In the Beginning

Science and Religion in America

In 1925, Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was charged with violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution. Back then, many people believed the Scopes “Monkey Trial” would be the last gasp of the anti-evolution movement. But 85 years later, about the same percentage of Americans believe in creationism as believe in evolution.

On this episode of BackStory, the Backstory hosts explore the ways Americans have attempted to grapple with the biggest question of them all: “Where did we come from?” Together, they trace the ups and downs in the relationship between science  and religion. Are there times when the two have not been at odds? How did the Founders conceive of “creation,” and why did the idea of extinction pose such a challenge to their worldview? How were Darwin’s ideas received in the U.S., and why did it take six decades before public school systems started challenging the teaching of his theories? What lessons does history offer those interested in charting a peaceful relationship between science and religion in the future?

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[Tony Field]:  From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.”

 “Darwin took us forward to a hilltop, but for this insight and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith”—


Brian Balogh:  That’s a clip from “Inherit the Wind,” the old movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.  That trial centered on a Tennessee school teacher who had challenged a law banning the teaching of human evolution, but 86 years later, it’s not entirely clear which side won.  Take, for example, this science teacher in Scopes’ own hometown of Dayton, Tennessee with his own distinctly non-Darwinian take on human origins.


“I believe that the evidence will back up what is actually stated in scripture.”


Ed Ayers:  Today, on “BackStory,” we look at how science and religion got along so well for so long and why it wasn’t until the time of World War I that an anti-Darwin movement emerged in America.


Peter Onuf:  The history of science versus religion coming up on “BackStory.”  First, this news.


T. Field:  So that’s the radio version at the beginning of the show.  In the podcast version, we don’t have any news.  Just a reminder that this is the podcast of “BackStory” brought to you by VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.  I’m Tony Field, Producer of the show.  If you like what you hear, please consider make a contribution to help support the production of the show.  Every little bit helps, really.  Just go to and look for the link that says Support Us.  If you’re an iTunes user, please also consider leaving a review of this show on the “BackStory” page of the iTunes store and if you’re more of a radio kind of person, tell your local public radio station that you’d like for them to carry the program if they aren’t already.  Finally, remember that you can listen to all of our past shows and sign up for our e-newsletter to get word of upcoming episodes at  Now, back to the show.


P. Onuf:  Major production support for “BackStory” is provided by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.  Support also comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  [music]  This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy.


E. Ayers:  I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.


B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century History Guy.



Tape:  Today, the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals in the east.  Today, intellectuals have bogeys much more frightening than fundamentalism in the schools—


E. Ayers:  That’s a passage from Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by the great historian Richard Hofstadter and if sounds dated, well, that’s because it is.  1963 was when that book was published.  Look around today and the evolution controversy that appeared to be on its last legs 50 years ago, well, it’s as alive as ever.  In fact, in the past year, lawmakers in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, New Mexico, they’ve all considered legislation that would chip away in one way or another at the central place of evolution in public school biology classrooms and it’s not just lawmakers rejecting Darwin.  Public opinion polls consistently find that about a half of Americans believe in the Bible’s account of creation and not in evolution.


P. Onuf:  Some of you listeners will no doubt say that the battle of human origins is here to stay.  That there’s an inherent tension between evolutionary theory and Christian religion and so it might surprise you to learn that for much of American history even after Darwin came along practitioners of science got along just fine with practitioners of religion.


P. Onuf:  So, for the rest of the hour on today’s “BackStory,” we’re going to look at the way science and religion have interacted across all three of our centuries and since the topic of evolution is special when it comes to humans as what dramatizes the apparent conflict between science and religion the most, we’re going to focus on that today.  How have our understandings about human origins evolved, so to speak, over time?


B. Balogh:  Our story begins in the 18th century right here in “BackStory’s” hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you probably know, Charlottesville, was also home to Thomas Jefferson.  I recently had the chance to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, with our 18th century guy Peter Onuf.  So, Peter, it’s really nice of you to take me back to the 18th century.


P. Onuf:  Yeah, well—


B. Balogh:  Peter and I were at Monticello to look at Jefferson’s collection of bones.  They’re one of the first things you see when you enter the front hall, alongside maps, portraits, animal hides and Native American artifacts.  The bones are from animals that by Jefferson’s time were extinct, but back then, people hadn’t quite wrapped their heads around the whole concept of extinction.  One other thing I should mention before we go any farther, Jefferson’s religion can best be described as deism.  That’s the belief in a creator who set the world in motion the way a clockmaker makes a clock and then having created it, sits back to watch it tick away.  Okay.  Let’s go to the tape.


P. Onuf:  Here we are on a level with these very interesting conversation pieces that people would then talk about.  They say, Mr. Jefferson, what are we looking at here.  They’d be a little shocked at these bones.


