Putting Evolution on the Defensive: William B. Riley and the Rise of Fundamentalism in America
by Douglas O. Linder (2005)
As Charles Darwin noted in his autobiography, rationalism and skepticism flourished in the latter half of the 1800s among the educated elites. The theory of evolution continued to win new converts, and by the end of the 1800s was accepted dogma at most institutions of higher learning. Natural causes seemed in; supernatural causes seemed out. A showdown over the theory’s validity and place in education seemed unlikely. Evolution appeared destined to triumph without another major battle—at least not as to the fact of evolution, as opposed to the mechanism by which it occurs, which remained a topic of debate. In theological circles, the rage was “higher criticism,” an approach to determining scriptural meaning by looking at the socio-historical setting of its writers. The Bible contained important messages, these theologians said, but no serious person can any longer pretend that the Bible, for example, provided an accurate guide to world history. Literalism seemed headed for virtual extinction.
The anti-evolution campaign of the 1920s might never have happened without the leadership of an austere, upright Baptist minister in Minneapolis, William B. Riley. In a state far north of the Bible Belt and short on Baptists, Kentucky-born Riley built a 3,000-member downtown congregation based and emerged as the dominant figure in American fundamentalism. But before getting to his story, two other prominent ministers who refused to jump on the modern bandwagon, and can be said to have planted the seed that grew into Riley’s fundamentalist movement need to be mentioned.
The first is John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren Movement. Darby insisted biblical prophesies provided “a sure guide to human history—past, present, and future.” (GE, 27) After having founded the movement three decades earlier in England, Darby traveled across the Atlantic six times between 1859 and 1874 to spread his doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the imminent return of Christ to establish the millennial kingdom. Everywhere he went, and in his fifty-three volumes of writings, Darby broadcast his message that the Bible represented the inspired, authoritative, faithfully transmitted, and infallible word of God. If “the word of God alone remained as an invisible thread over the abyss,” Darby declared, “my soul would trust in it.”
Darby’s writings became the primary source of inspiration for the second theologian to figure prominently in the birth of the fundamentalist movement, Dwight L. Moody. Moody is remembered as the first prominent American theologian to raise the banner of biblical inerrancy. Dwight L. Moody said he “would rather part with my entire library, excepting my Bible” than Darby’s works. “They have been to me,” he said, “the very key to the Scriptures.”
To say Moody took the Bible seriously is an understatement. He rose at five o’clock every morning to engage in several hours of prayerful study of the book. He was especially interested in Genesis, offering the advice: “Spend six months studying Genesis; it is the key to the whole book.” Although a careful study of the Bible, no one could call Moody a well-rounded reader. His choice of books followed a simple rule. “I do not read any book,” he said, “unless it helps me understand the Book.”
In the 1870s, Moody began an evangelical crusade on a scale never seen before in American history. “There was a time when I wanted to see my little vineyard blessed, and I could not get out of it,” he declared. “But I could work for the whole world now; I would like to go round the world and tell the perishing millions of a Saviour’s love.” He preached his ardent pre-millennialist message to large crowds in the British Isles for two years beginning in 1873, before re-crossing the Atlantic to launch his religious campaign in the United States. Thousands were turned away at gates and doors as Moody traveled across the North, from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago to Boston. On January 19, 1876, President Grant attended a revival in Philadelphia along with 12,000 others at the unused Pennsylvania freight depot. In New York, about 60,000 people a day filled halls at the Great Roman Hippodrome on Madison Avenue for the three to five rallies a day, held from February 7 to April 19. Over the next years, Moody’s conversion caravan moved on to places such as the West Coast and middle-sized cities across America. His last crusade started in Kansas City in November 1899. Moody fell seriously ill after delivering a sermon on “Excuses” and died a few weeks later.
As Moody’s crusading career neared its end, the career of William B. Riley—inevitably labeled in the press as “a second Dwight L. Moody”—was just taking off. (GE, 24) Riley called Moody his “hero” and adopted much of his evangelical predecessor’s message. In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.” (GE, 27, 25) Stressing his fundamental premise of Biblical inerrancy, the young Baptist preacher insisted that “every book, chapter, sentence, and even word” came straight from God and was absolute authority. The Bible’s integrity, he declared, “extends to history as well as to morals and religion, and involves expression as well as thought.” (GE, 26) His simple and forceful message, delivered without rants or raves or Billy Sunday-style showmanship, resonated especially with persons on the bottom rungs of the middle class who filled his rallies.
Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology. In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.” (EL, 35-36)
Riley threw himself into politics. Seeing liquor as the source of most urban problems, he became an outspoken advocate for prohibition. Following the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, Riley devoted full attention to another threat to Christian life: “the new infidelity, known as modernism.” Opposition to modernism, both in the form of liberal theology and trends in modern culture, became the core of his new movement. The cultural clashes of World War II had intensified tensions between theological liberals and conservatives, and the time seemed right for a national anti-modernist crusade. Riley deeply resented the frequent suggestion that only modernists were “men who really think,” and his bitterness left him itching for a fight. (GE, 35)
Riley invented the label “fundamentalist” and became the prime mover in the movement that took that name. Riley, in May 1919, brought together in Philadelphia 6,000 conservative Christians for the first conference of an organization he founded, the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). In his opening speech to delegates, Riley called the gathering of like-minded Biblical literalists “an event of more historic moment than the nailing up, at Wittenberg, of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.” Riley warned delegates that mainline Protestant denominations were coming increasingly under the sway of modernism and what Riley called its “awful harvest of skepticism.” (EL, 36) (GE, 31) The only true path to salvation, he insisted, was to follow his hyperliteral approach to the Bible and accept that supernatural forces have shaped history. Riley urged delegates to stand by their traditional faith in the face of the modernist threat: “God forbid that we should fail him in the hour when the battle is heavy.”
For his part, Riley led the effort to purge the Northern Baptist denomination of liberals and headed out on an eighteen-city crusade financed, in large part, by wealthy donors such as J. C. Penney. (PC, 67-68) Everywhere, it seemed, ministers heaped praise the restrained and dignified crusader. An Indiana pastor, for example, announced, “I regard Dr. William B. Riley as the Apostle Paul of our American ministry.” (GE, 40)
Although his Fundamentalist movement began as a reaction to the growing popularity of “higher criticism” (the view that the Bible is best understood in the distinct historical and cultural context which produced it), Riley soon identified the growing acceptance by modernist religious leaders of evolution as the infidelity most threatening to Christian values. Riley made the teaching of evolution in the public schools his number one target. Evolution, he declared, was the “propaganda of infidelity, palmed off in the name of science.” (GMT, 52-53) He believed the theory lacked substantiating evidence and said so repeatedly: “Do no violence to the splendid attainments of human speech by calling [proofs of evolution] ‘scientific.’” Science, for Riley, consisted of observable facts and demonstrable laws; it allowed for no speculation. Beyond its threat to the faith and its questionable veracity, Riley had another objection to evolution: he worried, as did many progressives of his day, that Darwinism with its notion of “survival of the fittest” offered support for self-centered economic policies and insensitive treatment of the disabled and mentally infirm. If the theory of evolution triumphs, Riley warned, the foundations of civilizations will “be swept out their places, gnarled, twisted, torn, and finally flung on the banks of time’s tide.” (GE, 46) He demanded to know, “Is there any longer any doubt as to the relation between Evolution and Anarchy?” (GE, 46)
The focus on evolution allowed Riley to go after his modernist enemies in the halls of academia. In his 1917 book, Menace of Modernism, Riley lashed out more at academic experts—whose authority had largely supplanted that of ministers—than liberal theologians. “Conservative ministers have about as good a chance to be heard in a Turkish harem,” he declared in the book, “as to be invited to speak within the precincts of a modern state university.” (GE, 35) Some historians prefer to see the rise of fundamentalism primarily as a reaction by conservative ministers to their loss of prestige at the hands of intellectuals, and Riley’s Menace of Modernism might be seen as Exhibit A for that position.
So confident was Riley is the rightness of his views that he offered “to travel any reasonable distance” to debate an evolutionist—so long as his opponent had credentials sufficiently worthy to justify the trip and the audience—not judges—was allowed to determine the winner. I’m unafraid, he said, to go on college campuses and “meet our opponent on his own ground.” More than two dozen evolutionists did indeed take Riley up on his offer, including Maynard Shipley, president of the Science League of America, and high officials of the American Civil Liberties Union. Radio, in its infancy, carried some of the debates live. Riley later claimed to have compiled a 28–0 record in his debates (with the help of active recruitment of fundamentalists to fill seats), but newspaper reports indicate that he narrowly lost one debate in Chicago.
By 1922, the WFCA was actively promoting its anti-evolution agenda around the country. Riley sounded the battle cry: “We increasingly realize that the whole menace in modernism exists in its having accepted Darwinism against Moses, and the evolutionary hypothesis against the inspired word of God.” (GE, 48) He suggested targeting public education, where evolution had gained a foothold in biology classes around the country. “There are hundreds of teachers,” he complained, pushing evolution on students and their “teachings take root in the garden of the Lord.” (GE, 48) It was high time, he said, for Christian taxpayers to stand up and object.
