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.

Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.) 

Jehane Noujaim’s ‘The Square’: Enthralling and Frustrating

Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square is an enthralling and frustrating documentary record of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It tells its story by holding a steady narrative focus on a small cast of central characters and tracking the revolution’s rise and fall–so to speak–from the glory of Hosni Mubarak‘s resignation to its co-optation by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces (the military, the Muslim Brotherhood). As The Square ends after Mohamed Morsi‘s downfall in July 2013, we see Tahrir Square–the emotional epicenter of the revolution–once again serving as a focal point for the possible mustering of those forces that had brought about the first showdown with Mubarak’s regime.  The revolution, it is clear, is unfinished business.

The Square is emotionally affecting. We witness the fervor and sentiment and passion of the hundreds of thousands that gathered in Tahrir Square to bring down first, Mubarak, and then, Mohamed Morsi; we are horrified and appalled at the violence visited on them by the police, the army and a motley crew of hired thugs; we listen in on articulate and angry debate between those who come together in the revolution even as they are riven by ideology.

The Square is also a curiously decontextualized record of what has been happening in Egypt over the last three years. The close attention paid to Khalid Abdalla, Ramy Essam, Magdy, Ahmed Saleh and The Square‘s other central characters prevents both a panning-out or a further zooming in. We are told absolutely nothing about the mechanics of the revolution: the grass-roots organizing that enabled a powerful totalitarian regime to be toppled surely deserved a closer look.

Many questions thus remain unanswered. We do not know why Mubarak was brought down; we fail to understand the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics. Why is Magdy, the member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is so clearly conflicted about their role in the revolution, so worried about his fate if the ‘liberals’ were to come to power? And why is he the only voice of such a significant counterrevolutionary force? For that matter, who are the Muslim Brotherhood? Have they ever been in power before? How was a gathering in one urban zone able to bring down a despot? Surely, just large gatherings alone do have such revolutionary effects? Did any revolutionary activity occur outside Cairo? Egyptian history and politics are complicated; their casts of characters are large and driven by a variety of ideological and intellectual motivations; these all deserved just a little more attention.

Perhaps my complaints are misplaced; Noujaim’s worst sin might only have been to presume her viewers had done their homework. But can those who make movies about the Middle East afford to be so complacent in their presumptions? Especially when the relationship between religion and state is as complicated as it is in the Islamic world? In these times, every documentary about that region of the world is in the envious position of being able to seize upon the many teachable moments its currents events provide.

Noujaim shouldn’t have hesitated to edify us.

The Killing and Vigilante Justice

There are two instances of vigilante justice in The Killing‘s first season: Bennett Ahmed is brutally beaten by Stan Larsen and Belko Royce, and Councilman Darren Richmond is shot and critically wounded by Royce. Both victims were suspects in the murder of Rosie Larsen; both have been mistakenly accused, a fact that makes their fates particularly poignant. (I am currently caught up to the third episode of season 2; there are no updates yet on Ahmed’s health while Richmond appears to be paralyzed from the waist down.)

In an earlier post on Dexter I had noted the intuitive hankering for vigilante justice:

[I]ts appeal [lies in] an old weariness with the justice system…:the machinery of law and justice is antiquated and tired; it moves too slowly; it is worn down by procedural detail; it punishes the good and lets off the bad; it cries out for blunt, fast-acting saviors willing to leap the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the path of those only concerned with letting all of us sleep a little safer at night.

The twist in The Killing is that at the time of the attack on the suspects, they have merely come under suspicion and have not yet been shown to be guilty. They have not entered the legal system and then been spat out as innocent in some miscarriage of justice that would prompt an act of frustration; the legal system has not had the opportunity to determine their guilt. In Bennett’s case, he has not been charged and arrested; in Richmond’s case, he has been arrested but no trial has taken place. These instances of vigilante justice then, are not grounded in a impatience with a legal system gone wrong. Rather, they stem from an anger that must find release, that seeks immediate gratification, that cannot wait for the legal system’s resolution of matters. Stan Larsen is able to resist the temptation for instant gratification once, but his resolution weakens when he is confronted by a grieving Mitch Larsen.