B. Balogh: These are not any bones, Peter.  These are gigantic—


P. Onuf:  They are very big, big bones.


B. Balogh:  This is not from the family dog.


P. Onuf:  No, no, no.  We’re looking at the giant sloth.  We’re looking at the mammoth is the big thing here.


B. Balogh:  So, did Jefferson believe that there were current version of these mammoths—


P. Onuf:  Yes, that’s [00:05:37 / __________]


B. Balogh:  Wandering around or did he begin to believe this newfangled theory of extinction?


P. Onuf:  No, that’s too newfangled.  Jefferson believed if you had evidence of the existence of a mammoth, for instance, then that mammoth still might be out there roaming the west.  Now, that’s one of the incentives for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Enlightenment philosophers like Jefferson, natural philosophers, think that our great challenge is to uncover and read the book of nature that is of God’s creation and what we don’t see now is because of the limitations on our sight that we have to overcome.  For instance, we just don’t know what’s going on in the far western reaches of this continent because no civilized person has ever been there.


B. Balogh:  So, Peter, looking at these gargantuan bones, would that lead to a conversation about the creation itself or was that too controversial?


P. Onuf:  Absolutely.  Look around this room.  You are looking at God’s creation.  These are symbols, examples, of God’s creation  everywhere and what God has created has always been and will always be.  It’s a perfect creation.


B. Balogh:  Right.


P. Onuf:  In other words, we’re not talking about this messy business of the succession of species across time because if God really were the kind of clockmaker that the deists talk about, then he makes a clock.


B. Balogh:  And it runs forever.


P. Onuf:  And it runs forever.


B. Balogh:  And I suppose that folks who believe that were very threatened at the notion of extinction because if one part of that clock can disappear, what’s going to go next.


P. Onuf:  Yes, exactly right.


B. Balogh:  Peter, today the term scientist is almost synonymous with specialist.


P. Onuf:  Right.


B. Balogh:  Is it fair to call Jefferson a scientist when he had such a global outlook about his natural science?


P. Onuf:  That’s a great point, Brian.  In Jefferson’s day, you could not and should not draw distinctions between domains of knowledge, anthropology, archeology, botany, they’re all part and parcel of the same large project because they’re all part of a larger design.  For Jefferson, the account of anything is an account of everything.  To understand how a particular plant grows or an animal flourishes is to understand something about the larger design of God in nature.


B. Balogh:  Peter, that’s terrific, but I gotta run to read the Journal of Sub-Saharan Econometrics.




P. Onuf:  So, Ed, people like Jefferson didn’t make distinctions between science, religion.  How did that change in the 19th century?


E. Ayers:  Yeah, you have to remember that Thomas Jefferson also went in with scissors and edited the Bible.


P. Onuf:  That’s right.


E. Ayers:  So that it said what he wanted it to say.


P. Onuf:  You’re exactly right.


E. Ayers:  And that’s kind of a metaphor for the way that people of education handled things in the 18th century.  They really didn’t feel that you had to take all or nothing and it’s amazing, really, how quickly things changed after Jefferson’s death in 1826.  In fact, in that very period, was really the second great awakening where people were rediscovering the immediacy of the Bible and part of that was that you didn’t have to hold the Bible at arm’s length and see it as the product of an ancient time, but rather it was a living voice and God might speak to you at any time telling you that the end was near or that you needed to create a new religion.


B. Balogh:  Well, you know, Ed, it wasn’t just religion that was evolving, so to speak.  It was science as well and this was the subject of a recent conversation that I had with Ronald Numbers, a historian at the University of Wisconsin who’s written extensively about all of this.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  The word scientia, science, had been around since antiquity, but had been a synonym for knowledge.  In the early 19th century, students of nature started using it more and more in the restricted sense of knowledge of nature and one of the requirements for participating in this enterprise was that regardless of one’s religious beliefs, if you were participating in science, doing science, you would not invoke the supernatural.  Theologians had regarded themselves as part of the scientific discussion, if you will, and they found themselves on the margins at best and didn’t particularly like it.  However, by and large, during the, say, 30, 40 years before the appearance of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, before the outbreak of the Civil War, there was a fair amount of harmony between science and religion.


B. Balogh:  Ronald Numbers told me that this harmony remained in place even after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species hit American shores at the end of 1859.  That was due in part to the efforts of Darwin’s biggest supporter in the U.S., a Harvard botanist named Asa Gray.  Gray argued that not only could humans be exempted from Darwin’s law of natural selection, but that the twists and turns that evolution took could be attributed to God.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  I think that Asa Gray was really trying to defang Darwinism for Americans and other theists, but what isn’t as well known perhaps is that Darwin did the same thing.  At the end of the Origin of Species, he says that the evidence that he’s presented indicates that all plants and all animals descended respectively from four or five originally created kinds and then in the second edition, Darwin adds, by the Creator.


