatar Comment 2 by gingerhawk

Science is concerned with examining what exists (in whatever form) and how it works. If one proposes that God exists (in whatever form), then by definition God falls within the remit of science.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 14:37:00 UTC | #77570

brian thomson's Avatar Comment 3 by brian thomson

I suppose science and religion could, in theory, be NOMA, but only if religion withdrew entirely from the universe we all live in. In its current form, its practitioners can't avoid making statements about the universe: there goes the "non-overlapping" part, out the window.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 15:25:00 UTC | #77616

DV82XL's Avatar Comment 4 by DV82XL

"Non-overlapping magisteria" was Gould's attempt at a cease-fire agreement between the two, not as a working theory. The whole point being that they could not speak to each others ideas.

The deists broke that to bits with 'Intelligent Design', in essence trying to force an overlap.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 15:31:00 UTC | #77620

maton100's Avatar Comment 5 by maton100

Dawkins has the best line concerning this one: Why not ask the gardner or the chef what he thinks?

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 18:15:00 UTC | #77708

kurtdenke's Avatar Comment 6 by kurtdenke

I always want to say:

Does your religion make ANY assertion about the world? About how it got here, why it's here, how something in it works or has worked, how it interacts with supernatural entities or processes, what happens to people when they die? Any assertions about any of that at all? If yes, then there's an overlap.

And if no: why should I, or anyone, care about anything your religion asserts? Lunar politics, all of it.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 22:07:00 UTC | #77800

Quine's Avatar Comment 7 by Quine

Science and Harry Potter do NOMA rather well. Religion should take a hint.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 22:16:00 UTC | #77804

dinamo02's Avatar Comment 8 by dinamo02

From kurtdenke:

Does your religion make ANY assertion about the world? About how it got here, why it's here, how something in it works or has worked, how it interacts with supernatural entities or processes, what happens to people when they die? Any assertions about any of that at all? If yes, then there's an overlap.

I think this best sums up the counter argument here. And it should be pointed out that such assertions are SCIENTIFIC claims subject to scientific testing.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 01:32:00 UTC | #77891

Ajuydog's Avatar Comment 9 by Ajuydog

I do think that NOM is a valid concept but not in the sense that Gould meant it. It exists in the mind of the theist who accepts the validity of the scientific method. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance (tension that may result from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, wikipedia) arising from the contradictory world views of science and theism; theism as revealed "truth" and science as a successful explanation of how the world works, a psychological strategy for resolving that tension is required. Hey presto! NOM which avoids implosion of deeply held convictions and in a "puff of logic" (apologies to Douglas Adams).

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 01:34:00 UTC | #77892

Aaron's Avatar Comment 10 by Aaron

The typical response:
Religion does make scientific claims that can be tested, such as the power of prayer, etc.

My response:
If this were true all religious beliefs, past and present, would be able to be maintained untouched by science. Looking at the history of religious beliefs we can test this hypothesis and clearly see it is false. Take Christianity as only one example. The bible makes several claims that have been disproven by science. The universe and everything in it was not created in 7 days nearly 6,000 years ago, the earth was not created before the sun, the moon does not cast its own light, there was no global flood, humans are not unique from other animals as a result of being specially ensouled, etc.

A true example of non-overlapping magesteria would be a chef trying to use his or her culinary knowledge to describe why the Saint Louis Rams football team hasn't won a game yet this year.

The snarky response:
I agree science and religion maintain non-overlapping magisteria: Science deals with reality and religion deals with everything else.


I agree, science deals with what we can postively show to be true and religion deals with what we are biased to hope is true.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 04:49:00 UTC | #77968

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 11 by SilentMike

I have to agree with most of what the people above said. The main point here is that science is the study of the real world (wonder where I first read that...), and if religion has anything to say about the nature of that world, then that's an overlap. As I mentioned this has been said by almost everybody.

But if my opponent said that his religiosity is really and truely not like that, and concede that most people's religiosity is, I still would not let up. In such a situation I would say the following: Even in the areas outside of science's magisteria religion is still a poor option. There are more rational attempts at moral philosophy, there are less confusing and mind-fettering attempts at inspiring proze, there are better ways to live your life.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 06:00:00 UTC | #78002

Chris Bell's Avatar Comment 12 by Chris Bell

I agree, science and religion are NOMA. However, I don't think that is as comforting as the religious think.

Science starts by only observing natural phenomena. I suppose it could accidentally observe a non-natural phenomena, but the experiment would be repeated and the regular result would be obtained.

Another way of saying this is that science starts with an assumption of naturalism. Science de facto rules out supernaturalism. Even if science were to come up with results completely opposing religious claims science could never - as a matter of logic - rule out those claims.

