Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: Some Words on Evolution and the Politics of Publishing

Conflict occurs at multiple levels. Principally, it is a tension created within the mind of an individual when confronted with information and beliefs that appear to be in opposition. Preachers, teachers, writers, media and so on often reinforce dicotomies rather than look for middle ground. These conflicts are, as they have always has been, between competing sources of authority. Conflict, where it has existed, has never been and will never be as simple as “all religion against all science,” for the contest for authority is also being fought out within religions and amongst scientists.

At first glance the current conflict between evolution and creationism appears to be a clear exemplar of the “conflict thesis.” But under closer inspection, it involves setting Christian biblical literalism against religious liberalism as well as against evolutionary and geological science.

The origins of our modern situation are reviewed in Bronislaw Szerszynski “Understanding Creationism and Evolution in America and Europe.”  “What was new and arguably more significant in Darwin’s work,” writes Szerszynski, “was the idea that the emergence of new and often more complex species could be explained by ‘natural selection’: by the way that environmental pressure will favour the reproduction of those individuals that possess certain characteristics, a process that over a long period of time can radically alter the characteristics of an interbreeding population.”

The influence of Darwin’s ideas are indisputable. But as his ideas circulated in wider society, they were used to legitimate an extraordinary range of socio-political ideologies, from Marxism to eugenics and ideas of racial supremacy. And since the 1940s, when genetics was combined with the idea of natural selection, producing what became known as “the modern synthesis” or neo-Darwinism, Darwin’s ideas have come to be seen as a hugely important part of our understanding of living things. With the success of rDNA technology in the 1970s and the reading of the human genome in the early twenty-first century, biological science attained an extraordinary symbolic significance as a potential basis for technological innovation, capital accumulation, medical advance, and environmental protection. Thus it is terribly important to keep in mind that Darwin and his theory of evolution have come to symbolize a cluster of cultural values (e.g. Enlightenment reason, anti-dogmatism, but also the modern project of mastering nature for the well-being of humanity); and that these values are threatened by the rise of creationism in the last few decades.

From the beginning, reaction to Darwin’s ideas among the religious were complex and varied, ranging from outright rejection to enthusiastic acceptance. But today “the polarized public contest between the advocates of naturalistic evolution and those of scientific creationism tends to mask the diversity and complexity of contemporary belief,” making it increasingly difficult to form a measured assessment of the doctrine of creation amongst religious thinkers. Thus Szerszynski wants to understand creationist beliefs, “not in the form of public polemics and campaigns but in terms of the private beliefs and opinion polls.” He says we need to “situate” these beliefs against the religious landscapes of Europe and America.

In trying to understand creationist beliefs, Szerszynski pursues three different types of studies. The first consists of mainly historical studies of the individuals and organizations that have been actively promoting creationist ideas over the last 100 years. According the Szerszynski, creationist ideas have evolved tremendously over the last century. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), for example, was not a strict biblical literalist, since he subscribed to a “day-age” creationism in which each day of Genesis was to be interpreted as a geological epoch. However, George McCready Price (1870-1963) insisted on a literal reading of Genesis, and thus a young earth. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris continued Price’s arguments in their own work. By the 1990s there was significant new development with the rise of a theory of Intelligent Design (ID). The key development of ID were worked out in  Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991) and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996). Soon thereafter Stephen Meyer established the Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington, with funding from the Discovery Institute, a non-profit policy think tank best known for its advocacy of ID and “Teach the Controversy” campaign. According to Szerszynski, despite some temporary victories, ID has not been recognized as a credible scientific research program.

Another kind of study consists of quantitative data gathering, most common in America but also carried out elsewhere, which try to determine the distribution in different national populations of ideas about the origin and development of life, and of human beings in particular. Gallup polls, for example have found fairly consistent results over the last quarter-century, indicating a high incidence of creationist beliefs among Americans: in 2008 44% of those polled adhered to some form of creationism, whereas 36% adhered to theistic evolution , and only 14% supported evolution by natural selection. The numbers were markedly different elsewhere. In the EU, for example, an average of 70% polled adhered to evolution, “ranging from over 80 per cent in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France to 50 per cent or less in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Cyprus.” Surveys and polls, however, are always problematic, and Szerszynski points out some issues. But “overall it appears from poll data that, while in America the ratio of young-earth creationists to theistic evolutionists to naturalistic evolutionists is approximately 45:35:15, in Europe it is probably more like 20:20:45.”

And finally, the third kind of study involves attempts to understand why people believe in evolution or creationism. In both cases, however, reductionistic reasons have been given for belief, failing to do justice to why people hold to an evolutionary perspective or the creationist one. In place of this kind of study, Szerszynski wants to “attend to individual sense-making processes.” Combing the historical, quantitative and qualitative studies, he says, might help to place creationist beliefs in socio-historical context, and thus offer a much better understanding of them.

It has become a commonplace in the literature on creationism to say that the main reasons creationism is less common in Europe than in America are, first that European society is more secular, and, second, that the religious life of the continent is dominated by churches that have broadly accepted the truth of Darwinian evolution. Szerszynski rejects such platitudes. According to such scholars as diverse as David Martin, Peter Berger, and José Casanova, European thinkers had developed their theories of inevitable secularization by generalizing inappropriately from a distinctively European experience of religious decline. In any case, it has become recognized that secularization is not “a single, unified, and linear process but one that proceeds in ways that are contextually specific.”

According to Szerszynski, “attending to the broadly contrasting nature of religion in America and Europe can not only help explain differential distribution of creationist beliefs but also provide insight into their differential societal meanings.” In Europe, for example religion is significantly woven into its tradition through binding symbols and rituals, whereas in America religion is shaped by pilgrimage and revolution, in the very rejection of old churches and their hierarchies.

