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[Review] Conkin & Gould

July 22, 2008

(The following is the text of a review I wrote that appeared in Journal of the History of Biology in 2000. As both of the books are still in print – and the Gould book is his exposition of Nonoverlapping Magesteria – I thought the review was worth posting.)

Most of us are familiar with the icons of warfare between science and religion, and have grown up hearing the stories of Bruno, Galileo, and Scopes. The two works under review offer differing viewpoints on the relationships between science and religion, and are aimed at differing audiences. Conkin’s volume is part of an academic series examining the place of intellectuals in American life, while Gould’s work is in a popular series in which “America’s most original voices tackle today’s most provocative issues” – issues including Jones v. Clinton, Tiger Woods, and the Disney empire.

Conkin holds that the widespread acceptance of evolution brought about a crisis for Protestant America during the turn of the last century. While offering brief outlines of Darwin’s argument and the Scopes Trial of 1925, Conkin’s main goal is to show how intellectuals such as John Graham Machen, H.E. Fosdick and Shailer Mathews coped with what Walter Lippman termed “the acids of modernity.” To Conkin it is obvious that this assault lead to different views of “God” within the Christian community, views that for some received support, rather than opposition, from Darwinism. In outlining the views of the above, and non-theists such as John Dewey, George Santayana, Walter Lippmann, H.E. Barnes and John Crowe Ransom, Conkin provides a useful, albeit short, introduction to the cultural crises of the 1920’s. What is clear from the work is that the debate in the 1920’s was much more interesting than the modern fixation on the Scope’s trial would suggest.

Stephen Jay Gould’s status as a public intellectual is well known. As the Huxley of late-Twentieth Century America, he has often touched on the relations between science and religion, and as such it comes as little surprise that we would eventually be confronted with a volume outlining his views. The work is largely an expansion of essays found in three of Gould’s previously published books – essays which are extracted from his column in Natural History. Thus, to the dedicated Gouldite there is little new here. Indeed, given the repetitive nature of much contained in this work, most readers will have got the message by page 45, and will have little reason to continue as Gould hammers his point home.

Gould’s claim is simply this. The magisterium of science covers the empirical world, while that of religion covers the realm of moral values and ultimate meaning. These two realms form “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) which do not extend beyond their respective boundaries. Gould sees this principle of NOMA as the key that allows science and religion to co-exist. He freely admits that his solution is “nothing original” (p. 3) being a form of Aristotle’s Golden Mean which grants “dignity and distinction to each subject.” Yet within this comfortable solution there are problems. Gould describes Pius XII’s statements on evolution in Humani Generis (1950) as “a helpful perspective from an intelligent and concerned outsider” rather than the incursion across NOMA that it must surely represent. So intent is he on being irenic, and thus not wishing to disenfranchise a Catholic readership, that he chooses to ignore any hints of Papal traditionalism and dogmatism (see p. 70 ff.). In framing his argument, Gould uses persuasive rhetoric to ensure the reader accepts his viewpoint. He aligns himself with such sages as Darwin and Huxley, along with other “seekers of wisdom” and “people of goodwill” (p. 170). NOMA is a “humane, sensible, and wonderfully workable solution” (p. 92). It is a “logically sound, humanely sensible, and properly civil way in a world of honorable diversity” (p. 170). One feels positively boorish and illiberal disagreeing with Gould, but disagree I must.

The work suffers from one overarching flaw. Gould defines religion so as to essentially ensure the success of his proposal of NOMA, but in so doing gives the reader a theology solely with jurisdiction over ethics and morals, thus relegating religion from much of its previously held domain. To Gould, ethics and morals are the essence of “true religion” (p. 42, a phrase which frankly reminds me too much of Creationist claims regarding “true science”). Religion is stripped of most of its traditional meaning and power – there is no talk of origins, design, progress, purpose, guided process, or a personal deity. In short, we are left with a view of religion that would be alien to any theologian within the Judeo-Christian tradition and many others besides. By defining religion thusly, it becomes easy for Gould to claim no overlap or conflict between his non-overlapping magisteria – science retains all its power and prestige, while religion becomes redefined so as not to cause any trouble. Rather than “strongly upholding the general importance of religion” (p. 93), NOMA neuters it.