At some level, Stan, always vulnerable to self-doubt about a masculinity that had found expression in his earlier violent self, might be seeking reassurance that he is ‘man enough’ to avenge his daughter’s death, almost certainly caused by another man. (The racial aspect of the attack on Bennett is not explored to any great extent in The Killing but it is certainly present. The show also nods to an Islamophobia evoked by his acquaintance with man named Mohammed, his reading and study of the Koran, and his membership in a mosque.) Belko’s attack on Richmond, significantly, is the act of a man who has literally and figuratively lost the plot; an already unstable character descends into the depth of paranoiac madness, killing his mother, shooting Richmond, and then later, distraught by the turn of events, kills himself. The attack on Richmond appears as unhinged as it is.

As I noted in my last post on The Killing, these toxic developments emerge from a toxic brew: the interaction of anxious, edgy, stressed out cops–Holder desperate to make a name for himself; Linden haunted by a young girl’s death–with a grieving family and a hyper news media hungry for headlines leads to bad decision-making all around.

These instances of the unlawful dispensation of punishment gone terribly wrong illustrate well the problems with vigilante justice:

The central incoherence with vigilante justice is that it cannot be the norm, it cannot be universalized, it cannot co-exist with systems of law. To tolerate it is to ask for little less than a return to the bad old days–not that they have ever gone away–of unbridled revenge and all the social, emotional and moral costs that entailed.


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.

‘Racial Weakening’ and the Decline of Ancient Rome

Muslim migration to Europe in recent times, and the resultant presence of large Muslim immigrant communities in several European countries, has often prompted much alarmist commentary ranging from accusations of Fifth Column style betrayal to suggestions that Muslims are incapable of assimilating in any shape, manner or form into ‘European culture.’ The decline of Europe downwards and into ‘Eurabia‘ thus appears foretold by the presence of that lurking menace, the Muslim.

Theories of this kind, which find contamination by an external agent as cause for the internal weakness and degradation of a civilization, ‘race’ or nation, and often prompt horrendously misguided responses, are not uncommon or even new in European history. Indeed, they have a distinguished pedigree, as they have been offered as an explanation for the end of the ancient world: the decline of Rome, and the commencement of the Middle Ages.

In The Origins of the Middle Ages: Pirenne’s Challenge to Gibbon, Bryce Lyon makes critical note of these theories.  For instance  M. P. Nilsson argued in Imperial Rome that:

[T]he quality of Roman civilization depended upon racial character and that alien races and barbarian tribes, to be assimilated, must be interpenetrated by the conquered. Unfortunately, because the Romans did not succeed in interpenetrating those who conquered them, their birthrate declined while that of the non-Romans increased, Roman blood was diluted by inter-marriage, and the mingling of races produced not Romanization but a mongrelization that spread across the empire, resulting in the loss of stable spiritual and moral standards and the death of a proud civilization. [quote from Lyon]

As Lyon points out:

The rebuttal to this interpretation of the Romans as a kind of master race is that they simply appropriated the rich cultures that the conquered Greeks and peoples of the Middle East had already created. Who can say that Roman ability to build roads and a national system of law is superior to Greek literary, artistic and philosophical talent or to eastern religious perception? Why also did the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine, that was essentially Greek and eastern, survive a thousand years after the Roman empire in the West was no longer a political entity?

Lyon also points to Tenney Frank who concluded that:

Rome and the Latin West were inundated by Greek and oriental slaves who, as they became emancipated and achieved citizenship, changed the character of the Latin West. He has estimated that, ultimately, ninety percent of Rome’s inhabitants were of foreign origin and that this ‘orientalizing of Rome’s populace has a more important bearing than is usually accorded it upon the larger question of why the spirit and acts of imperial Rome are totally different from those of the republic,’ a situation that inevitably created the triumph of oriental despotism or absolutism, the popularity of oriental mystery religions, the decline in the quality of Latin literature, and the disappearance of those Romans with a flair for government who had built the empire. Rome’s disintegration is thus explained by ‘the fact that the people who had built Rome had given way to a different race.’

Lyon’s refutation is short:

[E]pigraphical research has..placed in doubt Frank’s statistics, suggesting that his sample is invalid, and that he has confused eastern with western slaves.

The long history of the failure of such theories, and their dubious foundations in misapplications of Darwinism, have certainly proved no barrier to their continued expounding by demagogues and racists of all stripes.

Much tedious rebuttal lies ahead.

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr ( 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.