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The late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould. coined the term non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) to describe his position about the relation of science and religion. In this view, the two domains, or magisteria, are each authoritative for their particular area, and have little to contribute to the other. 

To quote a Wikipedia article on Gould, his view is “The non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) principle therefore divides the magisterium of science to cover “the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why it work in the way it does (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.” 

I give a weak assent to Gould’s NOMA as a general principle, but I think it can be criticized in many of its particulars. I think a better case can be made if we get more general, and define the two magisteria as the realm of intellect and the realm of will, and we don’t insist on “non-overlapping.”

People of intellect, which includes most scientists and scholars, place a very high value on the truth of ideas, which is to say that such ideas correlate with and can be verified against something in the “real” world. 

People of will, which includes many, but not all, religious people, and also people who are primarily doers rather than thinkers, value results, whether those results are the cultivation of virtue, achievement, or simply winning. 

People of will also value the intellect, but only to the degree that it aids their specific goal. They have little interest in theoretical knowledge and they certainly don’t see knowledge as an end in itself. Whereas people of the intellect often are very interested in theory and do in some circumstances see knowledge as an end in itself.(1)

Defined this way, there is clearly a third magisteria that needs to be mentioned, which is the domain of imagination and feeling. These are probably two separate domains, but they tend to be integrated in the realm of the arts, so I think of them as belonging together.(2)

One could argue that there are many other domains, but I think that other domains are largely hybrids of the three mentioned, which is to say that all human activity is based on intellect, will, emotion and imagination in some combination. For instance, a medical doctor has a strong allegiance to science and the intellect, but they are also very concerned with concrete results. Plus, many would argue that the best doctors bring an aspect of feeling and imagination into their work – that good medical practice is both science and art.

I am only a dilettante when it comes to philosophy, but in my readings of the early Greek philosophers, I have come to the conclusion that when they use the word “rational” they mean something different than do we in the modern world. To be rational, for a Greek thinker like Aristotle, is not only to be able to think clearly and cogently but also to be able to exercise a high degree of self control or self governance. For the Greeks, I believe, to be rational was to integrate thought and will in the conduct of one’s life.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle listed four cardinal virtues that a rational being sought to cultivate: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Temperance and fortitude in particular require the exercise of our will power. These two virtues are essential to good self governance. Prudence and justice require both thought and will. Justice, which in the individual means good judgment, in particular requires both self-discipline and critical thinking. 

How is this relevant to Spiritual Naturalism? That should be obvious from the two words that comprise the title. Most forms of spirituality, particularly those based on some form of mindfulness, require a strong sense of self governance and mental discipline. Naturalism, on the other hand, is the product of the effective workings of the human intellect. Thus spiritual naturalism integrates the two magisteria of will and intellect. It is an OMA, rather than a NOMA. And thus, I think the sense of rationality as understood by the ancient Greeks (including the Stoics) should be a high ideal of spiritual naturalism.(3)


  1. The word “will” has a variety of meaning, but as used here it means the ability to govern one’s life based on some form of principle, rather than our natural preference. Confusion about the word “will” arises because we sometimes use it as a synonym for “want.” Thus we speak of a “willful child” as one who has strong wants and fixates on getting what it wants.  These two senses of the word “will” are almost opposites. When we use the word “will” in its moral sense, we mean a kind of “power” that we possess through which we can resist our natural wants, so that we behave according to some moral ideal or principle. To the best of my knowledge, it was in the writings of Augustine that this sense of moral will, or what we commonly call “will power,” was developed.
  2. As a side note, in a mythic symbolism, the three realms are personified as the king, the queen and the vizier, or wizard. In this symbolism, the king is the will, the queen the realm of imagination and feeling, and the wizard the intellect. Such mythic symbolism might be seen as sexist by some, but I think it provides a simple way to imagine these three domains, and how we integrate them in our own lives.
  3. Although the title “Spiritual Naturalism” does not include any reference to the third domain, that of imagination and feeling, I think it is equally important. One of the challenges for spiritual naturalism is to find new ways of integrating this domain into its practices and beliefs.


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7 thoughts on “NOMA?”

