Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life

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Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life
Stephen Jay Gould
First reviewed on 14 August 2007

If you’ve read any of the clutter of recent books on evolutionary science or popular atheism, you’ll know that Stephen Jay Gould, and particularly this book, Rocks of Ages, comes with a health warning: despite his great eminence and magisterial publishing history, a certain clique of like-minded authors see Gould as damaged goods. This attempt at popular philosophy, with its central thesis of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (“NOMA”) — an attempt at peaceful mediation between science and religion — gets short shrift, and tends to be put down to Gould’s compromised situation when he wrote it (terminally ill with cancer). Since his death a few years ago, Rocks of Ages has lost an able champion and as a result looks set to disappear quietly beneath the waves of the current, squally debate.

Which is a pity. While Gould’s formulation might not convince everyone, his starting point: that it would be a great shame if neither of these two great intellectual traditions could rest without destroying the other, seems to me to be thoroughly pragmatic and worthwhile, since each has an awful lot of merit and utility, if only they could agree upon a peaceable separation.

The likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens will have none of that and, while the great majority of the liberal religious happily would, this only furthers the militant atheists’ conclusion that they are therefore right, and the god-botherers must be crushed. Childish, if you ask me. For the record, I’m not religious myself: just more pleasantly disposed to religion and religious people than some of my atheist confreres.

All the same, I’m not persuaded by NOMA, because, like all the participants in that pointless debate, Gould believes he can hold onto transcendental truth and is therefore hoist by the same petard as everyone else: using NOMA simply as a means of deciding which truth is the province of which discipline is as forlorn as the forensic search for any kind of transcendental truth, and worthy of the same criticisms that Richard Rorty, Thomas Kuhn, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others make of that idea.

But enough of what I think. NOMA is, at least, a good try and along the way, Gould has written an elegantly phrased, beautifully learned, contemplative, reflective book and made some very pithy observations, that Richard Dawkins might have done well to note.

In particular, the observation that hardly any of the modern religions take young-earth creationism literally. Once it is seen as metaphorical (and this may be heresy in the deep south, but it’s been taken as read in all of the churches I’ve ever been to), the atheistic thrust of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (a wonderful book in other respects) comes to nought. Gould notes that it can only be taken figuratively, if for no other reason than that it makes no sense whatsoever otherwise: the literal text refers to the making of the sun on the fourth "day" - but it’s difficult to see how days 1-3 could have been measured without a sun!

Additionally, religion only rarely strays more than nonchalantly into the scientific magisterium at all. The main place — the one Dawkins obsesses about, since it is his chosen field) is in the creation myth, which in most religious canons is, vague, has the air of a “once upon a time” about it, and is dealt with briefly anyway. All the same. complaining about it has made Richard Dawkins a decent living over the last couple of decades, so happy days I suppose.

Back, though, to Rocks of Ages, where there is erudition on every page, and the book is worth its value for these alone. The myth of the flat-earthers is similarly surprising: read it and see.

Gould’s book faces up to and accommodates what, for fundamentalists (of either stripe) is a rather uncomfortable fact: there are millions, if not billions, of thoughtful, well educated, scientifically literate, liberal people who are able to hold to religious devotion and scientific practice contemporaneously, without unease or mental torment. Dawkin’s best guess is that these people are systematically deluded: hardly a useful or scientific approach, you would think. Gould’s more mature reaction is to say: these are the facts: science has not supplanted religion; these ideas can co-exist in our heads; now how can we reconcile that.

There are better explanations, I believe, of the particulars, but Gould’s book is a worthwhile and charming entry all the same.

See also