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The Religion-Science Debate 85 Years After Scopes

posted by Brad Hirschfield

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.
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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.



  • jestrfyl

    It’s been 85 years and the fight goes on and on and on. Look for Michael Zimmerman’s “Clergy Letter’ and his promotion of Evolution weekends (coming this year February 13, 2011) for a religious response to the Creationist idealogy (idolatry?). Zimmerman is a prof at Butler Univ and has been working n this for a few years. The list is getting quite long of clergy who have signed onto this letter in support of science education. I signed on the first year, and every year since. Science and faith are both approaches to mystery and take different approaches. They cannot be or do the same thing without diminishing each other.
    Some day Scopes will be fully vindicated and we will allow God to be god and evolution its rightful place in the subtle but beautiful process of Creation.

  • roy

    “And each side should address what the limitations of its perspective are.”
    The Creationist side recognizes no such limitations.
    And they bullies, make no mistake about it. And that is what they need to be stood up to, and put in theit place.

  • newt

    if there are always at least two sides to every issue -as this blog entry would have it- then should not, in discussions of World War II, the Nazi side of the story be given equal weight and an equal opportunity to be heard?

  • Curt Cameron

    You seem to agree that evolution, not creationism, should be taught in science class. That puts you squarely on one side of the “fight.” The creationists want their religious ideas taught as science, you and I can see that they’re simply wrong. Maybe a conversational approach would help convince them, but any compromise here is unacceptable.
    Also, I’d amend your next-to-last paragraph. Science wrestles with “how” things came to be. Religion makes stuff up and declares it to be true. I know of no examples where religion has advanced our knowledge of the world, either about the “hows” or the “whys.”

  • tom

    “And each side should address what the limitations of its perspective are.”
    In others words, Rabbi Brad is calling for ‘bipartisanship.’
    Well, look at Washington politics: the Republicans – from whose ranks the Creationist absolutists all come- stonewalled every effort by the Obama administration to think of the country first and be bi-partisan. Plus the Bush Administration rode roughshod over the Democrats in passing legislation while it was in office. THESE ARE THE SAME PEOPLE with whom Rabbi Brad wishes to engage in ‘respectful’ dialogue! In Biblical terms, they are latter-day AMALEKITES.
    After all, it was former House jeffa Dick Armey who famously intoned “Bipartisanship is date rape” !

  • veronica

    Curt Cameron writes, “I know of no examples where religion has advanced our knowledge of the world, either about the “hows” or the “whys.”
    Most people aren’t so forthcoming about telling the world what they don’t know. Thanks, I think.

  • withyobadself

    god is everywhere and everything…god doesn’t need his children to be involved in the world…some people believe others are trying to shut god out… you can never shut god out of anything…these people who want the bible taught in public schools are wanting this for profit only…anyone who feels the need to keep god in public schools and in america are people who’s faith is weak…the closer your are to god the easier it is to let go of the false power the world offers… and allows you to care more about people and prepares you to welcome your death… tn and the rest of the bible belt use god for personal gain and profit…there are more churches in the nashville area than any other city… churches are a business run by thieves…

  • Hector

    Tom doesn’t quite get things right when he writes: “Well, look at Washington politics: the Republicans – from whose ranks the Creationist absolutists all come”
    See:
    http://www.rationalskepticism.org/creationism/creationism-on-the-political-spectrum-t8148.html
    Sample quote from atheist Michael Shermer:
    “The fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed or rigid human nature. This is a variant of genetic determinism and is a criticism leveled against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology because of the deterministic implications that we are resistant to political reforms and economic reapportionment policies. Interestingly, the first five reasons above tend to arise from the political right because of its strong religious conservative bent that sees evolutionary theory as a challenge to fundamental religious doctrines; this last reason surfaces from the political left because it is strong liberal bent that sees evolutionary theory as a challenge to their fundamental political doctrines. I call these positions conservative creationism and liberal creationism, respectively.” (Shermer, Michael, “Foreword: Why People Do Not Accept Evolution” in Prothero, Donald, R., “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters”, Colombia University Press, 2007. p. xii)

