NOMA? July 8, 2022

by Thomas Schenk

Fractal image by rfschenk

The late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould. coined the term non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) to describe his position about the relation of science and religion. In this view, the two domains, or magisteria, are each authoritative for their particular area, and have little to contribute to the other.

To quote a Wikipedia article on Gould, his view is “The non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) principle therefore divides the magisterium of science to cover “the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why it work in the way it does (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.”

I give a weak assent to Gould’s NOMA as a general principle, but I think it can be criticized in many of its particulars. I think a better case can be made if we get more general, and define the two magisteria as the realm of intellect and the realm of will, and we don’t insist on “non-overlapping.”

People of intellect, which includes most scientists and scholars, place a very high value on the truth of ideas, which is to say that such ideas correlate with and can be verified against something in the “real” world.

People of will, which includes many, but not all, religious people, and also people who are primarily doers rather than thinkers, value results, whether those results are the cultivation of virtue, achievement, or simply winning.

People of will also value the intellect, but only to the degree that it aids their specific goal. They have little interest in theoretical knowledge and they certainly don’t see knowledge as an end in itself. Whereas people of the intellect often are very interested in theory and do in some circumstances see knowledge as an end in itself.(1)

Defined this way, there is clearly a third magisteria that needs to be mentioned, which is the domain of imagination and feeling. These are probably two separate domains, but they tend to be integrated in the realm of the arts, so I think of them as belonging together.(2)

One could argue that there are many other domains, but I think that other domains are largely hybrids of the three mentioned, which is to say that all human activity is based on intellect, will, emotion and imagination in some combination. For instance, a medical doctor has a strong allegiance to science and the intellect, but they are also very concerned with concrete results. Plus, many would argue that the best doctors bring an aspect of feeling and imagination into their work – that good medical practice is both science and art.

I am only a dilettante when it comes to philosophy, but in my readings of the early Greek philosophers, I have come to the conclusion that when they use the word “rational” they mean something different than do we in the modern world. To be rational, for a Greek thinker like Aristotle, is not only to be able to think clearly and cogently but also to be able to exercise a high degree of self control or self governance. For the Greeks, I believe, to be rational was to integrate thought and will in the conduct of one’s life.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle listed four cardinal virtues that a rational being sought to cultivate: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Temperance and fortitude in particular require the exercise of our will power. These two virtues are essential to good self governance. Prudence and justice require both thought and will. Justice, which in the individual means good judgment, in particular requires both self-discipline and critical thinking.

How is this relevant to Spiritual Naturalism? That should be obvious from the two words that comprise the title. Most forms of spirituality, particularly those based on some form of mindfulness, require a strong sense of self governance and mental discipline. Naturalism, on the other hand, is the product of the effective workings of the human intellect. Thus spiritual naturalism integrates the two magisteria of will and intellect. It is an OMA, rather than a NOMA. And thus, I think the sense of rationality as understood by the ancient Greeks (including the Stoics) should be a high ideal of spiritual naturalism.(3)


  1. The word “will” has a variety of meaning, but as used here it means the ability to govern one’s life based on some form of principle, rather than our natural preference. Confusion about the word “will” arises because we sometimes use it as a synonym for “want.” Thus we speak of a “willful child” as one who has strong wants and fixates on getting what it wants.  These two senses of the word “will” are almost opposites. When we use the word “will” in its moral sense, we mean a kind of “power” that we possess through which we can resist our natural wants, so that we behave according to some moral ideal or principle. To the best of my knowledge, it was in the writings of Augustine that this sense of moral will, or what we commonly call “will power,” was developed.
  2. As a side note, in a mythic symbolism, the three realms are personified as the king, the queen and the vizier, or wizard. In this symbolism, the king is the will, the queen the realm of imagination and feeling, and the wizard the intellect. Such mythic symbolism might be seen as sexist by some, but I think it provides a simple way to imagine these three domains, and how we integrate them in our own lives.
  3. Although the title “Spiritual Naturalism” does not include any reference to the third domain, that of imagination and feeling, I think it is equally important. One of the challenges for spiritual naturalism is to find new ways of integrating this domain into its practices and beliefs.


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