Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould

I am going to be upfront: I think Rocks of Ages is one of Stephen Jay Gould's most important books as well as his most underrated. In a discussion where both sides seem more interested in painting each other as ignorant and immoral stumbling blocks impeding social progress than in actual civil discourse, Gould's is a voice of reason and reconciliation. A true mensch.

I am going to be upfront again: I was raised on the Methodist church, and I still live with my parents, one of whom is the woman who made sure I was raised Methodist (also known on this blog as Lawyer Mom). I have boundless love and respect for her, even if my Christian faith has fallen by the wayside. I also have no doubts that an upbringing more Christian than most has influenced my position on ethics and the role of religion more than I realize, so I gladly tip my hat to it.

It is this background that makes me fairly amenable to Christianity and religions on the whole. More amenable than intellectual rigor should allow? Maybe. But I subscribe to philosophy that it's better to be too flexible than to be too rigid; the global crowd of self-proclaimed atheists and freethinkers would do their movement a world of good if they remembered that their partners in this debate are, by and large, like my mother: intelligent, educated (Lawyer Mom holds a B.S., an M.S., and her law degree; Lawyer Mom is not an uneducated idiot), reasonable, and open to compromise.

Reasonable people don't want to waste time with people who appear unreasonable; common sense tells them that attempting to change their opinion would be an exercise in futility. Painting your opponent's stance as "poisoning everything"* or "delusional"** makes you appear just that: stubborn, broad-brushing, and unreasonable.*** Not only that, it sets the whole discussion on the poorest of foundations; your opponent now has to argue against exaggerated straw-man claims that they are out of their minds and ruining society, instead of the seriously addressing topic at hand. There is, in books and arguments and essays, a serious lack of rhetorically-sound fodder for debate on both sides. On the side of a designer-less evolution, Rocks of Ages does much to fill that lack.

It's a slim volume, something you can read in a day, mostly because the argument Gould presents is straightforward to the point of not really needing much in the way of explication. An explanation, which later became a chapter of the book, is available on the Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould archive: Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). This is the concept upon which the entire book is based. Essentially: religion and science deal with such vastly unrelated topic matter that one cannot be an authority over the other. Gould bolsters this with personal anecdotes and outstanding science writing, all with his trademark eloquence and readability. Even if you disagree with his points, it's still an enjoyable and educational read.

I know, however, that NOMA is a philosophically unsatisfying for some people. It is, in a way, an argumentative side-step, and many people felt that Gould's reasons for separating the chocolate and peanut butter of religious conservatism and faith were not as well justified as they could be. I think it's not a question so much of intellectual rigor, but how well any one person can tolerate tension, paradox, and contradiction. An argument like that, on the face of it, is not going to satisfy a lot of people, and I understand why. Unfortunately, Gould never had much of a chance to back up his arguments; Rocks of Ages is one of the last ones he published before his untimely death in 2008. Either way, you should pick it up.

*referring to Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
**Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion
***I'm well aware that the other side of this debate is no stranger to name-calling, strawmans and ad hominems. By no means am I giving them a free pass on it. But intelligent and educated people should just plain know better. (Though in the dark and murky world of book publishing, who knows who was in control of the final title cut: the author, wishing to summarize his argument? Or the publisher or literary agent, hoping to grab attention and, with it, more sales?)

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