This book sets out a case for the notion of "non overlapping magisteria" or NOMA, to insist that religion should stay out of science, science stay out of religion, but both engage in constructive interactions. There is no reason not to give full respect to both, each in their proper domain or "magisterium." He emphasises the folly of religion getting trapped into making factual claims that can be disproved by science. He also makes an interesting case that scientists get into trouble when they think they are competent to make claims about matters in the domain of religion. NOMA is not an easy option, he argues, but a discipline which both religious and scientific thinkers would do well to observe.
In support of this proposition, Gould supplies some interesting observations about the history of conflicts between science and religion. These remarks have the reasonable effect of challenging not only some of the stories used to disparage religion, but also some of the claims made by scientists and some of the political claims made in the name of science. I always enjoy revisionist history and the puncturing of well established myths. For example, he argues that Christians and the Catholic Church have never insisted that the world is flat.
His most interesting material (presumably because it is close to home) concerns the Creationist controversies in the USA. He gives helpful detail about the American court actions over teaching evolution and creationism in state schools. He stoutly defends Charles Darwin against uninformed and unfounded attacks. He helpfully clarifies the specific errors made by Creationists. However, he also performs a useful service by clarifying the thinking that motivated much of the hostility to teaching evolution in state schools early in the 20th Century, pointing out quite firmly some of the intolerable assertions included in American texts about race and heredity based on a perverse misreading of Darwin. Early 20th Century America was a deeply racist nation, strongly committed also to ideas of eugenics, and the "science" textbooks in question were poisoned by racist ideology; it was by no means illiberal to protest, even if the specific arguments used proved erroneous. This is not a defence of creationism (quite the opposite - it attacks it) but it is a defence of the people involved and their motives at the time. The teaching of "evolution" was open to serious moral objections unless its presentation was radically changed. [It would have helped had Gould pointed out the huge influence of Herbert Spencer's writing about evolution, which were very much at odds with Darwin's thinking despite the label of "Social Darwinism" which Wiki describes as "a politically motivated metaphysic very different in both form and motivation from Darwinist science"
; frequently, the ideas attacked by Americans when debating evolution are Spencer's and not Darwin's. The distinction is of major importance.]
Gould writes very well and has a big audience. What he has to say is interesting and thought provoking but I would suggest this book fails for the reason so much writing by scientists about religion fails, and that is the lack of philosophical training and the belief that common sense is an adequate substitute. Gould is a scientist breaking his own rule by trying to enter debate outside the "magisterium" of science without sufficient preparation.
If we are to debate the conflict of science and religion then we need some clarity about our definitions. He defines religion as follows: "I will .. construe as fundamentally religious (literally binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people."
(p62). Conversely, he argues that fundamentalists, and notably Creationists in the USA, are not motivated by religion but engaged in politics and should be confronted politically without that affecting our view of religion itself. This is a concept of religion that may appeal to many people but it is not a valid account of what religion is.
In general terms, he argues that all concern with ethics, the meaning of life, our purpose and motivation for living, belongs to the realm of religion primarily on the grounds that humans have historically always embraced such topics within a religious framework. I certainly agree that we must respect the history of ideas for what it is and not discard or disparage the thinking of our predecessors because they were primarily religious. Nor should we allow religious differences, including atheism, to permit a slide into advocating hatred and hostility on the grounds of religious belief. There is much for an atheist to admire and respect in most religions and in any case, it will be a cold day in hell before religion vanishes from our social world. So hostility to religion is not helpful. My problem is that, historically, humans have overwhelmingly considered matters of science in religious terms too, so this is not a coherent basis to separate what Gould calls religion and what Gould calls science. Probably everything has at some time been considered "religious".
Science, on the other hand, he seems to regard as the realm of "facts" or facticity, the state of affairs, the way things really are. Matters of fact must be determined through the methods of science and disputes adjudicated on scientific criteria. It is not acceptable that religion is used to evade the factual evidence of science. When this does happen, the use of religious argument is typically spurious and conceals a political agenda unrelated to religion. Conversely, it is not possible to make moral or ethical or existential claims based on the facts exposed by science. This is of course the age old gap between what is and what ought to be.
However, it is also a false dichotomy. In order to divide the universe of ideas into two camps, religion and science, arbitrary and unconvincing definitions have to be accepted. I do not accept the Positivist notion that science is restricted to making factual statements about the natural world and at a minimum I want recognition of the methods and findings of the social sciences. But however science is defined (and Gould does not define it as far as I can see) that does not entitle religion to claim the residue of rational (or even just human) thought, since there are so many other categories that can be deployed, including philosophy, politics and the humanities. I just cannot go along with the idea that ethics or aesthetics are religious and, for example, can cite Bishop Holloway arguing for "Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out of Ethics", or Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" as a serious and effective discussion that does not require an appeal to religion; neither book is anti religion.
I am happy to conclude that Gould has written an interesting book and provided some very constructive historical information that may correct a number of myths. I disagree with his main argument for many reasons but that is not a reason to ignore the contribution this book still does make to the wider debate. We need to hear from scientists and Gould writes better than most; we just don't have to suspend our critical faculties when they speak.