Reflections on the Scopes Trial: Questioning the Boundary Between Modernist and Fundamentalist Worldviews
In 1925, high school teacher John T. Scopes was tried by the state of Tennessee for violating the now-infamous Butler Act, a law which outlawed the teaching of evolution in public schools. What transpired in the trial seems, at first glance, like a relatively straightforward debate between prosecution and defense. However, when one investigates the unstated premises of their legal arguments, one discovers that they are founded upon radically different philosophical values. In this manner, the debate between prosecution and defense in the Scopes trial is, in essence, a debate between fundamentalist and modernist worldviews. Yet here too, appearances can be misleading. In first approaching the differences in philosophy which separate modernism from fundamentalism, I was struck by the sheer depth of disagreement which divides them. Their values seem in many ways to be the inverse images of each-other. Yet the starkness of this divide was itself intriguing to me. I began to question whether the separation between these two worldviews was perhaps an indication of some common ancestry, that the two may share—at the root of their divergence as ideas—a common origin. In pursuing this question, I have produced no answers. Rather, my intention in writing this paper is to direct my reader through three stages of questioning, each building upon the one before. The first of these stages relates to the legal arguments put forward in the trial, and is rooted in textual support from the trial itself. The second is concerned with the unstated philosophies which underlie the legal arguments of prosecution and defense, and is based primarily on my own subjective inference. The third and final stage of my analysis is concerned with the raising of a question: are the modernist and fundamentalist perspectives truly separate, or are they united at the source?
The legal argument of the prosecution is based on three key premises. First and foremost, the prosecution argues that “the legislature of the state of Tennessee… [has a right] to control the public school system”, and that “in the passage of [the Butler Act] the legislature abused no discretion, but used only the reasonable means at hand” (86-87). They assume, in short, that the Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of evolution in public schools, is constitutional. Second, they assume that the theory of evolution is fundamentally incompatible with the account of creation contained in the Bible. Third, the prosecution asserts that the case relates only to whether or not the law in question was broken, and that any questioning of the legitimacy of the law itself is not relevant to the trial at hand (109). If one assumes these premises to be true, then the trial of John Scopes can be reasonably seen as a simple matter of law-enforcement: Scopes broke the law by teaching evolution in a public school, and he should therefore be punished.
If, however, one does not assume these premises to be true, then the situation becomes much more complicated. It is for precisely this reason that the argument of the defense is considerably more complex than that of the prosecution. The defense rightly recognizes that the argument put forward by the prosecution is indeed logical insofar as its statements follow logically from its premises. They choose, therefore, to focus their attention on the premises themselves. For if one can overturn the premises of an argument, then the broader argument must fall as well.
The defense applies this strategy by questioning the constitutionality of the Butler Act. In doing so, they begin by arguing that the vagueness of the Act’s language places an unreasonable burden on the high school teachers whom it seeks to regulate: the law makes reference to “the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible”, and yet there is considerable theological debate—both historically and at present—over the way in which that story can or should be interpreted. Similarly, the law makes it illegal to teach “that man has descended from a lower order of animals”, which—as a reference to evolutionary theory—is also imprecise, due to the way in which scientific theories must perpetually shift to accommodate new evidence (90). From the defense’s perspective, “[the demands of the law are] so uncertain and impossible that every man must be sure that he has read everything in the Bible and not only read it but understands it, or he might violate the criminal code” (90).
Secondly, the defense holds that the Butler Act gives undue preference to Christian beliefs. The law seeks to protect “the teaching [of] the theory of creation, as taught in the Bible, and [excludes] under penalty of the law any other theory of creation” (85). The defense argues that “to base a theory set forth in any version of the Bible to be taught in the public school is an invasion of the rights of the citizen… [b]ecause it imposes a religious opinion” (86). By giving legal preference to one religion over another, the defense argues that the law violates religious freedoms.
In addition to attacking the questioning the constitutionality of the Butler Act , the defense also employs a secondary argument. They contend that “to convict Scopes the prosecution must prove that Scopes not only taught the theory of evolution, but that he also, and at the same time, denied the theory of creation as set forth in the Bible” (102). The defense rejects the notion that the act of teaching evolution is itself an act of contradicting the teachings of the Bible. Rather, they claim that “there is no conflict with science and Christianity”, stating that “science occupies a field of learning separate and apart from the learning of theology which the clergy expound” (102). Furthermore, they intend to defend this claim through the testimony of biologists and theologians, who—they argue—should be brought into trial as “expert witnesses” (102).
While these arguments appear straightforward on the surface, they mask a broader philosophical debate between fundamentalist and modernist perspectives on the role of science in society, and on the effects of scientific inquiry on morality. In analyzing these philosophical differences, I will begin by unpacking the argument of the prosecution, and will then move on to that of the defense.
