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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A very short introduction to non-overlapping magisteria

I reserve the right to republish an old post now and then just because I like it (and because my newer readers may not have read it). Thus, this, from March 2009 ...

The theory of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) - the idea that science and religion have authority in entirely separate domains and do not come into conflict - is, in a word, rubbish. However, it's remarkably persistent rubbish. I've written about the issue at length elsewhere, but let's deal with it in a nutshell.

According to NOMA, science tells us about the physical world while religion provides moral guidance. These are different in character, so there can never be a clash between them.

Well, if you believe that you might be prepared to call for a cessation in hostilities between science and religion, which may even sound like an attractive prospect. But the doctrine of NOMA is rotten through and through.

Historically, religions have been encyclopedic systems of belief, offering explanations of a vast range of phenomena ... as well as providing guidance for their adherents' actions. As encyclopedic systems, they inevitably come into conflict with science as the latter provides more and more facts about how the world actually works. Religion can avoid direct conflicts only by retreating into highly abstract and more-or-less unfalsifiable positions. Some modern-day versions of religion may well have retreated so far from falsifiability that they are no longer in direct conflict with science, but that's a fascinating historical development, not an indication that religion and science exercise inherently different and non-overlapping magisteria.

Even when religion avoids direct conflict with good science, and is thus not plainly irrational, it tends not to be believable when its image of the universe is held up against the emerging scientific image. In particular, who, in the light of science, can seriously adopt the orthodox Abrahamic idea of a loving and providential (yet all-powerful and all-knowing) deity? Who can believe - without having been brainwashed, or shall we say "socialised"? - that a loving and providential god is responsible for the emergence of rational beings in its divine image only after the passage of hundreds of millions of years; the extinction of countless species; various planetary catastrophes and mass extinctions; and throughout all this, ever since sentient creatures evolved a few hundred million years ago, the ever-present agony of nature red in tooth and claw?

When it comes to the moral teachings of religion, some of them are uncontroversial because almost any moral system must find a place for them: try to be kind to others; treat people honestly; settle your disputes without violence if you can. Almost any society needs to treat kindness, honesty, and non-violence (except in specific, regulated situations) as virtues rather than vices, and must have some concept of theft, fraud, and unlawful killing. It always seems anomalous - not to mention suspicious - when anthropologists claim to have discovered an isolated tribe with a radically different concept of moral virtue.

But the specifically religious content of religious morality is usually sick and miserable. It typically involves a nasty kind of ascetism; it fossilises moral injunctions from unenlightened and more economically-backward times (injunctions that were of dubious value even then, and are totally disconnected from modern needs); and it is couched in terms of an implausible absolutism that makes no allowance for circumstances, or gains flexibility only by means of bizarre doctrines such as the Catholic principle of double effect.

I was struck again by the nasty ascetism that's a legacy of our society's heritage of hundreds of years of Christian hegemony when I read a recent piece by Roger Scruton. Here, as so often, there is an assumption that asceticism has the high moral ground. Why - from any viewpoint based in reality and reason - is Scruton's word "hedonism", which he plasters over contemporary humanism, a term of shame?

As my readers know I don't deprecate the activities of art, science, and scholarship. Quite the opposite. Nor do I doubt the importance of fighting injustice. By all means let's put much of our energy into those things, in whatever ways suit our individual talents. But nor should we deprecate the pleasures of the body - the joy of dancing, the liquid velvet of good red wine, the caress of sunshine on our skin, the visual delight of beauty in its all forms, the ecstasy of sex ... I'm not going to bullied into shame about those pleasures. They are wonderful things, there to be enjoyed without reservation.

One of the most deplorable aspects of religion, as we've experienced it historically, is its pathological rejection of sexuality, the body, and ordinary physical pleasures, as if we need some excuse to engage in them. As if we thereby lower ourselves.

Religion has never, except as a strategy of retreat, restricted itself to teachings about morality ... and when it does offer its own distinctive moral teachings, the effect is usually a morality that we'd be better off without.


March Hare said...

As long as the Catholic Church has exorcisms, and Protestant churches have faith healers, which claim disease (usually mental or epilepsy) is caused by possession, then the idea of NOMA cannot be applied to them and they are dangerous to people's health.

Anonymous said...

NOMA. A well-meaning, but flawed form of diplomacy between religion and science, that only seems to work in one direction. Science is quite happy to stay out of the philosophical side of the argument, but theists constantly tread in the scientific, naturalistic realm, with claims of miracles, answering prayers, holy artefacts etc..

I also suspect that if scientific method would back up any of their arguments, they would happily accept the overlapping magisteria then.

In other words, NOMA is entirely one-sided, and hence flawed as a form of diplomacy.

Paul S. Jenkins said...

"...when it does offer its own distinctive moral teachings, the effect is usually a morality that we'd be better off without."

Agreed. Religion gives morality a bad name, and NOMA is a false distinction.

Rorschach said...

I had a chance to talk to AC Grayling about this at the GAC. I liked it how he argued that NOMA was rubbish because science and religion have a common ancestor in ignorance.

DEEN said...

Completely agree with your short introduction to NOMA. One addition I'd like to offer: proponents of NOMA often claim that science deals with facts about the world, while religion deals with values. But religion can't limit itself to claims of morality and avoid making claims of fact. They claim authority on the field of moral values, but this claim of authority is based on a claim of fact itself: God exists and has been speaking wisdom to his followers.

Sean P said...

Great re-post Russell! Couldn't agree with you more.

Anonymous said...

Here's a passage from an execrable religious text, bullying you into shame about enjoying sex:

How beautiful are your sandaled feet,
      O queenly maiden.
   Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
      the work of a skilled craftsman.
Your navel is perfectly formed
      like a goblet filled with mixed wine.
   Between your thighs lies a mound of wheat
      bordered with lilies.
  Your breasts are like two fawns,
      twin fawns of a gazelle.

From Song of Solomon, Chapter 7.
Read it with your lover, sometime!

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, it's from the Song of Solomon. Interestingly, the religious have often tried to interpret it as an allegory for something less erotic.

Anonymous said...

bizarre doctrines such as the Catholic principle of double effect

Russell -

The thing is, double effect is found to be superficially plausible, especially to people who have an intuitive attachment to moral realism and don't really know what metaethics is.

Do you think it's best argued against with a counter-example, or is it better to say that it doesn't do the heavy lifting claimed (ie there's an obvious moral distinction between intention and foresight and that is all that's being appealed to).


josef johann said...

The best part of your best posts is that they always get at the lurking elephant in the room that attracts people to these issues in the first place.

A more technical post could have delved into NOMA with a focus on definitions and pointing out areas of conflict and very easily passed by the problems of religious asceticism. But its really the inhumanity of it that gives (me at least) an appetite to see NOMA refuted in the first place.