  • withyobadself

    hector… glad to hear your out of the closet…what tom meant in his statement is… the republicans are for no regulation…less government…tax breaks… no unions…for the rich. there are not enough rich people in america to keep the republicans in office so the republicans rely on the not rich vote…the ignorant not rich people who vote republican believe some how they are the righteous people chosen by god to stop the gays stop abortion …stop things that have nothing to do with improving the life style of the not rich… obama is trying to give the not rich better lives by regulating the corporations and banks that run the country…the republicans study this website to see how ignorant the not rich republican voters are…and also jesus said have nothing to do with this world… the christians are very involved in the politics of the world and their hearts are filled with hate that cant stand seeing a nigger in charge… christians will truly be punished by god..

  • tom, jr.

    Charedi apologist Hector: the business about ‘liberal creationism’ is gibberish – Shermer’s silly attempt to be ‘even-handed’ – and you know it!
    What “ID” stands for, is intellectual dishonesty. Best example:
    former (Baruch haShem!) BELIEFNET blogger David Klinghoffer who exploited his BELIEFNET opportunity to propagandize for his day job at the anti-evolution Discovery Institute. Klinghoffer tried to dance around the on-line critiques of ID offered by Tumarion,e.g., since he could not refute them intellectually; and when that didn’t work, continually engaged in ad hominem attacks against those who pointed out the folly of his “Intelligent Design” position.

  • Hector

    Tom, Defending Chareidim in one instance does not a chareidi apologist make.
    Also, Tom, the charts shown here:
    http://www.gallup.com/poll/108226/republicans-democrats-differ-creationism.aspx
    indicate that your use of the word “all” was mistaken. If you want to change that to “almost all,” go right ahead.

  • tom III

    Hector:
    The poll is nonsense. It is a known fact that, being too embarrassed to tell the truth, Americans are particularly prone to lie
    on surveys regarding religious belief and practice: i.e., they claim to be more pious and observant than they really are. For example, you know all those polls showing how “religious” Americans are, as attested by self-reported info about worship attendance? Field work done in chuches demonstrated that the number of people actually attending – as opposed to those who tell pollsters they attend -are much fewer than the poll numbers boast!

  • Zvi I Weiss

    In their own way, the “scientists” are just as intolerant as the “creationists”. Thre are (beleive it or not) some “gaps” in the THEORY of Evolution. It may be a useful tool to work with BUT it is still a THEORY and we have not ever actually seen one species “eolve” into another.
    To treat anyone who raises questions as being “intolerant”, “unscientific” or what ever is just as bad as some of the rabid creationists. Even if we believe (and that is why we call it “belief” and not “fact”) that G-d create the entire world and even if we believe that it was created “directly” by G-d — doe snot mean that such a matter is overtly obvious to all. On can usethe Theory as a TOOL or MODEL to try to understand the world around them — even if htis tool is imperfect.
    My own suspicion is that “Scientists” argue so strongly agianst “Creationists” because they do not WANT to admit to the possibility of a Divine Being who created the world becuase then their OWN moral conduct may come into question. After all, if you do
    not believe in a Divine Being (or believe in one who set evolution in motion and then “walked away”) it is a lot easier to claim that you can do “whatever you want” without any cosequences beyond those that Society has dictated….

  • Stephen

    Davar aher:
    This reminds me of the story of the husband and wife who weren’t getting along so they went to the rabbi for help. The man told his story. The rabbi said, “You’re right.” The woman told her story. The rabbi said, “You’re right.” The man objected, “But rabbi, we can’t both be right.” And the rabbi replied, “You’re right.”
    Except in this instance both sides can be right within their respective spheres. There are science textbooks in our schools from which our children are taught science. There are religious writings from which are children are taught a great many things. But science is not one of them. The Bible doesn’t exist to teach us science, but it does exist to teach us many other important things.
    Va’ya’ar Elokim ki tov. And G-d saw that it was good. It is important to learn this, but it’s not science. And that’s what both sides in this debate need to learn.

