In Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life Stephen Jay Gould proposes that the conflict between science and religion could be healed by adopting the concept that they are “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). The prior is concerned with facts and the latter, values.

There seems to be a number of issues with this regarding secular ethics, cosmological constraints on science and pairing back of organised religions purview. These issues stem from religion being incorrectly identified as a magisterium in its own right rather than being a sub-sect of art.

What Is Art?

Aestheticians have toyed with beauty, the sublime, inspiration, presentation and expression to answer the question “what is art?” There is no singular classification and as soon as we approach one, artists create work outside that defies definition. Art’s lack of one true meaning is a double edged sword. Open to interpretation, it allows us to turn our nose up at what we deem the ugly, unskilled, or unworthy as “not art” whilst at the same time allowing new genres, mediums and methods to joins the ranks of that which is art. Religion displays a lot of the same qualities of “what is art” that is explored in dealing with the failures of Gould’s NOMA.

The first problem with NOMA is that if religion is concerned with values, ethics become unavailable to the non-believer. What is Holy is, therefore, good, will not suffice for an empiricist as it rests on the proposition that God must exist.

Art meanwhile, is concerned with the moral, but claims no right to “facts”. Myths, fables, novels and screenplays have all explored morality without claiming certainties. It provides examples of good behaviour that can be questioned or exist in a fallible persona.


Lessons From Superman

Take Superman (clichéd I know, but still useful). Beyond his otherworldly origins and miraculous abilities, his defining feature is that he always does what’s right. There are certain contradictions in the Superman’s behaviour over the years, but his core morality and the lesson that it teaches us tends to remain the same. Superman represents “the never-ending battle for truth and justice” which is a fine moral philosophy without demanding a belief in Krypton or Jor-EL. The “American Way” got added somewhere along the line, but as I said art can be questioned, this inconsistency or lack of agreement on what “American Way” means offers no real problem because of Superman’s artistic nature. The same would be said of the literary Moses, Jesus and Muhammad but not of their scriptural alter-egos. They must maintain doctrinal consistency to support their claims of infallibility.

The second problem for NOMA that I mention was the cosmological constraints. Simply put, the religious magisterium makes claims about morals on what it believes to be true claims about the nature of the universe, most obviously, that there is a God, but there are many others depending on one’s particular faith.

Art Claims No Facts

As noted earlier art claims no facts but it does claim truth. The distinction we want to make here is that a fact is the measuring and quantifying of an occurrence. Truth in the artistic sense, the sense that religion would adopt if re-designated, is what these occurrences, fact or fiction, means to humanity. This truth is an expression of humanity’s place in the universe. For example, it is only a fact that a nebula is a cloud of dust in space. It is not a fact this is beautiful or inspiring, it is true, however. The truth of art doesn’t impede the magisterium of science and doesn’t overlap with fact.

The Art Form of Religion

For the art form of religion, God’s existence may not be a fact (it’s yet to be successfully proven or disproven), but He is a truth. Religion as an art still holds God in a relationship with Man that instructs and guides us and holds us accountable for our actions. It’s a difficult concept to hold but by looking at the final problem with NOMA we might be able to clear things up.

For NOMA to function, that is, to placate the dispute between religion and science, it requires organised religion to concern itself only with the moral, something which seems both impractical in the application and impossible in the academic as religion is concerned with all aspects of life.

Religion Was Our First Attempt at Literature

Art is concerned with all aspects of life also without clashing quite as violently with science as religion has. The confusion, I believe, stems from history. In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens,

Religion is part of the human make-up. It’s also part of our cultural and intellectual history. Religion was our first attempt at literature, the texts, our first attempt at cosmology, making sense of where we are in the universe, our first attempt at health care, believing in faith healing, our first attempt at philosophy.”

Primitive Man saw the sun and made it a god. This is the forming of the magisterium, science and art, and it is the birth of religion. Early man, mistakenly identified cause and effects (science) in the world around him and created a supernatural agency (art). The crops may have failed because the rain wasn’t provided by the gods, but Man told himself a story to make sense of it. “I have misbehaved and acted in a way the gods do not like, so they have cursed me with drought.” Man created a pantheon of characters with needs and personalities. God’s existence, unsubstantiated either way, is still an undeniable and true expression of humanity.


Hitchens regarded religion as the “first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality”. Far be it from me to re-write The Hitch but I think this works better with “conscious attempt”. Man’s artistic expression seems to have come in the first instance and been followed by codified religion. Rather than being divinely inspired, man was inspired to create the divine. Still unsure of which tool to best examine his world and express his place in it, Man confused the two and created a third tool.

Religion Is an Artistic Creation

Religion is an artistic creation, but one that has had such an impact on human existence, it has had to be refined through philosophy, ethics and sense to maintain its continuity. Its scriptures are morality plays. Its rituals are sympathetic and symbolic performance pieces all in search of truth. The mistake is in thinking that the search for this truth also reveals facts. Religion, from this perspective, is the broadest, most elaborate and most influential art movement in human history.

Science is the expression of the universe, constant functions that act as laws. Art is human expressions. Religion, the supernatural and the occult seem to be caught in between as they want to explain both. But if we pull facts away from religion, what we have should fall into the category of art. There is seemingly no reason to hold it as a separate magisterium otherwise. Once religion lets go of the quantifiable world of science there are no examples of it performing a societal, personal, ethical or philosophy function that the many branches of art haven’t or can’t perform. This is not to undermine how well religion has performed these functions, only to say that they aren’t unique. In the words of writer and practising magician Alan Moore,

I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.”

Moore makes an excellent point. The language we use to describe art is so similar to the language we use in describing the religious that it seems undeniable that we are experiencing the same qualia and effects under different names. But we can extend this from the personal to the cultural by scaling the argument up from singular pieces to entire movements.

Obviously, for believers, this approach may be unwelcome because it essentially agrees with the atheistic assertion that religious cosmologies and supernatural events are false or rather, not facts. But outside of religion, this approach may be helpful in reassessing religion, perhaps offering a consideration for capital-A Atheists and Anti-theists. Like artistic movements of the past, we can apply Sturgeon’s law and find the good qualities of the religious method and meaning, and abstract it, preserving and promoting its original artistic qualities.

The opinions in The Freethink Tank’s Opinion category are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.