Szerszynski also contrasts modern European and American educational systems and, using recent sociological research, suggests that religious education is just as important as scientific education in shaping popular attitudes to evolutionary science and to creationism. For example, Europe is characterized by greater levels of state control over educational systems than is the case in America. And, interestingly enough, polls conducted across European and American schools found that whereas most teachers in Europe favored discussing creationism in classrooms, American teachers did not. Even more interesting, recent statistical research on American and European “civic scientific literacy” showed that “28 per cent of American adults but only 14 per cent of European Union adults qualified as scientifically literate.”

But scientific literacy is not enough, says Szerszynski; religious literacy is just as important here—if not more. In stark contrast to American educational institutions, religious education has been a standard element of most European school curricula. In this context religious education has two goals: the first is confessional; the second is that of stimulating a reflexive understanding of religion and its place in history and contemporary society. This leads Szerszynski to the conclusion that “the strength of American creationism is not simply a product of the buildup of resentment among religious communities that their own teachings and values are not represented in education of the young; it is also a product of the lack of religious literacy in the second sense among the American population. So religious education is arguably as important as scientific education in creating the conditions for the public to understand and critically assess the significance of creationist ideas.”

The theory of evolution has indeed come to symbolize a cluster of cultural values, and in some sense has become a particular kind of “civil religion” for modern society.  In the cultural conflict between the two worldviews of evolutionary theory and creationism, evolutionary theory became a boundary object: “the progressivists used evolution as a new salvation narrative which underscored progress and human achievement, the fundamentalists saw it as a symbol for a godless, immoral culture.” Thus it should be no surprise that American creationists see this “atheistic humanism” as reducing the human to mere biology. Europeans, on the other hand, have found an alternative way. In the European context, writes Szerszynski, “a very different humanism, grounded less in the natural sciences and more in the humanities and social sciences, has helped provide not just a vocabulary for thinking about…’the human condition’ but also its own critique of biological reductionism that has nothing to do with either biblical literalism or religious enthusiasm.” “Instead of interpreting the creationist controversy simply as an issue about science,” he concludes, “perhaps we should use it as an occasion for reflecting about the importance of the development of such rich vocabularies for the full flourishing of what is to be human.”

The aggressive American-style evangelism now spreading around the world has chosen evolutionism as a symbol of the modernizing social trends it abhors. Of course there are more localized issues involved too, illustrated keenly by Adam R. Shapiro’s “The Scopes trial beyond science and religion,” demonstrating that the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 was made possible only by political decisions concerning the buying of new high-school textbooks in Tennessee, the publicity of a small rural town, and American self-identity. Rather than seeing the Scopes trial as another episode in the inherent “conflict” or struggle between science and religion, Shapiro wants to situate its uniqueness in Dayton, Tennessee.

In 1923 Tennessee governor Austin Peay took note of existing contracts with textbook publishers, which were set to expire the following year. In 1919 the state had signed a contract fixing the prices of textbooks for the next five years. The timing was unfortunate. Tennesseans would have to pay an increased fee for classroom textbooks, two months before Peay would have to stand for re-election. Thus “Peay, along with his Commissioner of Education and political ally, Perry L. Harned, devised a strategy to avert this political difficulty.” In April 1924, the State Text Book Commission unanimously decided to defer the adoption of text books until 1925. “Thus a political difficulty was converted into a boon. Voters would not feel the effects of a price increase until after the election, preventing it from becoming an issue against Peay in the election.”

This deferment, however, left Tennessee schoolchildren with a ten-year-old biology textbook; namely, George W. Hunter’s 1914 book, A Civic Biology. But biology textbooks had changed significantly since Hunter’s book was first written. Indeed, Hunter’s book was central to the trial. One month before the trial, for example, William Jennings Bryan wrote to a colleague: “If you have not read the book in question, ‘Hunter’s Civic Biology’, I suggest you get it. It certainly gives us all the ammunition we need.” Shapiro notes that other textbooks published in 1923 and 1924 had adopted, unlike Hunter, a more cautious attitude towards evolution. The Civic Biology, moreover, focused on issues of quarantine, food safety, and the improvement of human society (including a substantial section on eugenics), and thus was geared towards urban schools, not rural areas like Rhea Country, Dayton’s county seat. Indeed, when Tennessee adopted Hunter’s book in 1919 it was adopted for all public schools in the state. Rural populations like the one in Dayton found it deeply offensive that they were compelled to use a biology textbook that touted the benefits of urban life, rather than the more traditional structure of botany, zoology, and physiology.

There was also some publicity at stake. Shapiro reminds readers that the “citizen of Dayton seized upon the opportunity to host a test of the anti-evolution law as a means to promote their town.” Indeed, after Scopes was indicted, other towns attempted to follow suite, when citizens of Chattanooga sought to co-opt the publicity of the trial by indicting a schoolteacher of their own. Dayton had experienced the boom and bust of industrialization, and thus needed to reinvent itself, to draw more people into their rural community. One way of drawing in the population was to portray Dayton as the typical American town, one pamphleteer declaring that Dayton was “America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of fruit and corn and dares and littler groves.” “In one sense,” Shaprio suggests, “claiming that Dayton was Main Street, USA, was an attempt to establish Dayton’s character as typically American.”

According to Shaprio, “the complex network of concerns over economy, culture, industry, demography, and education was aligned by competing groups in the Scopes trial and then replaced by the universalizing rhetoric of science-and-religion conflict.” The trial “created a science-religion conflict more than it ever accurately embodied a pre-existing one.” And finally, “it was people—not ideas—that fought in Dayton. The reasons they were fighting were much more complicated than whether ideas they held were incommensurable.”


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