Eighty-five years ago this week, John Scopes was hauled into a Tennessee court, and accused of violating the state’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach evolution. So much and so little have changed since then, but one thing remains the exact same: God and Darwin are still fighting after all these years, at least in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
So, if the fight hasn’t changed, what has? Well, for one thing, the balance of power has shifted. Eighty-five years ago, it was Mr. Scopes that was in court fighting for the right to include Darwinian evolutionary theory in his school’s science curriculum. Now it is biblical literalists who are bringing the suits in a system which accepts science as the norm.
Without minimizing the very real challenges presented by people who would give faith-driven claims an equal place in our science classrooms as those claims which are in fact scientific, the balance of power on this issue has really changed. That fact should encourage no less vigilance in defense of science books, not the Bible, being the text in our biology, earth science and human origins classes. But it should encourage a more open and gentle approach to those with whom we disagree.
Those with the most power should always be a little gentler with those who have less. However annoying and even dangerous some biblical literalists may be, they are the little guys in this fight. We should not be surprised that biblical literalists are so aggressive. That’s what the little guy has to do. This doesn’t get them a free pass, but it might help us to move this conversation from one which generates a great deal of heat to one which actually generates some light.
Personally, I find the fight unnecessary. For me there is no inherent contradiction between faith in the Bible and trust in the best available science. But I know that for many people that is just not so. They insist that it is either science or faith which must win out – that the two are irreconcilably incompatible. And it is those people who have made sure that God and Darwin are still punching it out in our courts and in the media.
But one need not believe that faith and science, even the Genesis story and Darwin, are entirely compatible to know that thrashing each other is not going to get us to any meaningful and lasting solution to this deeply divisive issue. That we are still fighting after 85 years is clearly proof of that.
We need to shift from a conflict-driven approach to a conversational approach on this and most other socially divisive issues. In a conflict, someone must lose for things to be resolved. In a conversation everyone needs to be engaged for it to be successful. The adversarial process of litigation demands a winner and a loser, so each time we try and resolve this debate through legal wrangling, we actually guarantee further fights – fights which serve nobody well but angry ideologues and expensive lawyers.
Instead of trying to win, each side should begin asking what it might learn from those on the other side of the issue. And each side should address what the limitations of its perspective are. Science and faith may both have a place in good education, including good public education, but they are not the same thing.
No matter how much people call it “Intelligent Design” or anything else, while it may be appropriate to teach non-science driven explanations for the origin of the universe, they shouldn’t be confused with the science driven ones. The difference between them is not that one is right and one is wrong. The difference is far more fundamental.
The distinction between science not connected to faith and science which is, is that faith-connected science confirms again and again that which it already believes. The science model however, seeks to falsify what it already believes as a way of pushing science forward. Science celebrates discovering its errors as much as its accuracies. That is hardly true for the faith driven accounts of the origins of our universe and species. That difference alone is, while both may have a place in our curricula, they do not belong in the same course.
Why should there be a place for both? Because they address different issues. Science wrestles with “How” things come to be. Religious approaches are concerned with “Why” things come to be. Both are important questions, but it is important to know that they are different questions. When either tries to masquerade as the other, it does a disservice to both.
So after 85 years of squabbling in which all that has changed is which side has more power, perhaps it’s time to stop litigating and start talking about both the how and the why of human origins. Both are fundamental to good education. We don’t need to hide from either question, as much as we need to learn the rightful place of each them and a respectful approach to the many answers that will hopefully be offered in response.