Last month “Inherit the Wind,” the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, which is loosely based on the 1925 Scopes trial, received its first professional stage production in Nashville, Tenn.
I was asked to be part of a public panel on religion and science. About 60 or 70 people came to listen and pose questions to me (a religion professor), the artistic director of the theatre, a federal judge and a biology teacher. Below is an edited copy of my opening remarks.
On Aug. 7, 2004, an event took place in Dayton, Tenn. Seventy-nine years after the famous Scopes Trial, a rally was held in Dayton for Roy’s Rock.
Judge Roy Moore of Alabama had been removed from his position for his unauthorized placement of a monument of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse.
Those who decided to take this monument on the road for a tour decided to start in Dayton. It is a sign that the conflict that erupted in the trial of a young biology teacher in 1925 is not over.
The trial did provide us a temporary resolution, however, that can be described as a “two spheres” approach. Creation got our religious selves and evolutionary biology got our scientific selves.
We have to acknowledge at the outset some of the serious problems with “Inherit the Wind.” I agree with Edward J. Larson’s analysis (see his fabulous book Summer for the Gods) that it is much more a play about the 1950s than it is about the Scopes Trial and the creation-evolution debate, with William Jennings Bryan as a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy.
Its oversimplification of issues and caricaturing of the people involved in the trial limit its helpfulness in the contemporary debate. The most widely known advocate of the so-called “intelligent design” movement, a California law professor named Phillip Johnson, includes a scathing attack of “Inherit the Wind” in his standard anti-evolution speech. The play is an easy target for such attacks.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist kid in the North. All but two of my 13 years of public education took place in Illinois and Wisconsin. I went to Sunday school and studied the Bible, and I went to school and was taught a science curriculum that was thoroughly evolutionary in its assumptions.
I was perfectly satisfied to live in two separate worlds and not ask how they were related to each other. When I was a senior in high school I heard a presentation by a prominent religious speaker who argued for creationism and a scientific reading of Genesis. It is easy now to see how facile and ridiculous his arguments were, but he was an extremely effective communicator, and for about two years I adopted a creationist position.
I went away to the University of Illinois and majored in biology, of all things. The evolutionary biology I was taught there brought my scientific side back to its senses, but still nothing I could find would help me to integrate my two spheres.
After a few years of teaching high school biology, I went to seminary where I earned a master of divinity and a Ph.D. There, I finally began to discover some resources for helping me in this search.
It is no accident that the Scopes Trial erupted in the American South of the 1920’s. This was the period when Modernity began to make serious inroads in parts of America that had been relatively untouched by it.
The incursion of Modernity set up a fierce struggle with the religious ideology that had gone unchallenged, and evolutionary theory was the most visible challenge to fundamentalist Christianity
Scopes established the two spheres approach to science and religion. Religion gets the church and the schools get science, and both spheres thrived. William Jennings Bryant’s melodramatic quotation, “If evolution wins, Christianity goes”–if he actually said it–could hardly have been more wrong.
One of the major shifts characterizing Postmodernism, however, is a move away from compartmentalized knowing toward integrated knowing.
The two spheres approach fits Modernity well, but the interdisciplinary world of the 21st century will not abide it. Religious thinking and scientific thinking must be integrated.
Scientific creationism is one approach to this task, and its new manifestation, Intelligent Design, is gaining tremendous popularity. This view is based, however, on faulty understandings of science and religion. Its primary mode of presentation is pointing out the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.
Making clever use of an old fallacy called false dilemma, ID equates disproving Darwinian evolution with proving divine creation. At every point where science is judged to be inadequate in explaining the condition of the world, in steps a “God of the Gaps” to fill the void. A God of the Gaps, however, is under a constant threat of extinction as science advances and eliminates the gaps.
On the other hand, many theologians have been hard at work for the last few decades on an integrated understanding of science and religion that allows each field its own sense of identity and integrity and they have accomplished half of the job. From Teilhard to Jurgen Moltmann to Dorothee Soelle, they have collectively developed adequate–and even brilliant–articulations of a theology of creation which are compatible with the findings of modern science.
What remains is the task of communicating their work to a wider audience. My hope is that this possibility is not drowned out by the loud, anti-intellectual preaching from one side and the lazy posturing of an uncritical approach to “Inherit the Wind” on the other.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.