What’s NOMA?

During the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I read Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.  My wonder regarding fossils received some content.  And paleontology seemed right around the corner, i.e., if Indiana Jones-like archeology dried up ;-)

That story did not come to pass, but I returned to a consideration of Gould’s work as part of an Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion book discussion.*  Not surprisingly the concept of NonOverlapping Magisteria (NOMA) became a focal point of the conversation.   Here’s a quote from Gould:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life? — Stephen Jay Gould, Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted with permission from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283.

Yes, the particular topics which Gould raises could generate quite a number of comments, but I’m interested in the larger question of  NOMA.  Who has wrestled with NOMA and have thoughts to share?

BTW, Stephen Jay Gould’s Official Archive can be found here.

* Sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and ScienceIntroducing the “Oracles of Science” and Russia Licenses Faith Healers are earlier posts with material from the conversation.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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5 Comments

  • dopderbeck@gmail.com'
    dopderbeck commented on February 10, 2009 Reply

    I’m not sure NOMA is a useful concept, because it implies that Truth is not ultimately unified. However, some evangelical approaches from the past seem equally unhelpful, particularly to the extent they insist that theology / the Bible and the natural sciences should be thought of as essentially saying the same thing using the same methods. IMHO, Alister McGrath’s appropriation of critical realism in his “Scientific Theology” is a very helpful mediating position.

  • lhynard@livejournal.com'
    Lhynard commented on February 11, 2009 Reply

    well put, dopderbeck

  • amywung@gmail.com'
    Amy commented on February 16, 2009 Reply

    “This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border.”

    What a wonderful spot-on image.

  • Tom Grosh commented on February 17, 2009 Reply

    Yes, love the image Amy! Working on my post regarding Hawkings as an ‘Oracle of Science.’ Still recovering from the Mid-Atlantic Graduate Student Winter Retreat on ‘Being Hospitable’ … worth a post in and of itself, particularly since we had what may have been the first ever ‘card making,’ watercolor, and stampin’ table at a Graduate Student Retreat!

  • dwsnoke@comcast.net'
    Dave Snoke commented on February 20, 2009 Reply

    I encourage you to read my essay on this topic at http://www.cityreformed.org/snoke/UNITY.pdf

    Briefly put, I think NOMA is nonsense.

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