As Conkin demonstrates, the Protestant theologian Charles Hodge quite correctly noted inconsistencies between Darwinism and the major themes of evangelical Christianity. In particular, Darwinism removed the prop from under the last intellectually justifiable support from deism – the argument from design. Conkin eschews the irenic path, correctly noting that the God of the irenicists (and of Gould) differs greatly from the transcendental God of the Old Testament – the God of Miracles became no more. In this, Conkin sees much to be sorrowful about as the Protestant religion became watered-down and changed irrevocably. As he notes – “the irenic idealists had created all the new gods in their own image, had helped kill the old, personal, visceral, willful God of Christianity. Yet those indulged in deicide were so dense, so uncomprehending, that they did not yet appreciate the horror of their actions.” (p. 174)

In the preface of his work, Conkin accuses those who claim that science and religion “when fully or properly understood, do not conflict” of making a claim that “reflects either stupidity or a deliberate refusal to define terms and think rigorously” (p. ix). I suspect Conkin would have little time for Gould’s oversimplified (and somewhat disingenuous) solution of NOMA. Frankly, I see little reason why other philosophers, historians and theologians should either.

Paul K. Conkin, When All The Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals, American Intellectual Culture, (Lanham [Md]: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), xi + 185 pp., $24.95. [link]

Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Library of Contemporary Thought, (New York [NY]: Ballantine, 1999), viii + 241 pp., $18.95. [link]

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  1. July 22, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Gould sees this principle of NOMA as the key that allows science and religion to co-exist. He freely admits that his solution is “nothing original” (p. 3) being a form of Aristotle’s Golden Mean which grants “dignity and distinction to each subject.”

    Gould’s treatment of Aristotle has been criticized by people who know more philosophy than I; Russell Blackford, for example.

    The chapter takes up 19 pages of large print, and the early pages are wasted on an argument developed from the supposedly Aristotelian concept “a ‘golden mean'”. Gould proposes that we should adopt neither an extreme viewpoint of expecting inevitable conflict between science and religion nor the other extreme, expecting some kind of harmonious integration. Rather, we should follow the “golden mean” and find a position where science and religion do not overlap at all.
    I don’t think this is even developed as a serious argument. It is more a rhetorical device to put us in a mood for compromise. [H. Allen] Orr points out that Gould misrepresents Aristotle’s actual position, since Aristotle used the concept of a mean as an approach to normative ethics, not a method of resolving competing truth claims.
    If Gould had troubled to look more closely at Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he would have found an analysis of the moral virtues as states of character by which we “stand well or badly” with reference to passions such as fear, joy and anger. A virtue is a disposition or state of character that enables us to prosper and do our work well. Ordinarily, it is a virtue to be inclined to neither an excess nor a deficiency of the relevant passion: we should be inclined to friendliness, for example, not surliness or obsequious flattery. Nowhere does Aristotle argue that the correct or virtuous disposition must necessarily be smack in the middle of the possibilities, or that we should adopt a life of moderation in all things. According to Aristotle, some things are to be shunned completely; he lists such passions as spite and envy and such actions as adultery, theft and murder.
    These ideas make sense as a possible approach to normative ethics, but Aristotle’s point is that the passions are the sorts of things of which we can have too much or too little. While the moral virtues can be thought of in this way, the same is certainly not the case with intellectual virtues, involving inquiry into matters of truth and falsity. The mean is not a principle for settling arguments about competing philosophical theories, such as those about the relationship between science and religion. I don’t know how Gould received such a misapprehension or whether it is original to him, but he is plainly and badly wrong when he states that the centrepiece of Aristotle’s philosophy was “the resolution of most great issues at a resting point between extremes.” Aristotle’s view could not be more different from this. The whole “argument” is a dead-end, and several other pages of Gould’s key chapter are equally wasted on inconclusive waffle about oil and water, apples and oranges, chalk and cheese.

    — from a 2000 review published in Quadrant magazine

  2. El Christador
    July 22, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    It sounds like Gould’s point is that normative and positive statements belong to different categories.

  3. July 22, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Gould’s position went considerably farther than that, I think. Into one box, which we shall call “Science”, go all the positive statements, while into the other, which shall be known as “Religion”, go the normative ones. “Is” shall be the exclusive property of one magisterium, and “ought” of the other.

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