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This post was originally a paper submitted for a class in Spring, 2015. 

Since the times of Galileo, religious believers and scientists alike have argued over the relationship between science and religion. The Christian Church has a dark past in this regard, at times devaluing scientific thought and punishing those who were bold enough to contest the Church’s cosmological claims found in the bible: that the earth was the center of the universe (geocentrism) and that God created the world and all living things in six days. The rise of the Enlightenment as a rejection of ecclesial authority and embracing of the scientific method put flame to the fire and furthered the polemic in Western culture. And this polemic continues into the present day as evidenced by the rise of the “Four Horsemen”[1] of the “New Atheism” and their clash with American fundamentalist Christianity.

In an attempt to quiet this polemic and bring peace between the two disciplines, evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould proposed the heuristic of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) to describe the relationship between science and religion, claiming that each subject has its owrocksofages_thumbn method and means of inquiry and discussion, and that the two cannot overlap: science concerns the facts of the natural world and contains no implied ethic or value, while religion concerns values and ethics and ought not make claims about the natural or factual world.

In this paper, I will argue that the NOMA principle, while helpful conceptually, falls short of adequately respecting the religious or theological discipline. Toward this end, I will examine two critiques of the NOMA principle, one by scientist and new-atheist Richard Dawkins and the other by theologian and would be future pope Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), showing that as a consequence of this principle, religion becomes disconnected from the material world and is left to reside purely in the subjective sphere, ultimately robbing it of its foundation. I will then propose a new model reflecting Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of theology’s proper place within the academy, showing that religion and science can both be respected without relegating religion to the subjective sphere.

 Gould’s Argument

In 1997 Stephen J. Gould, an influential and widely read evolutionary biologist from Harvard University, wrote an essay entitled “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”[2] for Natural History Magazine,  a050520_stephen_gould_vsm.grid-4x2nd later wrote a book based on the article called Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. In these two pieces, Gould argues that the conflict between science and religion—a conflict that has been recognized for a millennia—is “a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different and equally vital subjects.”[3] In other words, these different modes of understand do not conflict, but both contribute important, but different types of knowledge that allow humans to live full lives on earth.

To argue for this point, Gould proposes that his readers adopt a principle of “respectful noninterference” between the two disciplines, and to do this is to adopt the NOMA principle: Non-Overlapping Magisteria. The phrase is, in some ways, self-explanatory. Science and religion are both important to living human life on earth, but they obtain different spheres of knowledge. And though it is common to attempt to synthesize and unify knowledge, Gould believes that “many crucial problems in our complex lives find better resolution under the opposite strategy of principles and respectful separation.”[4]

The phrase “magisteria” here is not to be understood as a calling to absolute obedience, nor does it infer ideas associated with dominance. Instead, Gould defines magisteria as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, we debate and hold dialogue under a magisterium…”[5]

Therefore, both science and religion belong to a magisterium: Science to facts about the natural world, and religion about human values and ethics. Science ought not attempt to define what is right and wrong, or to discover the meaning of human actions and relationships, while religion ought not attempt to define the natural laws of the universe, or how the world words via natural means.

This separation between science and religion, Gould argues, came to him after reading an encyclical by Pope Pius XII entitled Humani Generis.[6] The encyclical was written in 1950 with the subtitle “concerning some false opinions which threaten to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine” and was an attempt to respond to modernity in all its forms, including evolutionary theories creep into the theological task. After reading the document, Gould was surprised to see that Humani Generis mentioned that evolution was a possibility—even if he said it begrudgingly—and that Catholics could in good conscience entertain the idea. However, he said that what was not permitted was the belief that the human soul finds its provenance from something other than God.  In other words, God creates each and every individual soul, even amidst evolution. John Paul II, in his “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”[7] in 1996 reaffirmed and strengthened Pius XII’s claims in Humani Generis, furthering Gould’s inspiration for the NOMA project.


Gould’s NOMA principle has been criticized on all sides of the debate. Of significant note on the scientific side is Richard Dawkins criticism of Gould’s theory. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University and the face of the New Atheism movement, makes a simple argument: “Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”[8] In other words, because religions make claims about the universe—that it was created, that natural laws can be broken via miracles, and that God imparts a soul into each living being—it is de facto stepping on science’s turf.

To expand on Dawkins’ claim, Gould’s NOMA principle only makes sense if religion is understood solely as relationship to a god of some sort. The minute this god becomes enfleshed or tries to act in the world, it is stepping on a different turf, and these claims must be analyzed according to the methods of this earth. Therefore, NOMA might be appropriate when understanding the god of the Deists, but when relationship with a god takes the form of religion, NOMA becomes a much more difficult principle to abide by, since it implicitly makes claims about the cosmos, about the human person, and implicitly makes claims about the world. In the Christian religion, the virgin birth is an obvious example. The moment that the Christian claims that a baby boy was conceived by a virgin, religion has entered into the realm of biology, and thus can’t move forward. Thus, for a good majority of religions, it is difficult to square their religious understanding within the NOMA principle.

