The Holy Wars, part MMMCXXVII: a small correction on Scopes

If you needed another proof that the Founding Fathers were pretty smart guys when they noted that fights over religion are intractable and produce strife because they involve ultimate questions decided according to dictates of conscience, we have yet another proof. In recent weeks there has been a resurgence of internicine fighting amongst the pro-science blogging community over the issue of religion. The Holy Wars threads involve the debate between two camps: I think the camps are neutrally described as follows (feel free to hurl invective my way if you disagree).

First, we have the “religion per se is the enemy” camp, represented by bloggers PZ Myers and Larry Moran, and represented nationally by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steve Weinberg, etc. Second, we have the “religion per se is not the enemy” camp, represented by Ed Brayton, John Lynch, me (1, 2, 3), Pat Hayes of Red State Rabble, Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, various national science and science education groups, and probably a majority of PT contributors (although the “Separation of Church and PT” camp, also known as the “shut the heck up about religion/anti-religion and talk about science” camp, may be largest).

This dispute will not be resolved anytime soon. It goes back at least to the different approaches of Darwin and Huxley towards science and religion. Both were basically agnostics – Darwin started out a theist, gradually moved towards Deism which was his position around 1859, and ended up an agnostic later in life; however, he refrained from anti-religion polemics in his publications and went out of his way to reassure correspondants that having a natural explanation for the origin of species did not conflict with enlightened religious views. Huxley invented the term “agnostic” to distinguish himself from atheists, but nevertheless conducted a vociferous public campaign against religion.

With such a long-standing dispute I think a good strategy is to focus the discussion on narrow points. Here is an example. Over at the Kansas Citizens for Science forums, PZ Myers is doing the right thing and talking with the actual people on the ground who have been fighting the ID creationists’ strongest push for years, thus far with success. In the course of this discussion, PZ writes,

Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board.

Edwards v. Aguillard.

McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education.


Each one was the court case to finally stamp down the creationist threat. Each gave us a little reprieve. These were necessary rulings, we’re right to celebrate them, but be realistic: they haven’t changed a thing. Not one thing.

You know the creationists are working just as hard now as they were before any of those rulings. John Calvert did not vanish in a puff of smoke. There will be more court cases in the future.

What are you going to do when we lose one? Give up? Why do you think the other side will be deterred by legal losses?

There is an interesting mistake here. In actual fact, we did lose one of these cases: Scopes v. Tennessee, in 1925. John Scopes was convicted by a jury of his peers of teaching evolution and fined $100. His conviction was later overturned on a technicality, but the constitutionality of Tennessee’s antievolution law, the Butler Act, was never reviewed (which had been the original ACLU plan).

And in actual fact, the consequences were rather dire, supporting PZ’s point about the dangers of losing court cases. Although the fundamentalists “lost” in the national press as they were subjected to humiliating commentary from the pundits, the law banning the teaching of evolution remained in effect in Tennessee. Several other states and many local school districts passed similar bans. As a result, by 1930, textbook publishers had systematically deleted evolution from their textbooks, which they wanted to sell in every state. And this was the status quo for 40 years in this country, until Sputnik inspired the reform of U.S. science education and Susan Epperson successfully challenged Arkansas’ ban on evolution in the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas.

Now we come to an important question: why, amongst all of the cases we have won, did we lose Scopes? I won’t pretend there is one single answer, but here is a major factor: Clarence Darrow. The ACLU’s strategy was to focus on the constitutional separation of church and state, but Darrow, a famously in-your-face agnostic, thought differently. Not originally on the ACLU legal team, as the most famous defense attorney in the country, Darrow successfully shoehorned himself into the “trial of the century.” Unlike the ACLU, Darrow wanted to make the trial into a national platform for advancing his views about the validity of Christianity. He succeeded spectacularly when he goaded William Jennings Bryan into taking the stand as a witness for the prosectuation and, in the famous climax of the Scopes trial, spent hours cross-examining him about classic Sunday school Bible puzzlers like the question of where Cain’s wife came from.

It made for a fantastic legend, and when Bryan died a few days after the trial it appeared as though Darrow had personally slain the dragon of fundamentalism. But legally speaking it was irrelevant. The judge excluded all of Bryan’s testimony, the jury voted to convict, and the Darrow-versus-Bryan spectacle completely obscured the serious constitutional issues that the ACLU had been trying to raise. When the case reached the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court dodged the constitutional issue (which would have been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court) by overturning the conviction on a technicality which might have been caught earlier had not the world been occupied with the Darrow/Bryan circus. No one else challenged the evolution bans – plaintiffs didn’t want to replay the Scopes circus and serve as a megaphone for the Darrows of the world, and evolution was no longer in the textbooks anyway, depriving teachers of their major reason for teaching evolution in the first place.

Eventually evolution got back into the schools and therefore the court fights began again. This time, we have been decisively winning these fights, mostly because the lawyers and scientists involved have been careful to make the necessary important distinctions, rather than just haring off on another Darrow-esque crusade against religion.

The necessary distinctions are something like the following:

1. Evolution trials are ultimately about the constitution, not about who has the right or wrong religious views.

Science can be taught in public schools precisely because it focuses on questions about the natural world which are resolvable by publicly available and testable data; the core questions of religion, and either positive or negative answers, are conclusions about ultimate questions that are supernatural and beyond empirical resolution.

2. Science education is protected by the Constitution, but only as long as it doesn’t pretend to rule on religious questions.

Hypotheses must be constrained to be testable with physical evidence; but the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, inscrutable God that theists believe in is unconstrained by definition. Science can say that resurrection is impossible according to natural laws, but the whole point of a miracle is that supernatural action suspends natural laws. From the founding of this country we have made a pragmatic decision that these sorts of religious questions should be left outside of the government’s purview.

3. The public, and the judges they indirectly select, will ultimately come down on our side as long as the issue is our real, religiously-neutral science (which, conveniently, is constitutional), versus the creationists’ narrow religious views being disguised as science.

The creationists know that this is the fundamental dynamic at play here, and this is precisely why they try to gussy up their views on religion with scientific trappings. This then leads to endless merriment as we creationism-watchers get to ferret out and expose the deceptions they are putting forward, and this leads to courts declaring antievolution policies to have sham purposes.

The only easy way to mess this up – which fundamentally is a great situation for us – is to have Darrow-types take over and redefine science and evolution to be equal to atheism. I think that deep down, even the Darrows know this is correct, which is probably why we are seeing the current wave of “religion per se is the enemy” only after the Kitzmiller decision and subsequent defeats of the creationists, every single one of them achieved by hard working members of the “religion per se is not the enemy” camp. Of course, when the anti-religion people do this they’re just sowing the seeds of the very thing they most fear – the next creationist wave. To me this seems like unnecessary foot-shooting. But heck, it’s a free country.