March 7, 2007

NOMA No More?

I have a new column this week in TBL discussing the inadequacies of the NOMA model, something that has been on my mind after the evolution symposium at the AAAS meeting and the cathartic "open" dialogue on religion last week. Excerpt and commentary below the fold.

The existence of supernatural events in a natural world represents a violation of the NOMA model and proves that science and religion do not address different realms. The resurrection of Lazarus from his tomb or the night journey of Mohammed on a flying horse to Mecca or the parting of the red sea—all of which have supposedly taken place in the natural universe—violate physical laws backed by centuries of empirical evidence. If science rules this natural world in which these people lived and interacted, then these events are impossible, and religion is extending beyond its territory.

I have no solution to this problem. If the religious choose to interpret the Bible and other texts literally (and statistics show that a majority of Christians do), then there will be, without a doubt, conflict between science and religion. If the religious choose to believe in the message of these stories as indicative of the human experience and our internal struggle with existence, there is very little conflict, but the dogma will deteriorate. If the story of Jesus sacrificing himself for the good of man is indeed just the extension of an agricultural metaphor, then why have faith?

By its very nature, science cannot change to support a religious view of the natural world while maintaining its integrity. That is not to say that science shouldn’t be more transparent and accessible, but if the relationship between science and religion is to improve, the burden of change lies upon the religious. Paradigms must shift, especially in the Big Three: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

I'm hoping it will stimulate some conversation on campus and get people thinking about the realities of a cross section between science and religion. This is a problem that needs to be honestly addressed, without placating either camp. The two can be reconciled, but it needs to be made clear just how.

I have talked to several of the students that were involved in organizing and presenting the religious forum from last week, and each of them expressed disappointment with the event, mostly for its lack of diversity and organization. It would be nice to see a reorganized forum in the future where dialogue doesn't become diatribe (as Donovan put it).


  1. I think you've hit on one of the (several) weaknesses of NOMA, but I think there are couple of things that are worth deeper consideration.

    First of all, I read your full article and I'd like to point out that Buddhists -- even Zen Buddhists -- have a distinct cosmology and attitudes about the nature of birth, death, and resurrection.

    Secondly, it's misleading to relegate religion to the "supernatural" if you mean the "existing outside of nature." It is possible to believe in God or gods, yet still believe them to be restricted by, or subservient to, natural processes.

    The experiencing of supernatural phenomena, IMHO, is just evidence that we don't have a solid grasp on how "nature" operates yet. And as long as we disregard (or -- gasp -- belittle and mock) experiential evidence that doesn't fit on the Procrustean Bed of the most popular scientific models, we're not likely to make much headway there.

  2. Prup (aka Jim Benton)12:47 PM

    You say "If the religious choose to interpret the Bible and other texts literally (and statistics show that a majority of Christians do)"; but this is only true if you replace "Christians" with "Protestant Christians in the United States" (Catholics do not accept the Bible literally in most cases, but see below, and most European Protestants are not literalists.)

    Also, there is a difference between belief in the 'core belief' (usually involving a 'supernatural' event) of a religion -- the Covenant for Judaism, the Resurrection for Christianity, the dictation of the Qur'an by Gabriel to Mohammed for Islam) and acceptance of other supposedly supernatural events in their scriptures. Many believers will accept the core belief but be less willing to accept the others.

    And, of course, many believers don't accept (or reject) some supernatural events because they've never known about them -- even evangelicals only read the more popular parts of the Bible. To prove this, the next time you are harangued by a 'Biblical literalist,' ask him what he thinks about Paul raising someone from the dead. (After you see his blank face send him to Acts 20 for what is one of the more charming stories in the Bible. The reason Paul had to raise him was that Paul had preached for so long the boy fell asleep and tumbled from a third story window.)
    Then ask him how he differentiates the Sodomites from the Benjaminites of Gibeah, who did the same thing but weren't punished by God. (Again, after the blank stare, direct him to Judges 19.)

  3. Prup (aka Jim Benton)12:52 PM

    And to Thud, you talk about the "experiencing of supernatural phenomena" but I have yet to be convinced, and would appreciate evidence of, anyone actually experiencing such. There are lots of claims of such, both in the uncheckable time of the Scriptures and in modern times, but no proof, and, more important, no way of distinguishing competing claims of such. (The saint and the serial killer both may claim that they experienced the 'supernatural event' of God's talking to them. We reject the killer's 'voice' as schizophrenia, but why then do we accept the saint's?)

  4. "experiential evidence"

    Thud, I think that's an oxymoron.