- Assume there is no supernatural explanation
- We find that X is the best explanation
- X directly contradicts supernatural claim Y
- Therefore, Y is wrong

I think the problem is obvious.

So I agree about NOMA. However, I am incredibly convinced that science is better because it is so useful. The premise of science is either wrong or right, and a person must choose.

I always think of Hitchens' debate with a pastor who said that "As a Christian he does believe [an absurd fact], though as a historian he has his doubts. Hitchens responded, "I can usually think myself into an opponent's position, but this is something I can't imagine myself saying, let alone thinking."

That's exactly right, which is why no one is comforted by NOMA. Nearly everyone realizes that they must choose, even though NOMA may be a logically sustainable position.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 06:01:00 UTC | #78003

sidfaiwu's Avatar Comment 13 by sidfaiwu

" Religion is not incompatible with Science: 'Non-Overlapping Magisteria'"

There are definitely claims of some religions that are in conflict with scientific claims. The age of the earth is an obvious example.

Can they be made compatible? Of course, but in their current states, science and religion are sometimes incompatible.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 09:06:00 UTC | #78082

Vadjong's Avatar Comment 14 by Vadjong

The only overlap I see is where science explains the occurence and history of religious people, from archeology to cognition.

Axiom :
In the entire Gamut of religious/spiritual experience, from pre-Alpha to post-Omega, not one Iota is above or beyond natural (human) fabrication.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 11:46:00 UTC | #78171

msl's Avatar Comment 15 by msl

NOMA is just a fancy way of saying one isn't allowed to think about religion, and it's absurd on its face. Everybody thinks about religion. People who think about it scientifically do so better than those who don't.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 12:18:00 UTC | #78196

Mewtwo_X's Avatar Comment 16 by Mewtwo_X

Can't argue against this one, as I accept it.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 14:59:00 UTC | #78284

stag's Avatar Comment 17 by stag

The NOMA argument works -- at least in theory.

Providing religion doesn't attempt to impinge upon the scientific magisteria in making claims about objective reality, NOMA works just fine.

Followed through to its logical conclusion (and avoiding cognitive dissonance), NOMA finds science perfectly compatible with Deism, Pantheism, certain forms of Buddhism, "Progressive" Christianity (ref: J. S. Spong) etc. (not to mention secular "religions", such as Humanism).

Unfortunately, many theists are willing to violate the principles of NOMA in making bold claims regarding the age of the universe, the origins of life, the occurance of miracles, etc., whilst (ironically) still hiding the NOMA flag.

So, ultimately I guess it depends on your definition of the word "religion".

Fri, 26 Oct 2007 02:58:00 UTC | #78530

Blue Lithium's Avatar Comment 18 by Blue Lithium

This is an article I wrote a while ago that addresses NOMA in parts.

Meraning of Propositions and The Existence of God.

"Meaningful propositions claim to say something about the way the world is. They make predictions about how things are. Take the proposition "I own a guitar." That proposition suggests that you could find a guitar in my house, perhaps a receipt for one or tablature or chord books, you could ask the guy in the music shop and he would tell you I'd bought one, etc. These pieces of evidence would suggest that the proposition "I own a guitar" is true. On the contrary, if you failed to find any evidence for the fact that I owned a guitar, you'd probably conclude the proposition to be false.

What of meaningless propositions? A meaningless proposition is a proposition that does not make a prediction about the way things are. If there is no way at all to provide any evidence for or against a proposition, then it is effectively a meaningless one, because it makes no difference whether it is true or false. A famous philosophical example of this is the "parable", if you like, of the "Invisible Gardener." It goes rather like this:
Two men are sitting, watching a garden. They have been watching it for a while, and have seen no gardener tending the plants. One man says to the other, "That would suggest that there is no gardener who tends this garden." The other man replies, "Ah, but it could be an invisible, intangible gardener."
The point of this demonstration is to show that the idea of an invisible, intangible gardener is not any different from no gardener at all, because the idea of an invisible gardener fails to make any predictions about reality. Thus, it doesn't actually matter if there is no gardener or an invisible one, because there is no difference.

What then, of God? The proposition "God Exists", what does that predict about reality? Here are some things that one would expect to observe if theism was true:

* Miracles happening only to believers that cannot be explained in any other manner, like amputees regrowing limbs, or Mount Everest moving 2000 miles away spontaneously, "Jesus lives" or "Muhammad is the true prophet" written in the sky, nonburnable or undefacable Bibles or Torahs etc.
* Prayer being effective.
* Good things happening to good people; bad things happening to bad people(ie. accurate smiting, rather than just indiscriminate viruses or natural disasters).
* No unnecessary suffering.
* An anthropocentric universe, with a spontaneous creation.
* Perfect and wonderfully inspiring holy book(s).
These are just a few things we might expect to see if God(in any theistic sense, at least) exists.

