My magisterium is bigger than yours

As is well known, Stephen Jay Gould offered ‘the principled resolution of supposed “conflict” or “warfare” between science and religion’ in his short book Rocks of Ages.

No such conflict should exist because 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 “nonoverlapping 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).

I’ve always disliked that formula; I disliked the book when it came out. Here’s one reason.

Gould treats the two ‘magisteria’ as if they were equal – ‘the net of science covers’ and ‘the net of religion extends over’ sounds as if they’re doing more or less the same kind of work. But that’s wrong. Science is the best and only way to explore nature, while religion is not the best and only way to explore moral meaning and value.

Religion is actually not a very good way to do either one – it tends to be misleading, it tends to be irrelevant, it’s often just plain wrong. The magisterium isn’t really a magisterium. The church has its ‘teachings,’ as it’s always reminding us when they conflict with equality legislation, but its teachings are…not really teachings.

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