(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In order to understand what happened to Bryan during his testimony in the Scopes trial, it is necessary to understand something of Bryan’s religious views. In those days, as now, there were splits among religious believers between those who took the Bible as an inerrant literal record of historical events, and those who allowed for some level of interpretive license, whereby some events could be interpreted metaphorically so as not to clash with scientific truths.
In terms of his own religion, Bryan was not as extreme a fundamentalist as today’s creationists. By today’s standards, he would be considered one of the more sophisticated religious believers, well read and knowledgeable about science, which makes the play and film portrayal of him in Inherit the Wind as a buffoonish dogmatic fundamentalist even more unfair. Although he would have considered himself a fundamentalist, Bryan was not quite as literal in his view of the Bible. He belonged to the ‘gap’ or ‘ruin and reconstruction’ school of Christian thought. Such people were not committed to a 6,000 year old Earth but believed that the days of creation described in the book of Genesis were metaphorical and represented ‘ages’ that could stand for very many years, long enough to be consistent with the geological evidence. This approach “allows for a very old, unspecified age of the universe, in which matter was first created, followed by non-human life and the formation of fossils. This creation process could have involved multiple cataclysms and creations and is flexible enough to accommodate most geologic evidence.’ (Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs, Mano Singham, (2000, p. 9). For a fascinating account of the history of creationism and the evolution of that movement’s evolving views, see the book The Creationists (1992) by Ronald Numbers.)
Bryan was also willing to go along with a limited form of evolution as long as it kept humans out of the tree of evolved life and made them special creations. But he would not go as far as the modernist theologians of his time who adopted ‘theistic evolution’, which accepted the idea of common ancestors of apes and humans and saw god’s role as somehow guiding the process of evolution, which made it an early form of intelligent design creationism. Bryan believed in the Biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the great flood of Noah.
In those early religious arguments against evolution, one finds many themes that are echoed today: the idea that the theory of evolution is ‘only a guess’, a theory and not a fact, that it lacks evidence in support of it, that an increasing number of scientists disbelieve it, and that it contradicts the Bible.
In an essay titled God and Evolution published in the New York Times, February 26, 1922 (p. 84), Bryan explained clearly what he believed and what were the sources of his objections to the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The only part of evolution in which any considerable interest is felt is evolution applied to man. A hypothesis in regard to the rocks and plant life does not affect the philosophy upon which life is built. Evolution applied to fish, birds and beasts would not materially affect man’s view of his own responsibilities, except as the acceptance of an unsupported hypothesis as to these would be used to support a similar hypothesis as applied to man.
. . .
Christianity has nothing to fear from any truth; no fact disturbs the Christian religion or the Christian. It is the unsupported guess that is substituted for science to which opposition is made, and I think the objection is a valid one. (italics in original)
Bryan added that just because some idea like evolution was false did not, by itself, warrant opposition unless it was also harmful. He then placed his finger on why he thought evolution was damaging and in the process summarized accurately the consequences of taking the theory of evolution seriously, showing a much better understanding of the theory’s implications than even many of today’s evolution supporters.
It entirely changes one’s view of life and undermines faith in the Bible. Evolution has no place for the supernatural. . . .Evolution proposes to bring all the processes of nature within the comprehension of man by making it the explanation of everything that is known. . . . .Evolution attempts to solve the mystery of life by suggesting a process of development commencing “in the dawn of time” and continuing uninterrupted until now. . . .If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible. . . If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural – the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man.
Although Bryan’s motives in drawing the consequences of evolutionary thinking in such dire terms for Christians may have been to scare them into backing his movement against the teaching of evolution, he is exactly right in his analysis. If one is consistent in applying the theory of evolution, one is forced to reject god’s intervention anywhere in the process. Daniel C. Dennett in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) speaks of the theory of natural selection as being like a mythical ‘universal acid’, so potent and corrosive that once released it cannot be contained or restricted in any way but breaks through all barriers until it reaches into every space. Once you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection as applying in any area of life, there is no way to prevent it being used to explain every aspect of life.
To add force to his argument that the theory of evolution was dangerous for Christian beliefs because it could cause people, especially young people, to doubt the existence of god, Bryan also pointed out how Darwin had started out in life as a religious person and become an agnostic as a result of his work: “If Darwinism could make an agnostic of Darwin, what is its effect likely to be upon students to whom Darwinism is taught at the very age when they are throwing off parental authority and becoming independent? Darwin’s guess gives the student an excuse for rejecting the authority of God an excuse that appeals to him more strongly at this age than at any other stage in life.”
In that same essay, he dismissed theistic evolutionists and their idea of god as someone who merely created the laws of evolution and then did nothing else. He said that they put “God so far away that He ceases to be a present influence in the life.. . [W]hy should we want to imprison God in an impenetrable past?. . .Why not allow Him to work now?” Thus Bryan saw acceptance of human evolution in any form, theistic or otherwise, as a very slippery slope that led to no good end: “Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism.”
But while he disliked evolution for religious reasons and because he felt that it led to abhorrent social policies, those were not his stated reasons for objecting to it being taught in schools. He said he objected because he felt that the theory had not been shown to be true. And if it were not true, then that meant that those who taught it were merely teaching a doctrine, not scientific truth, and he saw no reason why they should have the right to teach in public schools what he considered an atheistic doctrine if religious teaching was not to be allowed.
The crux of his objections to the teaching of evolution was as follows:
The real question is, Did God use evolution as His plan? If it could be shown that man, instead of being made in the image of God, is a development of beasts we would have to accept it, regardless of its effect, for truth is truth and must prevail.
. . .
Those who teach Darwinism are undermining the faith of Christians. . .Christians do not object to freedom of speech. . .Christians do not dispute the right of any teacher to be agnostic or atheistic, but Christians do deny the right of agnostics and atheists to use the public schools as a forum for the teaching of their doctrines.
The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
That was how one side in the conflict approached the Scopes trial, arguing that teaching evolution in schools while not teaching Biblical theories was giving an unfair advantage to one doctrine over another. It is an argument that has persisted in various forms down to this very day.
Next: How the other side approached the Scopes trial.
POST SCRIPT: Leave it to Dennis