  • G

    Rabbi Hirschfield really has it right with ‘conversation’ rather than ‘conflict’. In fact, there are many issues facing societies ib this world that need ‘conversation’ and not ‘conflict’.
    Sadly, it is my observation that ‘conflict’ seems to be winning the day over conversation’ in too many issues today.
    In America it appears that there is an ‘ideological civil war’ between groups along the lines of liberal vs conservative which includes the religious factions in which this issue of evolution vs creation is encapsulated.
    The stakes of this conflict keeps getting raised by leaders of conservative religious groups and by leaders of liberal religious groups and non-religious groups.
    Among evangelical Christian leaders I have heard in their messages them actually say things to the effect that if the Bible isn’t literal then everything they teach and believe is completely false and erroneous and therefore they have come to the conclusion that evolution must be fought down to the last man in the courts and schools and public opinion.
    So, sadly in my opinion they have set up a scenario to completely destroy faith among their followers by disallowing some breathing room for their followers to be able to adjust their faith accordingly as science uncovers more and more the workings of the cosmos. Rather than adjust, what they are facing is a feeling of ‘complete defeat’ and destruction of their way of thinking thereby creating a fanaticism in the ranks to defeat this monster called science.
    I expect that the battle lines and trenches are only going to widen and deepen in this and that conversation isn’t going to find a platform.

  • withyobadself

    when someone is truly close to god… they dont care about whats going on in the world… they just care about being good to others … people fight over this and that because their faith is weak and they dont feel god in their hearts…people want to put christian books in schools to have a billion dollar contract with the public schools… republicans in office tell average income americans if they dont vote republican then they are not good christians…republicans in office give millions of dollars to churches to make sure the christians vote republican….do jewish temples get government money???

  • http://flipperthedolphin Phillip Smith

    Thankyou, so much for this article, Rabbi.I always have, and will continue to, appreciate your balanced approach to many matters, and this one is no exception. I truly agree with you, that all this debate is truly trivial and just plain silly. Allthough the argument hardly bats an eyelid here in Australia, it is almost sadly, as much as I love America(I’ve been there about 5 times), endemic in the U.S. One of my favourite theologians of today, and there are too many to mention here, is an Australian, whom we had the pleasure of hearing for a second time at Common Dreams Conference 2 in Melbourne of April of this year. She says in “Like Catching Water In A Net-Human Attempts ot Describe the Divine” “Instead of people arguing over what the Bible does, or does not state on this and that, why not let the Bible speak for itself”. Thanks once again, Rabbi, and all the best.

  • orach hashulchan

    it turns out that Zvi L Weiss – ardent defender of the racist Slonimer Hasidi- is a phony frummie. To wit, his (mis)use of the defective spelling of the word God as G-d.
    Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z’l, was the definitive decisor
    for (American) Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century. If anything, his rulings learn toward the more stringent. He has ruled – original Hebrew text of this responsum available upon request – that except when quoting texts verbatim from scripture or liturgy which contain the Tetragrammaton (which is NOT the case here), the proper HALACHIC usage is the plenary rendering ‘God.’
    Heaven knows, there is already far too much superstition and faux piety circulating these days masquerading as religosity; there is no need to add to it through the promiscuous and superogatory usage of ‘G-d’ for the divine.
    Also, note that in English, it is the ‘dirty/curse words’ that are spelled defectively in print – e.g., s–t, f–k, etc.; tell me, Mr. Weiss, why do you consider ‘God’ to be a dirty word?

