Stephen Jay Gould’s Weak Argument For Science And Religion’s ‘Separate Domains’

Stephen Jay Gould‘s famous ‘Two Separate Domains‘ argues, roughly, that religion and science operate in different domains of inquiry, and as such do not conflict with each other:

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.

Or, science gets the descriptive and the quantitative, religion gets the prescriptive and the qualitative. Facts on one side; values on the other.

‘Two Separate Domains’ is an essay I read some years ago; yesterday, I discussed it with my philosophy of religion class. On this revisitation, I was struck by how weak and narrowly focused Gould’s arguments are.

Most crucially, Gould is almost entirely concerned with responding to a very particular religious tradition: Christianity. Moreover, within that, he takes himself to be pushing back against that species of Protestant fundamentalism which would indulge in literal interpretations of the Bible to promulgate creationism:

I do not doubt that one could find an occasional nun who would prefer to teach creationism in her parochial school biology class or an occasional orthodox rabbi who does the same in his yeshiva, but 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, based partly on metaphor and allegory…and demanding interpretation for proper understanding. Most Protestant groups, of course, take the same position—the fundamentalist fringe notwithstanding.

Later in the essay, Gould concentrates on responding to a pair of Papal encyclicals on the subject of evolution, issued by Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, the differences between which–the latter takes on board the scientific evidence for evolution–Gould takes as evidence for the flexibility of the Church to respond to scientific findings in a manner which preserves its own ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’

Several problems now present themselves. First, there are a diversity of hermeneutical approaches in different religious traditions, with varying reliance on metaphorical, allegorical, literal, or historically contextualized readings, which generate conflicts of various degrees with the content of scientific statements. (As a student in my class said, getting rid of literal interpretations in Islam would remove, for many followers, their reason for believing in the Koran’s claims.) Second, Gould relies on an untenable fact-value distinction. But science’s empirical claims are infused with value-laden choices, and religion’s value-laden claims rest on empirical foundations (neither domain of inquiry offers a purely descriptive or prescriptive claim and are thus entangled.) Third, and perhaps most crucially in my opinion, Gould’s task is made considerably easier–at least apparently, in this essay–by concentrating on a religious tradition which has a central church–the Catholic–with an authoritative head, the Pope, who issues documents which articulate a position representative of the religious institution, and which can be expected to serve as instruction for its many followers’ practices and beliefs. That is, that religion’s practices can be usefully understood as being guided by such institutions, persons, and writings–they are representative of it. Such is obviously not the case with many other religious traditions, and I simply cannot see Gould’s strategy working for Islam or Judaism or Hinduism. (Buddhism is another matter altogether.)

Gould’s irenic stance is admirable, but I cannot see that the strategy adopted in this essay advances his central thesis very much.

Pope Francis, Like Popes In General, Cannot Be Liberal

The Pope Francis Honeymoon is over. The Pontiff who could make a hardened Republican, the third most powerful man in American government, cry like a particularly lachrymose baby, who has been saying all the right things for a very long time, who has been playing music for progressive ears, has gone ahead jumped the shark by meeting with Kim Davis–she of “I shall not marry the gays” and “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is so my song” fame. Reports have it that the Pope urged her to “stay strong” and described her as a “conscientious objector.” Much to progressives’ dismay, besides showing his poor understanding of the secular notion of the separation of church and state, Pope Francis also threw his considerable papal weight behind a bigot. I will admit that little is known about the meeting’s particulars but the reaction to it suggests there are considerable hopes invested in this Pope becoming an ally of progressive political forces.

I must confess, I was always a tad surprised by these hopes. Vague, anodyne ramblings about social justice and taking care of the sick and the poor have always been on Popes’ lips. They are part and parcel of the rhetorical package that goes with being called ‘Papa’ by crowds of adoring millions. Talk of Christian charity is cheap when it is clear that that charity is not really universal, that it is only selectively extended–to those with the right beliefs. Talk of the co-existence and compatibility of creationism and evolutionary theory is cheap too, when this is merely official Church doctrine, pragmatically adopted as long back as 1950. The Church, better than many adherents, understands the need to stay ‘relevant.’ To be sure this Pope has gone further, and to more places where previous Popes simply did not. But affixing political labels on him will not work; and neither will counting on him as a progressive ally.

