The Day Religion Clashed With Science

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Crossposted from Daily Kos

On July 21, 1925, a court in Dayton, Tennessee found the defendant, John Scopes, guilty of teaching the theory of evolution in high school.  Writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun, journalist H.L. Mencken had some harsh words for anti-intellectuals opposing Scopes’ viewpoint

What its people ask for — many of them in plain terms — is suspended judgment, sympathy, Christian charity, and I believe that they deserve all these things… The civilized minority in the State is probably as large as in any other Southern State.  What ails it is simply the fact it has been, in the past, too cautious and politic — that it has been too reluctant to offend the Fundamentalist majority.  To that reluctance something else has been added: an uncritical and somewhat childish local patriotism. The Tennesseeans have tolerated their imbeciles for fear that attacking them would bring down the derision of the rest of the country.  

[F]undamentalism, after all, made men happy — that a Tennesseean gained something valuable by being an ignoramus — in other words, that a hog in a barnyard was to be envied by an Aristotle.

Note: On November 24, 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  This diary is a re-post from an earlier diary.

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The Defendant, John Scopes

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The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes,  or the “Scopes Monkey Trial” as it is commonly referred to, was the result of a decision by the Governor of the State of Tennessee, Austin Peay, to sign the ‘Butler Bill’ into law and one that outlawed the teaching of evolution.  The law stated

“… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Teaching any aspect of the theory of evolution — as put forth by Charles Darwin — was not banned in Tennessee. However, teaching that man had evolved from lower animals and denying the Bible’s version was, in fact, illegal. The newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was adamantly opposed to this restriction and placed an ad inviting a high school teacher to test the legality of the law.  John Scopes, a high school science teacher and part-time football coach, agreed with the ACLU and offered his services. On May 25, 1925 Scopes was indicted by a Grand Jury for violating the Butler Law.

The stage was set for one of the most-famous trials of the 20th century.  And one that captivated the interest of many people across the country.  Over two hundred reporters from around the world descended upon Dayton to cover the trial.

The trial featured two of the best orators in the country.  Scopes’ defense team was headed by the best-known defense attorney in the country and an avowed agnostic from Chicago, Clarence Darrow. The prosecution team, consisting of many prominent leaders of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, had as its most prominent member none other than Williams Jennings Bryan — a former three-time Democratic nominee for President as well as a former Secretary of State during the Wilson Administration.  Known for his fiery populism in politics, Bryan was quite conservative when it came to social and religious beliefs.

Darrow (left) confers With Bryan During

the Scopes Monkey Trial, July 1925

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In 1925, it was quite common for the theory of evolution to be taught in many states in church-based schools while simultaneously being banned in state-supported public schools.  This being the case, Darrow and his team argued that there was no inherent conflict between evolution and the bible’s account of creation.  As evidence, he offered eight scientists as witnesses who would support the case for evolution. The presiding judge, John Raulston, accepted the testimony of only one of Darrow’s witnesses.    

Bryan’s side presented four witnesses who had actually seen Scopes teach evolution in school against the state’s Butler Law.  Bryan argued that that the concept of evolution was morally reprehensible.  

What were the reasons for Bryan’s adamant opposition to the theory of evolution? In essence, Bryan was a long-time opponent of the idea of Social Darwinism

As a young man, Bryan had been open-minded about the origins of man.  But over the years he became convinced that Darwin’s theory was responsible for much that was wrong with the modern world. “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate,” Bryan said, “Evolution is the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” He believed that the Bible countered this merciless law with “the law of love.”


Williams Jennings Bryan Argues

Against Evolution in Court

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Here’s the complete text of his closing statement at the trial.

Frustrated by the judge’s decision to disallow the scientists as expert witnesses and after several legal maneuvers, Darrow finally called Bryan as a witness since he (Bryan) had offered himself as an expert on the Bible.

One of the nation’s greatest public speakers took the stand to be interrogated by another rhetorical champion.

Snapping his suspenders, jabbing his finger at Bryan, Darrow peppered Bryan with questions: “When exactly was the earth created?  How many days did it take?  Where did Cain get his wife?”  The judge tried to stop the grilling, but Bryan pounded his fist, refusing to step down: “I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!”

Finally, the judge called a halt to the spectacle.  The next day the jury pronounced John Scopes guilty.  William Jennings Bryan had won the case, but history would not look kindly on his last crusade.  The Scopes trial would cast a long shadow over his remarkable career.

Clarence Darrow at the Trial

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You can read more of the details of this epic confrontation and additional analysis for a better understanding of what took place between Darrow and Bryan.

