Science & The Bible: NOMA vs. The New Atheism

Hello everyone! I’m a first-year at Wellesley College, a liberal arts college in a small town near Boston, and I will be keeping a commentary on the material that we are going through in my seminar class. The course is titled “Science and the Bible”, and it is taught by Professor Ed Silver from the religion department. It’s honestly one of the most interesting and meaningful courses I am taking this semester – it’s a blessing to be sharing this with all of you!

Course Description:
Discussion of controversies over the Bible and its relevance to scientific inquiry. Examination of significant areas of perceived conflict between science and religion such as: evolutionary theory, geological history, environmental stewardship, neuro-scientific models of the mind, and genetic engineering. We will ask how religious believers have drawn upon the Bible to develop critical perspectives toward aspects of the scientific project, and we will assess the benefits and limitations of using ancient texts in this way.

I am a non-denominational Christian, and a potential STEM major. I never believed that my field (Biochemistry) wouldn’t be compatible with the existence of the God I put my faith in, but over the summer, I began to question creationism and evolution (I previously thought that the creation story was purely metaphorical – but many see it literally). I began to doubt the ethics of medical treatments and abortion, among other things.

I think that the act of questioning doesn’t mean that my faith is in danger. If anything, it’s a process necessary for spiritual growth. I wanted to take this course to see things from many sides in order to help figure out where I myself stand. Our discussion table is a respectful, inquisitive environment, and the name of the course itself, “Science and the Bible”, not “Science vs. the Bible”, suggests that we are not here to argue, but to bring two worlds and look at them together.

For our first week, we read Andrew Abbott’s “The Aims of Education Address”. That’s over, and we now know that education has no aims, the aim is education. You may disagree. I know that while we exist to get that “spark”, the talk is also very elitist, and my education has purposes too, such as getting me into Medical School. Yes, there are other paths, but this is one of them too, Prof. Abbott.

(This is just extra credit reading for you, go ahead and just have a look into some of my thoughts on this week’s reading.)


This week, we will be discussing a concept called NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), coined by Jay Gould, a celebrated scientist and atheist. For this, we read a chunk of Gould’s book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (pp. 49-89 if you’re interested).

“No single magisterium can come close to encompassing all the troubling issues raised by any complex subject, especially one so rich as the meaning of our relationship with other forms of life. Instead of supposing that a single approach can satisfy our full set of concerns (“one size fits all”), we should prepare to visit a picture gallery, where we can commune with several different canvases, each circumscribed by a sturdy frame.”

Excerpt From: Gould, Jay. “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.”

Jerry Coyne is one of the “New Atheists”. For his side of the argument, we read one of his books, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (pp. 1-64, 97-120).

“My main thesis is narrower and, I think, more defensible: understanding reality, in the sense of being able to use what we know to predict what we don’t, is best achieved using the tools of science, and is never achieved using the methods of faith.”

Excerpt From: Coyne, Jerry A. “Faith Versus Fact : Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.”

Below are the questions I will seek to answer myself before going to class on Monday. Feel free to chime in the discussion in the comments below!

  1. What does Stephen Jay Gould mean with the idea of NOMA? What specific claims does he make about NOMA? What is the idea’s history?
  2. How does Coyne define and explain “Science”? Do you find his account plausible?
  3. How does Coyne define and explain “Religion”? Do you find this account plausible?
  4. What is “accommodationism” according to Coyne? What do you think of his evaluation of this position?
  5. Do you agree or disagree with Coyne’s contention that “religious claims are empirical hypotheses?” (p.21). Why or why not? How might Gould respond to this claim?
  6. How do you understand the difference between Coyne and Gould in their representation of religion?

Science, Gould says, is all about finding about the natural world, while religion deals solely with the issues of meaning, purpose, and morals. The two disciplines thus constitute “non-overlapping magisteria,” for which he coined the acronym NOMA. Dealing with the human condition, he argues, requires both physical and metaphysical inquiry.