E. Ayers:  Ahhh—


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  In correspondence a few years later, he expresses regret that he had introduced [penetucal] language but he never took it out.  It went through six editions before he died and he left it in there, so he couldn’t have been that sorry.


B. Balogh:  If Darwin was more Christian than a lot of us think, American Christians were at the same time becoming more scientific.  By the end of the 19th century, many theologians had come to terms with evolution and then in the 1920s, something changed.  Laws started popping up in a number of states banning the teaching of human evolution.  I asked Ron Numbers what was behind the emergence of an anti-Darwinist movement six decades after Darwin.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Well, there’re several possibilities and one is the success of evolution in penetrating the churches and schools of America and one of the things we see after World War I is just an explosive growth in public secondary school education.


B. Balogh:  Right.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Where they’re going to run across these ideas, so the success of evolution I think was important.  Its linkage with the Germans became fairly common—


B. Balogh:  Hmmmm—


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  So in World War I you had the question—why did the most highly scientific culture on earth engage in such barbaric actions and the answer was that they had imbibed of Darwinian evolution, among other things and then people pointed out the decline in morality among American youth.  If you taught young people that they had evolved from animals, then you had every reason to expect them to behave like animals and in the first half of the 1920s, you had a great example in Leopold and Loeb’s murdering of little Bobby Franks.


B. Balogh:  That was the case of those two whiz kid law students who killed a teenager, right?


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  They had learned evolution at the University of Chicago so life meant nothing to them.


B. Balogh:  Got it.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  So, you have that sort of social concern that evolution was undermining the value of human life. 


B. Balogh:  That’s Ronald Numbers, historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  We’ll hear more from Professor Numbers later in the show.  [music]  It’s time for a short break.  When we get back, we’ll hear the story of the Reverend Irwin Moon, the preacher/scientist who flickered his way into classrooms across the nation.


P. Onuf:  More “BackStory” coming up in a minute.  [music]  This is “BackStory,” the show that turns to history to understand the America of today.  I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18thcentury.


E. Ayers:  I’m Ed Ayers, guide to the 19th century.


B. Balogh:   And I’m Brian Balogh, guide to the 20th century.  We’re talking today about the conflict between science and religion—something that as we’ve been hearing, didn’t really take shape until well into my century.  But by 1925, at least in the little town of Dayton Tennessee, it was all-out war.


Tape (Henry Drummond)Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight and for this knowledge we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.


Tape (Matthew Brady):  We must not abandon faith.


E. Ayers:   This is a clip from “Inherit the Wind,” the 1960 film inspired by the Scopes trial 35 years earlier.  Here, defense lawyer Henry Drummond, based on the real-life Clarence Darrow, is squaring off against Matthew Brady, himself based on the trial’s celebrity prosecutor (and three-time presidential candidate) William Jennings Bryan.


Tape (Matthew Brady):  But your plan is wrong.  He is deluded.  He has lost his way. 


Tape (Henry Drummond):  It’s sad that we don’t all have your positive knowledge of what is right and wrong, Mr. Brady. 


E. Ayers:  In the real-life version, high school teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law banning the teaching of human evolution and he and Darrow never got the chance to appeal on constitutional grounds so the law remained in place for another 42 years.  But what the trial did do was a strike a mortal wound to the image of fundamentalism in the United States and the anti-evolution movement kind of shriveled away.  Or at least that’s what a lot of people thought.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  The truth is just the opposite.


E. Ayers:  This is historian Ronald Numbers, in another excerpt from Brian’s conversation with him.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  William Jennings Bryant died four or five days after the trial.  He became a martyr to the cause.  There were far more anti-evolution bills introduced in state legislatures after the trial that had been before the trial.  It wasn’t until 1928 roughly that the organized movement started petering out.  All the states that were going to pass anti-evolution laws had done so.  There was no sense in reintroducing a bill for the third time so it just died a more or less natural death and what happened then was that the fundamentalists who still in the ’20s had hoped to capture the mainstream churches and religious colleges threw in the towel and started building up their own empire and so they disappear, it seems like, but they’re really working hard behind the scenes.  They’re starting the Bible school movement and Bible Institute of Los Angeles.  Moody is thriving.


B. Balogh:  That’s the Moody Bible Institute?


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Correct.  And others like that—


B. Balogh:  Right.  You have fundamentalists on radio.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Exactly.  They grab ahold of radio right away, so they reappear in the 1960s as though, you know, they’re like Lazarus, but actually they had been working really hard for decades. 




B. Balogh:  That’s Ronald Numbers, historian of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We’ll hear more from him later in the show.




