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Non-Overlapping Magisteria

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Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) is a philosophical worldview that places religion and science in separate domains of questioning ("magisteria") in order to avoid one contradicting the other. NOMA hopes to provide an end to the conflict thesis between science and religion by establishing a demarcation.

Stephen Jay Gould popularized the designation "NOMA" in his book Rocks of Ages.[1] Gould hoped that the concept could provide a way to eliminate the conflict between science and religion by suggesting that both contribute to different areas of human existence and give meaning to life in different ways. He saw the two "magisteria" as so different that they could not inform, comment on, or criticize each other: science based on methodological naturalism offers no insight into issues of what is morally right or wrong. Gould claimed that although science automatically assumes a lack of supernatural causation in its methods, it does not make any definite statements about the existence of the supernatural.

The idea is not entirely new; the twelfth-century Muslim philosopher AverroesWikipedia used a similar concept. To fend off the fierce religious dogmatic criticism of Aristotelian schools, he proposed that science and Islam presented two different types of truth, one pertaining to nature, and one to the supernatural. Later thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, vehemently rejected this concept.

The topic was revisited by Barbara Herrnstein Smith in her book Natural Reflections (2010) and by Stanley Fish in a review of the same.[2] Smith discusses how both religion and science seek what she calls "underneath-it-all status", but states that one should not view the two as competing.

As with everything, just because it's the middle ground doesn't make it true.

Philosophical issues[edit]

Problems of definition[edit]

The question of whether science and religion are in conflict largely hinges on how one defines "science" and "religion".

The problem of defining science is known as the problem of demarcation in philosophy of science. Two broad, differing methods of defining science have often been taken by philosophers: Ideal, or prescriptive, definitions, such as Karl Popper's concept of falsification, and descriptive definitions, such as Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts. Some have taken a third approach by combining the former two, such as Imre Lakatos' concept of research programs.

One of the biggest problems with the definition of religion vis-a-vis science is whether religion necessarily includes a supernatural element; a question which effectively gives religion its own "demarcation problem". Certain sects of Buddhism, for example, are claimed to be fully compatible with both theism and atheism. What qualifies as "supernatural" also presents a problem in religions that worship natural phenomena as deities themselves, such as pantheism, where the entire universe is conceived of as god, or sun worship, which has appeared in various forms throughout history.

The is-ought problem[edit]

Albert Einstein (a pantheist, as near as we can tell) was very familiar with the is-ought problem, which deals with the issue of how an ought can be derived from an is. The way he viewed it, a conflict between science and religion was impossible because science deals with the what is side of the is-ought problem and religion deals with the ought side. If you define science and religion as Einstein did, he is right. A conflict between them doesn't occur. The following are a couple of Einstein's definitions of science and religion.

Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization.[3]
As regards religion, on the other hand, one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting, as far as these are not predetermined by the inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species. Religion is concerned with man's attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. These ideals religion attempts to attain by exerting an educational influence on tradition and through the development and promulgation of certain easily accessible thoughts and narratives (epics and myths) which are apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals.[4]

As science is concerned with "[bringing] together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thoroughgoing an association as possible" and religion is concerned with "the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting," conflict doesn't have to occur, as science and religion are dealing with separate sides of the is-ought problem. The issue is that most people don't adhere to Einstein's definitions of religion and science, as scientists will sometimes try to make ought claims based off of the scientific method and people who adhere to a particular religious belief will often make is claims based off of their faith. Einstein spoke of this as well.

For example, a conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.[3]

Conflict thesis[edit]

Not to be confused with the Marxist concept of conflict theory.

The conflict thesis is a philosophical or historical position which maintains that there is an intrinsic intellectual conflict between science and religion. Examples to support this thesis have commonly been drawn from the relations between science and religion in Western Europe.

A taxonomy of philosophies[edit]

If philosophical positions and arguments regarding the conflict thesis can be put on a sliding scale from "full conflict" to "no conflict", it might look something roughly like this:

Total warfare[edit]

Science and religion are totally irreconcilable. A number of arguments may be given for this position. A common one is that science and the scientific method operate on principles (e.g., reason, empirical evidence) that are in opposition to the principles religion operates on (e.g., faith, revelation). Thus, even though professional scientists may be theists, this does not demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion, but simply that a person may hold contradictory beliefs. Another common argument is that the existence of God(s) is a testable scientific hypothesis that can be falsified.[5] Richard Dawkins, and the "new atheism" in general, is associated with this position.[note 1]

Semi-overlapping magisteria[edit]

A number of positions fall under the umbrella of what might be called "semi-overlapping magisteria" in which science and religion may or may not conflict to varying degrees.

