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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 213-214 ( 5 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/rocks.html

Book Review

Rocks of Ages:
Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
by Stephen Jay Gould
Ballantine Books, 1999

Reviewed by Brian Jackson, Language and Computing NV, Belgium. Dr. Jackson is a pathologist with a side interest in religious history.

In Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, an extended essay borrowing heavily from his previously published works, author Stephen Jay Gould undertook an ambitious goal. Specifically, he set out to define the ideal relationship between science and religion in such a way as to maximize the benefit of each toward society. Considering the nature of the challenge, he comes remarkably close to succeeding. But it is not in success or failure of this singular goal that his book succeeds or fails. Rather, it is in the journey. And this journey is to be highly recommended.

With Gould's recent death at a very young 60, the world has lost a remarkable essayist, professor, paleontologist, scientific evangelist and political activist. Gould always pursued a pragmatic approach in his career as a scientist. While many academics shelter themselves beneath obtuse writing and inaccessible subject matter, Gould had the confidence to address the world with clarity and common sense. Well, perhaps confidence is a bit of an understatement. But his writing is accessible without being particularly patronizing, and his subject matter is fundamental to the nature and meaning of existence.

The basic thesis on which Rocks of Ages is built is summarized by the Gould-coined acronym "NOMA" for "non-overlapping magisteria." The idea is that the fullest expression of humanity can only be achieved when science and religion are each allowed to contribute in those domains for which that particular mode of thinking is most appropriate, and restricted from interfering in domains for which it is not. A motivating illustration is given by analogy with the additionally non-overlapping domain of art. Most people see no contradiction or even competition between art and science; both contribute to a fuller appreciation of life. So why can't science and religion have the same relationship?

Gould opens by discussing his agnosticism, his Jewish heritage, and his lack of formal religious training (which he regrets), and what he describes as a lifelong fascination with religion. He moves on to the historic basis for intellectual conflict between science and religion, and expends some effort to demonstrate how this conflict has been exaggerated in our popular imagery beyond what is historically justifiable. The book is heavy on Catholic apologia, discussing for example why Galileo's trial and conviction was understandable within the social milieu of the time, and how Pope John Paul II has officially embraced the principle of biologic evolution.

In choosing a shelf for this particular book, the bookseller has several legitimate options. Science and Religion/Philosophy are perhaps most obvious, but a decent case can be made for the History section. The book is full of references and quotations from Darwin, Huxley, William Jennings Bryan, Jesus (the historicity of which are irrelevant to both "Rocks" and this review) and others. It is worth reading just for the historic perspective.

Interestingly, it is one of these passages, from Darwin in May 1860, which best introduces the primary shortcoming of Gould's thesis: "The whole subject [the role of God - if He exists - in creating the world] is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton." Considering this, Gould is remarkably comfortable in defining what he sees as the role of God in the world. In particular, Gould's NOMA makes clear that the proper role of religion is in defining morals and ethics. Fine so far, but it rejects belief in a personal and/or earth-creating God as being inappropriate for any thoughtful person. And this doesn't just refer to 6-day, 10,000-years-ago creation (which he ridicules), but any form of creation supervised by a supernatural being.

Throughout the book Gould repeats the claim that NOMA has long been accepted by all major leaders of both science and religion. This is plausible if you apply a somewhat softened version of NOMA, but in the form that Gould proposes, it isn't entirely true. For example, the Catholic Church, the one religious institution which Gould specifically cites as a supporter of NOMA, cannot be said to truly embrace all of the principles he sets forth. I expect that Catholic readers of this book, for example, will be extremely surprised to discover the implied claim that their church rejects the divine creation of the world, miracles in general, and a God with a personal interest in humans.

In the end, the types of religion with which Gould seems comfortable are limited. The intellectual leading edges of mainstream American Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism are all ok with him, and he holds up the relative agnosticism of European-style Christianity as the ideal. But he repeatedly ridicules the religion of the world's majority as illogical and silly, and his venom for fundamentalism (Christian in particular; Islamic fundamentalism goes unmentioned and Gould seems to deny the existence of Jewish fundamentalism) is thinly veiled. Assuming that the goal of this book was to promote understanding and productive dialogue between science and religion, then it would have been prudent to start with a broader understanding and respect for religious belief.

That said, the problem Gould addresses is a long standing one which has been largely ignored by both science and most organized religions, to the detriment of both. Gould reviews the serious problems that have arisen from this. When religion oversteps its bounds, you see American Christian fundamentalists preventing schoolchildren from receiving a complete scientific education. And when science oversteps its bounds, you see institutionalization of dangerously twisted moral reasoning, such as with the eugenics movement of the last century. The fact that Gould addresses this all as successfully as he does speaks to both his abilities as a thinker and his recognition of what is important to us as human beings. To anyone interested in this topic (which would be anyone who cares about both religion and science), Rocks of Ages is an excellent and readable resource.

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© Brian Jackson.

Citation

Jackson, B. (2002). Review of Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould. Human Nature Review. 2: 213-214.

 
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