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.

Polygamy And Joseph Smith’s Convenient Revelations

In Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer cites Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, her classic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

Monogamy seemed to him–as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness–an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pay for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

That ‘stupendous theological edifice’, of course, was constructed by conveying some rather conveniently timed and worded ‘revelations’ that Smith would subsequently receive from God himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer goes on to note, so precisely specified were these revelations that they even took care of any resistance that Smith’s wife, Emma, might have had to her husband’s rather transparent philandering. As Verse 54 of Section 132–the one that sanctions so-called ‘plural marriage’– of the Mormon’s Doctrines and Covenants states:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

Other passages make it plain that casting one’s eyes about is quite all-right:

61 [I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

It all works out rather nicely. Take as many as you need; and woe betide any of your ‘brides’ if they seek similar sexual freedom for themselves. Indeed, threaten them with damnation and destruction in response.

The misogyny, mendaciousness,  and self-serving deceit on display is quite breathtaking. But it is not novel–as the histories of fundamentalist strains of the world’s major religions so depressingly reveal.

The new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.–are rightly pilloried for their intemperate and unsophisticated attacks on religion. Still, it is worth recalling, when one reads of the foundations of one of the world’s fastest growing faiths, that the reason they find such a sympathetic following is, all too often, because they have such glaring and easy targets to aim at.