A liberal Pope would not be a Pope; he would disdain the office, its titles, its pretensions. he would not wave to admiring crowds, pretending to be the arbiter of human fates, an infallible head of state, a ‘spiritual’ leader of millions, a hobnobber with heads of states. A liberal pope would not take on, and exercise the power of forgiving those who sin. A liberal pope would have to be a secular pope, and that he cannot be; you cannot be a liberal if you think the world can be divided into sinners and do-gooders with a special place reserved for those who sin and for those who don’t. The notion of damnation, of sin, is an illiberal, reactionary one. Forgiveness of those who have abortions sounds wunderful till you realize it is no human’s business to hand out forgiveness in the first place. A liberal Pope makes no sense; we can at best proclaim a particular pontiff is ‘liberal for a Pope.’

Popes, the heads of large, hierarchical organizations which claim a monopoly on the truth, which aim to provide moral and ethical instruction, and a guidebook for deliverance in this world and the next, cannot be liberal.

William Pfaff on the Indispensability of Clerical Leadership

In reviewing Garry WillsWhy Priests? A Failed Tradition (‘Challenge to the Church,’ New York Review of Books, 9 May 2013), William Pfaff writes:

How does a religion survive without structure and a self-perpetuating leadership? The practice of naming bishops to lead the Church in various Christian centers has existed since apostolic times. Aside from the questions of doctrinal authority and leadership in worship, there are inevitable practical problems of livelihood, shelter, and finance, propagation of the movement, relations with political authority, and so forth. Clerical organization seems to me the pragmatic and indeed inevitable solution to the problem of religious and other spontaneous communities that wish to survive the death of their founders or charismatic leaders.

These are interesting and revealing assertions. Pfaff assumes that ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘organized religion’; from this premise follow the rest of his conclusions. Pfaff does not indicate what he takes to be the extension of ‘spontaneous communities’; presumably these would include–as ‘charismatic leaders’ would seem to indicate–cults of all stripes. It might be that for Pfaff what distinguishes a ‘spontaneous community’ or a cult–as the early Christians would have been so regarded–from religions is more a matter of their endurance and organization than their content.  Two ‘spontaneous communities’ then, for Pfaff, could be similar in theistic and doctrinal, especially eschatological, content, but only the one with the requisite organization and endurance would count as a religion. A cult flowers briefly and dies out; a religion endures.

Pfaff’s conflation of ‘religion’ with ‘organized religion’ suggests that religions are properly thought of as organizations of sufficient complexity–in social, economic and political dimensions–to necessarily require some form of binding, cohesion and direction by ‘leadership’. Tantalizingly enough, we are not told how such a leadership is to be formed or selected from among the ranks of the followers; its ‘legitimacy’ to command, direct, and regulate its followers is left as an open question. (Pfaff does not address the issue of whether the survival of such an entity is desirable or not for the society that plays host to it.) But maybe not; is it the case that the legitimacy of the priesthood is derived entirely from its indispensability? A sort of ‘sans moi le deluge‘ argument, if you will.

This analysis of the necessity of clergies for the maintenance and propagation of religion also suggests leadership could be contested; rival contenders could stake their claims based on their alternative strategies for the continued flourishing of the religion.  This is not unheard of in organized religions; the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam dates back to a succession dispute, which even if not argued for on precisely these grounds, was still the kind that would be entailed by Pfaff’s claims of the indispensability of leadership.

So an interesting picture of organized religion emerges from Pffaf’s claims: its very survival relies on the creation of a space which could play host to a species of political dispute; this survival also requires ‘finance,’ ‘propagation’ and ‘relations with political authority.’ In short, it must be a political actor itself in the society in which it is embedded.

At the very least, this would seem to indicate organized religion should be treated like any other political force in society, and not one requiring special protections or immunities.

