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A Little History of Creationism in the US

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

— Amendment I to the U.S. Constitution

Scopes Trial: Dayton, Tennessee, 1925

Sometimes called “The Scopes Monkey Trial,” John Scopes, a substitute science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution, a violation of Tennessee law at the time. On the seventh day of the trial, Clarence Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling William Jennings Bryan, counsel for the prosecution, to the stand as a witness in an effort to demonstrate that belief in the historicity of the Bible and its many accounts of miracles was unreasonable. Bryan accepted, on the understanding that Darrow would in turn submit to questioning by Bryan.

Darrow questioned the story of Jonah, the account of the Earth standing still, and the Ussher chronology. Bryan responded by steadfastly adhering to belief in the reported miracles, but asserted that he did not know how old the Earth was, as the Ussher chronology was only a calculation of men. When asked to explain the use of the word “Day” in the first chapter, he said:

“I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter—let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: ‘These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,’ the word ‘day’ there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, “the evening and the morning,” as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, ‘in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth.’”

The questioning continued into whether Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where Cain got his wife, and how many people lived in Ancient Egypt. The celebrated “duel in the shade” was very heated with Darrow telling Bryan, “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.” In response Bryan declared: “The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.”

Bryan, gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was “to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible.”

Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.”

The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow lasted approximately two hours. It is likely that it would have continued the following morning, but Judge Raulston announced that he considered the whole examination irrelevant to the case and decreed that it should be “expunged” from the record. Thus Bryan was denied the chance to cross-examine Darrow, which would have been very interesting.  Scopes was convicted and fined $100.  The Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, was not repealed until 1967.

Dover vs. Kitzmiller, Dover Pennsylvania, December 20, 2005:

In one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Trial, a federal judge barred a Pennsylvania public school district from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class, saying the concept is creationism in disguise. The ruling was a major setback for the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, which was also waging battles in Georgia and Kansas. ID asserts that living organisms are so complex that they must have been created by some kind of higher intelligence.

A six-week trial over the issue yielded “overwhelming evidence” establishing that intelligent design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” said Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and a churchgoer, appointed to the federal bench by G. W. Bush. Jones decried the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover policy and accused several board members of lying to conceal their true motive, which he said was to promote religion. The school system did not appeal the ruling, and the members who backed intelligent design were ousted in the next election and replaced with a new slate opposed to the policy.

The eighty years between the Scopes trial and the Dover trial saw a major change in the thinking of Americans about evolution vs. Biblical creationist thinking. In 1925, several states, including Tennessee, had passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Scopes Trial had a major influence on the reversal of religious influence in our schools. In the 60’s several Supreme Court decisions abolished organized prayers in public schools, and in 1985, it struck down an Alabama law requiring students to observe a period of silence for private prayer on the basis that it promoted religion in public schools.  In recent years, the Religious Right has made a concerted effort to reverse that trend by attempting to reintroduce religion into high school science classes. This was done under the guise of ID a pseudo-scientific veneer on the old fundamentalist ideas of Creationism. In 2004, Lee Strobel, an evangelical Christian author, published a book called, “The Case for a Creator.” Strobel’s book promotes the “science” of ID, and draws heavily from the members of the Discovery Institute. The founders of the Institute are the originators and main promoters of ID. The remainder of this essay is a review and critique of Strobel’s book that puts his “Case” on trial.

