The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Dawkins gets science and religion wrong. In other news, man bites dog.


I know, I know. Pointing out that Richard Dawkins bungles the relationship between science and religion is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Next to getting confused about what arguments for religious belief actually say, he has built the latter part of his career on the practice of being wrong about the relationship between religion and science. Still, it’s worth noting the occasions where he does this if only for the purpose of serving as a voice of reason against the choir of adoring Dawkinites.

The late Steven Jay Gould described the relationship between religion and science with the acronym NOMA: Non-overlapping magisteria. They are completely separate fields. Science investigates purely natural phenomena, and religion asks – well, religious questions; questions about theology, about God, about questions about subject matter that’s not part of “nature.” I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with Gould, just setting the scene, as Dawkins’ comments are given as his reason for rejecting NOMA. He has to reject it, of course. Richard Dawkins holds a view that is sometimes derisively called “scientism,” the belief that science is the proper way to investigate all questions of fact. If it’s a fact, then it’s something for science to investigate.

Now, here’s what Dawkins has to say about NOMA:

To see the disingenuous hypocrisy of religious people who embrace NOMA, imagine that forensic archeologists, by some unlikely set of circumstances, discovered DNA evidence demonstrating that Jesus was born of a virgin mother and had no father. If NOMA enthusiasts were sincere, they should dismiss the archeologists’ DNA out of hand: “Irrelevant. Scientific evidence has no bearing on theological questions. Wrong magisterium.” Does anyone seriously imagine that they would say anything remotely like that? You can bet your boots that not just the fundamentalists but every professor of theology and every bishop in the land would trumpet the archeological evidence to the skies.
Either Jesus had a father or he didn’t. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it.

Whether you’re a theist or an atheist, this should make you cringe.

Of course a proponent of NOMA would accept scientific evidence that Jesus was born of a virgin and had no father. Why wouldn’t she? This is not a religious claim in the sense that NOMA is concerned with, because it establishes a natural state of affairs. Women, unborn children, absence of fathers – these are all objects or states of affairs that exist in the natural universe that could, in principle, be discovered by natural investigation.

Discovering this state of affairs (that a woman gave birth while she was a virgin and without a human father involved) is just that: discovering a state of affairs. This is not an explanation for how this state of affairs came about. The same is true of the resurrection of Jesus. People like Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig who defend the resurrection of Jesus claim that there is evidence for certain historical facts: The existence of Jesus of Nazareth, his crucifixion, his death and burial, the empty tomb, the subsequent belief on the part of his followers that they had encountered him alive again, and their testimony and willingness to suffer for this belief. It’s clear at once that these are all states of affairs in the physical universe, and there is no reason at all why a proponent of NOMA would not accept evidence for those states of affairs.

What a proponent of NOMA would say is that scientific methods can only discover that these states of affairs were real – or at least likely to be real. Such methods cannot, a proponent of NOMA would maintain, claim that the physical sciences have shown that the explanation is divine. And they are right. Dawkins has confused the physical circumstances in need of an explanation with the explanation itself, which is a basic category error.

Glenn Peoples


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Deal Breakers and Christian Essentials


  1. Richard P

    Ken is going to come down hard on you here, Glenno. Be prepared for an epic, multi-comment argument that goes on for days.

  2. Ricko: You forgot to mention “which tries as hard as possible to talk about everything except the subject of the blog post because he knows it’s correct.”

  3. Richard P

    It is going to happen.

  4. Maybe not. He has been pretty scarce of late. He could be retiring from blogging. Besides, maybe he will see the point I’m making.

  5. I certainly feel that the border between religion and science gets a bit fuzzier than most people would like it to be. Though it seems correct that a virgin birth -though so obviously loaded with religious meaning in this context- does not necessarily imply “God did it!” right away.

  6. Richard Wilde

    Aren’t you then kind of defining the clash between science and religion away by defining religion as the unfalsifiable? If that’s all that’s left of religion then of course it can’t clash with science. It just seems to be a matter of what religion is taken to mean by the different writers. Seems to be a pretty mediocre attack on Dawkins then. And where did Dawkins claim to be a scientism-ist?

