International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Library of Contemporary Thought)

by Stephen Jay Gould

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

In this work, the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and one of the most popular science writers of his day, introduces a term that has found use and favor beyond the confines of the science-religion debate. Gould argues that human thinking occurs within what he calls “Magisteria.” These are conceptual frameworks that determine our thinking and dictate the scope of inquiry and the methodological correctness of the tools that we use to achieve our ends. (In respects, therefore, although somewhat broader, they are not entirely unlike Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigms.”)

Gould focuses on two major Magisteria: science (in general and taken as a whole) and religion (likewise in general and taken as a whole). He argues that in essential respects they are and must be at intellectual right-angles to each other. He therefore invokes the NOMA principle, Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Agreeing with what has become known as “neo-orthodoxy” (after Karl Barth) or the “independence” position (after Ian Barbour), Gould wants to argue that science and religion simply cannot be in conflict because they talk about different domains of experience.

Of course Gould is not unaware that some claims made in the name of religion certainly conflict with claims made in the name of science. One thinks here of the Young Earth Creationist claims about the Earth being created out of whole cloth only 6000 years ago, and soon thereafter being covered with a universal flood. However, Gould argues that these are illegitimate excursions by religion into the realm of science and that, once the proper boundaries are seen and respected, mainstream religion pulls back into its proper domain or Magisterium and conflict is avoided.

Little that Gould ever wrote was without controversy and this book was no exception. Much debate and discussion has centered on where one can properly and successfully draw the line between science and religion. Grant that science is going to deal with the empirical facts, like the circulation of the earth around the sun. Grant that religion is going to deal with the non-cognitive, like moral claims and justifications. Is it possible that religion can go further? What about miracles, for instance. Many non-Creationist Christians would argue for a literal resurrection, with a truly dead Jesus being lowered from the Cross and then coming alive again and rising on the Third Day. Can the Magisterium of religion as it were push aside the Magisterium of science and argue that this is possible? Such Christians would argue that since God is creator of all, it is up to Him, not us, to decide the limits of science. And if He wants a literal resurrection, then this must be possible. However Gould makes it clear that this is not his position, and essentially he reduces or confines religion to sentiment and feeling and will not allow it to make ontological (that is, existence) claims.

Hence, one should approach Rocks of Ages with caution. The methodology and concepts offered are powerful and have been very influential, but it does not follow that one will necessarily use them to draw the same conclusions as the author.