Science Versus God in Tennessee: Has Anything Really Changed? | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1
The Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton, Tennessee. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

As the prominent Christian journalist Marvin Olasky recently reminds us, the famous Scopes trial concluded exactly ninety years ago this week. That’s when a rookie teacher named John Scopes was charged with violating a new Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers “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 had descended from a lower order of animal.” From the start, it was a put-up job: responding to a request from his own supervisors (who sought to put their small town of Dayton on the national map), Scopes agreed to stand trial, hoping to obtain a conviction in order to put the law itself on trial in higher courts. The proceedings took place in a very large courtroom on the second floor of the Rhea County Courthouse. That is, except for the famous final day, when the judge ordered everyone outside to accommodate the overflow crowd that wanted to hear the agnostic defense lawyer Clarence Darrow cross examine William Jennings Bryan, who was assisting the prosecution.

Journalistic bias and the Historical Record

Olasky’s analysis of the slanted journalistic coverage of the trial and the back story rings true. I’m particularly struck by a quotation he lifted from an unnamed New York paper, in support of its view (according to Olasky) that the jurors collectively possessed minimal intelligence: “All twelve are Protestant churchgoers.” Why is this so striking to this historian? A similar thing could have been said of the scientists who volunteered to be expert witnesses for the defense at trial: at least several (if not all) were also Protestant churchgoers (I do not have reliable information about every single one). Case in point: Kirtley Mather, the young Harvard geologist who testified at the trial, taught a Sunday School class at a Baptist church for more than thirty years. Mather suggested that the ACLU “include among its expert witnesses at least two or three men of science, in good standing in the community of scientists, as evidenced by their positions in academic or research institutions, who were also men of religion, as evidenced by their activities in a church belonging to one of the major denominations.” They took his suggestion, but apparently they got a pass from the press on this.

Writers for the elite Eastern newspapers did indeed treat Bryan, other conservative Christians, and the town of Dayton itself with open contempt. The Chief Offender was H. L. Mencken, an arch-cynic whose caustic columns for the Baltimore Sun influenced opinion leaders probably more than any other journalist. As far as I can tell, the only Fundamentalist for whom he had any respect was the learned J. Gresham Machen, a fellow opponent of Prohibition. He compared Machen very favorably to the grandstanding Bryan in an obituary that shows an almost ungrudging admiration for him—and, at the same time, gives the back of his hand to Machen’s religious opponents, the “Modernist” Christians who had torn the guts out of Christian orthodoxy in the name of science.

Unfortunately for the truth, as Olasky emphasizes, Bryan actually won at Dayton—contrary to what most reporters wanted their readers to believe. Yes, Scopes was convicted, as Bryan wanted, but that’s not what I mean. Darrow and Scopes both wanted a conviction, too, or the law couldn’t be appealed. Yes, Bryan actually did a creditable job of defending his views of the Bible on the witness stand (as Olasky says), but that’s not what I mean, either. Bryan won because of what happened afterwards, not in Dayton and not in Baltimore, but in the offices of the publishers of biology textbooks all over the nation: they decided to remove evolution from center stage in their books, and they did so for more than three decades. Not until the Cold War jump-started Congressional support to renew science education did evolution make a comeback, beginning with the books published by the Biological Sciences Study Committee. These books hit the market in the early 1960s, just when young-earth creationism was getting off the ground.

The Evolution of Creationism

Not incidentally, Bryan’s type of creationism differs markedly from that of Ken Ham. Bryan accepted an ancient universe—a dangerous “compromise” with biblical truth, in the uncompromising opinion of Ham’s organization—and he did not appeal to the flood to dismiss the validity of the geological record. However his reasons for opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools could have come right out of Ham’s playbook. He believed that evolution is just an unproved “hypothesis” (a fancy word for “guess,” in Bryan’s opinion) that undermines belief in God and the Bible. Therefore, to teach it in publicly funded schools (including universities) amounts to government endorsement of irreligion, violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Judging from the results of many polls for many years and other information, tens of millions of Americans today probably believe exactly this. The magnitude of the quandary must not be overlooked: science might not be democratic, but in a democratic republic science education cannot entirely ignore public opinion and remain sufficiently funded.