The debates moved into legislative halls. In Kentucky, Baptists pushed an anti-evolution law that lost by only a single vote in the House of Representatives. The WFCA began lobbying for similar legislation in several other states. Using the four months each year his congregation granted his to devote to evangelism, William Riley continued to roam the country campaigning against evolution in public speeches and debating evolutionists wherever he could find them. By the beginning of 1923, Riley could report in a letter to William Jennings Bryan, “The whole country is seething on the evolution question.” (EL, 43) Riley debated a science writer Maynard Shipley before large crowds up and down the West Coast. Bryan cheered his efforts, observing in a letter, “He seemed to have the audience overwhelmingly with him in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Portland. This is very encouraging; it shows that the ape-man hypothesis is not very strong outside the colleges and [modernist] pulpits.” (EL, 123)
The WFCA--in editorials probably written by Riley--attacked evolution in vituperative terms. The editorials denounced evolution as inconsistent with the Bible, bad science, and as a threat to peace and morality. Teachers who pushed this theory on “the rising generation” were called evil. By 1923, Riley in an article linked evolution to “anarchistic socialistic propaganda” and labeled those who would teach it “atheists.” (By the 1930s, Riley’s attacks became even more over-the-top, as when he warned of an “international Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy” and congratulated Adolf Hitler on his attempts to confront such a conspiracy in Germany.) (EL, 44-45)
In the period 1923 to 1924, Riley spent a great deal of time crusading against evolution in Tennessee, which he viewed as especially fertile ground for anti-evolution legislation. Memphis was a hotbed of Fundamentalism and a Baptist “stronghold.” The leading paper was stridently anti-evolutionist. Across the state, Baptists accounted for half of the population. (EL, 48) Riley’s efforts made evolution one of the hot issues of the 1924 state election.
When the fate of Tennessee’s anti-evolution bill hung in doubt, William Riley and his major allies, Billy Sunday, Frank Norris, and William Jennings Bryan, roused the faithful to write letters and send telegrams to undecided legislators. Without them, the fundamentalist victory would never have happened. (EL, 53-55)
When evolution proponents orchestrated their challenge to the new Tennessee law in the spring of 1925, Riley plotted the law’s defense. By chance, the WFCA held its 1925 annual meeting in Memphis and its featured speaker was Bryan. Bryan commented on the upcoming trial in his address: “I notice that a case is on the docket for trial involving the evolution statute of your state. I certainly hope it will be upheld.” (EL, 98-99) Staying on in Memphis after the conference, Riley and other WFCA leaders decided to invite William Jennings Bryan, thirty years removed from courtroom action but widely perceived as the fundamentalist movement’s greatest orator, to join the prosecution team on the association’s behalf. “We name as our attorney for this trial William Jennings Bryan and pledge him whatever support is needful to secure equity and justice and to conserve the righteous law of the Commonwealth of Tennessee,” read the resolution. (GE, 49) On May 13, Riley telegrammed Bryan asking him to go to Dayton (WJB, 98-100) Bryan, on a speaking tour, wired his acceptance back from Pittsburgh. (GMT, 72)
FN: The prosecution originally slated Riley to testify at Dayton as a witness for the prosecution. As the case developed, however, the prosecution recognized that a theological battle royal was not in its interests. (EL, 131) If the prosecution could convince Judge Raulston to exclude scientific experts, they would be more than happy to leave Riley and other fundamentalist leaders on the sidelines. Riley never took the stand.
Riley reported on the trial in the WFCA newsletter. Both reporters and defense lawyers earned Riley’s wrath. In his attacks, he referred to “blood-sucking journalists” and called Clarence Darrow’s methods “unfair” and his questioning of Bryan “conscienceless.” (GE, 50) Nonetheless, when the battle in Dayton ended, Riley proclaimed it a “significant conquest.” Byan, he wrote, “not only won his cause in the judgment of the Judge; in the judgment of the jurors; in the judgment of the Tennessee populace attending; he won it in the judgment of an intelligent world.” (GE, 50)(EL, 205) He confidently predicted that “every state in the Union” would join a growing anti-evolution bandwagon. (GMT, 459)
Time proved Riley wrong, and the WFCA’s obsession with the evolution eventually doomed the organization. In 1927, despite a furious effort by Riley and his followers, the legislature of his home state of Minnesota rejected a bill to ban the teaching of evolution by an eight-to-one margin. The blow devastated Riley and “signaled the end of William Bell Riley’s efforts to secure anti-evolution legislation.” (EL, 230)
By 1928, Riley became a fringe figure within his own denomination. In early 1930s, he preached a virulent form of anti-Semitism and became a fascist sympathizer. World War II finally softened his anti-Semitism. In his last years, Riley persuaded evangelist Billy Graham to replace him as head of three educational institutions—a seminary, a Bible institute, and a college—he had established in Minneapolis. (PC, 68-71) Graham, in his ministry, chose to ignore the Scopes trial. (EL, 261)
Riley listens on July 13, 1925 as the enemy, in the person of defense attorney Clarence Darrow, defends modernism and argues that evolution and religion can stand together.
Darrow tells the courtroom crowd that the Constitution protects “even the despised modernist, who dares to be intelligent.” (T, 83) Roaming the courtroom in his white shirt and suspenders, he paints a picture of a blissful Tennessee happily doing what it knew to be best—until Riley and his fundamentalist followers made the state a target of their anti-evolution agenda.
“Here is the state of Tennessee going along in its own business, teaching evolution for years, state boards handing out books on evolution, professors in colleges, teachers in schools, lawyers at the bar, physicians, ministers, a great percentage of the intelligent citizens of the state of Tennessee [are] evolutionists. [They] have not even thought it was necessary to leave their church. They believed that they could appreciate and understand their own simple doctrine of the Nazarine, to love thy neighbor, be kindly to them, not to place a fine on and not try to send to jail some man who did not believe at they believed—and got along all right with it too, until something happened….”
“They believed that all that was here was not made on the first six days of creation, [but that] it had come by a slow process…extending over the ages, that one thing grew out another. There are people who believed that organic life and the plants and the animals and man and the mind of man, and the religion of man, are the subjects of evolution….[T]hey believed [that God]…is still working to make something better and higher still out of human beings,…and that evolution had been working forever and will work forever—they believe it.”
“And along comes somebody who says we all have got to believe it as I believe it. It is a crime to know more than I know.”
From Francis Galton to George W. Hunter: Breaking Dogmatic Barriersand the Rise of the Eugenics Movement
Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, said the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 “marked an epoch in my own mental development, as it did in human thought generally.” Writing in Memories of a Life, Galton wrote that the book’s “effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.”
For Galton’s part, the rebellion prompted by The Origin of Species included sarcastic attacks on religious dogma, including the belief in the power of prayer. Galton, for example, asked how the public might react to a proposal for a “special inquiry” to determine “whether the laws of physical nature are ever changed in response to prayer.” Such an inquiry, he suggested, might measure whether “success has attended the occasional prayers in Liturgy when they have been used for rain, for fair weather, for the stilling of the sea in a storm, or for the abatement of pestilence.” He concluded—happily, for him—that “the modern feeling of this country is so opposed to a belief in the occasional suspension of the general laws of nature, that most English readers would smile at such an investigation.”
Galton proposed a replacement for traditional religious dogma, the new field (with a name he coined) of eugenics, which he defined as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, whether physically or mentally.” He proposed that after eugenics first gains acceptance as an academic matter and then as a practical matter, that it should enter a third and final stage: “It must be introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion.”
As early as 1864, Galton complained of the scant attention society has given improving its own genetic stock, even while devoting generations to improving the quality of pets and livestock. In an article entitled “Hereditary Character and Talent,” Galton speculated about the positive change such attention could achieve: “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create! We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we might propogate idiots by mating cretins. Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties.”
Galton considered whether plausible practical means existed to create “a highly-bred human race,” and he determined that they did. By way of illustration, he demonstrated how simply dividing persons into two castes, A and B (A selected for “natural gifts” and B being “the refuse”), and adopting a policy that hastened marriages in caste A and discouraged marriages in caste B, dramatic improvement in human genetic stock could be achieved in just a few generations. In short, he concluded, “I see no absurdity in supposing that, in some way or other, the improvement would be carried into effect.”
Galton recognized that genetic improvements in human populations could be brought about in two ways: through positive eugenics, the practice of encouraging those with natural gifts to produce more children, or through negative eugenics, the practice of encouraging the weak and unfit to produce fewer children. Of the two approaches, Galton saw the former as more politically practical and desirable.
Galton’s ideas about eugenics began to take hold by the early 1900s when developments in Mendelian genetics made it seem more plausible. Leading universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown offered courses in eugenics, taught as legitimate science. In 1907, Galton founded the Eugenics Education Society (later simply the “Eugenics Society”), whose ranks included prominent academics, politicians, and industrialists. Charles Darwin’s son, Leonard, succeeded Galton has head of the Society and was at its helm in 1925 when the Scopes trial began. Writing in that year in Eugenics Review, Leonard Darwin proposed preventing conception of persons with genes considered to be defective. To do this, he recognized, compulsion “would be necessary in many cases.” Darwin noted that sterilization of “criminals, lunatics, and mental defectives” was already accepted practice in some jurisdictions, and argued that the practice “must be extended to all who, by having offspring, would seriously damage future generations.” Winston Churchill was among the many who favored serious consideration of Darwin’s ideas of compulsory segregation or sterilization.
Another person who found considerable merit in eugenics was George W. Hunter, a biology teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. When Hunter and his colleagues wrote what would become by 1925 America’s best-selling biology textbook, they devoted several pages to singing the praises of selective human breeding. Hunter called eugenics, which he defined as “the science of improving the human race through better heredity,” the solution to a variety of social problems caused by the mentally ill and retarded, epileptics, and criminals. “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading,” Hunter opined in his Civic Biology. “Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibility of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” (CB, 263)
Hunter’s book, however, has importance far beyond the controversial ideas from eugenics it promotes. A Civic Biology was the biology textbook prescribed by Tennessee in 1925 and it was the six pages of that book addressing the topic of evolution that supported the charge against John Scopes for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act. (EL, 23-24)
The theory of evolution was itself evolving in 1919, the year Hunter published his Civic Biology, as scientists struggled to reconcile new findings from Mendel's work on genetics with Darwinian theory. Readers of his biology textbook could gain little appreciation of the ongoing controversy that would eventually lead to a neo-Darwinian synthesis. (EL, 24-25) Hunter wrote in his textbook, “In animal life, from the Protozoa upward, there is constant change, and the change is toward greater complexity of structure and functions.” (CB, 193) “Evolution means change,” Hunter told students. “Millions of years ago, life upon the earth was very simple, and that gradually more and more complex forms of life appeared. The great English scientist, Charles Darwin…explained the theory of evolution. This is the belief that simple forms of life on earth slowly and gradually gave rise to…the most complex forms.” (CB, 193) Hunter took no side in the mutation versus individual differences debate, nor did his book provide a basis for understanding natural selection.