  7. Richard, I haven’t defined religion as anything. What I’ve done is explain that those who ascribe to NOMA (like Gould) would not ignore evidence for a virgin birth. If you think Dawkins’ incorrct claim was justa trivial one and therefore rebutting it is mediocre, meh, each to his own.

    I didn’t create the NOMA idea so I haven’t done any defining at all (I therefore couldn’t have defined religion in the way that you suggest). Nor for that matter do I think that “falsifiable via the physical sciences” means the same thing as “unfalsifiable.” Nor, again, am I really sure how much non-falsifiability would establish, even if a belief weren’t falsifiable (not that I am saying religious beliefs are).

  8. I Am I Said

    Gould was wrong. NOMA is a bullshit argument.

    Yes, there are areas where religion and science overlap, but in everyone of those, science comes out the winner, religion retreats further in to the god(s) of the gap(s).

  9. NOMA isn’t an argument, it’s a position. And I think at this stage that rather short and curt dismissal is rather less than sufficient.

    Also please read the blog policy before posting.

  10. That’s funny. 200 years ago William Paley wrote Natural Theology. People who never read him consider him overthrown by subsequent theories, however the more we learn about the natural world, the more like a series of watches the world seems.

    Other writers have even acknowledged that nature looks there was a watchmaker, they just assert that it was a blind watchmaker (much like an invisible pink uniform).

    I don’t think NOMA is a valid concept, but it certainly doesn’t require religion to retreat on anything.

    Science is not the only philosophy that has falsification as a criteria (and looking at some things like the multiverse as a concept suggests that science fetishists don’t believe in falsification either, of all the possible universes that exist this happens to be the one where I’m dealt five royal flushes in a row to clean you out) and the Christian religion has one historical claim at its heart that could have falsified the religion at its onset. “If Christ be not raised, our faith is in vain” as Paul put it.

  11. there are areas where religion and science overlap, but in everyone of those, science comes out the winner, religion retreats further in to the god(s) of the gap(s).

    Right, so for example when science held that universe had no beginning but had always been and religion said the opposite. Science won.

    When science suggested people could not write at the time of Moses, and Theologians suggested they could science won?

    When, Theologians criticised science in the 14th century, arguing that scientific claims that it was impossible for the earth to move were false and there were defensible cosmological models where the earth moved and the sun stood still. science won?

    Try learning some historical facts before you shout silly slogans.

  12. Drew Smith

    Thanks for sending me a definition of theological voluntarism the other night. Did you find any of the rest of the essay helpful? regards to your post here, I definitely think Gould was on to something when he suggested NOMA, but I am still somewhat cautious. Have you ever read the book Rationality and Science: Can Science Explain Everything by Roger Trigg? Very good book. I’ve also been thinking a lot about which worldview provides a better theological/philosophical FOUNDATION for science as opposed to demarcating what science can and cannot speak to. Science may be able to speak to issues later where we once thought it could not. This does not mean that science would necessarily speak exhaustively, but perhaps play a role in our future understanding, maybe in theological questions.

    What say you about potentially shifting the discussion from demarcation to foundation (which is ultimately philosophical/theological? Do you think that could be a helpful distinction? One book that I have my eye in this vain can be found here:

    Thanks for the post!

  13. Dawkins is well on his way to that top spot of high priest of scientism. No doubt. Can’t wait to see what the mitre will look like.

  14. Ken

    Somebody raking my name in vain again?

    I have actually written several times on NOMA – most recently at Overlapping Magisteria?.

    As you can see – I am agin it – just like the current pope.

  15. Ken

    Sorry raking = taking

  16. I’m chuckling to myself here. I saw that Ken had commented and I said to myself: “My prediction is that he won’t really say anything, but will post a link to his blog.”

    I make no comment as to whether or not this is a pattern. However, in posting a comment here Ken has asserted that it comforms to the Blog Policy. Part of that policy is:

    Do not use my blog as a venue to promote/advertise your website/products. I generally frown on the practice of posting a comment that just says something like “Hey I like your post. come to my website [insert link here] to discuss it.”

    Please take note for future reference, Ken, that just below the comment box is a stipulation that you are agreeing to abide by the Blog Policy when you comment here.


  17. Ken

    So Glenn comments and doesn’t really say anything!

    What a waste of time.