However, we actually see:

* The only miracles that happen are ambiguous, rare and can be accounted for [b]y nature.
*Prayer doesn't work unless it is a coincidence.
*So-called examples of God's wrath are indiscriminate, and many good people suffer horribly.
* Unnecessary suffering occurs, such as victims of an incurable disease, or children dying because there wasn't enough water in a village etc.
* The universe is huge and has very little to do with humanity, who came about through the messy process of evolution over millions of years.
* Holy books are often littered with things like racism and violence. It would be unfair to say there is nothing good or inspiring in them(eg. Ecclesiastes is a great Biblical book) but one gets the impression that an omnipotent deity could have done better. Not to mention the factual inaccuracy of certain claims made in holy books.
This lack of evidence for God's existence suggests that he doesn't exist. It leads many religious people to either:

1. Say that science can say nothing about the divine; or

2. That, in fact, we don't have to observe any of those things to believe God exists; or

3. Define God in some Theological way, such as "God is the power of all Being", or "God is the spirit of love" or something equally vague.

But don't all these "options" lead into the trap of claiming that God is a meaningless proposition? 1, otherwise known as N[on]O[verlapping]MA[gisteria], claims that we can never say anything about God's exists using science. I believe this to be misguided, because if we can ask questions about what we would expect to observe if something is true that is some form of science. And obviously, with the existence of the theistic God, we can do this. I just did it above. Of course, you may want to claim that science cannot prove or disprove the divine--but that is a different claim altogether from the claim that science can say nothing about the existence of God. I would agree with the person who says science cannot disprove the divine. This is because the next observation we make on any scientific theory could technically disprove the theory--the next ball we drop could refuse to fall to the ground. The same with God; the next observation we make could be a Bible that refuses to be defaced when some atheist tries to write sarcastic comments in the margins. Moving back to the idea of a meaningless proposition, if no evidence can be used either way to decide the question of God, if the idea of a God can make no predictions about the universe, as NOMA would have it, "God exists" doesn't mean anything.

2 is better known as the method of faith. Of course, the method of believing without evidence is not considered to be a good idea. Believing with evidence to the contrary, like the observations I made above, is even worse. It may be acceptable to tentatively accept a scientific claim over another before the evidence is completely in. But when the evidence has ruled against you, it is irrational to continue to hold to that position. 2 is saying that observations about the universe aren't important in deciding what is true. But if we cannot observe effects of something, it may as well not exist.

3 is the obfuscations of theologians, rather than a claim made by average religious believers. This is just a way of accounting for the observations I made above. How exactly, though, to we show that "the power of being" exists? What effects does that have on reality, and how can we observe them?

Thus, my conclusion is thus: either you refuse to let your proposition of "God exists" make predictions about reality, and thus make it rather meaningless to believe; or you are open to evidence and let your proposition be confirmed or disconfirmed by the evidence.

Thu, 01 Nov 2007 12:26:00 UTC | #80368

phil rimmer's Avatar Comment 19 by phil rimmer

Miracles overlap.

Thu, 01 Nov 2007 12:30:00 UTC | #80370

RecoveringTheist's Avatar Comment 20 by RecoveringTheist

The first step in getting Religion and Science to coexist.

1. Religious people need to stop trying to kill us every time science and those that study it shake corner stones to holy books, articles, and such. I am mean come on people! As we discover that the holy texts are mistaken isn't this something to be excited about? I mean how would you feel living your whole life practicing something that wasn't really true? I pretty sure that I grew out of pretend play as a young child.

As my mother lamented when I went off to the University of my choice and not theirs (Temple University)I was doomed to Hell as higher education would not permit me the glories of heaven. Funny thing is that I went to a Lutheran School, but of course because it wasn't strict enough in doctrine I would be corrupted, but my retort after graduation was that my "corruption" began when I bought my first copy of Darwin and hide it under my pillow at home.

I severely doubt that we could have non-overlapping religious and scientific beliefs as those religious beliefs always dictate and govern how are to view the universe around us, and a purely scientific approach would be to try and explain things around us without such prejudice.

Thu, 01 Nov 2007 12:51:00 UTC | #80384

Russell Blackford's Avatar Comment 21 by Russell Blackford

Concise version:

Three important points must be made:

1. Religion has never confined itself to making claims about morality and how we should live our lives - historically, religions have provided encyclopedic explanations of the world and our place in it, and they typically continue to do so. When religion does that, it invariably ends up making claims that are incompatible with science.

2. But yes, religion can insulate itself from any refutation by science. All it has to do is retreat to making unfalsifiable claims about a timeless, metaphysical god, existing somewhere beyond the universe. But once religion retreats that far, making no claims that could clash with any scientific evidence, we have every reason to dismiss it as irrelevant. Nothing can count for or against it, and it is of no earthly use.