The subject of human evolution warranted a separate one-page discussion. Unfortunately, that discussion reflected the scientific racism of popular at the time.” (EL, 23) Hunter reported in his book, “There once lived upon the earth races of men who were much lower in their mental organization than the present inhabitants.” (CB, 195) At first, man was “little better than one of the lower animals.” (CB, 196) Hunter indicated that of the “five races or varieties of men” found today, some are clearly more evolved than others. There are, Hunter claimed, the four lower types of humans, including the “Ethiopian or negro type,” “the Malay or brown race,” “the American Indian,” and the “Mongolian or yellow race.” “Finally,” Hunter concluded, there is “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” (CB, 196)
Throughout his two-week stay in Dayton, William Jennings Bryan uses what spare time he has to work on the closing speech he hopes to deliver in the Scopes trial.
In a speech that he hopes will alert the nation to the dangers of evolution, Bryan identifies eugenics as a reason for not teaching evolution. He calls it his “fifth indictment.” Bryan quotes Darwin, who he calls “the high priest of evolution, to whom all evolutionists bow.” He highlights the words of Darwin that appear on page 149 of The Descent of Man:
“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who, from a weak constitution, would have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon…care wrongly directed leads to the degeneration of a domestic race.”
“Darwin,” Bryan concludes, “reveals the barbarous sentiment that runs through evolution” and “speaks with approval of the savage custom of eliminating the weak so that only the strong will survive.” (T, 335) “How inhuman such a doctrine as this!” Darwin “drags mankind down to the level of the brute.” “Could any doctrine,” Bryan asks, “be more destructive of civilization?” (T, 335-36)
Bryan is not content to leave his criticism with Darwin’s nineteenth–century views on the subject. He quotes a recent book popular within the eugenics movement, The New Decalogue of Science, which Bryan described as “even more frankly brutal than Darwin.” Bryan notes that the author complains, “Evolution is a brutal business, but civilization tries to make it a pink tea. Barbarism is the only process by which man has ever organically progressed, and civilization is the only process by which he has organically declined.” The author advises that unless we allow the “beneficent hand of natural selection” to work its will, we will “bungle the whole task.” (t, 336)
Bryan's moves his summation to a rhetorical flourish. He asks the jury to reject evolution--“a bloody, brutal doctrine. Your answer,” he says, “will be heard throughout the world; it is eagerly awaited by a praying multitude.” (T, 338)
FN: The year after the Scopes trial, George Hunter substantially revised his popular textbook. The entire six-page section dealing with evolution was dropped from a special edition of the book intended to satisfy school boards in southern states. Only a vague reference to Darwin’s “interpretation of the way in which all life changes” survived the edit. The word “evolution” did not even appear in text or the index of the edition called New Civic Biology. (GMT, 454)
The Vatican's View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes
by Doug Linder (2004)
The relationship between the papacy and scientists has sometimes—just ask Galileo—been testy. Interestingly, however, the Catholic Church has largely sat out the cultural battle over the teaching of evolution. One of the reasons Catholics have remained largely on the sidelines is the well-established system of parochial schools in the United States, which make state laws relating to the public school curriculum of much less concern to Catholic clergy and parents than to Protestant clergy and parents. A second reason is that the Catholic Church, at least in the twentieth century, takes a more flexible approach to the interpreting Genesis than do several Protestant denominations.
H. L. Mencken expressed admiration for how Catholics handled the evolution issue:
[The advantage of Catholics] lies in the simple fact that they do not have to decide either for Evolution or against it. Authority has not spoken on the subject; hence it puts no burden upon conscience, and may be discussed realistically and without prejudice. A certain wariness, of course, is necessary. I say that authority has not spoken; it may, however, speak tomorrow, and so the prudent man remembers his step. But in the meanwhile there is nothing to prevent him examining all available facts, and even offering arguments in support of them or against them—so long as those arguments are not presented as dogma. (STJ, 163)
A majority of American Catholics probably sided with the prosecution in the Scopes trial, but—with one notable exception, defense attorney Dudley Field Malone—all the major participants in the controversy, from the author of the Butler Act, to the defendant, the judge, the jury, and the lawyers were either members of Protestant churches or were non-churchgoers. Catholics tended to be viewed with some skepticism in Dayton; local prosecutor Sue Hicks discouraged William Jennings Bryan’s suggestion that Senator T. J. Walsh of Montana, a Roman Catholic, be added to the prosecution team. (SOG, 131-32) The Catholic Press Association did take enough interest in the case, however, to send a top correspondent to Dayton to cover the trial for diocesan newspapers. Writing from Tennessee, reporter Benedict Elder wrote, “Although as Catholics we do not go quite as far as Mr. Bryan on the Bible, we do want it preserved.” (SOG, 127)
Pope Pius XII, a deeply conservative man, directly addressed the issue of evolution in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis. The document makes plain the pope’s fervent hope that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacks those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.” Nonetheless, Pius XII states that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one specie might evolve into another—even if that specie is man. The Pope declared:
The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.
In other words, the Pope could live with evolution, so long as the process of “ensouling” humans was left to God. (He also insisted on a role for Adam, whom he believed committed a sin— mysteriously passed along through the “doctrine of original sin”—that has affected all subsequent generations.) Pius XII cautioned, however, that he considered the jury still out on the question of evolution’s validity. It should not be accepted, without more evidence, “as though it were a certain proven doctrine.” (ROA, 81)
Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Unlike Pius XII, John Paul is broadly read, and embraces science and reason. He won the respect of many scientists in 1993, when in April 1993 he formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for Copernicus’s heliocentrism. The pontiff began his statement with the hope that “we will all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science.” Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.” He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot contradict truth.” The Pope pointed to the Church’s coming to terms with Galileo’s discoveries concerning the nature of the solar system as an example of how science might inspire the Church to seek a new and “correct interpretation of the inspired word.”
When the pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became clear how much things had changed in the nearly fifty years since the Vatican last addressed the issue. John Paul said:
Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
Evolution, a doctrine that Pius XII only acknowledged as an unfortunate possibility, John Paul accepts forty-six years later “as an effectively proven fact.” (ROA, 82)
Pope John Paul’s words on evolution received major play in international news stories. Evolution proponents such as Stephen Jay Gould enthusiastically welcomed what he saw as the Pope’s endorsement of evolution. Gould was reminded of a passage in Proverbs (25:25): “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (ROA, 820) Creationists, however, expressed dismay at the pontiff’s words and suggested that the initial news reports might have been based on a faulty translation. (John Paul gave the speech in French.) Perhaps, some creationists argued, the pope really said, “the theory evolution is more than one hypothesis,” not “the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.” If that were so, the Pope might have been suggesting that there are multiple theories of evolution, and all of them might be wrong.
The “faulty translation” theory, however, suffered at least two problems. Most obviously, the theory collapsed when the Catholic News Service of the Vatican confirmed that the Pope did indeed mean “more than a hypothesis,” not “more than one hypothesis.” The other problem stemmed from a reading of the passage in more complete context. In the speech, the Pope makes clear in his speech that he understood the difference between evolution (the highly probable fact) and the mechanism for evolution, a matter of hot dispute among scientists. John Paul said, “And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution.” He recognized that there were “different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution” and different “philosophies” upon which the theory of evolution is based. The philosophy out of bounds to Catholics, the pope indicated, is one which is “materialist” and which denies the possibility that man “was created in the image and likeness of God.” Human dignity, the pope suggested, cannot be reconciled with such a “reductionist” philosophy. Thus, as with Pius XII, the critical teaching of the Church is that God infuses souls into man—regardless of what process he might have used to create our physical bodies. Science, the Pope insisted, can never identify for us “the moment of the transition into the spiritual”—that is a matter exclusively with the magesterium of religion.
Most scientists would be content to let Pius and John Paul have their “ensoulment” theory and walk away happy. Not Richard Dawkins, however. In an essay on the Pope’s evolution message called “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” the controversy-loving biologist accused Pope John Paul of “casuistical double-talk” and “obscurantism.” (SAR, 209) Dawkins took issue with the Pope’s declaring off-limits theories suggesting that the human mind is an evolutionary product. In his address the Pope said: "[I]f the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God…Consequently, theories of evolution which…consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."
In his essay, Dawkins paraphrased the Pope’s statement: “In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage.” Dawkins expresses mock curiosity as to when God jumped into the evolution picture: “When? A million years ago? Two million years ago? Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?” Clearly, Dawkins finds the divine intervention implausible. He suggests that the ensoulment theory becomes a necessary part of Catholic theology in order to sustain the important distinction between species in Catholic morality. It is fine for a Catholic to eat meat, Dawkins notes, but “abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.”
Dawkins contends that evolution tells us that there is no “great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.” The Pope’s insistence to the contrary is, in the biologist’s opinion, “an antievolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.”
Dawkins makes no secret of his distain for the distinction so critical to the Pope John Paul’s 1996 speech on evolution:
I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against fundamentalist creationism. It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe. Even so, given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer. (SAR, 211)
Popes have had considerably less to say recently on the subject of the origin of the universe than they have on the subject of human origins. In 1951, interestingly, Pius XII (who so grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of evolution) celebrated news from the world of science that the universe might have been created in a Big Bang. (The term, first employed by astronomer Fred Hoyle was meant to be derisive, but it stuck.) In a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences he offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the theory: "…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies." (ME, 254-55)
But the Pope didn’t stop there. He went on to express the surprising conclusion that the Big Bang proved the existence of God:
Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took place. We say: therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!