While Dawkins is most concerned with religion’s encroachment on science, Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI is concerned with what this principle would mean for religion. In his book, Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger responded not necessarily to Gould, but to another scientist who raised a similar idea in the early 20th century: Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg tells of a dialogue he had with a couple of young physicists who were open to religion, because “natural science dealt with two completely different spheres, which were not in competition with each other: in natural science it was a matter of things being true or false; in religion, of their being good and bad, valuable or worthless.” [9] Gould makes a very similar argument. Gould writes: regarding science, “we seek information with potential “yes or no” answers…” where religion is “about ethical ought.”[10] He continues to say that many religious questions “cannot be answered, or even much illuminated, by factual date of any kind.”[11] In this way, Ratzinger’s critique of the young physicists and Gould are fairly similar.

Ratzinger argues that religion cannot be relegated to a narrow sphere of inquiry: that of value and ethics. He argues that Heisenberg ultimately is relegating religion to the subjective sphere, thus making it “not amenable to the criterion of true or false.”[12] Therefore, under the NOMA structure, the thinking person’s religion remains a subjective decision, one that merely guides one through the pains, struggles, anda4c16317353c4d86499e8cd7c118fa9ec8d2f32d ethical considerations of everyday life. This, in some ways, defines Gould’s own life. One of Heisenberg’s young physicist friends describes it well when he says: “Even if I am an atheist, I would at least like to live like a saint.”

Amidst this distinction, Ratzinger’s task is to liberate reason for the religious believer, showing that faith and reason are not separate values, and that both faith and reason involve the whole person, including grounding in the Truth. This “Truth” contains both the truths of science and religion. Therefore, religion cannot be relegated to the sphere of the subjective. Instead, agreeing in part with Dawkins’s ideas, Ratzinger is unafraid to say that religious Truth contains claims that have implications in the spheres of cosmology, physics, and biology. And these truths in the sciences do indeed have significant implications into religious faith. It is these factual truths that help guide and shape Catholic ethics and values. Otherwise, religion as a basis of ethical knowledge loses its vital force, and likewise scientific reason loses its humanity: “if a religion can no longer be reconciled with the elementary certainties of a given view of the world, it collapses.”[13] Thus, in Ratzinger’s words: “the present-day crisis is due to the fact that the connecting link between the subjective and objective realms has disappeared, that reason and feeling are drifting apart, and that both are ailing because of it.”

Ratzinger’s words dispute Gould’s claim that religion and science belong to “non-overlapping” magisteria. Indeed, God, at least in the Christian ideal, is in harmony with the world. This principle is firmly rooted in Catholic theology’s insistence on natural theology, a belief that the natural world and its mode of functioning speaks of a creator: it speaks of God.

Ratzinger demonstrates this link by arguing, as many other have, that Science was birthed in the West due to the Christian cosmology and that the Logos was made flesh. He writes:

“All our ideas about natural science and all practical applications are based on the assumption that the world is ordered according to rational, spiritual laws, is imbued with rationality that can be traced out and copied by our reason…Any thinking that goes beyond this connection, that tries to look at reason in itself or to see it as preceding the present world, is contrary to the discipline of scientific method and is therefore utterly rejected as being a pre-scientific or un-scientific way of thinking.”[14]

If Ratzinger is right, then this means that science cannot remain absolutely distinct from a religious worldview or cosmology, and that it indeed is indebted to it as the historical starting point for the scientific worldview. 51TQE21K70L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

But all of this raises many questions for Ratzinger’s arguments: how does one know whether one’s religion is appropriately responding or postured towards Truth? Ultimately, this question is too massive to address here. But by rejecting, or at least nuancing Gould’s claim, this question can indeed be asked by analyzing religion according to scientific knowledge and, perhaps better stated, by looking at religious worldviews and critiquing them with what we know about the natural world. This task, while it may appear discriminatory against religious pluralism, is essential for liberating religion out of the mere subjective sphere and bringing it into concert with reason.

This being said, the question remains: If Gould’s NOMA principle is not the answer for the appropriate relationship between science and faith due to its demotion of the realm of religion to the mere subjective, then what is? Here, I will argue that Tomas Aquinas’ hierarchy of the sciences can help answer this question.