The first two chapters are autobiographical. The author describes himself as an atheist in his younger days. He explains how he came to religion, by using his investigative powers, honed as a journalist, to seek out the truth. He writes that he is a “skeptic” and that he decided to ask questions and “go where the answers take me” with a completely open mind. Strobel is honest in the title of the book, which makes clear that this is a book of religious advocacy. He is less honest with the reader when he attempts to portray himself as an objective reporter just looking for facts, insisting that a reporter should interview both sides in a controversy and get all points of view. He describes his experiences as a cub reporter in West Virginia, covering a controversy over school science books. It is a good introduction to the issue of science vs. faith. He handles it in a balanced way, indicating his initial bias toward science, but in the final paragraph he shows his true colors when he states:

If Darwinism is true…then there are five inescapable conclusions:

  • There’s no evidence for God
  • There’s no life after death
  • There’s no absolute foundation for right and wrong
  • There’s no ultimate meaning for life
  • People don’t really have free will

The term “Darwinism” is used throughout the book to imply that belief in evolution is a “faith.” The reader is repeatedly hammered with this idea. Making evolution into an “ism” equates it with other belief systems like communism, socialism and worse yet, liberalism and secularism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Theory of Evolution is a scientific theory, as is all established scientific knowledge. The Scientific Method is a way of organizing knowledge based on the postulation of theories and the observations related to those theories. Scientific knowledge is all “theoretical.” At any time in the future, new experiments and observations may cast doubt on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but in the meantime, a lot of evidence has been amassed that supports it, so it is generally accepted as fact. The same can be said of Darwin’s theory. Nowhere in the book did I see the word Creationism which most certainly is a faith-based belief system because there is no evidence to support it.  The implication is that while belief in evolution is faith, belief in intelligent design is just good science, instead of the opposite, as Judge Jones determined.

Regarding the five points above: Whether evolutionary theory is correct or not, there is no evidence that any supernatural being exists, or that there is life after death, and there is nothing in evolutionary theory that precludes either one. Regarding right and wrong and meaning for life: What is right in America is not necessarily right in Cambodia or Africa or in Eskimo villages in the Arctic. Different societies have different codes of conduct, and they have all changed over time. Christianity has no monopoly on moral codes. All faiths (and nonbelievers) have their own take on the meaning of life. On the question of free will, the whole edifice of Christianity is dependent on the idea of free will.  Without it, there can be no sin and salvation.  Much has been written about this, and I will not attempt to repeat those arguments here.  Suffice it to say that there is a lively debate about the influence of genetic heritage and life experiences on the human decision-making process.

So, having barely started this book, I already have a basic disagreement with the author.

Strobel characterizes the era of the 60’s as a “quicksand of morality” caused by “relativism and situational ethics.” It was a time of tumultuous change in our society; the Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Liberation, especially sexual liberation. Before that time, the United States had been steeped in Victorian morals for a long time. (To a great extent, many areas of the country still are.) There is nothing absolute or permanent about those morals. English society was more sexually liberated in Shakespeare’s time, four or five hundred years ago. They were Christians too. Morals and social customs change, and have changed many times in the history of man. The Christian religion advocates fixed, absolute moral standards. The writer is showing his conservative religious orientation in his judgmental characterization of the 60’s.

He quotes many people on the conflict between Evolution and God, concluding finally that belief in evolution rejects God, even though he admits that some scientists are Christians. I tend to agree with him here, although it does depend on the definition of God. The Christian God described in the Bible is much too “hands on” in his alleged management of the human race to turn over the creation of Man to the process of natural selection. But even Christians admit that Man will never understand the workings of God. They cannot explain the brutal slayings of innocent people by evil tyrants, terrorist acts, etc. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he is allowing (or causing) such things to happen, and if he is a good and just God, he must have his reasons.  What could they be?  Strobel never addresses that question.

His selection of a quote by Daniel Dennett is a more than a bit prejudicial. Dennett calls Darwinism the “universal acid” that “eats through traditional concepts.” In other words, it’s corrosive and destructive. A clever bit of negative slanting.

At the end of this chapter, Strobel relates how his lack of religion enabled him to become a wicked person when he was young. This is pure evangelical diatribe. The implication that only religious people are moral and ethical is arrogant, intolerant and demonstrably untrue. Maybe he requires religion to lead a moral and ethical life. Many people do not.

Bert Bigelow is a trained engineer who pursued a career in software design. Now retired, he enjoys writing short essays on many subjects but mainly focuses on politics and religion and the intersection...