The man who laid the groundwork for the Big Bang theory, astronomer Edwin Hubble, received a letter from a friend asking whether the Pope’s announcement might qualify him for “sainthood.” The friend enthused that until he read the statement in the morning’s paper, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.” (ME, 255)
Other people, including Belgian astronomer Georges Lamaître and the Vatican’s science advisor, had a different reaction. They understood that the Big Bang in 1951 remained very much a contested theory and worried what might be the effect if the Pope pinned the Catholic faith too much on its proving true. They spoke privately to the Pope about their concerns, and the Pope never brought up the topic again in public.
Big Bang theories become a problem for Catholic theology only when they consider “the moment of creation.” That, at least, is what Pope John Paul allegedly told Stephen Hawking and other physicists during an audience that followed a papal scientific conference on cosmology. (Some scientists dispute Hawking's account, and say that the Pope suggested no limitations on their inquiry.) The Pope told the physicists they should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was “the work of God.” Stephen W. Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time, reported that he was among those physicists whom the Pope privately addressed. He wrote:I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.
SOG= Summer for the Gods by Edward J. Larson (1997)
SAR= Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (edited by Paul Kurtz)(2003)
ROA=Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen J. Gould (1999)
STJ= H. L. Mencken on Religion by S. T. Joshi (2002)
ME= Measuring Eternity by Martin Gorst (2001)
Steven Weinberg on Religion and Science
Teachers at the Bronx High School in New York encouraged young Steven Weinberg’s interest in science and, by 1949, the sixteen-year-old decided he would like to make a career out of theoretical physics. Weinberg would eventually win the Nobel Prize in physics for developing a theory that unified electromagnetic force and the so-called weak interaction, two of the four fundamental forces. He is celebrated as the “the world’s most authoritative proponent of the idea that physics is hurtling toward ‘a final theory,’ a complete explanation of nature’s particles and forces that will endure as the bedrock of all science forevermore.” Among scientists, if not the general public, Weinberg ranks as an intellectual icon even above British physicist, Stephen Hawking.
In his The First Three Minutes, Weinberg’s attempt to describe the first three minutes of our universe’s existence, he argues that the search for scientific truth can give meaning to life: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” According to Weinberg, the better we understand nature, the more the scientist’s “sense of wonder” has expanded as he or she grapples with the remaining mysteries.
Science, Weinberg believes, has changed our values and beliefs in ways that can scarcely be overestimated. “Nothing in the last five hundred years has had so great an effect on the human spirit as the discoveries of modern science.” While Weinberg finds the discoveries and liberating and believes “the night sky is as beautiful as ever,” others claim that the sense of “magic” they once experienced has been replaced by a sense of sadness.
Ever the secular rationalist, Weinberg is known among scientists for his outspoken opinions on the subject of religion. Weinberg told a New York Times interviewer in 1999, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” His hostility to religion seems to have grown. “As time has passed,” he observed, “my feelings have gotten stronger and stronger. I really dislike religion intensely.”
On one major question, however, Steven Weinberg is in complete agreement with Phillip Johnson and many fundamentalists. Weinberg believes that evolution, if taught properly, will reduce a student’s sense of his or her “own special importance.” Weinberg argues that science and spiritual matter cannot “be kept in separate compartments.” That is a good thing, according to Weinberg, because it means science can “help each of us grow up as an individual.”
Weinberg is scornful of those who describe science as just one way among many of finding truth. Science, Weinberg insists, is not merely a belief system and certainly is not, as philosopher Paul Feyerabend suggested, “a superstition.” Science is the path to truth, Weinberg thinks, and he is not shy about showing his irritation with philosophers who disagree. In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, Weinberg asserted: “I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.
Weinberg, like Darwin, has devoted much of his professional life to thinking about origins. In Weinberg’s case, however, the origin that that has commanded his attention is that of the universe in which we find ourselves. “The weight of scientific evidence” generally has favored some sort of origin to the universe, which Weinberg notes gives “some comfort to those who believe in supernatural creation.” Some cosmologists have suggested, however, that ours is a universe without a true beginning; there is, they say, “only an endlessly fluctuating universe that here and there occasionally begins a local expansion.”
In his 1997 essay, “Before the Big Bang,” Weinberg describes a meeting he and other physicists had with Al Gore, in which the scientists tried to sell the Vice President on the value of funding the Super Collider. Just as Gore left the meeting, he turned back in the room to ask if the scientists “could tell him what happened before the Big Bang.” They had no satisfactory answer. (Al Gore, incidentally, is not the first politician to take an interest in scientific questions about origins. The defense in the Scopes case introduced a letter written by President Woodrow Wilson to one of its scientific experts, W. C. Curtis. In his letter to Curtis, Wilson wrote, "It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised. Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution.")
A lot has happened since Al Gore and the physicists talked about the Super Collider. Florida election officials counted a lot of chads and scientists, using the Hubble telescope, counted a lot of new galaxies. Most relevantly, though, several cosmologists have developed theories, based upon recent measurements of the universe, that purport to answer the Vice President’s question. One popular theory suggests that the Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago when “transition bubbles of ordinary zero-energy empty space …formed here and there, like bubbles of vapor formed by boiling water.” Our known universe, according to this theory, exists inside just one of these bubbles. All that we see through even our most powerful telescopes, extending distances of billions of light years, “would be just a tiny part of the interior of one of these bubbles.” If this theory is correct, it follows that there are perhaps billions of other “universes,” formed (and maybe still being formed) by other Big Bangs occurring in “countless other bubbles,” all outside of the ability of us to ever see. The answer to Al Gore’s question, if this theory is correct, is that before the Big Bang there were other Big Bangs going on in a “universe-of-universes” that might be “infinitely old.”
For now, we can say no more. Weinberg writes, “We don’t know if the universe is infinitely old or if there was a first moment; but neither view is absurd, and the choice between them will not be made by intuition, or by philosophy or theology, but by the ordinary methods of science.” As Weinberg sees it, the bubble theory favored by many cosmologists today is “the third step in a historical progression” that began in 1584 with the discovery that our own sun is but another star, and continued in 1923 with the discovery that are own galaxy is but one of countless many such galaxies.
To most observers, our universe (and especially our planet, of course) seems almost perfectly suited to produce just the sort of intelligent life we represent. So perfect are conditions for life, in fact, that many people have been led to argue that the universe must have been intelligently designed. At a recent conference, Weinberg compared our existence to a player in a poker tournament who finds he has been dealt a royal flush. The hand might be blind luck, but there is another possibility that comes to mind: “Namely, is the organizer of the tournament our friend?”
In response to these arguments, Weinberg points to the “anthropic principle,” which he calls “a nice non-theistic explanation of why things are as nice as they are.” The principle, in its weak form, states “that the laws of nature must allow for the appearance of living beings capable of studying the laws of nature.” To fully explain the universe we find ourselves in, Weinberg suggests, we might have to resort to “a stronger form of the anthropic principle.” It may be that the “final theory”—the theory that explains all of the laws of nature—turns out to be “the only logically consistent principles consistent with the appearance of intelligent life.” In other words, the physical laws that govern our particular universe might be highly improbable—improbable to the point of seeming almost impossible—but, given enough time and enough universes being created, a universe with laws such as we find in ours was bound to come along sooner or later. As one cosmologist put it, “Our universe is just one of those things that happens from time to time.” It should not be surprising then, according to the anthropic principle, that we find the laws of nature that we find, because those laws are precisely the ones necessary for us to exist and for us to be able to ponder such a mystery.
The anthropic principle is, Weinberg admits, “an unconventional hypothesis.” He claims to be “not that fond of anthropic reasoning.” He would be “much happier” if he could explain why the laws of nature have to be precisely what they are, but acknowledges that task might be impossible. Science might well turn out to lack the means ever to prove or disprove the anthropic hypothesis, but it is just the sort of strange principle that physicists such as Weinberg must consider if they are ever to fully explain man’s existence.
As for the Big Bang itself, Weinberg expresses little doubt that it occurred. He calls it “almost certain to endure.” The event is consistent with our understanding of the laws of physics, he notes, and has been “confirmed by the discovery of relics of the early universe.” The most significant confirming evidence came from the 1965 discovery of microwave radiation and, later, the spectrocscopic measurement of various isotopes of the lightest elements in interstellar matter. In ten years time, the Big Bang evolved from a controversial theory to one generally accepted by astrophysisists.
Weinberg writes that his understanding of the origins of the universe leaves little room for miracles or for a designing intelligence—at least any one that “has some special concern with life, in particular human life.” The human mind, so central to most religious persons’ belief in God, is to Weinberg much like next week’s weather—a difficult-to-predict product “of impersonal laws acting over billions of years.” He sides with fellow physicist Richard Feynman who once said of the universe, “The theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”
Weinberg has a ready explanation for those to point to what seems to be evidence of conscious design, such as the just-right radioactive state of carbon or the very low energy density of empty space (the small “cosmological constant”). Without these and other unlikely conditions, the design proponents observe, life would be impossible. Weinberg asks why should we be surprised to find perfect conditions for life: “In all other parts of the universe” where perfect conditions do not exist, “there is no one to raise the question.” To Weinberg, these sorts of arguments about design are like someone exclaiming, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put us here on earth, where there’s water and air and surface gravity and the temperature is so comfortable, rather than some horrid place, like Mercury or Pluto?” The only thing that would convince Weinstein of the reality of intelligent design is “a miracle or two”—but he hasn’t seen any yet and doesn’t expect to.
As one reads the words of William Jennings Bryan in his closing speech in the Scopes trial, the last speech the Great Commoner ever wrote, the realization comes: Bryan doesn’t care whether evolution is true or not. What worries Bryan is the effect evolution has on the religious faith of those who fully understand its implications.
