Dawkins’ COMA

Regarding the relationship of science and religion (as generally delineated) Stephen Jay Gould, Alister McGrath, and Richard Dawkins serve as good illustrations of three positions taken. Gould was a paleontologist from Harvard. He proposed the concept of NOMA which stood for “non-overlapping magisteria.” The idea is summarized by Gould: “We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principled resolution of supposed ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ between science and religion. 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’).” [Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” downloaded from http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html, assessed Mar. 26, 2008.] Gould goes on to say: “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). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.” [Gould, “Nonoverlapping.”] This position is not new with Gould. But as clever as it seems, it is nevertheless wrong both historically and philosophically. I shall have more to say about this in a later blog.

In contrast, to both Gould and Dawkins (see below) Alister McGrath Professor of Church History at the University of Oxford, who also has an advanced degree in science, proposed POMA: “There is, of course, a third option—that of ‘partially overlapping magisteria’ (a POMA, so to speak), reflecting a realization that science and religion offer possibilities of cross-fertilization on account of the interpenetration of their subjects and methods.” [Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Downers Grove, IL: 2007), 41.]

I should like to comment in a later blog on the correctness of McGrath’s view here. In the mean time, let me set forth the view of Richard Dawkins, one spokesperson for the “new atheism.” Richard Dawkins has made a name for himself not only because of his important works in science, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, but also for his contribution to the science vs. religion debate in his most recent The God Delusion. Dawkins’ view, though standing in contrast to the errors of Gould’s, is nevertheless equally in error and perhaps more dangerous in certain respects. Dawkins maintains that science is the only domain of inquiry into reality. The “two” realms, if you will, completely overlap: a position I facetiously designate as COMA, or “completely overlapping magisteria.” In setting forth his position across several works, Dawkins makes a subtly shift that proves to be philosophically bankrupt. He says: “Unlike some of his theological colleagues, Bishop Montefiore is not afraid to state that the question of whether God exists is a definite question of fact.” [Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 141.] So far, so good. At this point, Dawkins has only distinguished his view from Gould. But lest he be misunderstood, Dawkins goes on to say: “The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice—or not yet—a decided one.” [Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 58-59.] This changes things tremendously. To go from being a fact to a scientific question is a major qualification. To clarify the point, note this observation: “There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods.”[Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Haughton Mifflin, 2006), 59.] Just because something is a fact, does not mean that it can be discovered or understood by the methods of science. To insist so is to illicitly impose a naturalism or physicalism on the question. This Dawkins does without the slightest justification for doing so. This is fraught with philosophical problems which render it untenable and wrong.

Thus, we have NOMA, POMA, and COMA. Of the three, POMA is certainly the correct view. How this is so will be the subject of a later blog. What is wrong with the other two will follow as well.


2 comments on “Dawkins’ COMA

  1. andrew says:

    great post! excited to read your further elaborations.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’ll try not to let too much time lapse before I flesh out the rest of my thinking here.

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