  18. Sorry ken, while you were commenting again I was adding to me comment – looks like we were online at the same time. But I definitely did say something. I said something about my expectations for commenters here, and I wanted to make this clearer, hence expanding on it. Remember that you’re at someone else’s blog. I pay for it, and I don’t do that so that other people can get free advertising.

    Also (just in case you decide to try to turn this thread into a discussion about my Blog Policy), if you do have an issue with the blog policy, you can contact me directly about it.

  19. Ken

    Get back in your tree Glenn.

    Both you and Richard P had childish, and quite unprovoked, little goes at me (first 4 comments here).

    I am just letting you know that the subject interests me (has for a time), I am writing on it, and the pope has just declared himself a physicist (or is he revert to the admonishments of the Galileo sentence) or has thrown away the NOMA that Pope Pius had advocated (and also threw away in the same article.

    It’s amazing how NOMA tends to be an acronym for hypocrisy.

    Its amazing how people advocating NOMA can’t even stick by their own rules.

    Bit silly modifying comments after the email had gone out – but I am not interested in getting into that childish sideline. There are substantive issues of far more ionterest.

  20. Ken, with all due respect, I doubt that your feelings were hurt by Richard’s comments or my responses to them. And even if your feelings were hurt, that doesn’t give you the right to ignore the blog policy and advertise without saying anything.

    Pull your head in and get over yourself. It is fine for you to say something about the subject. But your drive by link-dropping is specifically against blog policy. As a mature man I know it sucks to be told what you can and can’t do. But those are the rules. I don’t care if you never comment here, but if you do, you will follow the rules or your posts will be moderated. Nothing to do with your beliefs. Everything to do with your inability to read rules or follow them. I do not welcome your protests about the blog rules. They will not change. If you simply whine about those in your next post, I’ll just delete it. let’s have some actual discussion rather than advertising or complaining.

    Getting back on track (sorry to get all heavy, but some people can’t listen or follow instructions – I have children as well as unruly blog visitors!)….

    You say that there are “substantive issues of far more ionterest.” Great. You’re welcome to discuss those here. Perhaps you’ll decide to share some of your thoughts.

    UPDATE: As a precautionary measure, Ken, your comments are now being moderated. You have nothing to worry about, as long as you heave read the Blog Policy and you follow it. The same rules apply to all, but your history of not following them (including: Specific accusations of lying, advertising/spam, profanity, intentional off-topic trolling and actual libel) has necessitated this step.

  21. Ken

    What do commenters think about pope Benny’s new self professed skills in physics and cosmology? I am waiting for his new book “The Grandest Design”. Wonder how he will rank compared with the best seller by Hawking?

    Mind you it will be interesting to see if the history of science section deals with the Galileo disgrace and his gang’s policy on NOMA.

  22. CPE Gaebler

    Hahaha, a believer in the Galileo disgrace. Good one! Next tell me the one about how the Flat-Earther Church told Columbus he’d sail off the edge.

    Well, no, I should give you some benefit of the doubt and say that maybe, just maybe, you think that the “disgrace” in the whole affair was in Galileo’s insistence that people take heliocentrism as physical fact AND accept his according revision of theology without sufficient physical proof.

  23. “I am just letting you know that the subject interests me (has for a time), I am writing on it, and the pope has just declared himself a physicist (or is he revert to the admonishments of the Galileo sentence) or has thrown away the NOMA that Pope Pius had advocated (and also threw away in the same article.”

    Ken, perhaps Physicists should stop trying to be Theologians and Philosophers.

  24. Ken

    Hahaha, CPE, another one duped by militant Christian attempts to rewrite history.

    This rewriting is similar to those who attempt to excuse Stalin for his terror.

    But of course the documents are all there. Galileo was sentenced for daring to believe something not ordained by the Church (similar to the current ruling from Bennie). And the church finally apologized after 400 years admitting their crimes. The CPSU was able to apologize for Stalin’s crimes within decades. That’s progress I guess.

    Mind you there are still theological idiots who proclaim Galileo was wrong. They even try to enlist Einstein in their little fantasies.

    No wonder there is a conflict between science and religion! Poor old Bennie – trying to distract us from the evils perpetrated by his gang.

