The Lure of NOMA

The concept of NOMA or Non-Overlapping Magisteria of Science and Religion is the theme of this blog space.  Many people argue that religion can be explained by science while many others believe that religion is irrelevant in modern world of science and technology. However, the ‘open-minded’ scientists like Stephen Jay-Gould held the view that science and religion both should be equally cherished.

The lure of noma: on the elegance of religion is a book which explores the idea of NOMA together with the place of religion in today’s society.  NOMA is equally opposed by atheists with a strong dislike for religion in general as well as die-hard believers with a penchant for explaining religion by scientific ideas. Following Jay Gould, this book strives to emphasize the importance of religion to humanity. Since the detractors use the evolutionary origin of religion to squash the idea that religion is a useful human creation that should be allowed to co-exist with science and philosophy, the above book attempts to show that the religion could have had a different origin which may be uniquely human.

Animal Origin of Religion

Denying the importance  of human origin of religion is a way to bring about the slow death of religion. If the root causes that gave rise to our religious ideas have a distant link to our animal origins, an easy concept to fall for, religion in human society is a spontaneous process. Since Darwinian revolution in the late nineteenth century, majority of humanity believe that we, humans, evolved through our primate relatives to finally become who we are. Thus, it is scientifically fashionable to go one-step further and see whatever traits we have today in the primates and beyond. This is what the proponents of the evolutionary origin of religion have done.

The implication of this evolutionary idea is enormous. If our religious beliefs originated in the animal kingdom, then religion itself is natural phenomenon to which we attach spiritual meaning because of our ignorance. Similar to our basic drives such as hunger, sex and sleep, religion is thus going deeper into the evolutionary tree. But nature can switch these religious ideas arising from our animal ancestry off in some people like atheists while it makes sure some others entertain their animal instincts. Being an atheist or a believer can be a transient process; people change their allegiance often as the time goes by.

In a way this idea of animal origin is not very different to an argument from a religious point of view. As the evolution by natural selection is the accepted truth, any corollary arising from it should also be true. The social Darwinism is a trend every descent person can contribute to and the burden of proof is as simple as seeing some parallels between human traits and any comparable animal trait. But can there be other explanations for the origin of religion? Would they be accepted with such light-hearted logic?

On the Human Origin?

In the lure of noma, what I strive to show is that there can be other explanations. The place I looked for this explanation was Sir James Frazer’s work. The reason was that his collection of ethnographic research came well before modern commercialism settled in. The societies he described didn’t have much time to be swept away by the progressive thinking that gradually overshadowed the traditional values over the last century. The part of his research that I am interested in wasn’t originally done to prove what I use it for.This collection of anthropological data from various communities across the globe is less likely to be tainted by the interests that influenced later anthropologists like Margaret Mead. Secondly, his collection was through enough for me to use without heavily resorting to other people’s work.

The seclusion of girls at puberty seemed to have taken Frazer’s fancy in a big way as he didn’t treat the seclusion of boys at puberty the same way. The reason perhaps is that the societies that he collected information about didn’t attach same significance to boys’ puberty. The girls’ puberty was also special due to menstrual blood and their becoming fertile. But more noteworthy from my point of view is his treatment of the girls’ puberty with certain superstitious touch. In certain societies, the girls at puberty were confined to enclosures where they couldn’t see the sun and touch the ground. He could see parallels between this and the treatment accorded to the magician kings of the ancient times. These girls during this special period of their lives seemed to have some magical attributes that made them not suitable to be allowed to the society-at-large.

In the book I emphasised this supernatural aspect and compared it to the modern day descriptions of paranormal activities and other psychological disorders. For many such cases, the young girls seemed to act as the focal person. Describing the Lulu Hurst case, Bob Rickard and John Michell in their book  The rough Guide to Unexplained phenomena (Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2007, p80) stated “The phenomena began, as in a classic “poltergeist” case, shortly after she was fourteen”. Furthermore, there really isn’t a need to exist such paranormal activity; the importance is the belief in the reality of such activity. These abnormal psychological conditions might have affected boys too. But for some reason, anthropological records seemed to emphasize the feminine side more. The societies don’t leave written records unless something is worthy of such a mention or the society had a tradition of writing. However, some customs, beliefs and behaviours can say these unwritten words in a silent manner. Thus the puberty rites show us some indication towards the peoples’ concern about the perceived abilities of girls at a certain age.

New Religions

One more facet to this origin argument is the way new religions arise. In the lure of noma, a modern religion is discussed and it is argued that its spread is due to the perceived abilities of its founders. Analysing a few old religions, it is also shown that these religions had a special abilities attributed to their founders. The belief in the supernatural is not about the ‘unseen’ supernatural but about the mystery surrounding the ‘seen’ human with some special qualities. Thus, attempting to ‘prove’ the animal origin of the unseen supernatural is simply demeaning the humanity itself. Humanity is not a collection of fools who would believe anything. They, using their ‘Rule of Thumb Logic’, select what they believe and how they explain things. It doesn’t matter how ‘inaccurate’ or ‘accurate’ the explanations are as long as they can make some sense of what their senses tell them.

Darwinian Interpretation of Religion

In hindsight, an appendix about Darwinism is something that I shouldn’t even have thought of. However, it is very difficult to talk about religion nowadays without referring to the Darwinian thinking. No matter how badly the story of Mid-wife Toad failed the Lamarckian thinking, I believe, there should not be dogmatic acceptance of Darwinist school. The scepticism is good for the sake of Darwinism as much as it is good for not drowning the future generations with stale ideas; no need for Aristotelian world again. It is not a bad idea to question the “truth” at times, the “truth” as preached by scientists often turns out to be no more than prejudice inspired by political and social beliefs (Stephen Jay Gould in his essay ‘Ever since Darwin‘). This authour adores scientific method and ideas. Until a causal proof via observational or experimental study can be established any scientific idea is vulnerable to failure. Being falsifiable is one proof of a theory in the Popperian world.  Any truly sound scientific concept should live and let live so that it can emerge the everlasting or at least longer lasting.  Similarly, like art or music religion too cannot be a subject of a scientific proof as they are mainly about mental constructs and tangible practices based on such ethereal constructs. But both last as people adhere to the beliefs and practices associated with them. In my view, simply because they cannot be captured in the “scientific” net, we as humanity should not discard them.

Arachige, D (2009) the lure of noma: On the Elegance of Religion, Ocean Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9806314-3-2