Bryan writes, “How can an honest teacher conceal from his students the effect of evolution on Darwin himself?” Evolution is the dangerous doctrine “that has caused so many scientists and so many Christians to reject the miracles of the Bible.” Bryan, in the last few minutes he planned to talk to the Scopes jury, would have told them the story of a prominent nineteenth-century biologist named George Romanes. Romanes began his studies of evolution (with, as he saw it, its “virtual negation of God”) as a Christian and ended them as an agnostic. Romanes, writing in his Thoughts on Religion, lamented, “The universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness.” Bryan, in perhaps the most moving passage of his summation, quotes Romanes on the pain that accompanied his loss of faith: “I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it—at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible.” Seeing a lesson in Romanes’s experience Bryan warns, “Evolution is deadening the spiritual life of a multitude of students.” It is, he concludes, “a dogma of darkness and death.”
Along with turning man loose in an uncaring universe, Bryan planned to tell the Scopes jury, evolution erodes moral responsibility. “Psychologists who build upon the evolutionary hypothesis,” Bryan says in his summation, “teach that man is nothing but a bundle of characteristics inherited from brute ancestors.” The “doctrine is as deadly as leprosy,” he says. “It may aid a lawyer in a criminal case, but it would, if generally adopted, destroy all sense of responsibility and menace the morals of the world.”
Bryan ends his summation with a call to the jury to “uphold the laws of Tennessee” and protect “the religion of the school children.” If they do, Bryan promises (and one can easily image his old voice rising as he does so), “millions of Christians will call you blessed” and “sing again that grand old song of triumph: Faith of our fathers…holy faith—We will be true to thee till death!”
Some people wonder why Weinberg seems so determined to refute claims that the world is the work of a benevolent designer. The answer he gives is that “on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful.” Weighing the jihads and crusades against evangelical campaigns to end slavery, Weinberg concludes religion has done humanity more harm than good. He has no interest in maintaining “a constructive dialogue” between science and religion. Weinberg asserts provocatively, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”
Weinberg predicts that the biggest impact of advances in physics will be cultural, not technological. He looks forward to the day when people comprehend “that nature is governed by impersonal laws, laws that do not give any special status to life, and yet laws that humans are able to discover and understand.”
by Doug Linder (2004)
At the time the Scopes trial came to Dayton, Tennessee a fifteen-year-old on the other side of the state, Abe Fortas, attended a segregated public high school in Memphis. He came from in a Jewish home, but—like his Eastern European immigrant father—viewed Judaism primarily as a matter of ritual. His eighth grade teacher called him “a darling boy, straight, honorable and smart.” He worked hard, and graduated second in his South Side High School class.
As a young man, Fortas’s interests centered around music and politics. He enjoyed listening to the blues on Beale Street, within walking distance of his home, and became a skilled violinist and a member of a local band, the Blue Melody Boys. His passion for debate made him a formidable member of the Southwestern College (now Rhodes University) debate team (he compiled a 17-3 record) and led him to the presidency of the Nitist Club, a philosophical debating society on the Southwestern campus in Memphis. For his own presentation to the group, Fortas chose the topic, “Is Life Worth Living?” and argued that it was not. Fortas’s politics tilted decidedly to the left during his college years. At age eighteen, he urged classmates to vote for socialist Norman Thomas as President.
Fortas left Tennessee and headed east in 1930. He attended Yale Law School, held several different posts in federal agencies, and worked two decades in a corporate law firm he started with two associates. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Fortas for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.
In the early 1960s, a group of educators and scientists funded by the National Science Foundation produced a new biology textbook that emphasized evolution. School districts around the country quickly adopted the new book, even in the three southern states where antievolution laws remained in place. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the school board moved to adopt the new biology book in 1965. The book it replaced had made no mention of evolution. Arkansas, at the time, had an antievolution law dating to 1928 that made it a crime to “to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.”
Susan Epperson, a young tenth-grade school biology teacher at Little Rock’s Central High, became the plaintiff in suit instituted by the state teacher’s organization to test the antievolution law in state court. She alleged in her complaint that she wanted to teach from the new textbook, but feared criminal prosecution and dismissal if she did so. At trial, the attorney general of Arkansas sought to show the reasonableness of the state law. He pointed to a recently exposed hoax involving the Piltdown fossils as evidence that evolution was an unproven theory at best. The attorney general’s argument, however, left the judge, Murray O. Reed, unimpressed. He concluded that the statute “tends to hinder the quest for knowledge, restrict the freedom to learn, and restrain the freedom to teach.” The law, Reed ruled, violated the federal constitution.
In the spring of 1967, the Arkansas Supreme Court, without oral argument, reversed Reed’s ruling in the Epperson case. The Court’s two-sentence opinion found the anti-evolution law to be “a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools.” The Court did not answer the question of whether it read the law as banning all discussion of evolution, or whether it “merely prohibits teaching that theory as true.”
The teachers’ petition for review in the Arkansas case reached the desk of Justice Fortas’s young law clerk, Peter L. Zimroth. Zimroth wrote a memo to his boss advising that the petition be denied because the “case is simply too unreal.” Zimroth wrote that the state courts had not yet resolved the question of whether the statute prohibited all discussion of evolution and, more importantly, it seemed unlikely that any prosecutor would choose to enforce the law anyway. “Unfortunately,” he concluded, “this case is not the proper vehicle for the Court to elevate the monkey to his proper position.”
Fortas, however, made clear to his clerk that he wanted the Epperson case heard. In a memo to Zimroth the justice wrote, “Peter, maybe you’re right—but I’d rather see us knock this out.” Fortas’s view prevailed, and Arkansas was asked by the Court to respond to the teachers’ petition. The state filed a brief answer that reasserted the state’s position that it had the right to determine its own school curriculum. Zimroth found the state’s answer totally inadequate. “The response is as outrageous as the law which it seeks to defend,” he wrote in a memo to Fortas. Nonetheless, he held fast to his view that the Court should decline to take the case. Fortas rejected his clerk’s advice and pushed his colleagues to accept the case.
Edward J. Larson, in Summer for the Gods, attributes Fortas’s determination to hear the Epperson case to his experience as “a working-class Jewish boy growing up in the Baptist citadel of Memphis” as the controversy surrounding Scopes “swirled about him.”
References to the legendary Scopes case filled the documents submitted in Epperson’s appeal. The plaintiffs’ brief ended with a reminder of “the famous Scopes case” and the “darkness in that jurisdiction” left in its wake. The state, for its part, opened its reply by citing the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in the Scopes case as support for its position that curriculum matters are for the states to decide. The ACLU’s brief in Epperson said that “The Union…looks forward to its final resolution” of the controversy began in Dayton “40 years ago.”
Two days after oral argument, the justices met in conference and voted 8 to 1 to strike down the antievolution laws. Fortas’s notes of the conference show that the justices differed considerably in how they reached their conclusions. Most justices, including Chief Justice Warren, found the law “too vague to stand” and faulted the state for not showing how evolution threatened the public welfare. Justice Stewart saw the law as violating the free speech rights of teachers. For Fortas, however, the issue was religion—the establishment of religion by the state.
Fortas requested and was granted permission to write the Court’s decision. In the opening paragraph of his opinion, Fortas tied the Arkansas statute to the Scopes case: “The statute was a product of the upsurge of ‘fundamentalist' religious fervor of the twenties. The Arkansas statute was an adaption of the famous Tennessee 'monkey law' ….The constitutionality of the Tennessee law was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the celebrated Scopes case in 1927.”
The constitutional attack might have originated against an Arkansas law, but Fortas clearly meant to turn it against Tennessee’s old antievolution law as well. His opinion discusses the purposes of the Butler Act more than the Arkansas law, and he drew from the memoirs of Clarence Darrow and John Scopes to support his analysis of the antievolution law. “There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma,” Fortas argued. In this case, Fortas concluded, that is exactly what happened: “No suggestion has been made that Arkansas' law may be justified by considerations of state policy other than the religious views of some of its citizens. It is clear that fundamentalist sectarian conviction was and is the law's reason for existence.”
Justice Hugo Black wrote a separate opinion, disagreeing with Fortas’s resolution of the case. Black suggested that the Court should never have taken--and should now dismiss—the case: “The pallid, unenthusiastic, even apologetic defense of the Act presented by the State in this Court indicates that the State would make no attempt to enforce the law should it remain on the books for the next century.” Moreover, he complained, the record failed to show “whether this Arkansas teacher is still a teacher, fearful of punishment under the Act….It may be, as has been published in the daily press, that she has long since given up her job as a teacher and moved to a distant city, thereby escaping the dangers she had imagined might befall her under this lifeless Arkansas Act.”
Black also took issue with Fortas’s conclusion that the law was plainly as attempt to aid religion. The 82-year-old justice wrote, “It may be instead that the people's motive was merely that it would be best to remove this controversial subject from its schools; there is no reason I can imagine why a State is without power to withdraw from its curriculum any subject deemed too emotional and controversial for its public schools.” Black argued that instead of establishing religion, Arkansas merely was being neutral on the issue of creation: “Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines? Unless this Court is prepared simply to write off as pure nonsense the views of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine, then this issue presents problems under the Establishment Clause far more troublesome than are discussed in the Court's opinion.”
The media, unsurprisingly, played the Epperson decision as the last chapter in the Scopes trial. Almost without exception, they saw it as a happy ending. Time and Life both made references to Inherit the Wind; the New York Times called the Epperson “the nation’s second monkey trial,” but one with a “strikingly different result” than the one in 1925.
The Epperson majority opinion turned out be one of the last Fortas ever wrote. Soon afterwards, President Johnson nominated Fortas for the position of chief justice, but the nomination collapsed amidst a financial scandal. Fortas resigned from the Court in 1968 and returned to private practice.
by Doug Linder (2004)
William J. Brennan and Antonin Scalia might seem at first like two peas in a pod. Both men were born in New Jersey to first-generation immigrants (Brennan to Irish, and Scalia to Italian). Both were raised in Roman Catholic families, excelled academically, and graduated from Harvard Law School. Both were appointed to the United States Supreme Court by Republican presidents (Brennan by Eisenhower, Scalia by Reagan) and confirmed overwhelmingly by the Senate (only Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy voted against Brennan, the Senate voted 98 to 0 to confirm Scalia). As justices, both rank among the most influential in modern times. Yet for all of their biographical similarities, William Brennan and Antonin Scalia could hardly have more different judicial temperaments and philosophies.