  • Donald Wolberg

    Unfortunately, history is frequently altered by perceptions, missing the reality. Mr. Scopes was not “hauled” anywhere and in actuality he willingly became a “test” for the Bulter law. In truth, although he taught biology, Scopes never was certain if he actually taught “evolution” in his classroom and what is certain, is that he never really understood much about evolution or Darwin. Scopes never went to prison, the $100 fine which was his “penalty” was never paid and overturned on a technicality. As I recall, the Butle law was actually upheld quite late, long after Darrow and Bryan were dead. “Inherit the Wind” is a glorious play and even as good film with Frederic March, Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly as the obnoxious reporter. But, “Inherit the Wind” is more of what everyone wants the Scopes episode ot be, and is not a good representation of what it was.
    There really is not much of a debate any longer between rational scientists and rational religionists. The issues that exist are contrived by those that deny the validity of either within its own sphere. It is still unclear if a satisfacty “bridge” has been found at the boundaries of each that allow meaningful interchange of ideas. Religion and its pursuit, I suggest, is not science (it is not less than science, or more–just different). The same is true of science and the scientific method. In some sense, although his scientific gloss has tarnished, Steve Gould is much more appealing that Richard Dawkins. In his last years, although very much a Huxley agnostic, Steve seemed to look towards a view of science and religion as separate realms, each with its own boundaries and each no less secure within its own realm. I am not certain if he really was a “liberal” in his views or looking for another difference between himself and Richard Dawkins (the current leading “science” exponent of atheism contrasted with the current “intellectual exponent, Christopher Hitchens), or Daniel Dennett). Dawkins certtainly has exceeded the bounds of his capabilities as a scientist in his seriously violent confrontation of what he thinks religion is all about. Unfortunately largely ignored is Simon Conway Morris, a truly gifted paleontologist who I think can bridge the widening chasm between science and religion.
    I think that a discussion is needed of whether a real dialog between science and religion is possible. I also wonder wheter such a discussion is really needed.

  • Your Name

    Zvi I Weiss also mis-states the use of the word ‘theory.’ In common parlance, ‘it’s only a theory’ refers to having an idea that has yet to be tested. In academic language, theory has more to do with rational thought, backed up by empirical data. When the republicans, or the fundamentalists, or anyone else wants to shoot down something they disagree with, they say it’s just a theory, a half-baked idea.
    May the half-baked polemicists go back to their lairs and talk to each other. They want an audience to agree with them, and refuse to allow for scientific, data-based opposition to their ardently-held religious beliefs. Even Darwin had religious beliefs. That didn’t stop him from thinking. Rationally.

  • super hebrew

    what about the people who want to have alien creation taught in public schools. The belief that aliens created mankind should be taught before the teaching of christianity or jewyism.

  • Mr. Incredible

    withyobadself says:
    when someone is truly close to god…they just care about being good to others …
    Mr. Incredible asks:
    What, in the biblical sense, constitutes “being good to others”?
    Must I also be “good” to the Devil? Was Jesus “good” to the Pharisees? How ’bout to the moneychangers in the Temple; how “good” was He to them? Where Jesus calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” was He being “good” to them?
    How was Jesus being “good” to others?

  • Mr. Incredible

    As far as my being “good” to others, what does God consider a passing grade? Is it 80% “good” to others passing? Must I be 100% “good” to others? If 100%, how can anyone get a passing grade??
    No one can be good enough, in the worldly sense. Being “good” in the biblical sense means giving the Word of God. That is precisely what Jesus did. There were times that Jesus had to step on toes in order to get somebody’s attention.

  • http://ThusSayethMe.com Dr. Paul Fauteck

    Mainstream believers have no difficulty accepting both intelligent design and evolution. The best of them, in my opinion, take sacred scripture seriously but not literally. The main source of the uproars are a) so-called scientists who are completely closed-minded to any faith and b) people who take scripture literally, but not so seriously as to let it alter their bigotry and arrogance.

  • Mr. Incredible

    Dr. Paul Fauteck says:
    Mainstream believers have no difficulty accepting both intelligent design and evolution.
    Mr. Incredible says:
    Yes, they are doubleminded. 1 foot in, 1 foot out. Lukewarm.
    Dr. Paul Fauteck says:
    The best of them, in my opinion, take sacred scripture seriously but not literally.
    Mr. Incredible asks:
    In other words, to them, nothing in the Word really happened. Well, then, they aren’t Christian.
    For instance, either Jesus was literally resurrected, or He wasn’t. No fuzzy in-betweens. Either God said, “Light be!” and the light shown in the darkness at His command, or He didn’t command the light to be and light didn’t/doesn’t show in the darkness. If one, or the other. They either actually happened, or they didn’t actually happen.
    Dr. Paul Fauteck says:
    The main source of the uproars are a) so-called scientists who are completely closed-minded to any faith and b) people who take scripture literally, but not so seriously as to let it alter their bigotry and arrogance.
    Mr. Incredible says:
    Again, either the events we read in the Word of God happened, or they did not. Either the things that God promises us are real, or they are not. My experience matches the experiences of great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great multitudes of others. They are experiences, not fantasies, nor imaginations.