I stated earlier that the argument of the prosecution assumes the legality of the Butler Act, and views the trial as a simple case of law-enforcement. Yet this assumption carries with it a set of deeper and more powerful beliefs.
To begin with, the prosecution’s belief in the legality of the Butler Act touches on a central conflict between the authority of the majority and the authority of truth. From the fundamentalist perspective, the only form of knowledge which is considered to be “holy” is that of revelation: the word of God. Revealed knowledge, such as the story of Genesis in the Bible, originates not from a human source but from a divine one, and this distinction lends it special privilege in the workings of human life—namely, its exclusion from the whims of the majority. All other forms of truth, including that of empirical knowledge, result merely from the activities of humans and not the revelation of God, and reside—therefore—under the rightful jurisdiction of humankind.
A second crucial element of the philosophy underlying the argument of the prosecution relates to the effects of rationality on moral behaviour. The prosecution’s desire to defend the outlawing of evolution in the public school curriculum allows us to infer three elements of their philosophy:
1) That the human spirit, if left without guidance, is prone to immoral acts.
2) That the means of remedying this behaviour is through the inculcation of religious faith; that faith, in tempering the influence of our innate (immoral natures) and introducing a code of morality in its place, promotes moral behaviour.
3) That reason, through its ceaseless inquiries, undermines our confidence in faith and moral norms, thus bringing us closer to our original state of immorality.
From the perspective of a Christian fundamentalist, the foundation of moral behaviour in society is the Judeo-Christian ethic as put forth in the Bible. If one assumes this to be true, then any theory which could undermine faith in the authority of the Bible would necessarily threaten moral behaviour as well.
In the worldview of the modernist, reason takes the place of faith. This is true on every level of the modernist philosophy, beginning with its regard for reason as the preferred qualifier of truth. Within the modernist worldview, knowledge is deemed truthful if it stands up to the scrutiny of the mind; the authority of the modernist is not the truth as revealed by God, but the truth as revealed by rational inquiry. It is the mind, not the soul—reason, not faith—which forms the bedrock of the modernist worldview. It is not surprising, then, that this high regard for reason would have implications for the treatment of scientific knowledge in society. Scientific knowledge, for the modernist, takes on a sort of “sacredness” owing to its being the product of a rational process. Just as the fundamentalist feels compelled to protect the word of God as contained in the Bible, the modernist is instinctively compelled to protect scientific knowledge, the sacred fruit of empirical inquiry. These contrary views regarding religious and scientific paradigms of “truth” are on clear display in the trial of John Scopes, in which both sides struggle to defend the sanctity of their respective truth paradigms: Genesis for the prosecution, evolution for the defense.
The modernists also have a drastically different perspective on morality and its relationship to reason and religious faith, one which is in many ways a mirror-image of the fundamentalist perspective. For the modernist, reason—not faith—is the greatest antidote to immoral behaviour. Indeed it could be argued that the modernist perspective here is in many ways more optimistic than that of the fundamentalists, as it seems to suggest a higher regard for the intrinsic potential of the human being. Unlike the fundamentalists, the modernists believe that humans can utilize their reasoning capacity as a means of bettering themselves both morally and intellectually—that the betterment of the human race is best achieved through the use and cultivation of the human spirit and intellect via rational inquiry, rather than through its suppression via faith.
While one can defend the merits of the scientific process and emphasize the ways in which it is distinct from religious faith, there is nevertheless one substantial and enduring similarity, a depth into which faith ultimately and invariably enters. If one looks at the foundations of science, one finds the process of empirical investigation, the trust in rationality. Yet on what basis is this trust truly placed? Can one say "empirical knowledge"? This is a circular argument, for what qualifies empiricism as "rational" if not its reliance on empirical observation? Similarly, what qualifies "empirical observation" as trustworthy apart from its characterization as "rational" or “reliable”? We trust these things, but we do not know why. Perhaps our reason for trusting them runs deeper and has more external/empirical support than is the case with religious faith, but ultimately our situation is much the same. The basis for our modern trust in rationality stems from an inspiration, an intuition, a trust in its virtue, which we cannot ultimately argue for. It exists, it is undeniable, it is contained within the joyful feeling of every discovery, every exploration, every successful (or, indeed, unsuccessful) application of the rational mind. Yet we cannot account for it; that spark of inspiration which tells us "Yes" to the method of the mind cannot be traced to the perception of our eyes, or to our ears, or to our instruments. It eludes our detection, while inspiring our beliefs and our actions. How so, then, are we truly different from the religious fundamentalists, the believers, those who place their trust, faith and joy in their belief in an undetectable God. Undetectable, yes, but deeply knowable all the same. Felt in the very fabric of their practice, as with ours. We cannot quantify that spark which lies at the center of our trust in science. This leaves us with a question to which the wise man should be humble: in relation to faith, is our distinction from religion one of nature, or degree?