Contrary to what Darrow and the ACLU wanted, the Tennessee law never got a hearing before the Supreme Court. Since Bryan’s day, however, the Supreme Court and federal district courts have consistently ruled that “creationism” (that’s the key word actually found in those decisions) is religion, not science, and therefore it cannot be taught in public school science classes. This conclusion was reached first in the 1980s for young-earth creationism; then in 2005 it was extended to Intelligent Design. Whatever one might think of those rulings, it’s abundantly clear that opposition to evolution is profoundly shaped by—though not caused by—the currently received interpretation of the First Amendment. Without a sea change in jurisprudence about what constitutes religious neutrality in public education (which I do not expect to see in my lifetime), the evolution controversy in public schools is just not going away.

Journalistic bias and This Historian (Me)

Even if by some miracle the dispute about public education were to evaporate, the larger cultural controversy about God and evolution would still be with us, especially but not solely among Christians ourselves. Olasky laments the minimal presence of Christians in journalism, implying that coverage of the trial might have been much fairer otherwise. He’s probably right, but his own coverage of the same issues today has not always met this standard. Case in point: in a cover story for World magazine about evolution at Christian colleges, Olasky quoted highly selectively from a detailed, very specific statement about how my colleagues and I at Messiah College approach teaching students about origins. “Clear as mud” was his overall evaluation. He goes on to say, “Students and parents should understand the spectrum of creation/evolution positions,” obviously implying that this is not what I try to accomplish in my classes. He concluded that Christian colleges “should not excommunicate young-earthers” and “should encourage debate among all who see the Bible as God’s Word but have differences in interpretation.” The irony is still ringing in my head: Messiah’s origins statement explicitly says that we “offer our students multiple models for relating science and faith, which parallels what we do in other academic disciplines.” In fact, I’ve been showing students multiple models (originally three, but presently five) for more than twenty years, while fully respecting their own beliefs and convictions. I even caution them not to agree with my own position, unless they truly decide for themselves that it’s the best model. It’s not too much to say that Messiah has blazed a trail in teaching students about origins that many other colleges have since followed. So much for fairness in journalism: it cuts both ways.

Where Are We Now? Has Anything Really Changed?

Olasky’s observation about a minimal Christian presence in journalism leads directly to my final point. In the United States today, many scientists are active Christians who accept evolution while affirming the great ecumenical creeds; that is, they are orthodox Christians in the usual sense. The number is substantially less than half, to be sure, but it’s not negligible, and it includes a number of world class scientists. In my work as an historian of science I’ve discovered a very significant change since the Scopes era. At that time, few American scientists were orthodox Christians, as far as I have been able to determine from clear evidence, and I have yet to find one really prominent American scientist from that period who was an orthodox Protestant believer. (If there were any such, they were pretty quiet about it.) Nearly all orthodox Protestants in America between the two World Wars rejected evolution, and nearly all scientists who identified publicly as Christians were not orthodox, including those who testified at the trial.

This is an apparent fact of great significance for our time. I’ve developed this point more fully elsewhere, so I’ll cut to the chase. As far as Bryan was concerned, “theistic evolution” (a term he used himself often) was “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed,” or “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land.” In other words, evolution is tantamount to atheism on the installment plan. Ken Ham holds this tenaciously, many proponents of Intelligent Design hold it privately (remember: ID is to keep silent about God and the Bible), and Jerry Coyne agrees with Ham. Bryan’s view was very effectively presented in visual form by Ernest James Pace, the leading religious cartoonist of the day. Bryan himself suggested the iconography. Here it is:

E. J. Pace, “Descent of the Modernists,” frontispiece to William Jennings Bryan, Seven Questions in Dispute (1924). In context, the step “NO DEITY” was intended to mean the divinity of Jesus, not generic theism.

Bryan wanted the cartoon to “represent evolution as I believe it to be, [namely,] the cause of [religious] modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” It would have “three well-dressed modernists,” a student, a minister, and a scientist, all descending a staircase on which “there is no stopping place”—that is, a slippery slope, ending at the bottom with “a scientist stepping from Agnosticism to Atheism.” (Bryan to Charles Trumbull, 31 January 1924, Bryan Papers, General Correspondence, container 40, Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

Bryan’s concerns were very well placed in 1924, but not in 2015. It is no longer hard to find Christian scientists who find the evidence for evolution very persuasive, but haven’t found good reasons to descend that staircase. Anyone who still thinks that theistic evolution (or, as we like to call it, evolutionary creationism) is just “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land” had better think again. For us at BioLogos, founded by a world class scientist who also believes in the deity and bodily Resurrection of Jesus, that is the bottom line.

