NOMA? No Thanks


This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that I have a second job? Well, it actually ends in a few days. I’ve been working as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate biology class at Harvard called “Understanding Darwinism,” because sometimes I am a giant walking atheist stereotype. Did I mention that I wanted to be an astrophysicist when I was a kid? Or that I have a tattoo of one of Darwin’s sketches?

Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get back in the classroom after graduation, but see it from the other side of the desk this time. One interesting challenge has been trying to navigate the professional boundaries between my personal beliefs and my teaching position. Obviously it would be inappropriate for me to use my sections as a captive audience to lecture about atheism, no matter what subject I were teaching. But because of the nature of this class’s subject mater, the course material has stumbled into religiously charged territory quite a lot.

The way this kind of thing tends to be handled at most universities, as far as I can tell, is by adhering assiduously to the doctrine of “non-overlapping magistera” (NOMA). This idea has been around for a long time, but the term NOMA comes from biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s famous formulation of it. The claim is that religion and science do not need to conflict because they simply do not overlap – they are completely different and separate spheres of inquiry. You ask the “how” in science and the “why” in religion and never the two shall meet.

This is crap.

Creationists are wrong about a whole lot of things, but one thing they are absolutely correct about is that the Bible makes truth claims that are falsifiable and so can be tested for accuracy using the scientific method. (Spoiler alert: they generally don’t fare very well.) In fact, the same can be said of a wide variety of religious beliefs and scriptural assertions. To claim otherwise is blatant intellectual dishonesty. When you say “NOMA,” I hear “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

Does this mean that scientists can’t be religious, or that theologians can’t enjoy and understand science? Of course not. For one thing, a religion is not identical with its religious texts, and there are plenty of people who find satisfactory non-literal interpretations of them. For another, religion is far from the only domain of human thought where people tend to hold ideas that are contradictory or not supported by evidence. Do you seriously think you have no deluded, reality-defying ideas about your own talent or attractiveness or wit? Please. Part of being human is a shocking resilience to cognitive dissonance.

A good model for a peaceful alternative to NOMA.

So why must we do the whole song and dance about willfully ignoring the obvious overlap between science and religion? Pretending we need to establish NOMA is only counterproductive to the goal of preventing unnecessary enmity between the two disciplines, since plenty of people manage to navigate the overlapping space quite peacefully.

Moreover, the whole idea of NOMA is completely inimical to the pursuit of knowledge and truth that is valued in both fields. Imposing arbitrary limits to what kinds of questions we can ask is a great way to crush intellectual curiosity and prevent anybody from learning anything useful or interesting about anything at all.

So let’s move past this whole NOMA debacle and start actually tackling all these fascinating and profound questions about our world – together.

Chelsea Link is the Campus Organizing Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

2 comments on “NOMA? No Thanks

  1. Good point Chelsea. But it isn’t Creationists who bring up NOMA. NOMA is the province of mainstream and liberal religion. Religious conservatives know that there is a science/religion conflict and choose religion over science. It is religious liberals who bring up NOMA and pretend like there is no conflict between science and religion.

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