Like a stubborn weed refusing to be uprooted, the debate between creationism and evolution sprouts up periodically and demands attention. Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion(Harvard University Press, 1997) revisits the 1925 “trial of the century,” carefully reconstructing the players and issues at-stake in an iconic clash between the forces of fundamentalism and agnosticism.
Williams Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) and Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) squared off in the town of Dayton, Tennessee. The former had been Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and came to defend a statute outlawing the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools. The latter was a brilliant trial lawyer, determined to embarrass those who favored a literal interpretation of the Bible’s view of the cosmos. What Edward Larson does masterfully is to tease out nuances in the Scopes trial that the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, either ignored or purposely misrepresented. For example, the film makes Bryan out to be a young earth, six day creationist. In reality, he accepted that the “days” mentioned in Genesis likely were long, indefinite periods of time corresponding to geological ages. Further, the townspeople of Dayton, Tennessee are presented as raving lunatics, whereas in real life they were welcoming to both sides in the Scopes trial. Finally, the defense team in Dayton included those who accepted a theistic view of evolution, namely, that evolution could have been the means that God used to create humans. Unfortunately, by focusing on the agnostic Darrow, Hollywood’s version set up an either/or understanding, a battle of science vs. religion, an antagonistic view of the question that lingers to this day.
Each of us is a product of our education. I attended a conservative Christian liberal arts college, where the maxim memorized by each new wave of students was simple but profound: “There is no conflict between the best in education and the best in Christian faith.” Looking back, I realize that this was a powerful antidote against the fundamentalist spirit, a narrow viewpoint that presents the religious student with a false choice between the discoveries of science and the comforts of faith. At the same school, wrestling with the dilemma, I knocked on the office door of one of my Bible professors, a Ph.D. in Old Testament who also had an M.A. in marine biology. He helped me to understand that the early chapters of the book of Genesis are “not so much about how as about who.” My zoology professor — a man of faith and also convinced by the reality of evolution as a powerful explanatory tool — helped me understand that one need not choose between God and evolution. The disciplines of theology and biology each operate within their own sphere, and each helps us understand something about the Creator.
In our own day, unfortunately, there are still those who insist that to espouse any version of evolution is to betray God. The narrow spirit evident in some of those who surrounded William Jennings Bryant lives on in certain corners of American Christianity today. The tragedy is that there need not be a train wreck between science and religion. Summer for the Gods is a cautionary tale for those who have ears to hear.