Brennan believed in what supporters call “a living constitution”—or what detractors deride as “a plastic constitution.” “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning in may have had in a world that is dead and gone,” he wrote in a 1997 essay, “but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and present needs.” He saw the animating spirit of the Constitution as the protection of the dignity of the individual against the power of majoritarian government. At the Supreme Court, Brennan cheerfully and tirelessly lobbied fellow justices for the extra votes needed to win a victory for free speech, defendant’s rights, or a broader vision of equal rights. Chief Justice Rehnquist usually disagreed with Brennan on judicial issues, but admired “the personal warmth and friendliness” that he brought to the Court.
Scalia, on the other hand, insists that the Constitution’s meaning was determined by the “original intent” of its drafters and ratifiers—a vision, critics complain, of a “frozen” and limiting document. He so aggressively promotes his conservative views on issues before the Court that he oftentimes alienates the very justices whose votes might have tipped a case in his favored direction. Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the ACLU, observed, “I think he is one justice who thinks his influence is not putting together majorities today but influencing history tomorrow.” In oral arguments, the combative Scalia frequently asked more questions than the other eight justices put together. One author of a recent book on the Court observed, “On a bench lined with solemn gray figures who often sat as silently as pigeons on a railing, Scalia stood out like a talking parrot.”
Brennan and Scalia, despite their shared Catholicism, saw issues of religion very differently. Brennan saw the Establishment Clause as erecting a high barrier of separation between the state and the church. A former clerk of Brennan’s, Federal Appeals Judge Richard Arnold, summarized his old boss’s view: “In short, religion is too important to be co-opted by the state for political or governmental ends.” He believed, Arnold said, that “public and ostentatious piety can be the enemy of true religion.” The mixing of religion and politics troubles Scalia much less. He worships at “a suburban Virginia church known for its orthodox-mined congregation, one that recently erected a monument to unborn children.” A pastor at a less conservative church he formerly attended listened to him complain that the parish had become “an ecclesiastical playpen.” Speaking in Mississippi in 1995, Scalia urged religious conservatives to jump into the cultural wars and attack “elites” hostile to faith. “We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world,” the justice declared. Not surprisingly, then, his voting record reflects a justice unbothered by all but the most blatant attempts of government to support a particular religion.
In 1986, a controversy over creationism and evolution in Louisiana that had been brewing for six years finally reached the United States Supreme Court. Every knowledgeable observer of the Court knew in advance that the Court’s two Catholic justices would line up on opposite sides of the issue, just has they had in so many others since Scalia joined the Court. The only real questions were which of the two would be with the majority, and whether both would end up writing opinions. As it turned out, Justice Brennan would write the Court’s opinion in Edwards v Aguillard; Justice Scalia would write the dissent.
The Louisiana case had its origin in 1980, when a Louisiana State senator, Bill Keith, became concerned that the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools might cause his son to abandon his faith that “God created the world and God created man.” Because of this fear, he introduced Senate Bill No. 956 into the Louisiana legislature. Keith’s bill required that public schools balance the teaching of evolution with the theory of “creation ex nihilo,” which he defined to be the theory that “the origin of all things and their processes and relationship were created ex nihilo and fixed by God.” (63-64)
Keith’s efforts in Louisiana caught the attention of Paul Ellwanger, president of a South Carolina-based organization called Citizens for Fairness in Education. Ellwanger, who had previously drafted a proposed “model balanced treatment act,” sent a copy to Keith. In his accompanying letter, Ellwanger told Keith that he saw “this whole battle as one between God and anti-God forces.” He warned that it “behooves Satan to do all he can to thwart our efforts and confuse the issue at every turn.” The letter contained strategic advice as well. Ellwanger cautioned Keith to give the clergy a low profile in the legislative debates, so as not to provide opponents with ammunition in a possible challenge to the constitutionality of the law: “It does no good to have ministers out there in the public forum and the adversary will surely pick at this point.” Far better, he urged, to have clergy “lead their churches in storming Heaven with prayers for help against so tenacious an adversary.”
Ellwanger’s model bill, only slightly altered, passed the Louisiana legislature and became law. The law required teachers discussing evolution to also discuss “scientific evidences for creation.” A supporter of the law described creationism as the model that “postulates that all the basic systems of nature, including elements, stars, planets, and life and the major kinds of organisms, including man, were created fully developed by supernatural creative processes during a primeval period of special creation.” Speaker after speaker condemned evolution in committee hearings on the bill. Senator Keith, for example, warned his fellow legislators, “Our public school children are being molested by secular humanism.” He called evolution “the cardinal principle of religious humanism, secular humanism, theological liberalism, and atheism.”
Not surprisingly, many opponents of the Balanced Treatment law argued that “creation science” was not scientific. Supporters, however, insisted creation-science “is as non-religious as evolution.” They argued that the central tenet of creation-science is that species abruptly appeared in complex form, and that the concept of a creator is “not inherently religious.” Moreover, they contended, the nature of the creator is not central to creation-science. “A fully certified academic biologist,” a court document filed in support of the law noted, had “worked out in some detail” a “strictly secular theory of special creation.” Finally, creation-science proponents pointed to the testimony of expert witnesses, such as that of a scientist who claimed to be “an evolutionist” but nonetheless told legislators that creation-science “can be taught and presented in a textbook without any religious content.” Creation-science draws on information from “such fields as paleontology, morphology, information science, probability, genetics, and classification”—it is scientific, supporters argued. A quotation from an article by Stephen Jay Gould was offered as an example of the sort of evidence that might be presented to students in a creation-science unit: “New species almost always appeared suddenly in the fossil record with no intermediate links to ancestors in older rocks of the same region.”
The law, supporters adamantly claimed, supported “academic freedom.” The state’s only interest is to give students more information about a controversial issue—what on earth could be wrong with that? In its jurisdictional statement filed with the Supreme Court, attorneys representing Louisiana quoted—of all people—Clarence Darrow, John Scopes, and Charles Darwin to support its position: “[It is] bigotry for public schools to teach only one theory of origins” (Darrow); “[I]f you limit a teacher to only one side of anything, the whole country will eventually have only one thought” (Scopes); and “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing facts and arguments on both sides of each question” (Darwin).
The state’s brief described evolution as “a theory in crisis.” It cited numerous scientists who called into question one or more aspects of the theory. Not stopping with evolution, the brief (quoting various scientists) suggested that biochemical evolution of the first life and the Big Bang had “problems equally as serious as biological evolution.”
On December 3, 1981, after Governor Edwin Edwards signed the Balanced Treatment Act into law, a group of Louisiana teachers and parents filed an action in federal district court challenging the law on constitutional grounds. The challengers claimed that the law constituted an “establishment of religion” and asked that the law be enjoined from enforcement. The lawsuit bounced between courts for four years before the challengers were granted summary judgment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and Louisiana appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Review was granted, and the case was set for argument on December 10, 1986.
Attorney Wendell R. Bird, representing the state of Louisiana, told interviewers that he would show “we were entitled to our day in court.” He accused the Fifth Circuit judges, “like the district court judge,” of “plucking their own definitions from thin air of the theory of evolution and the theory of creation”—definitions that should be determined by expert testimony at trial.
Attorney Jay Topkis, working without pay for the ACLU, represented those challenging the Balanced Treatment Act. The law’s defenders, he told a television interviewer, argued that the law’s purpose was to “serve academic freedom and otherwise to advance all good causes including motherhood, the good, the true, and the beautiful.” In reality, Topkis said, creation science is “a religious concept—end of argument; and we hoped the justices would grab it that way.”
During oral argument, Justice Scalia peppered attorneys with questions about whether this or that form of creation would necessarily be religious. He asked the state’s attorney, Wendell Bird, whether creation-science might allow for creation by “a giant slug” as well as a more personal God. Bird agreed that creation-science made no assumptions about the nature of the creator—only that there was one. When it came time for argument by Topkis, Scalia returned to the issue of whether creation by a creator was an inherently religious concept. The justice asked Topkis whether he “considered Aristotelianism a religion?” Topkis replied, “Of course not.” “Well, then,” Scalia asserted, “you could believe in a first cause, an unmoved mover, that may be impersonal, and has no obligation of obedience or veneration from men and, in fact, doesn’t care about what’s happening to mankind—and believe in creation.” “Not when creation means by a divine creator,” Topkis ojected. “That’s the test.” He added that there could be no doubt, given the history of the statute, that Louisiana meant “divine” creation, not creation by an unmoved mover.
Justice Scalia has a reputation for throwing attorneys off-balance with elaborate hypothetical questions. True to form, he posed for Topkis a long hypothetical question—for the purpose, presumably, of demonstrating that a law could have a religious motivation and yet be constitutional. “Let’s assume,” he began, “that there is an ancient history professor…who has been teaching that the Roman Empire did not extend to the southern shore of the Mediterranean in the first century A.D. And let’s assume a group of Protestants who are concerned about that fact, inasmuch as it makes it seem that the Biblical story of the crucifixion has thing a bit wrong.” Concluding his story, Scalia tells Topkis that the upset students march “to the principal of the school, and say, ‘This history teacher is teaching what is just falsehood.’ And the principal says, ‘Gee, you’re right.’ And he goes and directs the teacher to teach that Rome was on the southern shore of the Mediterranean in the first century A.D.” The principal’s order was “clearly” religiously motivated, Scalia asserted, but wouldn’t it also, he asked, be constitutional? Topkis replied that he thought the hypothetical was distinguishable from his case. In the history class example, he said, the principal’s motivation would not be religious, rather “he would be acting out of the scholar’s interest in truth”—a worthy and a constitutional motivation. Louisiana’s motivation, however, “by every index we can possibly have” is nothing but religious, Topkis argued.