Thomas’s Hierarchy of Sciences

Before heading into an explanation of Thomas’ hierarchy of sciences, a brief exposition of his understanding of the word “science” is in order. The word science was not understood by Thomas the way we think of it today. Science, or scientia, is simply any discipline that seeks knowledge. Therefore, biology is a science, just as philosophy or literature or theology is science. To better understand this, the German tradition of Wissenschaft may be helpful.  Wissenschaft was a term that defined learning in the German universities in the 19th century. It defined science as a “legitimate area of study oriented to a particular object, and possessing appropriate methods of investigation.”[15] This understanding of learning is still used today, and accurately describes the model of learning in the Middle Ages and the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

When confronted with the multitude of sciences in the middle ages (mathematics, theology, philosophy), Thomas Aquinas makes the claim that theology sandro-botticelli-st-thomas-aquinasis the “queen of the sciences.” Therefore, it is not simply one method to be put alongside biology and physics, but stands above them as an encapsulating discipline. This special status of Theology was originally earned, in part, because it dealt specifically with revelation: the revealed word of God in the scriptures. What can be a higher task than studying God’s own self-communication to the world?

But this is not the ultimate reason why we might affirm Thomas’ understanding of the hierarchy of sciences today. Ultimately, for our purposes, theology can be considered queen of the sciences because it encapsulates and makes use of the finding the other disciplines. We see this already amidst the sciences today: in order to do biology meaningfully, the biologist has to be steeped in chemistry and physics in a way that a person studying the solar system does not have to be aware of the intricate details of a kidney. The same may be said of theology’s relationship to biology: biology does not need theology in order to do its work, but theology does indeed need biology, especially if the Roman Catholic theological method is true: that the created order is an analogy of God, and thus that creation is imbued with communication from the creator.

Note that this hierarchical relationship does not speak of domination: theology is not the queen of the sciences because it determines the outcomes of biological research. Instead, it is a hierarchy based on wholeness: theology embraces the other disciplines in order to make sense of revelation, and therefore God. This leaves us with a certain hierarchy of sciences, with Theology being followed by the other humanities, followed by the hard sciences. Thus, biology is left fully in tact to go its own direct route, and so has an unlimited independence from Theology.

This being said, the hierarchal model then allows for the all of the benefits of Gould’s NOMA theory, without claiming the problematic phrase: non-overlapping. Religion is then liberated form the realm of pure ethics and meaning and is allowed to search for Truth, and so can once again make claims about the Universe that are indeed consistent with science. At the same time, religion is also given a massive task: it must learn when to stay true to Revelation and when to yield. For instance, a Christian theologian must maintain that God is the creator of the Universe, and that miracles are possible.


In conclusion, I have attempted to analyze the basic thrust of Stephen Gould’s NOMA theory, suggesting that the theory does not allow religion to treat itself on its own terms: that it relegates religion to the subjective realm, ultimately divorcing it from its grounding in the natural world as a communicator of God and of its cosmological foundations.

In place of this theory, I proposed a re-examination of the hierarchy of the sciences proposed by Thomas Aquinas, which argues for a hierarchy based not on domination or authority, but based on the holistic nature of the discipline. This leaves theology as the Queen of the Sciences, since it can encompass all other forms of knowledge, including the humanities and the sciences. On this basis, religion is not relegated to the subjective, but is able to ground itself in the natural world.

This being the case, this principle does not allow religion to use subjective claims as a defense. It can no longer ignore the findings of the scientific world, and so are charged with the task of making sense of them in light of revelation. For example, the discovery of the evolutionary basis of living beings has sent shockwaves through the religious world. While many religions, including the Catholic Church embrace such a discovery, they are not left with a task of understanding how God can still be understood as the creator of the universe. All too often religious people ignore such questions and go on with their religious life without examining these important details, or without letting the scientific worldview implicitly critique their assumptions about how God works in the world. Thus, the hierarchal model gives theologians much work that will surely continue into the future.



[1] Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Samuel Harris.

[2] Stephen J. Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997): 16–22.

[3] Stephen J. Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Publishing, 1999), 3.

[4] Gould, Rock of Ages, 4.

[5] Gould, Rock of Ages, 5.

[6] Gould, Rock of Ages, 74-89. Cf. Pius XII, Humani Generis (1950), http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html

[7] Cf. John Paul II, “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Science on Evolution,” (1996), https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP961022.HTM

[8] Dawkins, Richard (2006). “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-dawkins/why-there-almost-certainl_b_32164.html

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 138.

[10] Gould, Rock of Ages, 53-55.

[11] Gould, Rock of Ages, 55.

[12] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 139.

[13] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 143-144.

[14] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 156-183.

[15] http://www.gotquestions.org/theology-queen-sciences.html