Political Scientists and the War for Truth

In July of 1925, in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, a trial took place. It was a strange affair. An unexpected visitor, wandering into Dayton that summer, might reasonably have mistaken the hubbub for a carnival or a local feast. In the local clubs, banquets were being held for visiting celebrities. Outside, tourists wandered the streets, enjoying the vendors, performers, and itinerant preachers who had flocked to the little town. Journalists converged on Tennessee to witness the spectacle. In the history books, this remarkable event would be remembered as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”

History books are not always trustworthy, and in the case of the Scopes Trial, the morals historians have drawn may not really be the right ones. The basic facts are well known: John T. Scopes, a small-town science teacher, was charged and found guilty of violating a state-level statute that forbade the teaching of human evolution in public institutions. Neither students, nor parents, nor the school itself had expressed concern about Scopes’ curricula; he wasn’t even the school’s primary biology teacher. The goal was to stage a high-profile debate about evolution, and the effort succeeded, largely owing to the colorful attorneys. Clarence Darrow, Scopes’ primary counsel, was riding high after his success in the Leopold and Loeb murder trial. He seems to have taken the case in large part because he personally disliked the lead prosecutor, three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had already spent several years promoting anti-evolution legislation. It was this clash of Titans that really gave the event interest, and drew gawkers and journalists from across the nation.

Legally, the conclusion was humdrum, with Scopes receiving a $100 fine (paid by the Baltimore Sun)and the statute remaining formally on the books for another forty years. Nobody went to jail, and indeed, one searches in vain for evidence of any American educator spending even an hour behind bars for teaching evolution. Nevertheless, the Scopes trial lingers in the memory of historians of science, ostensibly as an example of the grave threat that religious fundamentalism can pose to good science. In the decades following, the debate between Darrow and Bryan would spill over into courtrooms, legislative sessions, and biology classrooms. The battle over the paleoetiological sciences (Kemp’s term of art for the sciences related to evolution and species origin) would, for many ordinary people, become the entry point for thinking about the relationship between science and religion.

Did we learn the right lessons from the evolution wars? Who in these conflicts was right, who was wrong, and who was wronged? All of these questions are addressed with great care in Kenneth Kemp’s masterful new book, The War That Never Was: Evolution and Christian Theology.

Kemp is not a scientist by profession. His background is in philosophy, and he is also a practicing Catholic, which might seem to place him firmly on the side of the theologians. However, he has a deep and long-standing interest in the natural sciences (as an old friend, I can attest to this), and he is firmly committed to the view that because truth is unitary, Christian theology can surely be harmonized with scientific naturalism. In his introduction, Kemp capably lays out the conceptual framework for a compatibilist approach to theology and natural science.

This, however, is not the primary focus of the book. Kemp’s larger goal is to address a historical claim (which he terms the “Warfare Thesis”), which seems to have gained significant traction in the world today. The Warfare Thesis was stated quite colorfully by Thomas H. Huxley (quoted by Kemp) when he wrote that:

Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.

In Huxley’s view, science has an established track record of putting theology to flight, exploding the primitive myths of fundamentalism with empirical fact and careful reasoning. If true, this would be a reasonable source of concern for believing Christians, whether or not Darwin’s theory is nominally compatible with the Nicene Creed. There are any number of claims and historical creeds which are not demonstrably false, which nevertheless have little to recommend them to the discerning mind. If Christian theologians need constant correction from the scientific community, then it is reasonable to ask whether Christianity really has much to offer bona fide seekers of the truth.

Evaluating the Warfare Thesis is a complicated task. It really does not stand or fall with any particular data point, nor can the thesis be proven or disconfirmed with just a handful of historical anecdotes. After all, there is no reason at all why theologians should not learn from natural scientists, who on a Christian view are engaged in the salutary task of exploring God’s creation. It is also to be expected that scientists and theologians might occasionally find themselves at odds on some particular point. How old is the universe? Was terrestrial life really destroyed at some point in human history by a cataclysmic flood? There is no reason for believers to be alarmed by these occasional points of tension. If truth is unitary, then all true insights can necessarily be harmonized, but intellectual labor may sometimes be needed to work out the precise relationship between different truths. In principle this can be one of the benefits of healthy inter-disciplinary conversation.

What is needed is a broad-spectrum historical assessment of the relationship between the scientific and theological communities. This is exactly what Kemp offers, with a particular focus on evolution and the paleontological sciences. Drawing on a wide range of sources, he re-casts the familiar-but-hackneyed narrative about religious fundamentalism and its mythical war against empirical science. Along the way, he gives us real insight into the background, motives, and ultimate fortunes of all the significant players in the evolution debates.

The story itself is arresting, not only as a history of natural science, but also as a history of cultural conflict. If science and Christian theology are not really locked in mortal combat, why have so many people been anxious to prove otherwise? The answer to this question is complicated, and the book does full justice to that complexity. It acquaints us with admirable and less-admirable figures of all backgrounds and persuasions. We meet thoughtful, broad-minded scientists, like the Danish naturalist Niels Stensen, who remained a man of deep faith throughout his lifetime even as he laid many of the foundations for paleontology and geology. Other scientists, such as John William Draper, paved the way for Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson with their ignorant, abusive indictments of religious faith. At all points in the story, thoughtful theologians work to harmonize natural science with the foundational assumptions of the Christian faith, but there are also fundamentalists like George McCready Price, whose pseudo-scientific arguments obviously rested on the assumption that the visions of Adventist prophet Ellen G. White simply had to be authentic.

