September 27, 1999
Volume 52, No. 6
Book in review
Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
Stephen Jay Gould
reviewed by Michael Johns
For more than 20 years, Stephen Jay Gould has produced a large number of stimulating and well-written essays, collections of essays and books on natural history. He has long since established his place as one of the best natural history and science writers ever. He has done as much as anyone to take difficult and often misunderstood concepts--like evolution, scientific method, statistics and natural selection--and make them clear, accessible and enjoyable to the reader. He is an ardent defender of science and rationality, but is simultaneously one of the most compelling witnesses to the wonder and unfathomable beauty and complexity of our natural world.
In Rock of Ages, Gould takes on a fundamental issue he has dealt with in a variety of essays over the years: the often contentious conflict that can arise between religious and scientific views of the world. As usual, he has provided a very clear and interesting view of his subject matter-in the form of a proposed solution. His argument, essentially, is that science and religion are best understood as inhabiting entirely autonomous, non-overlapping realms of human purpose that can and must coexist.
The realm of science is the one in which we document the factual character of our natural world and develop theories to explain these facts. The realm of religion is the one in which we (or at least those of us who are religious) define a moral basis and meaning for our lives. These are two distinct realms, what Gould calls "magisteria" (creation of and appreciation for art being a third) that are fundamental to our lives and socialization. One realm can and often does inform the other, but they are optimally beneficial to us when we can come to a "respectful and loving concordant" concerning their boundaries-understanding that these are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).
To make his case Gould takes the reader through a short but rich tour through parts of the Bible and fundamentalist Protestant doctrine, and into the reflections and writing of some of history's greatest secular and religious minds. Gould fully discloses at the outset that he is himself agnostic, someone who believes that the existence of god can neither be proved nor disproved--that it simply cannot be known. Yet he makes a strong case that people of any and all beliefs can adopt NOMA as a principled position on both moral and intellectual grounds.
For those of us--physicians and scientists and others--who confront often the boundaries and intersections of scientific and religious practice, Gould's essay helps provide some context for better understanding this complex interplay. It also helps one comprehend these very profound issues in very personal ways. In fact, sometimes this essay reads more like a personal contemplation by Gould himself, who has recently (and so far successfully) battled an often fatal form of cancer.
It also raises interesting questions for all of us who work within the university pursuing our various specialized careers and studies within defined disciplines. The university is meant to be the place where inquiry crosses boundaries and where knowledge, as well as belief, can be shared. Yet, it seems that many of our disciplines are inclined to evolve toward non-overlapping magisteria. I cannot speak for the social and political sciences, but in biomedical and behavior science the attempt to construct NOMAs where they don't really belong can be very counterproductive.
Thankfully, after decades of intense boundary fortification in biomedical science, the trend now is toward eliminating boundaries and toward the convergence of inquiry and method in many disciplines. Our health sciences strategic planning and its implementation, including the configuration of new space, anticipates increasingly overlapping fields of knowledge and interdisciplinary collaboration.
Gould is a prodigiously learned man. Had he written this essay 20 years ago, one might have encountered a youthful bravado or cockiness in the execution of a project as ambitious as proposing a framework for the relationship between religion and science. This essay contains none of that. Written after a lifetime spent on the cutting edge of science and wonder, and fresh from the precipice of his own mortality, it provides a searching, generous and wise perspective on humanity's enduring quests for meaning and understanding.
Michael Johns is executive vice president for health affairs and CEO
of Emory HealthCare.