  • Mr. Incredible

    CORRECTION
    If one, or the other. — > It’s one, or the other.

  • Mr. Incredible

    Where do I go to find out what’s “good” and what’s “good enough”?
    Where do I go to find out what the grading standard is?
    When doing “good,” whether to other people for approval, or what? Will God ask them what they think, then grade me, based on THEIR recommendations?
    Before doing “good” to somebody, should I ask that somebody what “good” THEY want me to do, then do what THEY want? Should I come to this board and ask these people, then do whatever they tell me? Will THEY listen and do what I tell them what’s “good”?? Is it a one-way street, or a two-way street?

  • Mr. Incredible

    CORRECTION
    When doing “good,” whether to other people for approval, or what? — — > When doing “good,” do I look to other people for approval, or what?

  • withyobadself

    Mr incredible… its not good to search for knowledge…asking god why he does the things he does… will only hurt you…Search for truth… truth is already in your heart when you are born…some follow it…some only care about personal gain…

  • Mr. Incredible

    withyobadself says:
    Mr incredible… its not good to search for knowledge…
    Mr. Incredible asks:
    Who says?
    What’s “good”?
    Not search for what “knowledge”? Whose “knowledge”?
    withyobadself says:
    …asking god why he does the things he does… will only hurt you…
    Mr. Incredible asks:
    Which “god”? I don’t care about “god.” I care about and love God.
    withyobadself says:
    Search for truth…
    Mr. Incredible says:
    He already found me, and I already found Him.
    withyobadself says:
    … truth is already in your heart when you are born…
    Mr. Incredible asks:
    Whose “truth”?
    We are conceived in iniquity and born in sin, thanks to Adam and Eve. That’s why we must be born again.
    withyobadself says:
    … some follow it…
    Mr. Incredible says:
    Some follow what?
    withyobadself says:
    … some only care about personal gain…
    Mr. Incredible says:
    It’s true that — I would say — MANY care only about personal gain.

  • SUPER HEBREW!

    ?????? ??? ???? ????? ?? ????? ???? ????? ???? ???? ????

  • Midian

    Not all came from the monkey DNA, not all were created in God’s image. Science also has proved that since Darwin’s theory. It’s obvious what took place after God created man and woman. The answer is in the scriptures. The other side, the answer is in science. Both are right. Depends on your DNA, which side explains your origen.

  • Zvi I Weiss

    A few Brief comments.
    A. Rav Moshe ZT”L was NOT considered strictly speaking an excessively strict decisor. There were quite a few of his decisions — covering very seirous areas — where he was actually lenient. Similarly, while he was and is recognized as a primary decisor, there are OTHER decisors who did not always agree with him — and to whom he alluded most espectfully (R. Menashe Klein cmes to mind). finally, while he permitted the use of the full spelling of the Deity without Hypen, he did NOT (as best as I am aware) prohibit use of the hyphen and there are MANY people who — to this day — continue to use the hyphen. It is — at the least — a bit of a stretch — to label one a “false frummie” simply for that reason.
    B. To describe the Slonimer Rebbe as “racist” — even while escribing use of the hyphen as “false frummie” is — to put it mildly — utterly beyond belief. Describing a noted scholar (Talmid Chacham) in those terms violates — without aNY question — the rules regarding respect of Torah Scholars and IS considered a very serious violation of Jewish Law. Given the Moniker used (referring to the Code of Jewish Law in the Oruch Hashulchan), one has to wonder what sort of observance that person really follows.
    C. I used “Theory” for Evolution here because it has NOT been proven — in the sense that nobody has ever observed one species “evolve” into another. On the other hand, the more “modern” version of that “theory” that posits “jumps” rather than just “evolution” is one that found potential acceptance by none other than R. Kook ZT”L. the point, though is that — ultimately — htis theory is posited to provide a way to “model” the world — and does NTO necessariy correspond to reality… sometihng that we can not prove either way.

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