Loss of Faith, the Jewish Atheist, and Working Class Rebellion in ‘Christ in Concrete’

In yesterday’s post on Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, I had noted how Annunziata and Paul’s session with the medium, the Cripple, could perhaps be viewed as an affirmation of the power of the life-sustaining myth. There is a hint of irony in that suggestion, because among the central messages of Di Donato’s impassioned novel are the loss of faith, the failure of Catholicism, the disillusionment of Paul with the myths that are supposed to sustain him; in their place, Donato tells us, what will sustain Paul is the companionship of his fellow workers. The final scenes of the book, which include the crucifix-crushing encounter between Paul and his mother, make the loss of faith explosively clear, but the tension, the tautening and ultimate snapping of the ties between the Church, Paul’s faith, and Paul has been building for a while, perhaps ever since his pleas for charitable assistance from the Church were rebuffed.

One of the interesting features of the novel for me–one that I did not see addressed in Fred Gardaphé‘s introduction to the Signet Classic edition–is the role played by Paul’s friendship with the Russian Jew Louis Molov, the ‘somber boy with the shaved head’ who lives with his family in their neighborhood. When Paul first encounters Molov, he has just ably defended himself against an attack by the local bullies. Fascinated and intrigued, Paul goes to meet him and finds Louis reading a book, and not just any old one: Thorstein Veblen‘s The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. (Louis, incidentally, is in the eighth grade! Talk about precocious.) Louis tells Paul about his brother, Leov, who met his death at the hands of the Czar’s soldiers because he tried to ‘organize the peasants against the war’ and ‘made a great speech against the Czar and his war.’

Later, as their friendship blooms, and as they visit the cemetery where Geremio, Paul’s father, is buried, Louis introduces Paul to a shocking idea, one that follows on the heels of his suggestion that Paul’s father’s death and his brother’s had something in common:

“Do you think that your father and these other men buried here will someday rise from their graves and cry revenge?”

“…Revenge…why?”

“Why? Did they want to die?”

“…Want to?”

“My brother Leov did not want to die. They shot the life out of him against his will, but he sprang up from his grave and destroyed the Czar and all his soldiers!”

“He was dead…?”

“They killed him–but his spirit threw the grave aside and paid back the murders of centuries!”

“That was the spirit of God’

“That was the spirit of my brother’s ideals.”

“I don’t understand. Your brother was dead. Only God could have punished his killers.”

Louis’s gray eyes studied Paul.

“What God?”

“Why…God…”

“Whose God?”

“Whose God? There’s only one God.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

“You have seen your father?”

“Yes…”

“And you know your mother?”

“Of course.”

“And you love them?”

“Why, yes.”

“Have you seen God?”

Paul felt something weakening him.

“Louis–haven’t you–don’t you believe in God?”

The gray eyes turned full on him.

“There is no God.”

I hope it is clear why this aspect of the book is interesting: the choice, on Donato’s part, to make a precocious  Jewish boy the vehicle for the delivery–from a land and faith far from Paul’s own–of the messages of working class rebellion and atheism. In doing so, Di Donato is explicitly acknowledging what might have been a trope of his time.

Adam Gopnik on the Scientist’s Lack of ‘Heroic Morals’

In an essay reviewing some contemporary historical work on Galileo, (‘Moon Man: What Galileo saw‘, The New Yorker, February 11, 2013), Adam Gopnik, noting Galileo’s less-than-heroic quasi-recantation before the Catholic Church, writes:

Could he, as Brecht might have wanted, have done otherwise, acted more heroically? Milton’s Galileo was a free man imprisoned by intolerance. What would Shakespeare’s Galileo have been, one wonders, had he ever written him? Well, in a sense, he had written him, as Falstaff, the man of appetite and wit who sees through the game of honor and fidelity. Galileo’s myth is not unlike the fat knight’s, the story of a medieval ethic of courage and honor supplanted by the modern one of cunning, wit, and self-knowledge. Martyrdom is the test of faith, but the test of truth is truth. Once the book was published, who cared what transparent lies you had to tell to save your life? The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, Any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there. It may be no accident that so many of the great scientists really have followed Galileo, in ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered. In the roster of genius, evasion of worldly responsibility seems practically a fixed theme. Newton escaped the world through nuttiness, Darwin through elaborate evasive courtesies and by farming out the politics to Huxley. Heisenberg’s uncertainty was political—he did nuclear-fission research for Hitler—as well as quantum-mechanical. Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.

