The Evolution versus Religion Controversy: How Two Mystiques Devolved into Politics

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The evolution versus religion controversy rages on, lately simmering in debates about whether so-called "creation science" is a valid scientific substitute for the Darwinian notion of evolution. In the past there have been court cases; indeed one of the hardy perennials of the national news is the story about a controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in a high school in the South or the Midwest of America. There are always, it seems, the usual suspects at play--the affronted parents, the local church membership, the confused school board, the divided townspeople, the ACLU, the AAAS, the Creation Science Institute, the preachers making their testimony, all eagerly covered by the media complete with references to the Scopes "monkey trial," the First Amendment, and self-serving op-ed pieces by professors of biology. (1)

It is enough to make the observer cry out, "Enough! You Creationists, stop pretending that what you are doing is science and go back to proclaiming the Gospel and doing good works. And stop using the Bible as a sourcebook for scientific theories. You scientists, stop pretending that physical science can explain everything, and go back to your laboratories and do the specialized research to which you are committed. Admit that natural selection is not the key to explaining every important detail about the origin of life, mind, behavior, religion, ethics, culture, the world, the universe. Both of you, go home and clean up your acts, ersatz science and smug science! There is no reason to seek some irenic stopping point in your cultural guerilla war against each other; no reason to placate either of you as you scar the intellectual and moral landscape with your futile debate."

That is what one wants to say despite the fact that representatives of both sides would object that their debate is not a fruitless one. And admittedly there are serious issues at stake such as the veracity of the Bible, whether ethics and religion should be explained reductively, and whether nature is a divine creation, of which man is the apex, or a material universe in which the existence of man is the merest accident. Yet the controversy is now 146 years old, since the time of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 and the furious reaction to it by the Victorian public. At Oxford in 1860, there was the famous debate between scientists including Hooker and Huxley defending evolution and Bishop Wilberforce and Captain Fitzroy defending the Bible. (2) The religion versus evolution fight has gone many rounds in the meantime down to our own day when four protagonists on each side met in December 1997 to debate on a special edition of William F. Buckley's Firing Line television show. There have been so many iterations that the great debate has come to resemble the plot in the movie Groundhog Day in which the protagonist is forced to relive one day in his life over and over again with only minor details changed. Unlike the movie, however, there seems to be no happy ending in sight, no resolution of whatever sort available in the great evolution versus religion debate.

To explain the persistence of this debate, I shall go back to another irresolvable controversy of the last century, one not quite as old as the evolution controversy, and one which took place on different grounds in a different place, namely the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath. The "Case" as it became known separated France into roughly Republican (in the French sense) and monarchical parties which were separated by their views on the French Revolution and the secularization of French culture. This polarization of French political life did not make sense to some of the original group of Dreyfusards who had supported Dreyfus but who were themselves Christian, among them most prominently the writer and publisher Charles Peguy.

Fifteen years after the fact, Peguy wrote a retrospective essay entitled "Our Youth" referring to the time when through his publications he was an important voice supporting the Dreyfusards. …