Topkis contended that his opponent was trying to “play Tweedledum” by giving “creation-science” a non-religious meaning that it clearly didn’t have. “He wants words to mean what he says they mean,” Topkis complained. “And that didn’t fool Alice, and I doubt very much it will fool this court.” Chief Justice Rehnquist interrupted. “Don’t overestimate us,” he warned. Spectators in the great chamber broke into laughter.
The Court announced its decision in Edwards v Aguillard on June 19, 1987. Writing for the Court, Justice Brennan said the state failed to identify a “clear secular purpose” for the Act, as required by the Constitution. Brennan concluded that Louisiana’s stated goal of protecting “academic freedom” was a sham. The real goal, as he saw it, “was to narrow the science curriculum.” A statement by Senator Keith during the legislative hearings revealed the real intentions of legislators: “My preference would be that neither [creationism nor evolution] is taught.” Brennan asked how a law could be said to support academic freedom when it gave teachers no “flexibility that they did not already possess.” He noted that nothing in prior law prohibited a biology teacher who was so inclined from presenting scientific evidence questioning evolution.
Brennan saw the Louisiana legislature as unmistakably siding with creationists. He noted that the law required that curriculum guides be developed for creation science, but said nothing about curriculum guides for evolution. Moreover, the law specifically forbade school boards to discriminate against any teacher who “chooses to be a creation-scientist” or to teach creationism, but “fails to protect those who choose to teach evolution.” These and other provisions made clear, Brennan said, that the purpose of the law is to discredit “evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism.”
Underlying the law, Brennan declared, were the “same historic and contemporaneous antagonisms between the teachings of certain religious denominations and the teaching of evolution” that led to the evolution ban declared unconstitutional two decades earlier in Epperson v Arkansas. It is not within the power of the state to “restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint” or to prohibit a theory “deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma….The Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose.”
Justice Scalia, in a typically colorful dissent joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, accused Brennan and the majority of deciding constitutional issues “on the gallop” and “impugning the motives” of the law’s supporters. The Court’s conclusion came from “its visceral knowledge regarding what must have been the motivation of the legislators” and essentially ignored much of the testimony presented during seven hearings and several months of study. Scalia suggested that the Court had little basis for deciding whether creation science “is a collection of educationally valuable scientific data that has been censored from classrooms by an embarrassed scientific establishment” or whether it is “not science at all but thinly veiled religious doctrine.” He noted that five academics signed affidavits swearing creation science “was a strictly scientific concept that can be presented without religious reference.” At the very least, Justice Scalia wrote, the Court acted prematurely in concluding the law was religiously motivated and should have let the state courts investigate the matter further.
As far as the Constitution is concerned, Scalia insisted, all that matters is that legislators sincerely believed that creation science was scientific. It is not necessary, for constitutional purposes, that their collective assessment was right. If a legislature full of ignoramuses requires geography teachers to teach that the earth is flat, it is a sorry state of affairs—but not an unconstitutional one. Moreover, the fact that many supporters of the law might also have had religious motivations is of no concern. Scalia noted that the Court would never “strike down a law providing money to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless” just because legislators might have had religious beliefs that influenced their decision.
Scalia left little doubt that he thought the majority let its own views about creation science and evolution—rather than the beliefs of Louisiana legislators—determine the outcome of the case. He reminded the majority that Senator Keith “repeatedly and vehemently denied that his purpose was to advance a particular religious doctrine.” He cited his testimony at the first hearing on the legislation: “We are not going to say today that you should have some kind of religious instructions in our school….I am not proposing that we take the Bible in each science class and read the first chapter of Genesis.”
It surprised many readers, no doubt, when conservative columnist George Will authored a column calling the Court’s decision in Aguillard “insufficiently severe” with the Louisiana legislature. “Stephen Gould, call your office,” wrote Will. He ridiculed the suggestion that “creation science” is a scientific theory, calling it a “dogma” that “is neither based on, nor vulnerable to, scientific scrutiny of the world.” Needless to say, Will offered no support for the man who usually is his favorite justice. He called Scalia’s dissent “dismaying” and compared teaching the creation science in biology to teaching “alchemy in chemistry classes” or “flat-earth doctrines in geography classes.” Facts might “incovenience” beliefs, Will admitted, but when they do so, the proper response should be to say, “Too bad for the beliefs.” Western civilization, according to Will, rests on its “eagerness…to face and embrace facts.”
Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps responding to George Will’s call, joined in criticism of Scalia’s dissent. In an essay entitled Justice Scalia’s Misunderstanding, Gould wrote that “he couldn’t have helped wondering how two justices could have ruled” in favor of Louisiana. After studying Scalia’s dissent “carefully,” the paleontologist concluded the justice “does not understand the subject matter of evolutionary biology.” In Gould’s opinion, Scalia failed to recognize that creation science “is free of evidence” and “merely restates the Book of Genesis.” The dissenters just didn’t grasp that “all scientists’ believe “the scientific evidence for evolution is so conclusive that no one would be gullible enough to believe that there is any real scientific evidence to the contrary.” In Gould’s words, “evolution is as well confirmed as anything we know.” Scalia’s mistake, Gould concluded, lay in equating evolution with “the search for life’s origins,” not—as it correctly signifies—the process by which “life changes after it originates.” Scalia should have known that science has nothing to say about “questions of ultimate origins.”
The intellectual leader of the intelligent design movement, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, had a somewhat different take on the decision. In his words, “Both Justice Brennan and Justice Scalia were in a sense right.” Johnson thought Brennan right in concluding that teaching in a public school “that a supernatural being created mankind” would violate the Constitution. Scalia was right, Johnson thought, in recognizing that “the Louisiana legislature had acted on the premise that legitimate scientific objections to ‘evolution’ were being suppressed.” What Johnson found most interesting about the decision, however, was the way in which the judges used terms like “science” and “religion” to “imply conclusions that…[they] might be unwilling to state explicitly.” As Johnson saw it, calling naturalistic evolution “science” and supernatural creation “religion” is “not very different from saying that the former is true and the latter is fantasy.”
Facts are Stubborn Things
by Douglas O. Linder
It is hardly surprising that Darwin’s theory of evolution should meet with so much resistance. We encounter an idea that comforts us, an account like Genesis 1 that establishes our specialness, and ask: “Can I believe it?” We consider a thing that troubles us, a process like evolution that seems chance-driven and dethrones us from our special place in the universe, and ask instead: “Must I believe it?”
Evolution suggests that our species, if not quite an accident, is an extreme improbability — and, most likely, one whose time is limited — on life’s continuing and circuitous journey to an undetermined destination. Must we believe it? Darwin knew that many people, raised to believe in miracles or magic, would find his theory hard to swallow. In his autobiography, he noted that, as a young man on the H.M.S. Beagle, he had written in his journal of “the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion” that would “fill and elevate” his mind. He lamented that now, older and wiser, believing in evolution and disbelieving in God, even “the grandest scenes” evoked no powerful feelings: “I am like a man that has become color-blind.” Publishing his theory, he said, felt “like confessing a murder.”
When William Jennings Bryan took on evolution in a courtroom in Tennessee in 1925, in the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial, he acknowledged that he did not fully understand the theory of evolution, but said that he fully understood the theory’s dangers and misuse: how it threatened to leave students feeling lost in an uncaring universe, how it could lead to sterilization of the abnormal and diminished concern for the survival of the “unfit.” Bryan cheerfully ignored the evidence for evolution, explaining, “I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up.”
I believe in the theory evolution not because I want to, but because I feel I must, and because, unlike Bryan, I find it hard to reason in one direction or another. Creationists have offered one objection after another — “The immune system is too complex to have evolved,” “Evolution could never produce an eye, because what use is half an eye?” — and each has been answered. As the confirming fossil and DNA evidence piles up, as the theory of evolution reveals itself to be a powerful tool for both explaining the imperfections of species and accounting for transitional species, it becomes ever more difficult to believe in the pleasing creation stories told in Genesis and elsewhere. Facts, as John Adams reminded us, are stubborn things. Whether 20 years or 200 years from now, the accumulating evidence will become so overwhelming that evolution will be as accepted as the Sun-centered solar system is today. (No gloating allowed, scientists.)
Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world.
by Doug Linder (2001)
Assume for a moment that you are a member of a local school board. At a board meeting one night, a parent stands and identifies himself as a spokesperson for a group of upset parents. They understand from their children that geography teachers in the district are teaching students that the earth is spherical—and are not giving the students any evidence at all for the contradictory theory that the earth is flat. The parents demand to know what you and other school board members are going to do about this dogmatic approach that is being taken to the question of the earth’s shape.
What should be the board’s response? Insist upon equal time for the flat earth theory? Drop the controversial subject of the earth’s shape from the geography curriculum? Or option C: Should the board tell the parents, “While you have every right to believe the Earth is flat and even tell your children that the earth is a big blue and green pancake, we have a job to do—and that is provide children with a view of reality that comports with our best scientific understanding”? I think—in this example, at least—we all know the right answer.
In this wonderfully diverse country of ours, it comes as no surprise that there is an outfit called the Flat Earth Society dedicated to making, in the words of its president, the United States “a flat earth nation.” (The president of the Flat Earth Society, until his death two months ago, was--some of you might find some irony in this—a man named Johnson from California. In this case the Johnson is Charles Johnson, not the Prof Phillip Johnson of Berkeley who has made Intelligent Design his crusade.) Charles Johnson was interviewed in Science Magazine in the 1980s—at a time when the Space Shuttle was making headlines. You might have thought that the space program would have created self-doubt among the flat-earthers, but no: Johnson was quoted as saying, “You can’t orbit the earth. The Space Shuttle is a joke—a very ludicrous joke.” As for the moonlanding, Johnson said he had information that the whole thing was scripted by Arthur C. Clarke and filmed in Hollywood. Flat earthers point to the Bible for their faith in the world’s flatness. Johnson noted in his Science Magazine interview that the New Testament says Jesus ascended up into heaven—not out into heaven. The Bible also refers to “the four corners of the earth” and tells of Jesus being taken to a mountain where he could see all the kingdoms of the earth—something clearly not possible on a spherical earth. Johnson says, “Wherever you find people with a reservoir of common sense, they don’t believe such idiotic things as the earth spinning around the sun. Reasonable, intelligent people have always recognized that the earth is flat.” The Society, in case you weren’t told about this in your school, also has scientific evidence to support their flat earth theory. They have checked water surfaces on Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea without detecting any of the curvature you’d expect if the earth were really spherical.