Gopnik’s conclusion is a curious one: he seems to have made an excessively reductive statement about science and the scientist, and he does so by ensnaring the scientist in a net that brings in a bigger catch. For the distance of the scientist from his work, its import and its consequences, is equally that of the artist from this creations. I do not think it a coincidence that Gopnik refers to ‘genius’ as broadly as he does. For after all, ‘evasion of worldly responsibility’ is often claimed as a ‘fixed theme’ for the artist as well: the work stands on its own, it needs no moral justification, it need not take a moral stance and so on. Perhaps this is the viewpoint of the aesthete alone, but it is one often associated with the artist’s place in the world and his supposed moral responsibilities. The claim that Gopnik makes about the scientist, in attempting to portray him as amoral adventurer, is a narrowly restricted one: the ability of the scientist to manipulate, intervene, poke and prod at the world makes him into an actor too, one that might be required to act in conformance with moral codes, ones which might be internalized by the scientist. Human creativity always requires little more than ‘heroic minds’; the ‘heroic morals’ always come much, much later, determined by a nexus of needs and interests, historically situated.

Gopnik relies too, on a non-socially-situated view of science: its truths endure, independent of man’s activities. But again, he does not believe this himself, for as he notes, Galileo gets to stop caring about his ‘transparent lies’ only after his book was published. Not before. Perhaps the scientist needs to do more to have his ‘truths’ accepted and recognized. They get to endure once his ‘community’ says they do.

Note: H/T to Corey Robin who excerpted the Gopnik quote above on his Facebook page.

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr (samirchopra.tumblr.com) I posted two quotes on the Koran (or the Quran, take your pick). The first, by George S. Patton:

Just finished reading the Koran—a good book and interesting. (George S. Patton Jr., War As I Knew It, Bantam Books, 1981, page 5. War Diary for North Africa landings ‘Operation Torch’, 2nd November 1942)

Patton wrote these lines on board the USS Augusta as the Western Task Force headed for landings on Morocco to enter into battle with French Vichy Forces. (Operation Torch was an attack on French North Africa, ostensibly to remove  Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean and aid in the preparation, hopefully, of an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943.) He appears to have read the Koran as part of a self-imposed ‘backgrounder’ in Morocco’s history and culture. In his diary entries that follow, Patton keeps up a stream of commentary on Morocco’s culture and institutions, but shows little evidence of applying any particular principles gleaned from the Koran. There is, however, a note of a conversation with the Sultan of Morocco–during a meeting held after the surrender of Vichy forces–in which Patton’s reading of Koran might have helped:

When the initial conversation had terminated, he informed me that, since we were in Mohammedan country, he hoped the American soldier would show proper respect for Mohammedan institutions. I told him that such an order had been issued in forceful language prior to our departure from the United States and would be enforced. I further stated that since in all armies, including the American Army, there might be some foolish persons, I hoped that he would report to me any incidents of sacrilege which some individual soldier might commit.

Patton’s reading of the Koran then, appears to be a self-edificatory strategy: to equip himself with knowledge that would aid him in an understanding of a country, whose population was almost entirely Muslim, and which he would soon administer as a military governor.

The second quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness. (Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol.4, No. 3148, p. 420)

Napoleon being Napoleon, this drawing upon, and citing of the Koran, is more interesting. It foreshadows Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, which reinstated most of the Church’s civil status in France, his assembling the Jewish Grand Sanhedrin in 1806 and his establishing Judaism as one of the official religions of post-revolutionary France in 1807.  For Napoleon, religion was yet another arrow in his quiver, one that would aid in efficient rule. For a man who so easily moved from the military to the political and back again, this stocking of his arsenal would have been the proverbial no-brainer: a good general always calls upon all available resources in winning a battle or waging a protracted campaign.