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NOMA and cognitive dissonance

August 23, 2009

Charles Darwin is demonised by many religious people for his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, and for contributing to the discovery that all life on earth is essentially a huge family tree and subject to natural selection — concepts that have stood the test of time and been confirmed with DNA analysis. Theists who consider it their “duty” to conduct ad hominem attacks on those who threaten their fragile worldview are often unaware that this knowledge created a dilemma for Darwin himself, particularly as even while on his historic journey on the Beagle (1831-1836) he was a religious man studying to become a church minister who saw adaptation of the species as proof of God’s design. But to him the truth was more important than wishful thinking.

My suspicion is that those who vilify Darwin not only have never read a single word he wrote, nor understand the magnitude and relevance of what that work has given us, but assume that it was his life’s ambition to be an iconoclast. While in a sane world such patently ignorant people would not rise to the surface and require scraping off, our world is one of vox populi, inadequate or ideologically-manipulated education, idealised and politically-aligned news and media, and what much of the service industry call “80/20 people”: 20% of people cause you 80% of the grief. The vocal minority.

The late biologist, historian and science populariser, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the term Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which referred to his philosophy on science and religion, developed during his many dealings with Young Earth Creationists of which he says:

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history — a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Young Earth Creationism is clearly the lunatic fringe by anyone’s rational measure, but there are other forms of Creationism that can’t be dismissed as easily, so tend to fall into the same category as whether there is a god(s).

Gould’s view was that religion and science are two realms that are logical and ethically unable to comment on one another, in the same way that a food chemist is unqualified to comment on matters of architecture. It seems to be a form of cognitive dissonance, separating faith from the world around us in a positive context. The inference being that it’s possible to believe in a god and be a scientist, and never have the two concepts collide in your own head.

I have a good friend who is a PhD scientist and a devout Wiccan: cognitive dissonance and NOMA allow both of those things to exist in her head without clashing. Of course I hope she understands what I’m trying to convey here, and doesn’t take offence! :)

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