  • Forms of "scientific theology" in which science and religion answer different questions, but science is claimed to support theism or science and religion are said to inform each other. Proponents of this view include Alister McGrath, who plainly labels his position "scientific theology",[6] and Alvin Plantinga, who argues that science actually undermines naturalism.[7][note 2]
  • Science is ultimately agnostic about the existence of God, but science conflicts with any form of religion that makes empirical claims about the natural world, i.e., scientific claims. This argument makes a distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, making it compatible with both theism and atheism. Adherents to this view include Eugenie Scott and Massimo Pigliucci.[8]

NOMA: No conflict and no overlap[edit]

Science and religion are totally separate, so no conflict is possible. The general strategy used by those who defend this position is to argue that positing a conflict between science and religion is a category mistake. This argument, for example, is used explicitly by Terry Eagleton.[9] This logic also underpins Stephen Jay Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria, in which religion's purpose is to answer only moral questions and the purpose of science is purely to gather empirical data about the natural world. That is to say, science and religion seek to answer different and unrelated questions. Einstein's definitions of science and religion fall under this category as well.

The conflict thesis in the history of science[edit]

The conflict thesis as a historical concept has been rejected by historians of science as a Whiggish narrative in which the inevitable progress of science is always and everywhere opposed by the dark forces of religion. It is largely based on a number of pseudohistorical claims fabricated or recycled by the 19th century intellectuals John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.[10] A great deal of history contradicts this simplistic narrative. A claim commonly associated with the conflict thesis is that Medieval Christians believed the earth to be flat until Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, which is patently false.[11] The "Dark Ages" are commonly referred to as the "Early Middle Ages" by historians, in part because of the Carolingian RenaissanceWikipedia of the 8th-9th centuries CE.[12] Many of the early scientists, such as Isaac Newton, believed that the laws of the physical universe were dictated and enforced by God, thus scientific discovery was also seen as a revelation of God's creation.[13][14]

NOMA: No conflict and no overlap[edit]

Einstein's position is logically consistent, as he redefined religion to make the conflict between religion and science impossible. His position is a very useful approach to the is-ought problem, but it is only free of logical errors when it is used with religious or philosophical mindsets that avoid making claims based on faith. Gould, who doesn't appear to have redefined religion, is more exposed to logical errors.

Pros of Einstein's NOMA[edit]

It is ingenious, it is useful, and it deals with issues not often addressed with science or even philosophy. For example, how does one scientifically or philosophically evaluate the aims and effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement? Einstein had a way of framing the question and deriving an answer to it. In short, Einstein's position provides a sense of clarity for the is-ought problem.

Cons of Einstein's NOMA[edit]

One has to redefine religion, and most religious people are sensitive about how their religion is defined. He also uses the word religion when talking about broad philosophical issues, and this leads to conflicts with the separation of church and state.

Pros of Gould's NOMA[edit]

The proposal is that science and religion describe entirely different things; science describes what is known and religion gives answers to what cannot be known. Moreover, people with faith may argue that science is a good explanation of what things like evolution and gravity are, but religion provides the answer for why they exist. Provided that one isn't a biblical literalist or an antitheist, this may be an attractive position. An advocate of NOMA can be confident that their religious beliefs cannot be affected by the materialism of science, and in theory, science can be confident that supernatural entities cannot mess around with its work regarding the understanding of reality. Gould in his essay on NOMA says "creationism based on biblical literalism makes little sense in either Catholicism or Judaism for neither religion maintains any extensive tradition for reading the Bible as literal truth rather than illuminating literature", suggesting the separation applies to non-literalist faiths such as Roman Catholicism and mainstream Judaism rather than other more fundamentalist Protestant sects.[15]

NOMA may help unite metaphysical naturalists together with those who believe in religion and science against fundamentalists. Non-Overlapping Magisteria may have helped reconcile the Roman Catholic Church to evolution, though this is disputed.[16]

Criticisms of Gould's NOMA[edit]

Science and religion are incompatible. Simply completely irreconcilably incompatible. And I can give you the bottom line message in case anyone needs to leave, and that is that; science and religion are incompatible in the same sense that the serious pursuit of knowledge about reality is incompatible with bullshit.
P.Z. Myers[17]

Problems with empirical investigation[edit]

In practice, Gould's NOMA is sometimes used as an excuse to try to make religious doctrines totally immune from examination. Religious individuals often feel that statements concerning empirical reality — such as the theory of evolution — that conflict with literal readings of religious work are overstepping the "bounds" proposed by NOMA. This is a little strange, because according to the doctrine, religion should never have made statements about reality that science could look at in the first place. Still, this often leads to NOMA being more of a "one-way street" in the sense that science is not allowed to examine miracles or prayer, but religion is still allowed to make claims about the material universe that would otherwise fall under the purview of science.

