Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould. Library of Contemporary Thought, 241 pp., $18.95 and The Secular Mind by Robert Coles. Princeton Univ. Press, 189 pp., $19.95.
May 30, 1999        

A thousand years ago, the existence of a supernatural being or beings who intervened frequently and unpredictably in nature and human affairs was as obvious to most people on earth as the wetness of water or the fieriness of fire. It was overwhelmingly the most plausible explanation for the way things are – in fact, it was pretty much the only available explanation. The Greeks were temporarily forgotten; in any case, few people except monks could read or had leisure to think. The existence of God was less a proposition than a premise, a given. There were simply no competing hypotheses.

What a difference a millennium makes. Theism is now on the defensive among the educated; and in every generation the proportion of the educated increases. True, the chief enemies of the spirit, among the educated and uneducated alike, are still the world, the flesh, and the devil; or, in their current incarnation, television, video games, designer clothes, gourmet dining, and SUVs. But the weakness of the flesh is always with us and is therefore less noteworthy than the changed climate of opinion. God and Nietzsche have declared each other dead; enthroned in judgment, adjudicating their rival claims, sits our august and impartial deity, Science.

This tremendous change has engrossed the wisest minds from Pascal to the present. Two contemporary wise men, Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Coles, here offer brief meditations on the subject from their distinctive angles. Gould, a scarred and decorated veteran of the evolution-creationism wars, has thought deeply about the right relation between science and religion. Robert Coles, our spiritual Studs Terkel, has listened to a great variety of adults and children, looked into their souls, and reproduced their voices in his books; he now informally canvasses our literary and philosophical tradition for clues to ultimate meaning or the absence thereof. Both books are modest in scale and ambition, and neither is a stylistic tour de force, but both are useful.

Rocks of Ages proposes a “blessedly simple and entirely conventional” solution to the troubles between science and religion. They should both mind their own business. Actually, that’s my formulation; Gould’s less blessedly simple one is “NOMA,” short for the principle of “non-overlapping magisteria.” Religion and science each has its proper domain or “magisterium,” with different problems and methods. “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” Keep “is” and “ought” distinct – aware of each other and interacting in complex ways, but autonomous. Believers must resist the perennial temptation to ignore or fudge inconvenient facts; scientists must resist the historically newer but equally dangerous temptation to pretend that their professional prestige entitles them to moral authority.

“Restraint” is too pale a name for this attitude. It requires robust virtues: patience, disinterestedness, humility, fearless honesty. These virtues have been sadly uncommon in modern history, from Galileo, the Syllabus of Errors, and the Scopes trial to Social Darwinism, nuclear-weapons policy, and everyday (pre-HMO) medical and psychiatric arrogance. But the principle, as Gould points out, is now uncontroversial. It rests on “a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike,” illustrated here by eloquent statements from scientific statesmen like Thomas Huxley and J. S. Haldane and from Popes Pius XII and John Paul II.

As is often the case in Gould’s writing, the real nuggets are found in the illustrations and digressions. There’s a fascinating section on how pre-World War I German militarism misappropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It was partly in reaction to this that William Jennings Bryan sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution, as Gould shows in a sympathetic exploration of Bryan’s motives. Magnanimously, Gould acquits the medieval Church of prescribing flat-earthism, demonstrating that this supposedly classic instance of religious-scientific conflict is largely a myth. And there are the usual colorful – sometimes grisly – details from natural history. (Sensitive readers are advised to skip the section on the reproductive behavior of ichneumonid wasps.)

Robert Coles’s The Secular Mind is more diffuse and tentative than Rocks of Ages. The two authors and Harvard colleagues make a striking contrast: the once-born (in William James’s terms), cheerfully agnostic scientist and the twice-born, wistful, not-quite-believing humanist. Gould’s exposition plows forward, his voice hearty and jovial; Coles meanders and mumbles. But “The Secular Mind” is a fruitful, even if frequently exasperating, ramble.

Forty years ago, while a psychiatric resident, Coles sat in on a course with the famous theologian Paul Tillich, who frequently alluded to the “secular mind.” This set Coles brooding, as did his encounters somewhat later with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. What is the relation between the sacred and the secular? Are they enemies, intimates, aloof or cordial acquaintances? Is their relation fixed or changeable? Is there a right balance for our time?

Coles pursues these questions through a number of familiar texts: Pascal’s Pensees; Middlemarch, Jude the Obscure, and George Meredith’s The Egoist; the poetry of Meredith, Hardy, and William Carlos Williams; Flannery O’Connor’s stories; Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. Even more interesting are his accounts of remembered conversations with the great and the ordinary: Tillich, Day, Williams, Anna Freud, Karen Horney, Walker Percy, and several less famous folks.

What does it add up to? Nothing definite; just a grimace, an anxious gesture, a kindly caution. “For you secularists there is always possibility; that is, your faith in the mind’s Promethean exertions and their subsequent achievements. For us, in contrast, who are secularists as well, but who strive toward the sacred, check in with it, so to speak, constantly and urgently, slouching (rather than striding) toward Jerusalem … there is only so much possibility, because there is, as well, a certain bedrock finality to who we are, to what we seek and contend with. … We leap ahead, yes, of course, but we also return to certain inevitable and fundamental qualities, situations: love and its discontents, including self-love … the various psychological and moral and social vulnerabilities of this life … and, finally, the knowledge that somehow, someway, sometime, no matter the other knowledge that has held it at bay, death will bring us to the end of this stay. That knowledge, our awareness of death, goes to the heart of our unyielding (you abhor the word, I know) humanity: an existentialism that is finally, in certain important respects, unalterable in its character, our illusions notwithstanding.” This is not elegant prose – at times, indeed, it sets one’s teeth on edge. But it’s good that someone whisper these things in our ear.

What most humans will believe in 3000 – assuming there are still entities around who answer to that description – is unfathomable; it is humbling even to think of it. My guess is that, whatever else they may think, they’ll think that, on the whole, Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Coles gave the readers of these books pretty good advice way back in fearfully benighted 1999.