3. To the extent that religion makes moral claims, it does so with no authority - and the morality it offers is typically miserable, cruel, and barbaric: the product of times and ways of thinking that have no relevance for the modern world. We are better off investigating morality in a rational way, which is the job of secular moral philosophy. Morality is not an area where religion exercises some kind of "magisterium". Its claim to be able to teach us moral wisdom is a sham.

Long version: Go here

Thu, 01 Nov 2007 16:09:00 UTC | #80446

anonquick's Avatar Comment 22 by anonquick

The Gist: Not true, here are some examples of how science treads on the tuft of religion.

meat inspectors - not done by priests.

morality - moral psychology.

witch doctors vs real doctors.


counsellors vs priests.

marriage celebrants vs priests.

Lateral thought - take the next step, stop interpreting the bible, and start interpreting, LIFE.

Fri, 02 Nov 2007 01:39:00 UTC | #80550

BigginHillbilly's Avatar Comment 23 by BigginHillbilly

I think the topic of this thread misses the point, because it implies that an atheist worldview is necessarily that of a scientist and that they are one and the same thing, rather than another example of overlapping magisteria themselves. If the idea of a non-divinely inspired universe is to be convincing, it must appeal to the cavernous irrationality lurking within every human, our sense of wonderment, and intimations of belonging to the totality of things, and the immensities of time and space within which this totality has unfurled. Build up the wall with science by all means, but get the poets, painters, sculptors, novelists and especially the musicians to pitch in too. The problem with this thread's premise is that within human experience the impulses that give rise to science and religion are most definitely overlapping.

Sat, 03 Nov 2007 15:18:00 UTC | #80933

Asta Kask's Avatar Comment 24 by Asta Kask

All miracles are incompatible with a God who intervenes. Apart from that, the biblical God has a number of problematical properties. For one thing, he introduces a privileged perspective and frame of reference, thus contradicting the Special and General Theories of Relativity. It's certainly possible that he contradicts the uncertainty principle - it depends on whether you believe that there are "hidden variables" or not. His ability to create matter and energy from matter would lead him into conflict with the First Law of Thermodynamics. And so on...

Wed, 07 Nov 2007 22:04:00 UTC | #82116

BorisCvek's Avatar Comment 25 by BorisCvek

I am a scientis and a Catholic (Old-Catholic). There is no problem. Neither religion nor science should be taken literally and dogmatically... a humanism (common sense) can join religion and science each other to make a liberal society.

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 04:59:00 UTC | #86492

Peacebeuponme's Avatar Comment 26 by Peacebeuponme

Neither religion nor science should be taken literally and dogmatically
Actually, I think literally is pretty much the only way you can take science.

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 05:03:00 UTC | #86494

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 27 by Cook@Tahiti

If religion makes any difference in the universe (i.e. if a supernatural agent moves even a single atom) then it falls into the realm of scientific observation and testing and can be falsified.

Religious claims can be tested (and are always found wanting) and even the neurology of religous belief can be tested (why are some people immune to superstition and others lap up all sorts of mumbo jumbo?). Anthropologists can compare and contrast religions and the development of religions over time and geography.

Only people that shrink religion down to a mere discussion of abstract ideas can claim N.O.M. - but who among the faithful think of religion as just a philosophical discussion?

Claiming N.O.M. is just an artificial way to prevent criticism... "Oh no, those scientists want to snatch away my invisible teddy bear"

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 05:22:00 UTC | #86495

Flagellant's Avatar Comment 28 by Flagellant

While on the subject of teddy bears, have a look at this!

A British primary school teacher has been arrested in Sudan accused of blasphemy for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad, it emerged today… …Twenty out of the 23 children chose Muhammad.,,2217259,00.html

It gets worse...

Truly, god is incredibly grott, merdeiful.
[Edited to add a bit more detail, and to try to find my avatar.]

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 05:44:00 UTC | #86502

BorisCvek's Avatar Comment 29 by BorisCvek

To Peacebeuponme:

I mean that science is a still flowing river of interpretations and revolutions. The scientist should - e.g. from popperian point of view - falsify scientific theories and replace them by better ones.

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 06:39:00 UTC | #86513

Peacebeuponme's Avatar Comment 30 by Peacebeuponme

I mean that science is a still flowing river of interpretations and revolutions. The scientist should - e.g. from popperian point of view - falsify scientific theories and replace them by better ones.
Yes, to a point. But we have to be careful here. We stand by currently accepted theories due to their explanatory power. We do not say, like the creationists, that evolution is "just a theory".

Mon, 26 Nov 2007 06:56:00 UTC | #86518