Agnosticism and Atheism – Steven Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould


The best definition that I have found of agnosticism and atheism is this: “An agnostic is one who believes it impossible to know anything about God or about the creation of the universe and refrains from commitment to any religious doctrine. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a deity or of divine beings.” This post focuses on Stephen Jay Gould and shows, I believe, that personal atheism and scientific agnosticism are compatible. In other words, his personal belief was that God does not exist; his scientific position was that the question of God’s existence cannot be answered by science. The first statement is about himself, and the second statement is about science. The distinction is important. When someone says that a certain scientist is an atheist, it is often incorrectly understood to mean that science is atheistic. Mr. Gould’s position on the question is an example of that.


Stephen Jay Gould is best known scientifically by his notions of “non-overlapping magesteria” (NOMA) and “punctuated equilibrium”. It’s not my purpose to discuss the findings of science here – those interested can google the two phrases in the quotes if interested. My purpose is to present what he himself says about what he believes. In the words of Mr Gould himself, “…the primary rule of intellectual life: when puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents – a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.” (1) So I will quote his own words, rather than what someone else says.


He has written this concise statement about scientific agnosticism:
“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action). Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example). Forget philosophy for a moment; the simple empirics of the past hundred years should suffice. Darwin himself was agnostic (having lost his religious beliefs upon the tragic death of his favorite daughter), but the great American botanist Asa Gray, who favored natural selection and wrote a book entitled Darwiniana, was a devout Christian. Move forward 50 years: Charles D. Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossils, was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes. Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation: G. G. Simpson was a humanist agnostic. Theodosius Dobzhansky a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs — and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.” (2)


Along the same lines, he has also said, about a statement by Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical titled Humani Generis, that he “knew that the main thrust of his message was that Catholics could believe whatever science determined about the evolution of the human body, so long as they accepted that, at some time of [God’s] choosing, God had infused the soul into such a creature. I also knew that I had no problem with this statement, for whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.” (1)


He continues his article with a review of NOMA, saying that how the universe works is the magisterium (teaching authority) of science; moral questions and questions of ultimate meaning are in the magesteria of religion. He acknowledges that the borders of these two magisteria are not always clearly defined, and can bump into each other. Such is the case with the science of evolution. There have been excesses on both sides (he acknowledges that some of his fellow scientists have crossed the border), creating conflict where there doesn’t have to be one.


Concerning his own beliefs, he says: “I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me,…” (1)
“I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magesteria – the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This natural humility has important consequences in a world of such diverse passions.” (1)


Concerning the existence of the soul, he writes “…I know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain [science].” (1)
And finally, “Here, I believe, likes the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, …[it] permits – indeed, enjoins – the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magesteria toward the common goal of wisdom.” (1)


The important takeaways for me are that Mr Gould is not, as he is sometimes portrayed, a flaming atheist out to destroy religion. Even more importantly, he recognizes the limitations of science and rejects the notion that science can somehow prove/disprove the existence of God. Although he is personally not a believer, he is very careful to differentiate his beliefs as a person from the conclusions of science. Scientists are allowed to have their own beliefs on the question of God and all that that implies, but those personal beliefs must not be taken as a statement about science.



(1) “Nonoverlapping Magesteria”, published in the journal “Natural History”, March 1997, reproduced in the book “An Evolving Dialogue: Theological and Scientific Perspectives On Evolution”, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trinity Press International, 1991.


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Mike Moum
Author: Mike Moum

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