The Texas State Board of Education has been a recurring locale of what is conventionally understood as the battle between science and religion. The agency has the power to decide which textbooks are to be used in Texas public schools. Since Texas has a huge system of public education, and since it would be expensive to publish separate textbooks for Texas, publishers anxiously watch the decisions of this august agency. Consequently the latter influences, not only what kids learn about biology, history and other ideologically charged subjects in Dallas, but also kids in Delaware and the Dakotas. Protestant fundamentalists have long exerted great influence in the agency. In the latest skirmish they have suffered a setback of sorts. At issue was a biology lesson dealing with a comparison of human and chimpanzee skulls, thus once again threatening to infiltrate the nefarious doctrine of evolution into the innocent minds of Baptist schoolchildren. As the Associated Press reported on July 23, 2011, the board approved the chimpanzee item, but authorized the education commissioner to work out the details of the lesson with the textbook publisher. This rather feeble compromise was hailed as a great victory by Kathy Miller, president of the pro-evolution Texas Freedom Network: “We saw the far right’s stranglehold over the state board is finally loosening.” She may be celebrating prematurely.
The United States is exceptional among Western democracies in that it contains a large and politically vocal community of conservative Protestants, many of whom look upon the theory of evolution as an affront to their faith. The courts have been busy about this matter for a long time. For several decades progressive intellectuals had good reason to think that their side had achieved a conclusive triumph at the Scopes Trial in 1925, when Clarence Darrow buried William Jennings Bryan under an avalanche of withering sarcasm. Beginning in the 1970s, the eruption of a newly confident Evangelicalism onto American public life and politics opened a new era of what purports to be a war between science and religion. Being Americans, the two belligerents have something important in common: they love litigation. Presumably lawyers love them.
It is important to understand that not all Evangelicals are upset by evolution. Mostly it is those with a literal understanding of the Bible, including the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis. Their challenge to evolution came in two phases. First came so-called “creation science”, which directly challenges the empirical evidence for evolution. It also goes under the linguistically charming name of “young earth theory”, purporting to show that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. The creationists want their “science” to be taught in public schools alongside evolution, claiming (rather disingenuously) that they are motivated by scientific rather than religious concerns. The courts have rejected this claim, deciding that the teaching of “creation science” violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Quite apart from its legal difficulties, an additional problem for creationism is that it is hardly plausible for anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with modern biology. There are just too many fossils to ignore.
I cannot resist the temptation to mention that at least some creationists have a sense of humor. I heard this creationist joke (in Texas, no less): A Darwinist is talking with a creationist. The Darwinist: “My great-grand-grand-grandfather was a worm, who after a million years crawled onto the dry land”. The creationist re-plies: “My great-grand-grand-grandfather was called Adam. And he ought to have stepped on your great-grand-grand-grandfather.”
The second phase is the advent of “intelligent design”. Unlike creationism, it does not challenge the empirical evidence for evolution. Rather (though it also combs through the evidence) it proposes that this process could not have occurred by chance, but that it indicates a design that must necessarily be the product of an intelligent mind. This is a significant difference. Probably any religious believer would affirm that, in the perspective of faith, the awesome order of the universe (in William Blake’s phrase, its “fearful symmetry”) points to the hand of its creator. Speech asserting this perspective is certainly protected by the First Amendment. The problem with “intelligent design” is that, like creationism, it claims that its perspective is science, and as such should be taught in biology classes. That claim is spurious. If it were a genuine scientific theory, how could it be falsified? The courts, quite correctly, ended up rejecting the claim to scientific status and, therefore, that teaching “intelligent design” in public school is unconstitutional. This was decided in a landmark decision in 2005 by U.S. district court judge John E. Jones III in a Pennsylvania case, Kitzwiller v. Dover Area School District: “We have concluded that Intelligent Design is not science, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist and thus religious antecedents.” I don’t see how Judge Jones could have ruled otherwise. But his ruling raises an interesting question: How can a U.S. district court judge decide what is and what is not science?
I think that the sociology of knowledge provides an answer: every viable society must possess a body of knowledge that is taken for granted. The body of knowledge established by means of scientific evidence is taken for granted as valid in a modern society. This should not be surprising. The intellectual coherence of modern science is compelling. What is more, the immense practical achievements made possible by this science also compel its cognitive authority. An American judge cannot properly decide what is or is not valid religion. But the rules of scientific evidence are sufficiently clear for the judge to decide what is or is not science. Take an example that does not involve religion: Suppose that an association of flat earth theorists sued an area school district for excluding its allegedly scientific theory from astronomy classes. I must confess that I have a lingering admiration for people who stick to a position in the teeth of overwhelming evidence (like, say, Marxists, or people who believe that racial quotas are a way to combat racism, or that every drop of new taxes will stop economic growth). But I would again agree that a judge banning flat earth theory from high school astronomy is on solid ground.
America is not a secular society. But, being a modern society, it has bestowed on science (which is a secular body of knowledge) a status of cognitive privilege. Achieving this status is obviously attractive. In the area of religion, our creationists and ID theorists stand in a line of apostolic succession going back, at least, to Mary Baker Eddy’s founding of Christian Science. Her seminal work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures was published in 1875. Around the turn of the twentieth century, parapsychology (aka psychic research) was founded in Britain and America as a supposedly rigorous scientific inquiry into supernatural phenomena. Various meditational techniques of Asian provenance, which invaded America in the wake of the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893, also claimed to be more compatible with modern science than the putatively superstitious beliefs of Protestant fundamentalism. Scientology is an interesting case. It originated in the early work of L. Ron Hubbard, who in 1950 published Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health, also claiming scientific status for his idiosyncratic approach to psychotherapy. Subsequently he founded the Church of Scientology, continuing and expanding this approach—but now claiming it to be a religion, entitled to protection under the First Amendment (a curious reversal of the claim by the aforementioned religious movements to be in fact scientific). Today we have the advent of “neurotheology” (aka “spiritual neuroscience”), which explains religion in terms of the latest scientific approaches to the brain. Religion now appears as a sort of brain disease. Ironically, some religious leaders, notably the Dalai Lama, have hailed this approach as a promising new marriage between religion and science. A popular presentation of the approach is a book published in 1994: Lawrence McKinney, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century.
Scientism is the belief that science provides the only valid access to reality. Paradoxically, some of those who want to defend the validity of religious faith against this or that scientific discovery (such as evolution, or the historical origins of Biblical texts) inadvertently arrive at a scientism of their own. The worldview that is troubling the Texas State Board of Education is Christian scientism. It suffers from the mistake shared by all forms of fundamentalism, religious or secular: that there is only one, absolutely reliable way of apprehending reality. In fact there are several.
Science, to be sure, is an intellectually and practically fruitful method of grasping reality. Others are aesthetic, moral, religious. An astronomer can spend a lifetime peering at the night sky through his telescope without thereby arriving at the proposition that the panorama of heavenly bodies is beautiful. As a social scientist I can acquire extensive understanding of the structure and functioning of, say, a system of slavery, but this understanding will not make me conclude that this system is morally intolerable. Religious faith is a discrete way of perceiving the world. It does not follow logically from the insights of science, nor does it necessarily contradict them. The aforementioned astronomer may have acquired a scientifically supported view of the universe. He may also at times be overcome by its beauty. If he is a Christian, he may in addition agree with the words of a famous hymn, “the hand that made thee is divine”.