  25. Ken, I know you don’t like “militant” Christian attempts to rewrite history, so you mightn’t like this – it’s published by those notoriously militant fundamentalists at Harvard University Press.

    Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

    I know, wacko ignorant fundie publishers and all that. But try to look past it.

  26. Ken

    Yes, Glenn, I was well aware of Ron Numbers’ book.

    That’s the thing isn’t it. There are a range of myths about the Galileo affair and because of the 400th anniversary of his revolutionary astronomical discoveries there are plenty of books currently being published and written . And we sitll have a number of years to go to the anniversary of his sentencing by the inquisition.

    But there are a lot of documents which enable us to clarify many of those myths – and which also enable us to counter the modern revival of religious myths and attempts to rewrite history by Christian militants.

    Bugger me – we can actually read what Galileo wrote himself. We don’t have to rely on the versions promoted by the militants.

    I did provide some links on Matt’s blog to the book of Galileo’s for which he was sentenced (and which the church banned for 200 years. Also to documents including his sentence by the inquisition. I could also provide them here if anyone is interested. (The book is actually quite an easy read).

    It’s understandable that Galileo would be a central issue in the current science-religion conflict. He is an important personality in the revitalization if evidence based science. Most people look up to him but religious militants are obviously trying to denigrate him and his contribution. Which was immense.

  27. Indeed there are a range of myths about it.

    Heck, some people even think that Galileo went to jail for siding with science over religion!

    Yep, myths everywhere. It’s a shame that “militants” like Ron Numbers try to suggest otherwise, and that conspiracy mills like Harvard have the audacity to put it out there.

    Anyway Ken, to get back on track (something I frequently have to do with you) what do you make of Dawkins’ mishandling of NOMA?

  28. Ken

    Glenn, have you read Numbers’ book?

  29. Ken

    Re NOMA I agree completely with Dawkins – NOMA is a sham. I have explained my attitude in my article linked above – and previous articles. This was one of Gould’s biggest mistakes. And actually very patronizing to religion in practice. Better to fight these things out honestly.

  30. Ken, while I haven’t read Ron’s book, I can get away with affirming it because I met Ron when he came down to Otago Uni to discuss the book, and so I got to hear his take on the matter from the horse’s mouth.

    As for Dawkins’ unfortunate mistake regarding NOMA, the issue is not people’s character (ie. whether they are honest), so I won’t join you in character assessment, Ken. The issue – or at least the issue on this blog entry, is whether or not Dawkins was correct in his understanding of how NOMA plays out in practice. Specifically, he used the example of the virgin birth, and I gave a fairly well explained account of why his example fails.

    Other than your own general feelings about NOMA, do you have any thoughts on that example raised in this blog post and my explanation of how it fails, Ken?

  31. Ken

    Oh dear, I am noticing a trend here. The inquisition banned Gallileo’s book, pope Bennie tells physicists what to say about their science (really what not to say) and Glenn Peoples censors his little blog by removing comments that embarres him. Big fish in small pond complex.

    I guess that’s the religious interpretation of NOMA. Says it all, really.

    No skin off my nose – I am not the one choosing to live in an intellectual ghetto.

  32. Ken, I have not removed any of your comments from this blog, so I’d appreciate it if you stopped making up stories.

    Yesterday I chose not to publish a comment from you that included private correspondence. Remember, I am moderating your comments because you have such a marked history of violating blog policy while stating (by posting) that you have agreed to comply with it. In future if you have concerns about moderation, please feel free to contact me directly. As it stands, the above comment is off topic trolling, which is specifically disallowed by the blog policy. I welcome substantive comments on the subject at hand, but this isn’t your personal forum to vent your feelings about whatever happens to be troubling you. Write a letter to a newspaper editor or an agony column if that’s what you want. Thanks.

    However – trying yet again to drag you back on track (what a mission!): What is extremely telling is that you wrote the above sidetrack in reply to my question about whether or not you actually have anything to say about this blog entry and the specific criticisms I raised about Dawkins and what he said about NOMA. Very telling. I take it that’s a “no, but I don’t want to say so.”

  33. Glenn there is a real pattern of evasion here.

    You wrote a post on Dawkins and his understanding of NOMA.

