Part III

Past and Present series

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When, in 1996 Pope John Paul II – now prancing around Heaven as a saint – said that “fresh knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis”, Amanda Chesworth, head of an anti-creationist Darwin Day group, pointed out in The Guardian that “at the time, newspapers in Mississippi wrote that this proved the Pope was senile and should be ignored.”

She added: “It is very, very scary. Creationism is spreading further and further. It now has missionaries across the world and even has bases in Russia and Turkey.’

Since then Turkey, in 2017, banned the teaching of evolution in high schools, deeming it “controversial and difficult to understand.” In the same year, an academic article by Dr. Mert Mercan at Turkey’s Marmara University Medical School had a study rejected for having “too much of a reference to the theory of evolution.”

The main thrust of The Guardian report was that the religious campaign to block the teaching of evolutionary biology “is taking an inexorable grip on the US.”

Guardian science editor at the time, Robin McKie, wrote that a survey published in Scientific American revealed that the doctrine of creationism – which holds that the origins of humanity and the Earth are recent and divine – “is spreading in the world’s greatest technological nation at a disturbing rate. More and more states are restricting the teaching of evolution in schools.”

Nothing I’ve read since indicates that opposition to Darwinian teaching is on the wane. Indeed, as I show later, the opposite is true.

But first, some history: Edward B Aveling, Vice-President of The National Secular Society, who took over the editorship of The Freethinker when its founder, GW Foote was serving a year’s sentence with hard labor for “blasphemy,” had an enduring interest in Darwin, and got to meet the great man at his home in 1881, the year The Freethinker was launched – and a year before Darwin died aged 73.

Image via Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

Accompanied by atheist Dr. Ludwig Büchner, President of the International Federation of Freethinkers, Aveling, spoke of many things to Darwin and his family. When the subject of Christianity arose Darwin declared: “I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age.”

Wrote Aveling:

I commend these words to the careful consideration of all and sundry who claimed the great naturalist as an orthodox Christian … I confess that a great joy took possession of me as I heard a statement by its implication so encouraging.

I, like the rest of the outside world, was not sure as to his position in regard to religion. Now, from his own lips, I knew that before I was born this, my master, had cast aside the crippling faith. The step taken by so many of us had been taken by him long ago. What a strength and hope are in the thought that the first think

At the beginning of his essay, Aveling expressed fury over the reaction of religious leaders to Darwin’s death in 1882:

Since the death of our great teacher, the clergy, who denounced him aforetime with that volubility of which long practice in the art of vituperation has made them consummate masters, have claimed the illustrious dead as one of their flock.

Not content with burying in Westminster Abbey the man whom they had all reviled and maligned, the man at whose great discoveries they had sneered, they have had the audacity to say that the teaching of Evolution is wholly in accord with that of the Church and of the Bible.

Aveling wrote that, by that time, pretty much all faith leaders felt that the theory of evolution posed little danger to religious beliefs, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church and The Salvation Army.

They alone have clung to god, and been deaf to the voice of science … The Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford is of opinion that Charles Darwin is even now suffering the tortures of the damned.

In fact, from Darwin’s death until a surge of Christian fundamentalism in the US early in the 20th century, the teaching of evolution remained surprisingly uncontroversial.

According to Randy Moore, writing for BioScience in 2001, in the early 1900s, biology textbooks “were characterized by a diverse coverage of evolution. A few textbooks did not mention the word evolution (e.g., Hunters Elements of Biology, published in 1907; Peabody and Hunt’s Elementary Biology, published in 1913), whereas others devoted entire chapters to the subject.

Wrote Moore:

In most textbooks, however, evolution was featured prominently – so much so that William Jennings Bryan [The Trump Before Trump] complained that he could not find ‘any text book on biology which does not begin with monkeys.’ Indeed, one textbook, The Elementary Principles of General Biology (Abbott 1914), dedicated more than 8,000 words to topics related to evolution.

However, in the 1920s, US fundamentalists, hellbent on imposing their idea of “morality” on Americans, set out to translate their beliefs into political reform.

After a successful crusade against liquor laws, they set out to eliminate discussions of evolution in public schools.

William Jennings Bryan advertising poster. Image via Heritage Auctions, public domain (prior to 1927)

Moore said:

Led by religious leaders such as William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, and – most prominently – William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalists began a campaign that blamed Darwin’s ideas for the decline of the nation’s morality.

Fundamentalist preachers such as Billy Sunday (a former Chicago Cubs outfielder) used theatrical services to link evolution with eugenics, prostitution, and crime; Aimee Semple McPherson presided at ritual hangings of ‘monkey teachers’; other preachers claimed that Darwin’s ideas promoted the four P’s: prostitution, perversion, pornography, and permissiveness.

At the time of his writing The Lingering Impact of the Scopes Trial on High School Biology Textbooks, Moore concluded:

A variety of people and groups continue to subvert the teaching of evolution. For example, Republican party platforms in several states endorse creationism.

Misgivings about evolution are not limited to politicians and publishers. Indeed, many biology teachers – regardless of the textbook they use – teach the subject of evolution either poorly or apologetically.

Other biology teachers do not teach evolution at all, because they do not know enough about the topic, because they are intimidated by antievolution politicians or administrators, or because they are creationists who reject evolution altogether. In these instances, textbooks are relatively insignificant. Even the National Science Foundation has tried to placate the public’s concerns about evolution; for example, it has deleted the word evolution from public abstracts of funded proposals.

So where do we stand today?

In spite of the fact that evolutionary theory is accepted by all but a small number of scientists, it continues to be rejected by many Americans. In fact, about one-in-five U.S. adults reject the basic idea that any life on Earth has evolved.

But there may be good news in the offing. A more recent Gallup poll showed 55% of Americans accepting not only evolution but human evolution—the first time in the majority. More than half of those still see it as an instrument of God’s will, but I’ll take a win where I can get it.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....