Where science has looked at the specific claims made and adhered to by Biblical literalists, such as the views regarding the origin of life, cosmology, and so on, it has easily disproved the versions seen in the Bible. When such research has been done, NOMA-like views have been used to justify ignoring evidence that doesn't fit the religious worldview — this is the basic stance taken by Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International when dismissing hard evidence. Regarding the famously negative prayer studies, it is often questioned whether religious persons would maintain their NOMA stance should the result have been positive; if NOMA says that science can't disprove religious ideas, then it certainly can't provide evidence for them.

Problems with ethics[edit]

Treating "sacred texts" that are clearly flawed in their understanding of the physical universe or human nature as unquestionable guides to morality is clearly inconsistent. Ethics without Religion avoids problems with Bronze Age and Iron Age religious texts. Advocates of NOMA — particularly religious ones — don't afford the same protection to scientific methods to be free from religious input, as such views are still allowed to comment on policies relating to scientific ethics, and essentially having a say on what science can and can't study legally. Issues such as stem cell research show a potential conflict.[18]

One moral universal is that preventing harm is morally good while causing harm is morally bad. Science can make a large input in many fields into how harm is caused and how harm can be prevented. Therefore, science is inevitably relevant to ethics.

Materialist critics[edit]

The system itself has met with some resistance and harsh criticisms from figures such as Richard Dawkins (who suggests that Gould was straining to be apologetic when he proposed it), PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and numerous others from the new atheist movement. These critics propose that questions such as the existence of God can be tested just like any other material hypothesis and that, in principle, even things that are "outside our universe" are still within the grasp of human understanding and the scientific method.[19]

This is because most proposed gods' alleged effects on the material world are, of course, material, and can be studied much in the same way that all science really just detects real-world cause and effect relationships. In this sense, critics reject the "non-overlapping" aspect of the two magisteria and conclude that if the two genuinely didn't overlap, supernatural entities would have no effect on the real world and thus their existence, or not, is a moot point.

Further, archaeologists and historians are able to study the religious texts of Christianity and other religions and give findings about how reliable or unreliable these texts are.

Another critic of NOMA is Thomas Nagel, who is critical of Dawkins, but agrees with him in dismissing the concept.[20]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Although even Dawkins does not believe that all formulations of God are scientifically testable; a god that does not involve itself with the material universe, such as a deist god, would be completely outside the dominion of science. See this excerpt from "Has Science Buried God?"
  2. Michael Ruse, however, argues that while Plantinga's position is consistent in principle, it is anti-scientific in practice due to his use of Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe's arguments in certain places. See Alvin Plantinga and Intelligent Design.


  1. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard McGonagle, et al., Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 0-345-43009-3.
  2. Must There Be a Bottom Line? Stanley Fish, New York Times Opinionator Blog
  3. 3.0 3.1 Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 - 49
  4. The Christian Register, June, 1948
  5. Victor J. Stenger announces this right in the title of his book God: The Failed Hypothesis.
  6. Review Article: Alister E. McGrath's A Scientific Theology, Andrews University Seminary Studies
  7. Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga
  8. Is Richard Dawkins Really That Naive? Massimo Pigliucci, Rationally Speaking
  9. The Complete Review's review of Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution.
  10. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39.3:140-149
  11. Stephen Jay Gould. The Late Birth of a Flat Earth in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
  12. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance, The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History
  13. God, Physics, and Darwin: Why Scientists Aren't Sceptical, Richard Webster
  14. The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century and the Political Revolutions of the 18th Century, George Mason University
  15. Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Stephen Jay Gould, in Natural History 106 (March 1997): pp. 16-22; Also reprinted in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283. And online on the Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive, as cited.
  16. Evolution and the Pope
  19. See Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis for a comprehensive examination of this approach.
  20. The Fear of Religion, Thomas Nagel, The New Republic