The most important moral of this story, therefore, is that we should resist the impulse to choose sides when scientific and theological communities find themselves at odds. Christians need not (and indeed should not) choose between serving God, and learning from the natural sciences. God is not at war with the world he created.

There may be some further lessons too, which could give us perspective on other contemporary cultural conflicts involving politicized scientific claims. Although the debates over biology textbooks have mostly ended, hostilities between the scientists and religious traditionalists continue unabated. This has been evident for some years in the ferocious debates over climate change, and it was a significant factor as well in the political fight over appropriate policy responses to COVID-19. In our time, the sciences command a great deal of prestige, which is often deserved in light of very real contributions to human knowledge. However, the scientific community itself tilts strongly towards the leftwards side of the political spectrum, and members of that community are often willing to use their podium in service of cultural and political goals that fall well outside their real areas of expertise.

Both science and theology play an important role in furthering the common good. One connects us to tradition, and supplies us with insight that may be crucial to finding our true good in this world and the next. The other supports human health and safety, improves standards of living, and depending on one’s point of view, may have deeper import.

When science becomes political, non-scientists (such as myself) sometimes find ourselves in a frustrating position. We’d like to know the truth about climate change, the genetics of ethnicity, or the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19. Unfortunately, when the political angles are glaringly obvious, the scientific questions may be impossible to answer, at least for the non-expert. I afford scientists a high level of authority when I trust that they are working within the methodological confines of their disciplines. If the question they are addressing is heavily politicized, though, then I probably don’t trust them, in which case I may just have to acknowledge my ignorance concerning, say, progressive environmental concerns.  

It’s a difficult situation. What helpful insights can we draw from The War that Never Was?

One lesson is that we need to be more cautious about platforming people who clearly lack the necessary credentials. Inflammatory personalities can do real cultural damage, particularly when they combine zeal and rhetorical skill with epistemic hubris. The Scopes Trial illustrates this point especially well. Both Bryan and Darrow were zealous culture warriors and accomplished orators; neither had a balanced understanding of the subject at hand. Bryan was an established crusader for the anti-evolutionist cause, whose concern for preserving Christian cultural mores dramatically eclipsed his interest in the natural sciences. There were orthodox Christian scholars in his day (Asa Gray, James Woodrow, William Louis Poteat, John Zahm, Erich Wasmann) who accepted human evolution without losing their faith. Bryan showed no interest in their work. He was convinced that Darwinism led inexorably to theological modernism, and from there to a collapse of Christian culture. This to him seemed like adequate justification for restricting its teaching, regardless of what empirical science may have revealed.

Darrow, for his part, was convinced that “religious fanaticism” was a serious threat to education in America. He saw Bryan as the sort of culture warrior who needed to be publicly quashed, and that personal hostility was evident in his famous cross-examination of Bryan during the Scopes Trial, and also in his own description of the event in his memoirs. Darrow certainly showed no interest in protecting thoughtful Christians from the abusive overreach of philosophical materialists. A showdown between these two men was fortuitous for tourism-hungry Dayton. It was far less fortuitous for anyone interested in establishing the truth about human evolution. It is interesting to reflect on what might have been different—had only the terms of this particular debate been defined by public intellectuals with better information, and more humility.

Sometimes patience is needed, to allow the theological community to generate reasonable responses to new information revealed by the natural sciences. When Origin of Species was first published, it might have been reasonable for religiously-inclined scientists to entertain concerns about the possible implications. Over time, very thoughtful and conscientious answers have been developed to all of the relevant questions. Good theology, like good science, takes time. If religious and scientific communities are to make peace with one another, we may strengthen our appreciation of John Henry Newman’s distinction between difficulties and doubts. This warning may apply both to religious fundamentalists, and to scientific materialists. Both have been lamentably eager at times to exacerbate conflicts that should be soluble. In the long run, hardly anyone benefits from science and religion deranged by culture war.

In age rife with social problems, the rift between science and religion may not immediately strike us as a pressing problem. No crucial interests are obviously at stake when experts bicker over the content of biology textbooks. No lives appear to have been ruined by the circus in Dayton in 1925. Does it matter if scientists and religious traditionalists view one another with scornful indifference?

It may. Both science and theology play an important role in furthering the common good. One connects us to tradition, and supplies us with insight that may be crucial to finding our true good in this world and the next. The other supports human health and safety, improves standards of living, and depending on one’s point of view, may have deeper import. Science can draw theists into a more intimate appreciation of the wondrous works of their Creator. Non-believers may find themselves drawn into wonder at the immensity and grandeur of their disenchanted universe. Scientists also command tremendous respect in modern societies. If their own behavior lends credence to Huxley’s tendentious reading of history, it will be difficult for traditionalists to win over their more skeptical compatriots.

Even in these contentious times, it is possible to approach scientific claims judiciously, with a real desire to uncover the truth. The War that Never Was demonstrates how this can be done. Hopefully, it can serve as a model for more scholarship of this kind.