Let’s return to our school board hypothetical. Would your view of what to do be any different if the parents’ complaints concerned teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than what was to their way of thinking the correct view, that the sun revolves around the earth? After all, the parents point our, the Bible clearly suggests an earth-centered system: Joshua 10 tells of the sun standing still in the midst of the sky. In 2 Kings, God brings the sun ten degrees backward in the sky. And Ecclesiates tells of the sun going down and hastening to the place where it arises.
This, of course, was once a big-time controversy. Friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that the earth traveled around the sun, rather than the other way around. The same belief, published by Galileo, led to his conviction and arrest in 1631. Not until the time of Pope Leo XIII in the late 1800s did the Catholic Church back off its earth-centered view.
What should the school board do here? Same answer, right?—tell the parents that they have a constitutional right to believe whatever they want about the configuration of the solar system, but the board has a duty to recognize the scientific consensus in favor of the Copernicun system.
Next example: Creationism. Parents show up and demand that biology teachers present evidence that supports their view that Genesis, not Darwin, got it right when it comes to explaining the variety of life on earth. It all happened in six days about 6,000 or so years ago. The earth was created first, then a few days later, God got around to installing the sun and a few thousand stars. Anything that suggests a contrary view—like radiometric dating or radio telescopes--is a hoax or somehow flawed.
Should the Board respond any differently? Is there significant support for a young-earth view among scientists? The only thing that makes this situation different from our flat earth and earth-centered solar system examples is that there really are (difficult though it may be to understand) substantial numbers of Americans who cling to this young-earth, Creationist view. To tell our students that there is serious scientific doubt about the age of the earth is to mislead them. There isn’t. And to spend class time discussing a young-earth view would be fully as preposterous as would wasting time presenting evidence that Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” in a movie studio in southern California.
As a school board member, you’d have another reason not to accede to the parents demand that Creationism be given equal time with Evolution in the school’s curriculum: The United States Supreme Court has ruled, in a 1987 case called Edwards v Aguillard, that such so-called “Balanced Treatment” laws constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The Court found that the only justification for requiring discussion of Creationism whenever evolution is discussed is a religious one—not an academic one. Creationism, the Court concluded, was a religious theory, not a scientific one.
Which brings us to the theory that has brought us here today. Once again you are working your way through a school board agenda when a group of parents rise to complain about the way biology classes are being taught in the district. They’ve learned in their churches, read books, visited websites, and seen videos that suggest biology teachers aren’t telling it like it is—they’re covering up evidence that suggests species don’t evolve into other species. They’ve learned, on the other hand, that scientific evidence shows that species do not evolve into other species: that species are separate and distinct and have all been put here as part of an intelligent design. They demand that you do something to insure this cover-up comes to an end. They want the school board to compel teachers to present scientific evidence that undermines Darwin’s theory of evolution. They want teachers, for example, to present evidence that some biological features are too complex to have evolved, and that the fossil record has failed to produce enough “missing links” to make the case for macro-evolution.
What do you do? Is this the Creationism controversy all over again? Is Intelligent Design (to use a KU biology professor’s description) just “Creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” or is it something genuinely different?
This is where it gets hard. And I want to be as fair as I can to those who believe in intelligent design. I have friends who believe in intelligent design. Our next-door neighbors—very nice people—believe in intelligent design. If by “intelligent design,” its proponents only meant that some intelligent designer (whether it be God, space aliens, or a giant slug) is using evolution to accomplish some intelligent purpose (one in which we humans might be major players), we wouldn’t be here. This evolution-is-part-of-God’s-plan view is, essentially, the view of the Catholic Church, most Jews, and most mainline Protestant denominations. There is no necessary conflict between a belief in evolution and a belief that God is real and working in the world. The theory of evolution says nothing at all about the existence or non-existence of a benevolent, intelligent designer. Evolution doesn’t require an intelligent creator, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility either. The theory of evolution simply provides a powerful scientific explanation for the variety of life on earth. It is the core concept of biology. It is not a disproof of religion.
Moreover, let me say this: If a school board were to compel its teachers to tell students that “evolution proves that there is no God; that everything is explained solely in terms of chemicals and natural processes,” that school board would be violating the First Amendment. To dogmatically teach Atheism in the public schools would be just as unconstitutional as teaching Fundamentalism. Science teachers should teach science.
The problem today arises because the proponents of Intelligent Design are not content with the weak view that accepts evolution. Instead, they argue that the evidence suggests individual species were individually and intelligently designed. Humans and the great apes, for example, did not have a common ancestor some 6 million years ago. The fact that humans and chimps share over 98% of the same genetic material proves little. The “missing links”—the early hominids that keep inconveniently popping up in Africa—all must be new and separate species. It’s just a coincidence that the most mammal-like of all reptile fossils appear just before the most reptile-like of all mammal fossils. The fact that no tenured biology professor (as opposed to law professors, hydrologists, or even a handful of biochemists) at any of the top-ranked universities shares their conviction in the folly of evolution shows only how widespread the Darwinian conspiracy is.
Public schools shouldn’t teach Intelligent Design for the very same reason that they shouldn’t teach flat-earth or Creationist theory. Because it is nonsense. We do our students a disservice by suggesting to them that there is a raging controversy among the world’s most prominent biologists about the basic explanatory force of evolution. There isn’t any such controversy. We know—just as surely as we know that the earth revolves around the sun—that evolution has spawned earth’s wonderful diversity. We have an obligation to tell our students the truth, not whatever a group of well-meaning but misguided intelligent design theorists think we should tell them.
Design theory is not science—at least not as we usually think about it. Scientists assume that the physical world operates through unbroken natural regularity. Every scientist who conducts an experiment assumes that neither God, nor the Devil, nor any other supernatural being will affect the results.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a teacher observing that not everything about evolution has been scientifically established, or pointing out that there are disputes between those who believe evolution has proceed gradually and those who believe it has operated more punctually, but that’s a far cry from teaching against evolution and in favor of Design Theory.
I’m a law professor. I’m supposed to tell you about the law as it relates to this controversy. I wish I could tell you that the Constitution is clear about this. I’d like to be able to say, “There’s no reason for any of us to worry about the Intelligent Design threat—the Supreme Court will step in and save the day if it has to.” I can’t tell you that. The law is not clear.
The Constitution may prevent states and individual school boards and teachers from promoting religion in the classrooms, but it doesn’t prevent states or school boards or teachers from doing stupid things. If an ignorant bunch of legislators became convinced the earth was flat—simply from their own observations and not because of Biblical Fundamentalism—and required flat earth theory to be taught in the schools, there’s not a lot the Constitution can do about that. In retrospect, it was stupid for medical schools to teach the use of leeches to deal with various diseases, but that wasn’t unconstitutional either.
The key question under the First Amendment is this: Is the state (or board or teacher) acting out of religious convictions or simply out of their own misguided understanding of science? If Intelligent Design Theory is introduced into classrooms to promote Christian Fundamentalism, that is unconstitutional. If it is introduced because legislators, or board members, or individual teachers become convinced (or misled) into believing that there is a serious scientific controversy about evolution that students need to know about, then that is likely to be found to be constitutional.
Finally, what does all this say about the individual teacher who takes it as his or her mission to promote Intelligent Design theory in the classroom? Does the teacher have a First Amendment right to teach Design Theory? Is this what academic freedom is all about? Could a board or principal step in and remove or reassign the teacher to another class? It’s not a “slamdunk,” as the term is used, but I think the better answer is “yes, they do have the power to remove or reassign such teachers.” They do for the same reason a geography teacher who insisted upon teaching flat earth theory could be removed: incompetence--failing to present students with the information they need to have to continue with study in the field. Firing teachers just to suppress a disfavored viewpoint may violate the First Amendment, but states have the power and the duty to ensure competent teaching.
The temptation is for states and school boards to compromise intellectual integrity in order to silence vocal critics. Besides, “balanced treatment” is in vogue right now. This works in favor of the Intelligent Design proponents. Every broadcast station or newspaper feels a need to be non-judgmental; to present both sides of every issue. A flat-earth controversy in Olathe? Better dig up a spokesperson for the flat earth viewpoint! Few in the media have the courage to say: “This view is right, and that view is wrong.”
My question—for which I give no answer—is this: Is it better for educators to hit the issue of Intelligent Design head on, or to ignore it and hope that it will go away. Is it better to expose the so-called “refutations” of evolution? Is it better to make clear to students what a tiny, tiny minority of professional scientists subscribe to Intelligent Design theory? By saying nothing about Intelligent Design, do we harm our students who have been duped into thinking that there is a raging controversy going on among prominent biologists? Do we just teach evolution—or do we teach against the misleading information pouring out of Intelligent Design proponents?
John Adams, our second president, is hot right now. A biography about him by David McCullough is on top of the bestseller list. Let me quote John Adams, who said in 1770, as an attorney in the Boston Massacre trial, “Facts are stubborn things.” Yes, facts are stubborn. They insist on being considered. In the end, I believe, facts will lead to the downfall of Intelligent Design theory. But that may take awhile. Remember, it took the Catholic Church over 200 years to remove its ban on the publication of Galileo’s book, Dialogue in Two World Systems.
And when the evolution controversy dies down, the Big Bang and pre-Big Bang controversies will be here to keep us entertained. In so many ways, it seems, science is undermining our pleasant beliefs about the specialness of our species and our place in the universe. It takes both courage and imagination for religious people to reconcile the facts of science with a God-centered view of the world. But it can be done.