Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
“Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further in the pursuit of the truth.”
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Hymn of the Universe,” (Harper and Row, 1961).
It took the jury fewer than fifteen minutes to convict substitute teacher John Scopes of the crime of teaching evolution to Tennessee public school students in 1925. It was the last victory of Christian fundamentalists in their war against the disciples of Darwin, and a hollow one at that. Although the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law, it reversed the verdict because the trial judge had imposed a $100.00 fine on Mr. Scopes, contrary to a provision in the Tennessee constitution requiring a jury to assess fines exceeding $50.00. In sending the case back, however, the court made the unusual suggestion that further prosecution not be pursued. Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 SW 363 (1927). It was not.
Fundamentalists were emboldened by the Scopes verdict. In 1928 Mississippi and Arkansas adopted similar laws and in the ensuing years, the subject of evolution was effectively dropped as a topic in many high school science courses, a trend that was not reversed until the Sputnik scare in 1958 led to a revamping of science curricula. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court decreed that laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools violated the Establishment Clause. Epperson v. Arkansas, 397 U.S. 97 (1968).
With direct bans no longer available, fundamentalists pursued a new strategy, the adoption of “balanced treatment” legislation requiring that teachers provide time for the exploration of the Genesis story of creation as an alternative explanation of biological origins. In 1983 a federal district judge threw out Arkansas’ balanced treatment statute, concluding that creationism is “not science because it depends upon a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law. It is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable and is not falsifiable.” McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 529 F. Supp. 1255, 1267 (E.D. Ark. 1982). Several years later, Louisiana’s balanced treatment statute was also found to violate the Establishment Clause under the Lemon test. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
Efforts to recast creationism as science under the name “intelligent design” were rebuffed in the now famous case of Fitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp.2d 707 (E.D. Pa. 2005), in which the court succinctly stated that “[intelligent design] cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” 400 F. Supp.2d at 765.
But the war is far from over. Creationists are once again in court, and this time they are urging that the teaching of evolution in the public schools is itself a violation of, inter alia, the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses because evolution theory incorporates the “core tenets of Religious (‘secular’) Humanism.”
Cope (a/k/a Citizens for Objective Public Education, Inc.), et al., v. Kansas State Board of Education was filed on September 26th in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The case seeks to enjoin implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by the Kansas Board of Education in June of this year. Those standards are objectionable under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, according to the plaintiffs, because they endorse the “orthodoxy” of scientific materialism, which “holds that explanations of the cause and nature of natural phenomena may only use natural, material or mechanistic causes, and must assume that, supernatural and teleological or design conceptions of nature are invalid.” (Complaint, para. 8) Plaintiffs contend that teleological and materialistic explanations of the natural world create “competing religious beliefs.” (Complaint, para. 75).
The allegations are absurd on a number of levels. First, Plaintiffs have adopted a definition of religion which eliminates any requirement for belief in a supernatural entity. Second, Plaintiffs’ reasoning, if pursued to its logical conclusion, would virtually preclude the teaching of science in the public schools because their objections go to the basis of what we understand as the scientific method. Third, Plaintiffs rely upon the same flawed dualism that taints most fundamentalist arguments, the false assumption that acceptance of the findings of evolutionary biology are incompatible with religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular. The great paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin, for example, who is quoted above, regarded evolution itself as part of the process of divine creation.
This latest assault on science is not the first time that creationists have relied on the Secular Humanism argument In Crowley v. Smithsonian Institution, 636 F.2d 738 (D.C. Cir. 1980), the court rejected the claim that a museum exhibit of evolutionary processes constituted a governmental endorsement of Secular Humanism. The court held that the Establishment Clause does not prohibit a science display which may happen to be in agreement with a tenet of a particular religion. And in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, supra, the court observed, “Yet it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause.” 529 F.Supp. at 1274.
Fundamentalists have failed in their attempts to create science out of religion. There is no doubt that they will also fail in their attempts to create religion out of science. The only serious remaining question is why we must continue to have the discussion.