Come, taste and see. And keep thinking. We hope you won’t be disappointed.


For more information about Bryan, Pace, and anti-evolution cartoons, see Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era,” in Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, ed. Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer (2008), pp. 175-198, and James R. Moore, The Future of Science and Belief: Theological Views in the Twentieth Century (1981). The quotation from Mather is published in Edward B. Davis, “Altruism and the Administration of the Universe: Kirtley Fletcher Mather on Science and Values,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 46 (3), September 2011.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Dr. Ted Davis) #3

I invite comments and questions.

For readers in Oklahoma and surrounding states, let me add an invitation to join me (and hundreds of other Christians in the sciences) for the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Oral Roberts University. The program can be downloaded at It’s through the ASA, more than anywhere else, that I’ve met so many of the scientists I talked about in the final paragraph, including Francis Collins. They in turn helped me connect with so many others–too many in fact to count. If you read this and you run into me at the meeting, please introduce yourself!

(Dcscccc) #4

its funny that they consider evolution as a scientific theory, when it actually doesnt have any testable predictions. so why not to teach id or creationism?

(Dr. Ted Davis) #5

In my view, @dcscccc, the many discoveries related to the evolution of whales count as a testable prediction.

Darwin borrowed a metaphor from Lyell, namely, that the fossil record is like a book with most of the pages torn out, to present his prediction that over time we’d find a lot more extinct forms intermediate between those we already knew about. Whales are just one, admittedly spectacular, example of evidence confirming his prediction. Lots of other examples, too.

(Brad Kramer) #6

I moved 21 posts to a new topic: The Fossil Record, Speciation, and Mutation Rates

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

It is interesting to hear of the apparent dearth of openly professing [Protestant] Christians in the scientific community in that interval between the world wars. Or I guess that was just among notable scientists?

Articles such as this one put out by the PewResearchCenter (2009) compare their modern survey results with earlier ones that in 1914 showed about 42% of scientists saying they believed in a “personal God” and about the same percentage saying they do not. Do you think the difference is entirely due to your more selective seeking [notable Protestant scientists]? Or do you think that for a brief time there, that Christian belief generally among scientists generally took a noticeable dip in that inter-war period?


For instance, chemists are more likely to believe in God (41%) than those who work in the other major scientific fields. Meanwhile, younger scientists (ages 18-34) are more likely to believe in God or a higher power than those who are older. PEW Research

The report indicates younger scientists are more likely (42-66%) while 65 yr olds are less likely (28-46%). This gives us hope for the future and shows us two things: that faith is stronger than science, and that science confirms God’s greatness. That’s my arbitrary conclusion, anyway.

(Albert Leo) #10

@JohnZ It may not be justifiable, but I personally am leery of statistics relating to human beliefs and opinions (PEW being a possible exception), and I would rather trust my own experience where applicable. I have been fortunate to have many scientific colleagues as close friends with whom I have shared ‘world views’ while attending and chairing Gorden Conferences in the U.S, and QSARs in Europe and Japan. What has struck me, especially about those from Europe, is that so many who were raised in Christian homes have become agnostic in their professional lives. So, sadly, the ‘Staircase’ cartoon in Ted’s blog still is applicable , in my opinion.
Al Leo

(Albert Leo) #11

Sorry ‘world views’ came across as ‘word views’. (Why can I not spot these gaffs before submission when they pop out afterward?)


Albert, you have the ability to do a quick edit. just click on the pencil icon below your post.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

Thanks for that ‘pencil icon’ tip; I didn’t realize we could do that now! I went back and put in that percent sign I forgot.

Those statistics (even the reputable ones) are a funny and dangerous thing. The fact that younger ones show higher religious affiliation could also just mean that they tend to lose their faith as they get older. And that can go both ways. Young folks are notoriously undecided on many, even major things, so the statistics about what younger people think now probably shouldn’t be leaned on too heavily for prediction.

To get back to what Ted was really writing on above, though, it is fascinating that Bryan and his opponents were all savvy to the political machinations of what they were trying to do, even if you wouldn’t know this from the responses of excited journalists across the country [chase, and embrace the controversy], and the yet different responses among textbook publishers across the country [steer well clear of any controversy].

Somewhere, lost among the trampling feet all these fighting giants with their understandable motivations is that little fellow, the truth, just trying to stay alive.