  1. A good topic that SNS should certainly be exploring. Richard Dawkins objected to the division into two domains as he rightly pointed out that many religious and spiritual folk habitually make factual claims that belong to the scientific/theoretical/factual side and thereby stray across the boundary. I’m not sure re-drawing the boundary between fact and will helps much as people of action have to consider theoretical/factual issues if they want to achieve their ends. I find it is simpler to draw the boundary between art/feeling/imagination/creativity on the one side and science on the other. Religion and spirituality therefore are forms of imaginative art. They don’t tell us how the world IS but how it OUGHT to be.

    • I don’t agree that religion and spirituality are outcomes of the imagination. Spirituality as I practice it has nothing to do with the imagination. It is about getting to the reality of being, getting to what is most basic in all experience. While most religion is far more complex than that, I believe that such experience is what many people find in their religion.

      I think a division of human faculties among intellect, will, feeling and imagination is meaningful, though most of us live in some overlapping of all of them. Intentionality, which is the same as willfulness, is the primary faculty of my spirituality. Imagination and intellect work together in my creative efforts. My social life is largely based on feeling. I have no problem understanding what each of these terms mean.

      As far as giving science a privileged position, note that art has been a part of human experience since at least the earliest cave paintings, more than 40,000 years ago, and their is good reason to believe that religion has been part of human experience at least as long. Science as we know it has been a part of human experience for less that 400 years. So if we are going to designate privileged positions, I think I would give them to religion and art rather than science.

      • My position is that religion and spirituality are forms of art and I find that very liberating. We make it all up. That doesn’t mean that they are beyond critical examination. I would say we must use ethical and aesthetic criteria to evaluate the various competing views and claims. Personally, I don’t believe spiritual reality is something that is objectively ‘there’ to be perceived and discovered. It is something we create collectively through our storytelling. You, on the other hand, seem to imply that spiritual reality is objective and can be discovered, perhaps ‘seen’ directly as a result of engaging in certain practices. If I understand you correctly, it is not so much a question of building up a system or structure of beliefs as we do in science or art—fitting all the bits together like Lego bricks in a house. Rather you strip away the impediments to correct vision by use of spiritual exercises and ‘see’ the truth complete. Is that a fair account? If I have got you right, given the multiplicity of different visions of ultimate spiritual reality, how do you decide who is right and who is wrong? If spirituality is objectively real it must be possible to be mistaken about it (as from your POV, I presumably am!)

        • Rob, you’re interpretation of how I see spirituality is is quite good, but I certainly don’t see spirituality as “objectively real.” I see it as subjectively real. It is getting to subjectivity, awareness and the ability to focus awareness, at its purest — free of all ideas, emotions, striving — what in Zen is called the “original mind.” How does one judge the authenticity of such a thing? It’s like going to the North Pole. You keep moving until you are there, but once you are there, every movement is a movement away. So it is with this journey to pure subjectivity. You know when you have arrived, because there is no where else to go.

          But the North Pole is no place to stay and neither is pure spirituality. To spend even a little time at this “still point of the turning world” puts everything else in perspective. That perspective does have cognitive value. In a sense, pure subjectivity is a foundation for pure objectivity, for one should never forget that we only know this “objective world” as a representation in our mind, which is to say, through our subjectivity.

    • Don’t we all hold numerous unempirical beliefs? I believe tomorrow will come though I have no empirical experience of tomorrow. (Actually, we never experience tomorrow do we? It’s always a day away.)

      I see Gould’s NOMA as his showing respect to religion and the religious. While writers like Dawkins and Dennett emphasis the negative aspects of religion, those of us who also have experienced and understand the positive in religion and spirituality feel that such respect is properly shown.

  2. We can’t really escape from the fact that subjectivity is by definition personal and ‘true for me’; not neccesarily universal for all humans. If we are on a boat which is tossing around we can both agree on the objective fact that it is moving. However, when I report that I am feeling seasick that is true for me alone but not for you. What I think you are reaching for is an idea that is common to many forms of traditional spirituality and that is that when I descend into the depths of my personal consciousness I encounter a reality that is universal to all humans: a common bedrock of reality. I think it is better to call this claim a ‘universal reality’ rather than ‘objective reality’. Trouble is that this does not sound like ‘naturalism’ any more but a claim to knowledge of a metaphical reality that can be known by stripping away impediments. You may have got rid of a personal God from your worldview but hasn’t it simply been replaced by an impersonal ultimate reality? In fact it sounds a bit like classical Gnosticism to me.


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