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

Gould says that the dissension with religion is not due to the nature of religion itself, but because of politics, and that all ethics are really religion in disguise, therefore the “universal fellowship of people” are all fundamentally “religious” in this sense.

He put forward this resolution as a response to his confusion over the need and reception of the 1996 address of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”.

Coyne defines science as not a fixed body of knowledge, but a method, or set of tools, for understanding how the universe actually works and getting answers about nature. It’s how we answer, “How do you know that?” Of course, “science” can lead to the wrong truths, but the community begins with an attitude of doubt with scientific theories, performing blind tests so that they will not fool themselves, corroborating data, and testing again and again.

Coyne defines religion as having three assets: 1) theism – the claim that God interacts with the world; 2) embrace of a moral system; 3) the idea that God interacts with every individual in a personal relationship; 4) beliefs about the constitution in reality. The main question in religion is, “What do these stories mean?” since religion has little or nothing to do with facts. Ultimately, religion is more than a set of moral values, because it makes claims about the way things are.

He goes on a bit, then relates the two, saying that they are “incompatible”:

“My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe. “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions. In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.”

Coyne then defines accommodationism – the claim that science and religion are not in conflict – a neutral zone containing both the comfort of faith and belief in science (science≠atheism). He argues that “the true harm of accommodationism is the weakening of our organs of reason by promoting useless methods of finding truth, especially that of faith.”

Coyne contends that “religious claims are empirical hypotheses”, which I believe is the scientific approach to “proving” religion. However, the knowledge of the existence of God heavily relies on faith and is not the kind of claim that can be tested. The Being that created the universe exists outside of whatever He creates and thus cannot be tested by something existing inside the Creation. The late Jay Gould perhaps would have argued that the scientific method is simply not applicable to religion. After all, it is impossible to measure how moral or how valuable a man or woman is using science.

Gould sees religion as simply a part of a larger magisterium of ethical discussion and search for meaning including several disciplines traditionally grouped under the humanities—much of philosophy, and part of literature and history. Respectfully, he sees it as something different from silly superstition. Coyne seems to think that religion is the incorrect method of understanding the world because faith is the complete opposite of science. The two are irreconcilable. No amount of evidence will overturn the beliefs of those who have faith, whereas the scientific community is always looking for evidence that might change the current paradigm.

Thank you so much for reading! Join me again for a discussion next week on “Transhumanists, Bioconservatives, and the Role of the Bible.” Feel free to leave your thoughts below!


5 thoughts on “Science & The Bible: NOMA vs. The New Atheism

  1. peddiebill says:

    Although I initially found NOMA plausible, I now suspect it only works if the religion side is disengaged from the real world. Let me illustrate. Many religious ideas might initially be based on faith suppositions but surely a number are based on notions that can be tested. eg can prayer produce healing. Well this can and indeed is tested by experiments. Is the Genesis story grounded in the actual events and time sequences. Again science can test this. When an ancient script is discovered how old is it and what do we know about its provenance? – surely partly scientific. Does the geography of the gospel accounts match what the scholars tell us. These are not non overlapping magisteria. Is intelligent design a sensible conclusion as an alternative to what the majority of evolutionary scientists have concluded …. surely only answerable if we look at the science.
    Conservative Christians are fond of sorting out the morality of issues like the ethics of abortion, whether or not an embryo is capable of suffering, whether or not euthanasia is acceptable etc surely all of these issues are informed by science. If we don’t allow ourselves to be informed by science then we would have nothing to offer as Christians to a host of modern issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gloria Sun (孙诗嘉) says:

      Hello Bill, thank you very much for contributing! I too, agree that NOMA is not very plausible. There is way too much overlap when we consider either the ethics, not even religious reasons, but just ethics, of using science. Because science and technology and medicine by themselves are not good or evil, but the way we choose to implement them in our lives can be. And like you’re saying too, religion seems like something one can prove or disprove, or if not, at least be able to look for evidence. So just as our usage of science is informed by what we believe, what we believe can also be informed by science. ~Gloria


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