Well, I don’t have the stats handy, but my understanding is that if students lose their faith (whatever that means), then they do that within about three years of college. The age group of 18-34 is considerably bigger, a 16 year range, in which some scientists may have dropped out of science as well. So the initial effects of new scientists cannot account for the large difference between young and older groups, since they are outweighed by about 8 to one. In addition the trend happens throughout the age groups and not just a one time drop. So it is likely that more Christians are entering science fields, that more scientists are retaining their faith than previously, and also that my two conclusions are not invalid.

Since previously a higher percentage of all people were faithful than today, as evidenced by church attendance, bible reading, prayer habits, and understanding and knowledge of scripture, the change or gap from the non-faith of scientists compared to non-scientists appears to have been larger in previous decades than it is today.

(Brad Kramer) #15

I moved 3 posts to a new topic: My religious experiences in Netherlands

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16


The reason why it seems nothing has changed and reading these pages it is true is because we don’t understand the problem. The problem is not bad science as Creationists think or bad theology as many evolutionists think. The problem is bad philosophy which distorts the world views of both science and theology and is very serious because it is creating a serious divide in Western/world culture which could easily destroy the world as we know it.

Scientism, not evolution, is the issue, but Scientism uses Darwinism as the scientific/philosophical basis of its world view. Scientism uses materialistic monism as its basis for understanding reality. People like Stephen Hawking say that philosophy is dead and science must take its place and this is their answer.

This is why Conservative Christians are concerned about science and evolution. Scientism is arguing for a alternative world view that is difficult to refute. Their alternative is often theistic monism based on a legalistic reading of the Bible. This monism is no more correct than materialistic monism., however world view are self affirming.

The third world view is traditional Western dualism, which is better in some ways that monism, but also has many flaws. One of its serious problems is that its proponent really do not defend it, because it is not really intellectually defensible, except as a lesser of two evils.

We still have a very serious problem because neither monism nor dualism works well. I keep suggesting that we at least explore a triune model. What do we have to lose?

(Albert Leo) #18

@TedDavis The cartoon with the Staircase showing the Descent of Man has stuck in my mind, especially the third step: No Miracles. You probably have observed on TV how Dawkins loves to lull well known Christian believers into ‘polite discussions’ and then bombards them with questions like: “You really don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, do you?” and "You don’t really believe that Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with just a few loaves and fishes, do you? And the flustered Christian usually is embarrassed to admit to any doubts.

Some time ago I had a pleasant and private discussion with Dr. Philip Clayton, professor Theology at the Claremont School of Theology and well known writer. He asked me: “Al, as a scientist, what level of confidence do you give to the miracles reported in the Bible? For example, what percent reliability would you give to the Canan miracle where Jesus turned water into wine?” I replied that, in terms of a ‘reliability percentage’, it would depend on the number of reliable witnesses there were and how important the ‘alleged miracle’ was to the core of my Faith–for example, it varies from 0% that Joshua really extended the day so he could smite the Amalakites (or whomever) to 100% that a resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples a number of times after his crucifixion. Do you feel that this ‘cafeteria approach’ to belief in miracles is OK, Ted? The only claim I have to being a natural born scientist is that I picked Doubting Thomas as my patron saint.

While I believe that many (or most) biblical miracles can be explained in a way that does not require the breaking of the laws of the Universe, I do not consider that these reports deceive readers of the Bible. As a matter of fact, about a dozen years ago I was witness to (in fact took an active part in) an event that had less than a billion to one chance of occurring, and it was witnessed and attested to by three other scientists. I mention it because all three were agnostic, but the one it was ‘intended for’ (Prof. Eric Lien) needed the lesson in Christian Faith that it imparted. Actually, it must have been intended for me as well. It is nice to be reassured that the Good Lord is present and beside us always.
Al Leo

(Dr. Ted Davis) #19


Thank you for the thoughtful comments and questions. My inability to spend the time needed for decent replies to all of your comments/questions is regrettable. That conversation with Phil Clayton sounds very interesting, but of course you are obliged to keep his side of the conversation private. I’ve also had a couple of conversations with Phil, though on other matters.

