Monday, November 18, 2013

NOMA: The Ultimate Retreat of Religion

From guest blogger, Billy.  

Historically, scientist have suffered persecution at the hands of religion and throughout the Middle Ages progress in the sciences was thwarted by religious beliefs.  Even today, Christian fundamentalist fight against the teaching of basic scientific facts in schools while in some Muslim countries people are threatened for having such beliefs.  Taking the larger picture however, it is clear that rationality is triumphing and the Catholic doctrine of NOMA is a perfect example of this.  Whereas in the middle ages, the Catholics tortured and imprisoned scientist (and many others) for having contrary views, they have now retreated far, far away into safe obscurity.  With NOMA, they have formally relinquished all rights to disagree with science, thus ceding much of the intellectual territory for which they viciously fought for centuries.  The only question is, ‘Have Catholics been utterly defeated, or have the merely retreated?’.

At first, the acceptance of something like NOMA would seem to be a fatal blow to any religion.  Once you’ve accepted that science is correct, what is their left for religion to do?  The purview of science is, by definition, all observable phenomenon.  If science has the final word on all observable phenomenon, then what is the proper magisteria of religion?  Clearly, it must be unobservable phenomenon.  Even if we accept this as a proper magisteria then there is still a problem.  Religious leaders need a way of defining and communicating what it is that they are talking about.  This necessarily involves reference to external, objective, observable phenomenon.  Thus, there seems to be no way for religion to avoid defining their concepts in terms of scientific concepts.  In this case, all religious claims should revert back to scientific claims, over which science has ultimate authority.  Thus, it appears that their retreat has not led them to safe ground, it has merely bought them breathing room and temporarily sated some religious skeptics.

One possible response is that the purview of religion is simply ethics; i.e., religion can answer ethical questions and such questions cannot be properly addressed within science.  In fact, it appears that the modern watered-down form of American religion is heading in this direction (with the exception of some very vocal fundamentalist).  However, I would argue that it is misleading to continue to view this as the same ‘religion’ with which one started; it is merely a form of ethical philosophy that evolved from religion.  Moreover, I would strongly dispute the claim that science has nothing to say about ethics.  This should properly be thought of as a subfield of sociology, which may be made as precise and scientific as one may wish.  Thus, rather than NOMA, we would have a form of religion which is just a subset of science.


Zach Wrublewski said...

Hey Billy,

I think adding a short discussion of experimental philosophy might bolster your assertion that science can have something to say regarding ethics. The wikipedia article on experimental philosophy has some very basic information on the subject, along with a few resources.

Though I think this would add some credibility to your claim, you might also have to (somewhat) defend experimental philosophy as a discipline, as many folks aren't ready to accept it as helpful.

Here's the wikipedia:

Aviva said...

I think you're missing a step in your second paragraph. You write that the magisteria of religion is the unobservale phenomenon. You then argue that if this is the case there is no way for the religious to express their beliefs/findings/etc. Though I do not think this is necessarily invalid, I think that it is oversight to argue that the only means of communication is scientific. Where, for example, do you place literature or art, in the realm of communication of ideas? I think it is apparent that science is not the only means for the sharing of ideas; why do you argue otherwise?

Alexander Laird said...

I think that religious ethics remains distinct from secular ethical philosophy. While your argument seems to assume that religious ethics have changed and are changing as much as other aspects of religious belief, I would argue that this is not the case. This is because sacred religious texts are the basis of modern religious ethical beliefs. While some of the contemporary ethical dictates that weren't mentioned in the bible/torah/koran/etc can change, anything that was explicitly categorized as good or bad in the sacred literature has remained consistently condemned or supported by organized religion ever since. These beliefs aren't shaped by observation in the same way as the study of secular ethics or sociology. While religion has retracted many of its claims about things that can be observed, it has not and will not retract claims about what is good or bad. That is, until religious texts are proven to have been written by normal humans and they are no longer taken as the word of God, which may never happen.