These profound philosophical questions are further explored by Walter Lippman in his 1928 publication, American Inquisitors. In it, he offers his reflections on the Scopes trial, which he views as being but an iteration “of a wide conflict between scholarship and popular faith, between freedom of thought and popular rule” which symbolizes “the ancient conflict between freedom and authority” (Lippman 6, 8). He wonders whether “at the core of [the trial] there is not something of great importance which it behooves us to understand”, and proceeds to lead us on an effort to explore this line of questioning through the form of an imaginary Socratic dialogue between Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, and William Jennings Bryan (8). In keeping with his historical reputation, Socrates is used by Lippman as a mouthpiece through which to deconstruct the arguments of Jefferson and Bryan, so as to reveal their underlying premises. This process of deconstruction eventually arrives at a discussion on the nature of “divine revelation” as contrasted with “human reason”, a line of inquiry first initiated by Socrates’ reference to science as “the religion of rationalism” (19).
The character of Socrates raises the point that, within the social framework of the United States, the unquestioned authority of “divine revelation”—“God’s Word”—has slowly given way to a new order, one in which the authority of rationality has become paramount. What is it, Socrates asks, that “makes [one] so confident about human reason?” (40). This powerful question touches on an central issue which permeates Lippman’s text: on what basis has reason come to dethrone revelation as the foremost qualifier of truth, and how do these two concepts—seemingly so at odds with one another—actually differ? Revelation or reason? “God’s Word” or “human words”? Which Word do we trust more, and why?
The archetypal modernist might argue that, through reason, we transcribe the language of nature in such a way that we may understand it directly. This, they might argue, is the true ‘Word of God’.
The archetypal fundamentalist may respond to this argument with the simple phrase, “The proper study of Mankind is Man”. That is to say, they may argue that divine revelation—not reason—is the true Word of God, due to the fact that Man is the (truest) manifestation of nature (mankind created in God’s own image). Therefore, the empirical method of science, with its assumption that truth is to be discovered through the unfurling of nature, is not consistent with its own philosophy: if Truth (see: God) is to be found in Nature, and if Man is derived from Nature, then whatever “Truth” that exists in nature should also exist in Man. But here we are not talking simply of the purely physical/empirical dimension of humanity; Man is a singularly complex organism, one whose experience includes faculties (cognition, emotion, inspiration, indeed reason itself) cannot be fundamentally quantified. It is here, at the boundary-point between quantifiable and unquantifiable phenomena, that the scientific/rational and spiritual/religious perspectives invariably diverge: the scientific/empirical mind stays bound within the paradigm of the quantifiable, while the spiritual/religious mind moves beyond that which can be quantified, into the realm of feelings, emotions, and inspiration, that realm of which language is born, and to which it can never fully return . And it is precisely here, past the threshold of the unquantifiable, that it discerns the Word of God.
It is not difficult for one to observe that at the bedrock of all religious questioning and experience lies the concept of God. It is comparatively more difficult to identify the equivalent concept which underpins and unifies the domain of rationality. It is easy enough to point to the workings of the rational mind; it is pervasive throughout contemporary culture. But it is not the identification of rational behaviour—of rationality put to use—that is the challenge; rather, what we must set out to uncover is the root of such behaviour. We seek, then, the face of reason itself. It may well be the case that reason—the thing itself—cannot be bound into words. Yet, anticipating this potential shortfall, let us at least try to shed light on reason by way of its accompanying characteristics, so that—much like with a stenciled image—its inner form may appear, if only as the negative impression which emerges through the exposition of its immediate surroundings.
What is Reason? Can it be seen? Can it be heard? Can it—in its intrinsic, elementary form—be discerned, in any way whatsoever, by the senses? It cannot. We must conclude, therefore, that it is unquantifiable, and fails to meet the necessary prerequisites for empirical investigation. It cannot be empirically witnessed, and therefore it cannot be empirically verified. The existence or non-existence of reason is unfalsifiable; it cannot be accounted for by the empirical methodology of science. And yet, despite all of these observations, it is evident that reason is pervasive throughout our lives. We recognize the relative rationality or irrationality of human behaviour, we employ rationality as the very basis on which we evaluate claims to truth, and yet the basic, most fundamental definition of reason eludes our rational understanding. We must conclude that reason is visible only through its manifestations. Indeed, in explaining this difficult and paradoxical situation, one might to tempted to explain the issue by simply stating—indeed, quite truthfully—that “Reason works in mysterious ways”. In recalling the initial prompt of these investigations—the question of whether divine revelation and human reason are, in fact, fundamentally distinct—we would be wise to take notice of the fact that, if one were to substitute the word “God” for “Reason” in the preceding phrase, one would be left with perhaps the most common explanation of God as given by religious believers.