I understand why you use the term “cafeteria approach” in this context, but I would rather say that I always try to approach any biblical text with my brain turned on, drawing my own conclusions about what it says and what it means (these do not automatically equate). I actually admire Thomas, too. Had I been present in that room when Jesus appeared, I would probably have reacted similarly. And, like you, I am fully convinced of the reality of the bodily Resurrection: see my serializing of Polkinghorne’s chapter, while on the other hand I agree with John Walton’s conclusions about Joshua chapter 10:

The common creationist claim that thinking of this sort is “picking and choosing” is of course hypocritical. I have yet to meet someone who says that, who does not him/herself “pick and choose” which creation story to prioritize for interpretative purposes, or who does not “pick and choose” which version of the death of King Saul to prioritize, etc. The interpretative task always needs to take place with the exercise of the mind full open, not half closed.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #20


There were large numbers of openly professing Christian scientists between the wars, Merv, but almost all of them (whose views are known to me, a caveat that must be emphasized since I am not investigating systematically the beliefs of large groups) did not believe in the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth, or the bodily Resurrection. A typical example was Arthur Compton, a very committed churchman (Presbyterian) who refused to stand and recite the Apostles’ Creed b/c he didn’t want people to think he believed its affirmations. (see, p. 178)

I know of just two scientists who identified as fundamentalists in that period. One, Howard Kelly ( was actually a physician, but he was a scientific researcher of genuine distinction. He also accepted evolution, as he told Bryan when asked to help out at the Scopes trial. The other was a chemist no one has heard of. There are almost certainly others I haven’t discovered, but I have no reason to think the pattern would be different.

At least one more leading scientist was an orthodox Christian, but he was no fundamentalist: Michael Idvorsky Pupin, who was Orthodox with a capital “O.” He was president of the AAAS in the year of the Scopes trial. Creationist Jerry Bergman (who cites my work on Pupin) wants us to believe that Pupin did not believe in evoluton ( see the penultimate sentence), but that misrepresents his position.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #21


I agree that many Christian students still take that slippery slope, for various reasons. My point is not to deny that explicitly or implicitly; rather I am underscoring the apparent fact that things have changed markedly since Bryan’s day, in that one can readily find today scientists who accept evolution while professing a traditional understanding of Christian faith. These are the kinds of people whom Cornell historian/biologist Will Provine rails against, when he calls on his scientific colleagues not to leave their brains at the church house door. Unlike Steven Jay Gould, who could live with the fact some of his colleagues believed in God, Provine apparently can’t tolerate the fact that not every intelligent, clear-minded scientist comes to the same conclusions that he draws in matters of religion. Like Coyne and Dawkins, he wants to “shame” scientists who recognize that science just doesn’t answer some of life’s most important questions and who seek answers elsewhere.


Ted, I appreciate your comments/replies. However, I take issue with your comment on “picking and choosing”. While it is likely that sometimes we do this, yet so often, the accusation does not fit the context, and thus ends up being a generic adhominem which needs to be carefully ignored and changed. For example, I will be the one who does not pick and choose which version of the death of King Saul to prioritize. (Not that prioritizing is really the type of picking and choosing which is hypocritical, since this too may be contextual application.)

There appears to be a conflict between I Samuel 31 and II Samuel 1. In one case, Saul leans on his sword and dies. In the other case, this Amalekite kills him, or says he does. We know that the Amalekite definately says he killed him. We don’t know with absolute certainty whether he is lying or telling the truth. We know Saul fell on his sword, and died, but don’t know with absolute certainty whether he died immediately, or ended up after some time grabbing his spear with one last attempt to stand, or perhaps finish the job somehow.

Most likely the Amalekite was lying, and just trying to get approval from David about helping to kill Saul, while trying to avoid blame since Saul was dying anyway. However, since we don’t know with absolute certainty, I am open to either. It does not make a substantive difference… therefore I do not choose. In addition, whether the Amalekite gave the final killing blow to Saul or not, he claimed credit for doing so; therefore David gave him the consequence regardless, and justifiably so.

You could argue that scripture does not “pick and choose” in this case, so why should we.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #23

Actually, @johnZ, we agree entirely that “picking and choosing” is a general ad hominem that ought not be used. I though I had conveyed that in my comments, but if not let me affirm it now. I was trying to say only that those who accuse others of “picking and choosing” – a very common strategy on the part of some to attack proponents of non-traditional interpretations of Genesis – are quite often guilty of doing the same thing. They are all trying to apply reason and experience to the interpretive task. The epithet gets thrown only when the tosser’s ox is being gored.