Nonoverlapping magisteria

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Nonoverlapping magisteria (or NOMA) is the concept, originally presented by Stephen Jay Gould, that:

"Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains."

This position is accepted by many modern theists as it allows them to reconcile apparent contradictions. With science and religion in non-competitive domains, one is free to hold supernatural beliefs and still accept scientific explanations of the natural world.

The US National Academy of Sciences released a statement endorsing this same idea in 1997:[1]:

"Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each."

Very similar views have been expressed by other scientists:

"For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts."

Albert Einstein [2]

Richard Dawkins argues that NOMA serves to shield religion from scientific scrutiny. NOMA is similar to Ludwig Wittegenstein's concept of language games.


Compromise and isolation

NOMA attempts a compromise between science and religion. Science should, according to NOMA inform how the world is, that means when scientific observations, contradict or appear to contradict the Bible or other “Sacred” texts the scientific findings should be accepted as accurate. So far this is reasonable, for example we can accept scientific statements about evolution or astronomy/cosmology even when "sacred texts" appear to contradict science. Then Gould suggests that religion should determine questions about ultimate meaning whatever that is, moral values, beauty, religion etc.

NOMA may tend to isolate the religious fundamentalists from the more liberal believers. Fundamentalists do not accept that science can be correct in any area that contradicts their faith based position while liberal believers tend to find NOMA acceptable. NOMA also risks separating those scientists who accept NOMA from scientists who take research where the Scientific method leads even when this challenges some NOMA based positions.


You cannot know NOMA is true

NOMA is a statement about divine attributes which apologists cannot possibly know:

"[Responding to "You know that nobody is ever going to produce a scientific proof of God"] I don't know that at all and I find it absurd that you think it is ok to assert that without offering evidence. [...] That requires knowledge that neither of us have about whether or not these answers are ultimately possible to discern. I don't know that it's not possible. How do you know it's not possible? [...] Are you omniscient? [3]"

It amounts to claiming that "God cannot be proved" because "I cannot think of a way to prove God", which is an argument from ignorance.

Unclear boundaries

Acceptable boundaries between magisteria cannot be clearly defined. NOMA has something in common with God of the gaps, as it puts everything that science has not yet explained into a different magisterium. If something is initially considered supernatural (magnetism, for example) and science later provides a naturalistic explanation, how can anything be considered beyond the scope of scientific investigation?

Some religions make empirical claims

If a religion claims that miracles occur in an observable manner, we should expect to have reliable evidence of their occurrence. However, no such reliable evidence has been shown to exist, but if it did we would be able to assess it scientifically.

NOMA reasonably advocates that the Old Testament, which suggests that the sun stood still in the sky Joshua 10:13 Bible-icon.png, should be treated in a separate manner to scientific knowledge. Unreasonably, NOMA goes on to say that the same unreliable texts give moral decrees that cannot be questioned scientifically.

Science does have something to offer morality

While not being an ultimate basis for ethics, social scientists who understand the effects of different rules and systems should have an input in moral decisions. Therefore the magisteria are not separate.

Religion is not a magisterium

Gould defined magisterium as "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution" - However, one could argue that within religion there is no meaningful discourse or resolution or tools for such ends, as such religion isn't a magisterium at all. Discourse and resolution never happens since different faith groups hold different, sometimes mutually contradictory faith based beliefs and no amount of discussion can decide which if any are correct.

God is not limited to a magisterium

Fundamentalists and Biblical literalists believe that placing limits on religion is tantamount to placing limits on God and that God's transcendent nature dictates that nothing is beyond the scope of religion. For these believers, the answers provided by science are acceptable until they contradict so-called knowledge revealed by God.

Dominance of science

Scientific investigation rooted in rational, naturalistic materialism has proven to be the most consistent and reliable method of explaining reality. Therefore, it should not be limited in what it can attempt to explain.

Boundaries are often violated

Many scientists argue that an obvious boundary exists (natural/supernatural) but that religion generally refuses to remain within its domain, while religionists argue that science is continually encroaching into its territory by examining the questions of human origins, consciousness and even morality. Materialists respond that religion overstepped its boundaries long ago, by filling gaps in our knowledge with dogmatic assertions that, as our understanding has grown, have been replaced with naturalistic explanations.

Christians routinely seek to impose their faith based moral values onto scientists, for example trying to ban some types of stem cell research or banning it. Meanwhile scientists are expected to accept without question limits that believers impose on them.

God is testable

Contrary to the idea that you cannot put God to the test, many apologists argue that the evidence of God is everywhere.

"we use induction to investigate God the same way we use it to investigate other things we can’t see-by observing their effects. For example, we can’t observe gravity directly; we can only observe its effects. Likewise, we can’t observe the human mind directly, but only its effects. From those effects we make a rational inference to the existence of a cause.[4]"


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. The Atheist Experience #611
  4. I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist

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