It is only a small minority of rationalists who focus their attention on the question of how to conceive of the basic identity or definition of reason itself. Indeed, very few go so far as to acknowledge the existence of such a question. Such rare individuals occupy a unique and wholly valuable perspective in relation to the science-religion cultural divide, as they are capable of experiencing firsthand that elementary foundation of rationality—reason as an entity unto itself—at a level more fundamental than that at which the empirical methods of scientific inquiry may operate. Such individuals transcend the restrictive dogmatism of both religious and scientific orthodoxies; they emerge, instead, upon a truly secular spiritual experience. Albert Einstein encapsulated this rich perspective in his 1949 publication, The World as I see It:
It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
Such perspectives have emerged from both sides of the science-religion divide. Rudolf Otto, an eminent Protestant theologian of his time, profoundly impacted 20th century German theology through his 1917 publication, The Idea of the Holy. In its foreword, Otto states that his intention is to explore “that which may be called ‘non-rational’ or ‘supra-rational’ in the depths of the divine nature.” Furthermore, he acknowledges the paradoxical nature of rationality—that is, one’s inability to apply the rational mind toward the task of uncovering the nature of rationality itself. Otto refers to this intrinsic, natural form of rationality as “the rational aspect of that supreme Reality we call ‘God’”. In his opening chapter, titled ‘The Rational and the Non-Rational’, Otto argues against the “commonly asserted… [notion] that Rationalism is the denial, and its opposite the affirmation, of the miraculous”. This, he argues, “is manifestly a wrong or at least a very superficial distinction” (Otto 3). Otto coins the term numinous to refer to the human experience of that which is holy. What is notable about Otto’s use of this term is that it is applied not only with regard to theistic entities such as God(s), but also to a broader spectrum of human experience, one which is deeply compatible with the concept of secular spirituality. Otto uses this concept of the numinous to introduce a secondary term, that of the mysterium tremendum. Otto defines this term as referring to the feeling of profound awe and exaltation which one feels when one is “[i]n the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures” (13).
What is particularly notable of Otto’s views is the extent to which they coincide with the perspective on spirituality expressed in Einstein’s text. These two wholly distinct individuals, in pursuing their respective philosophies to the furthest reaches of their rational minds, arrived upon what is in essence a singular and unifying conclusion: at the bedrock of all human inquiry—whether approached through rationality or through revelation—there exists a dimension of “Mystery”, of “the most radiant beauty”, that is “only accessible to our reason in [its] most elementary forms” (Otto 13; Einstein).
These views, united as they are despite the dramatic cultural differences of their authors, provide us with a conceptual alternative to the binary opposition between Modernist and Fundamentalist ideologies with which we are confronted in The Scopes Trial. In examining the philosophical foundations of the modernist and fundamentalist worldviews, one finds that these two camps are perhaps more similar than may be comfortable for us to believe. In a world where the divisions between ‘rationality’ and ‘irrationality’ are becoming increasingly entrenched, we would be wise to examine—with courage and open minds—the extent to which our respective ideologies may have grown from common soil. Perhaps, while our methods differ, our subject matter is the same.
“The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.”
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. Print
Lippman, Walter. A Commentary on Dayton and Chicago. New York: Macmillan, 1928. Print.
Einstein, Albert. "The World as I See It." The World as I See It. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. London: Oxford UP. Rudolph Otto: The Idea of the Holy. Scribd. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. .
Sagan, Carl. "The Backbone of Night." Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Dir. Adrian Malone. Prod. Gregory Andorfer and Rob McCain. PBS. 28 Sept. 1980. Television.
Sagan, Carl. "Who Speaks for Earth.” Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Dir. Adrian Malone. Prod. Gregory Andorfer and Rob McCain. PBS. 28 Sept. 1980. Television.
Wed, Apr 4, 2012 Permanent link
Categories: biology, evolution, einstein, Essay, history, Carl Sagan, thoughts, Darwin, Scopes, Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, Modernism, Fundamentalism, Rudolph Otto, Misterium Tremendum, numina, numinous
Categories: biology, evolution, einstein, Essay, history, Carl Sagan, thoughts, Darwin, Scopes, Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, Modernism, Fundamentalism, Rudolph Otto, Misterium Tremendum, numina, numinous
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