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The Language of Science and Faith: An Excerpt
Christians explore these and most other scientific topics without worrying about faith implications. On some subjects, of course, the Bible does make casual, sometimes literary, reference to the natural world, such as when God is connected to thunder, whirlwinds, clouds, green pastures and lions. Such allusions also occasion no worry.
But sometimes the Bible speaks with reasonable clarity about the natural world, and it is here that problems arise. In Psalm 93 we read: "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." This is not a passage readily dismissed as a literary device, and in fact, it occasioned great consternation in the seventeenth century when Galileo tried to convince his fellow Christians that the earth was not fixed but moved around the sun. Galileo, in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, struggled to reconcile the new astronomy with this venerable biblical assurance that the earth did not move. He famously quipped, "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go," anticipating the point we made earlier, that science and religion can often avoid conflict by simply keeping them separate.
Galileo's task in the seventeenth century was like ours in the twenty-first, except we wrestle with new topics like biological evolution and the big bang, not the motion of the earth. The simple "science and religion are independent" formula, however, did not work for Galileo in his day, although thoughtful Christians today have learned to be careful not to treat Bible verses as scientific statements.
The so-called independence model for relating science and religion received a major endorsement a few years ago when the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed it as a formula for keeping the peace. Gould, for years one of the leading public voices for science in America, argued that science and religion are so completely different that they should be viewed as separate bodies of knowledge with no relationship to each other. Gould argued that science provides empirical, factual knowledge of the world and its behavior, and religion addresses questions of values and purpose. And there is simply no overlap between these two pursuits.
Borrowing explicitly religious language, Gould labeled this view "non-overlapping magisteria," or NOMA.
[Each] subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "non-overlapping magisteria"). 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).
NOMA maps much of the relevant terrain, as we have seen, and has to be the starting point for any discussion of science and religion. We must start by understanding that we are not obliged to seek out religious meaning in the esoteric nooks and crannies of contemporary science, as if every fact about the natural world is like a fortune cookie with a little religious message inside.
Why Do So Many People Think Science and Religion Are at War?
NOMA confronts the enduring but discredited myth that science and religion have forever been in conflict. This view, known as the "warfare metaphor," originated in a pair of influential and widely read books in the nineteenth century: Andrew Dickson White's A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom and William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. Prior to the appearance of these books, science and religion, except for the occasional skirmish like the Galileo affair, got along fine and were actually supportive of one another, as recent scholarship has clearly shown. And even the infamous Galileo affair was nothing like its urban legend. Galileo was not tortured and his so-called imprisonment was confinement to his house. There was indeed a tragic conflict, but not in the sense that polemicists like White and Draper portrayed.