Posted by: Gabriel | January 27, 2009

A Critique of a Critique of NOMA

During the Dawkins/Lennox debate posted in the “Video Resources” section, the question of Nonoverlapping Magesteria (NOMA) came up. NOMA states that religion and science try to answer different questions (why and how, respectively; to make a grossly broad generalisation). To my slight surprise, not only Dawkins dismissed this idea (justifying himself by saying that if the virgin birth could be scientifically proven, theologians would hardly count that proof as irrelevant), but Lennox also joined in the condemnation of NOMA. Lennox then went on to claim that religion and science can enter into a dialogue and reveal truths about each other (he used the example of the Biblical idea of an origin to the universe being accepted in the 1960’s with the Big Bang theory).



I want to take exception to the whole argument of Dawkins and Lennox and especially Lennox’s point (as I understood it anyway) that religion and science can teach humanity about each other. I should probably begin with a confession that came up in a conversation Trevor and I had: I am a firm defender of Ockham and the razor argument associated with him. Occam’s razor, for anyone who might be hazy on the details, tries to say that any unnecessary components should be excluded from an explanation. So, since nature can be explained without God, we should not invoke God as an explanation for nature. I’m personally more interested in Ockham’s own opinion that reason cannot prove supernatural claims (i.e. about God).



Now to the point: I believe, in answer to Dawkins, that if the virgin birth could be empirically proven, it would be irrelevant, or at least it should be irrelevant. Not only do I think that it should be irrelevant from a religious standpoint, but I would think that it should be irrelevant from an atheistic standpoint. The Christians, extolling faith above verified truths (“Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” John 20:29) should not recognise scientific proofs as appropriate justification for their beliefs. No doubt, someone can come to Christianity because of proof, but it would seem that this is a lesser way to Christianity; just as someone could come without love – it would not be the full experience of Christianity. Miracles could make Christianity grow, but they could not make it thrive.


On the other hand, the atheistic side, as Dawkins implied later in the debate, has a faith that science could explain what presently is not understood by humanity. Any miracle, thus, should automatically be rejected by the purely scientific mind since such a contingency is assumed out of the question to begin with. If the virgin birth could be verified, the atheist should reject such verification as irrelevant because it is not proof of some supernatural occurrence, but only of a natural occurrence which has not yet been explained.

The benefit to being a human is that we [can] view the world through eyes which are not purely scientific or purely faithful.



As to Lennox’s point (as I’ve understood it), I see a dialogue and mutual self-discovery between science and religion as a complete absurdity, partly for the reason which I have just outline above – that science and religion are operating on different base-assumptions. This has the effect that science and religion are looking in opposite directions (say, one out onto a field and the other out onto a seascape), and so while they can describe their observations to each other, they are talking about things which are not related (less-than-perfect metaphors notwithstanding). Religion deals with the human experience of That Which Is Inexperienceable, a topic from which science [must] shy away; whereas science deals with the human experience of that which is experienceable, a topic which religion would be outstepping its bounds to enter into. Thus my advocacy of NOMA.



  1. NOMA is safe, it can ensure the integrity of each respective field, but if we don’t overlap and interact, we miss opportunities on both sides.

    Examples in the works of John Haught or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin show that they found with their discoveries of evolutionary biology that it could challenge certain perspectives of the creative power of God and God’s relationship to the universe in a way that would open up Christianity to a better, fuller and more realistic understanding of how God is in relation to the universe. It could provide rich, theological reflection. It makes us relook at how we interpret scripture and how our idea of God needs to “evolve.”

    For them, evolution tells us about the reality of things. As responsible theologians, we must interact with these and ask, “What can this tell us about God” and “What questions, challenges, ideas, etc does this raise about our faith and what are the opportunities that evolution offers?”

    Remember, this is done in a way in which the field of science and religion are respected, where data is not overlooked, where evidence is not downplayed or distorted (on both sides!!).

    Evenmore, could a mature faith that approaches evolution in this way actually better describe what is really happening within the evolutionary process… that it may very well be creations unique response to the greater being and greater beauty that God calls it to (This is just one, tiny statement that could be expanded in a whole book!).

    What do we think. I think NOMA is popular because it’s safe and respectful. But in my opinion they need to interact. The real question is how can we stay respectful of each respective field while opening and allowing ourselves to interact, learn from and explore?

  2. I would say that there is much validity to NOMA. The existence of religion is not dependent on the existence of science. Similarly, science would not cease to exist nor would its advancement be constrained in any way if religion were nonexistent. The two are not interdependent or even co-reliant on one another. It is also true, that in many ways they greatly diverge in subject matter as well. Yet, they share a common purpose of answering life’s questions. Religion tries to answer the spiritual questions and science deals the physical subject matter. Yet I do not believe the two are in conflict or that they cannot supplement one another. Likewise I do not believe that if science can attempt to answer a theological question that it should be considered irrelevant. True, if science could somehow prove the virgin birth it would not be enough to unequivocally prove the existence of God. Atheists could argue that there is a perfectly rational scientific explanation and that God is irrelevant. Thus, such a discovery would be theologically immaterial to them. However such a finding could have powerful implications for believers. Anything that points more strongly to God should be seen as a positive advancement in theology, whether this stems from science, philosophy, or theology.

    Faith by nature is without fully encompassing justification. Faith requires trusting that that which cannot be proven; namely that God exists. The passage from John 20:29 is relevant because Jesus praised those who believed without seeing. Yet he did not say that those who needed to see in order to believe were not likewise blessed. Jesus revealed himself to humanity in part so that the unbelievers who sought proof could be brought to the faith; so they may be blessed too. Thus, I disagree with the claim that this means any scientific proof should be left as unrecognized. I think that if scientific proof can bring others into the faith then it is constructive. Even for those Christians who currently maintain faith without verified truths scientific evidence can act a supplementary encouragement, further recognizing and affirming an already revered God. In either case the Christian message is strengthened. So it is my thought that though science is not always relevant in matters of theology, when it is it should not be ignored. Even in acknowledging NOMA in that science and religion attempt to answer completely different questions, one cannot utilize what one may have to offer the other. The two do not have to be in conflict with one another. And thus, when they converge, I think they serve to supplement one another.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Catherine; it gives me the chance to clarify one of my points. I said that ‘Miracles could make Christianity grow, but they could not make it thrive’ and, in addition to what I wrote just before, I think most of the criticism I’ve received (and I really do enjoy it) comes from the lack of clarity with which I’ve developed this thought.

    I don’t deny that people can come to God through scientific validation of their religion, and I agree with everything in your second paragraph. I want to add, however, that I also think people can come to God through going on crusades to massacre a heathen village set up on a sacred river. I don’t think anyone has a right to make a value judgment by saying that is an illegitimate spiritual experience. What I do think it is valid to say is that a crusade and scientific validation are not the *best* ways to come to God.

    I touched on it in my post ‘The Piety of Atheism’ and I’ll mention again that I think silence and contemplation of love are some of the best ways to come to God and that such things as scientific proof, while good at a certain point, ultimately get in the way of this silent reverence and must be abandoned. God can really only be known by our personal experience of our relationship with God, and so anything outside of that (of which, I think, science is the example par excellence) cannot ultimately speak of God, it can only help us understand our relationship (and that in a limited way).

    I’m still being too brief, I feel, but I’ll conclude by saying that when I write things such as the above post, I’m trying to look at things and the problems we have from the ‘end game’, from the point of ultimate silence from which all these endeavours of science (and crusades) are meaningless. I hope this helped clear some things up – if not, I can always try again. 😉

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