    Ken responded by changing the subject to wether Dawkins was an honest man.

    You pointed out this was not the topic.

    Ken then changed the subject again trying to argue for the conflict thesis on the basis of his claim ( repeated on MandM) that the Galileo was incarcerated for siding with science over religion.

    Someone suggested this was a myth

    Ken responded again not by rebutting this but by attacking the character of those who thought otherwise as “religious militants”

    You then pointed out it was not religious militants but mainstream historians, published by mainstream publishing houses.

    Ken then changed the subject to wether you have read Numbers

    You pointed out the assumption you hadn’t was adequately meet by the fact you had heard Numbers lecture on the subject and the discussion at OU by mainstream historians over the issue.

    Ken then ignored this and repeated the assertion that your reference to Numbers et al had rebutted,.

    Ken clearly wants to change the subject whenever something he agrees with is challenged and engage in an ad hominen attacks on people. When this is called he changes the subject again, is proved mistaken again and then circles back to the original claim repeating it, hoping perhaps that people will have forgotten the context.

    All this is clearly fallicous and evasive.

  34. Oh, I think evasive is the bottom line, Matt. Ken wants us to know that he likes Dawkins, disagrees with NOMA (and has a blog that we should all visit), thinks religious types are the devil etc, but whenever he is asked a simple, direct question about specific issues (like the issues raised in this blog entry, issues that I’ve specifically asked Ken about a couple of times now, he exerts a remarkable effort not to answer!

    Seriously, it’s like getting blood from a stone.

  35. Richard P

    Looks like what I said in my first comment was spot on.

  36. Ken

    Matt, I am happy to discuss this issue with you on a serious forum where comments are not arbitrarily removed and censored. If you have an issue with NOMA I suggest my post (linked above) “Overlapping Magisteria.” or on your blog where you know from experience I never evade issues. Quite the opposite.

    The discussion here started as a joke (see the first 4 comments), Glenn can’t stand my participation in the joke so he prevents my comments. Obviously serious discussion is out of the question here. It would be a waste of time and efficiency me to attempt comments which are removed on this manner.

    Glenn and Richard P are welcome to participate – but please, be serious Richard. You don’t seem to be able to contribute anything but snide remarks here.

    So, Matt, see you elsewhere.

  37. The discussion started here as a blog entry. It progressed into Ken talking about a range of other things, but no matter how many times I asked, Ken, you have refused to actually show your hand and comment on the specific issues raised in the blog entry.

    As you know (but are pretending not to) I haven’t removed a single comment. You submitted a comment which did nothing but reproduce my personal correspondence to you where I pointed out that you needed to take the blog policy seriously if you were going to post here as your post contained personal abuse directed at me (calling me an idiot), and you replied to that personal correspondence here at the blog, telling me that I should not be so serious and that I should actually lighten up and treat this as a joke. No substance. Nothing on topic, and I had already told you clearly that I was not going to discuss the blog policy further with you at the blog, because it distracts from the actual issues being discussed. For that reason, I did not publish that comment. You’re making up stories when you say that I “arbitrarily” did anything. I removed no comments. I chose not to publish a comment that was inappropiate. I know, being told to follow standards is a real ego killer. I don’t care if you never post here, but if you do then I expect you to act like an adult and follow basic rules of civility. I have never had to automatically send another person’s comments to moderationKen, you’re the first. That should tell you something (hint: And it aint because you’re the first to disagree with me)

    Now in public you say the opposite – that I should actually NOT lighten up, and that I should discuss the issue seriously or not at all. And yet, Ken, I have asked you a couple of times for your specific comment on the points I raised in this blog, and you are responding with stony silence. You have had nothing at all to say. And now you offer Matt some elusive promise about being able to do so elsewhere. Somehow I doubt that, Ken.

    Just incredible. Ah well, you can lead a mind to information but you can’t make it think.

  38. Richard P: Ken may be annoyed by the fact that he was so predictable, but yes, your first comment was indeed spot on.

  39. Richard P

    Ken should not have called Glenno an idiot. So far in the past couple of weeks Glenno has been called a liberal and he does not need further mean comments about him.

  40. Philoponus

    Hello Glenn,
    did you get a chance to see the conference that both William Lane Craig and Dawkins were at?

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