The jury had deliberated for a total of nine minutes and found John Scopes guilty. The judge imposed a fine of $100. In 1927, Scopes’ legal team appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Tennessee on several legal grounds.  None of them were considered except that the case was overturned on a technicality: the jury, not the judge, was authorized to impose fines and under Tennessee law at the time, the limit for judges imposing fines was, in any case, only $50!  Chief Justice Green added this

The court is informed that the plaintiff in error is no longer in the service of the state. We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.  On the contrary, we think that the peace and dignity of the state, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be the better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein.  Such a course is suggested to the Attorney General.

No retrial was sought.  The Scopes Monkey Trial was finally over.  John Scopes left for Chicago to study geology at the University of Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune — which enabled through its radio station, WGN, for the country to listen to live proceedings of a legal case for the _first_ time ever — made fun of the circus atmosphere in the courtroom and how some people were behaving during the trial in the below cartoon, one in which monkeys are shown as much more orderly in their behavior as opposed to human beings whose behavior the newspaper found intolerable and unbearable.

Editorial Cartoon From the Chicago Tribune, 1925

Was Scopes’ vindication a victory for the proponents of evolution?  Not really.  In reality, the teaching of evolution in the country’s public school actually declined in the years following this trial.  It wasn’t until 1967 that the Butler Law was repealed in the State of Tennessee.  In 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled that such bans were illegal.

Did that end the controversy between evolution and creation proponents?  Not exactly.  With the political rise of the Religious Right, a new breed of religious fundamentalists have revived this debate, seeking to oppose any move towards ‘secularism’ in this country.

What is the relevance of the Scopes Monkey Trial to our politics today?  Given the rise of religious fundamentalism over the past several decades and the promotion of ideas like ‘intelligent design,’ one wonders how much progress have we really made in uncritically accepting science as the ultimate arbiter in disputes such as creationism vs evolution.  Considering the Bush Administration’s actions in several areas of public policy, we were living in an era in which it was open season on reason, rational thinking, and science.  Whether it involved the issue of Global Warming, stem cell research, or even relying upon weapons inspectors seeking WMD’s in Iraq, at every step of the way, that administration had chosen solutions designed to deliberately counter scientific evidence.  The deception, dishonesty, and anti-intellectualism of the Bush Years was on par with the best “Know-Nothings” of an era long ago.

It was eighty four years ago that the Scopes Monkey Trial was decided in a small town in Tennessee. Long ago on that day, H.L. Mencken described an environment hostile towards and suspicious of scientific ideas in Dayton, Tennessee that could as easily be true today in some parts of the country.

Looking back at it, in spite of the scientific and social progress made in the decades since, we are, in some respects, a country still stuck in that period of the mid-1920’s.

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  1. … and other such species, Charles Darwin wrote another book at the time though it didn’t get much publicity.

    R.J. Matson, New York Observer

  2. Tom Stewart was quoted as saying that “Tennessee has the right to interpret God’s will as it sees fit.” And that “It has the right to bar the doors against science which breeds infidelity into the soul of a child…”

    Very Palinesque if I might say so myself.

    The times were quite interesting with Prohibition always a controversial and passionate topic, and obscenity laws still determined in most states by the Governor (if I recall correctly), causing all sorts of delicate issues with respect to the theatre and the new art form of the motion picture.

    And so while God, Alcohol and Nudity were on everybody’s minds, the Bootleggers and Wall Streeters were flying high; with Black Monday just waiting patiently a few years away.

    Governor Sanford of S. Carolina is still struggling with these issues in his tormented and conflicted soul. I’m not saying he’s still living in the 20’s, but………………


  3. [F]undamentalism, after all, made men happy — that a Tennesseean gained something valuable by being an ignoramus — in other words, that a hog in a barnyard was to be envied by an Aristotle.

    This nails it. By accepting Christ and the Church, you gain a moral foothold. And if outsiders (science) come in, then the way it goes is, we may be stupid, but we follow the Bible, so then we’re actually superior to you, learned or not. You cannot pry that out of those hollers. It is the last stronghold. The Cross of Jesus, and call me stupid, but I have the last Word!

    Ironic region, East Tennessee. Oak Ridge National laboratories, TVA power from hydro and coal plants, a huge Land Grant university – UT. It’s a socialist state!

    Yet there’s this spiritual thing in the old music that Ralph Stanley, for example, touches on – this sacred, if sad, refrain that echoes through the hollers, mountains-as-spiritual refuge being a common folk myth, and some good coming from that along with the brazen highjacking of peaceloving gospels at times such as in the Scopes Trial.    

    • RUKind on November 25, 2009 at 8:13 am

    They got paid and added to their fame and price basis.

    The battle is still being fought viciously in a new millenium.

    The RUKind Theory of Evolution:

    “Some men descended from apes; the rest of them ascended from apes.

    Some revel in the darkness of ignorance. Others rejoice in the unveiling light of Truth.”

    For some people, Appalachia is a state of mind. For some it’s a piece of Eden. Enjoy the mountain tops while you’ve got them.

  4. The ET space aliens made us.

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