Summer for the Gods

I’ve just finished rereading Ed Larson’s book Summer for the Gods. I first read this book in graduate school, before I had developed any serious interest in evolutionary biology.

The book is about the Scopes’ trial and its aftermath. As an account of the trial itself, it pales in comparison to L. Sprague de Camp’s much better book, The Great Monkey Trial. But Larson does provide more historical context than Sprague de Camp.

It is striking how many of the themes of the Scopes trial still have resonance today. Local control of school curricula vs. the establishment clause of the first amendment. Confidence about the fact of common descent vs. disputes over the relative importance of different mechanisms of evolution. A modernist view of science and progress vs. antiquated fundamentalist religious views. Issues for the ages.

The part that really struck me, however, was this:

From the moment that he objected to courtroom prayer, a noisy segment of those opposed to antievolutionism blamed Darrow for the failure of the Scopes defense to stem the tide of fundamentalism – criticism that only increased after Bryan’s death. Their reasoning reflected their own religious viewpoint. Some secular critics of the Tennessee law defended Darrow, but the Chicago agnostic was as much a pariah to religious modernists and mainline Christians as he was to fundamentalists. “Now that the chuckling and gigling over the heckling of Bryan by Darrow has subsided it is drawing upon the friends of evolution that sceince was rendered a wretched service by that exhibition,” Walter Lippmann wrote for The New York World. “The truth is that when Mr. Darrow in his anxiety to humiliate and ridicule Mr. Bryan resorted to sneering and scoffing at the Bible he convinced millions who act on superficial impressions that Bryan is right in his assertion that the contest at Dayton was for and against the Christian religion.” Speaking from the region most directly affected, the New Orleans Times-Picayune commented, “Mr Darrow, with his sneering `I object to prayer!’ and with his ill-natured and arrogant cross-examination of Bryan on the witness stand, has done more to stimulate `anti-evolution’ legislation in the United States than Mr. Bryan and his fellow literalists, left alone, could have hoped for.”

Darrow, of course, did not object to prayer. He objected to the Court opening with a prayer led by a fundamentalist minister, especially in a case so suffused with religious concerns. He also did not mock the Bible. He merely mocked Bryan’s amazingly simplistic views on Biblical interpretation. He did this to show the absurdity of taking every verse of the Bible literally, and to show that even Bryan had to allow for possibilities like the days of Genesis referring to arbitrarily long periods of time. This was significant in the context of the trial. It pointed to a vagueness in the wording of the law under which Scopes was being prosecuted. The law referred to the Biblical story of creation, but it was not at all clear precisely what that story was.

Darrow, in other words, was not being hostile to religion or prayer in general. He objected merely to the insertion of a sort of prayer that was likely to prejudice the jury, and he objected to the idea that a literlist reading of the Bible was the only acceptable one. These are ideas with which modernists and mainline Christians are supposed to be comfortable. Yet if Larson is correct here, they were not able to make the relevant distinctions when it really counted.

And so it is today. We atheists are constantly lectured about how mainline Christian denominations have no problem with evolution, how they are embarrassed by fundamentalists, and how they too favor a strong separation of church and state. But does anyone have any doubt that if the events of the Scopes trial were replayed today, the reaction from theological moderates would be exactly the same as what is described above? Many theological moderates suddenly become not so moderate when it actually matters.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    March 13, 2007

    I suspect that the term “religious moderate” covers such a large and varied territory that it is not actually meaningful. For example, a “religious moderate” could be an Easter-and-Christmas type of Catholic who honestly believes in the dogma but doesn’t find the rituals central to their spiritual life. The same term could also cover a person who goes through the motions to please their family and friends, but doesn’t actually believe. We also have “moderates” who are intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan: they know the ins and outs of all the apologetics, and they disapprove of fundamentalism intruding into public schools (and hence may speak out vocally against Intelligent Design), but they find philosophical grounds on which to justify worshiping a Creator. Depending upon personal preference, the Creator may be the deist Watchmaker type or a more interventionist species, and the intellectual in question may worship a deity who is more traditional (intervening, loving and bearded) than they attempt to justify on philosophical grounds.

    These are not all the same kind of belief. You can shake the faith of a “Sunday Creationist”, but not of a professional apologist.

    (I know this isn’t the way the word is used, but doesn’t “Christian apologetics” sound like a bunch of people going around and saying, “We’re sorry! We’re sorry!”)

  2. #2 realpc
    March 13, 2007

    People who only learned the Chistian creation myth, and nothing about modern science, are likely to accept it without question. This goes for any “facts” we learn as children, if we never learn anything that contradicts them.

    People who unlearn the Christian creation myth during college, and learn the neo-Darwinist account, are likely to stick with neo-Darwnism as long as they never learn anything that contradicts that.

    They learned Christian creationism, and this was later supplanted by neo-Darwnism, and they did not investigate further.

    So they perceive the new evolution controversy as if it were the old Scopes trial revisited.

    But there are many other angles on evolution, none of them mentioned in either Sunday school or college. And the current evolution controversy is about some of those other angles. It is much deeper and much subtler than the old evolution vs creationism debate.

  3. #3 valhar2000
    March 14, 2007

    I have no doubt that it would play out like that. For example, how many times have we heard that Dawkins’ “inflamatory rhetoric” have advanced the fundamentalist cause more than the fundamentalists could?

    Let’s not forget also that fact that the fundamentalists in America have influence everywhere, from the White House and Congress to local governments and school boards, even though supposedly the majority of Christians are not like that. But then, when criticism of religion comes along (criticism, not censorship or violence of the fundamentalist kind) religious moderates just can’t wait to get in there and tell off those bothersome atheists who are advancing the fundamentalist cause mroe that the fundamentalists ever could.

    So, when election day comes, where are all these moderate Christians? When people are discriminated against for not being Chrisitan every day all over the US, where are all these nice, good, friendly people?

    They are either not that good, or not that numerous compared to the fundies.

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