P. Onuf:   Ronald Numbers mentioned the Moody Bible Institute as an example of the fundamentalist institutions that thrived in the decades following Scopes.  Well, in 1937, Moody became the home base for a California pastor named Irwin Moon.  For years, Moon had been traveling the country, drawing huge crowds to lectures that were part religious sermon, part science demonstration.  But Moon soon realized he could hit a lot more people with the help of modern technology, and started producing short film versions of his shows.  They were a big hit, and actually did manage to cross-over into the mainstream.  From 1947 to 1948, at least two and a half million people saw Moon’s films, and by the mid-50s, some 400 public school systems across the country were using them as teaching tools. “BackStory” producer Catherine Moore sat down to watch some of the films, and brought back this report.


(Tape) Catherine Moore:  That’s a million volts of electricity shooting from the fingers of an evangelist preacher.  This demonstration of electrical resonance from the film “Facts of Faith” earned him the nickname “Million Volt Man.”  Dr. Irwin Moon spent his life demonstrating another kind of resonance, too, that between faith and science.


Tape (Irwin Moon):  For some reason, many people seemed to have two compartments of their brain.  They keep their science on one side, their religion on the other with a wall between them.  They’re afraid to remove the wall fearing that their faith will be swept away by fact and hard reality.


Catherine Moore:  His film set in Chicago also had two compartments divided by a wall, but there was a door between them.  In a preacherly three-piece suit, he sits in his study surrounded by leather-bound books and preaches sermons from science and sometimes he puts on a lab coat and opens the door.


Tape (Irwin Moon):  We’re going to explore the mystery of time in the laboratory.  Hello, Pete.  How’re things going?  Fine, Dr. Moon.  Mr. Margosian is one of our skilled technicians here at Moody Institute of Science.


Tape (Catherine Moore):  In 1925, religion and science battled it out at the Scopes trial, but for evangelism to remain relevant in a scientific age, Moon knew they had to make peace plus after World War II, he and all Americans were living in a world that could be destroyed by science.


Tape:  5, 4, 3, 2, 1 [blast].


Tape (Catherine Moore):  According to Moon, we had a choice.  Atomic science could be used for good or for evil.


Tape (Irwin Moon):  Who will decide which it shall be?  Well, one thing is certain.  Science alone can’t decide it and now as never before we see the importance of faith, of righteousness, of humility before God, principles upon which this country was founded and the only principles upon which it can continue to exist.


Tape (Catherine Moore):  The U.S. military agreed.  In 1947, it launched a mandatory religiously-oriented education program called Character Guidance.  Chaplains used the Moody Institute films to teach morality, spirituality and citizenship to troops.  Public school teachers used the films to teach science.  After Sputnik’s launch in 1957, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to close the brain gap with communist Russia. Among other things, it boosted funding for audiovisual equipment for teaching science.  It just so happened that Moon was producing some of the most innovative instructional films out there just as AV equipment begin whirring and flickering in classrooms all over America.


Tape:  Even the microscopic world has its comedians.  These little fellows are just about as funny as they come. 


Tape:  One of the most intriguing discoveries in modern science is the fact that there’s nothing in this world that even approaches what might be called truly solid.


Tape:  Say, what’s this?  It looks like something out of a nightmare, doesn’t it?  And it could be if you dream of bats.  Have you ever wondered what goes on in the brain of a homing pigeon?  Somewhere within its tiny head is locked a secret no man has ever—  This is a wonderful world.  [music]  But perhaps the greatest wonder of all is man himself. 


Tape (Catherine Moore):  Moon’s explanations of nature, so full of wonder, simultaneously invoked reason and mystery.


Tape (Irvin Moore):  Have you ever wondered about the peculiar shape of the red blood cell?  Someone has described it as a cross between a donut and a pancake.


Tape (Catherine Moore):  In the red river of life, Moon’s lab team creates a formula to describe the ideal red blood cell shape.  Then they submit it to a room-sized IBM super computer to see what shape it spits out.


Tape (Irvin Moore):  All that remains is to push the right button and the answer to our problem appears on the oscilloscope screen.


Tape (Catherine Moore):  The image on the screen exactly matches the geometry of a red blood cell.  Its perfect engineering demanded an explanation.


Tape (Irvin Moore):  And to me the only adequate explanation is intelligent design.  It would seem that if a man wants to believe in God, he has just within the red blood cells of his body at least 30 trillion very good reasons for doing so. 


Tape (Catherine Moore):  For Moon, empirical study of the universe amassed evidence of God and buried in scripture he found scientific truth.


Tape (Irvin Moore):  The book of Leviticus, chapter 17, verse 11:  for the life of the flesh is in the blood and again in the 14th verse, for it is the life of all flesh, the blood of it is for the life thereof.  The Bible probably has more to say about the blood and its importance than any other book ever written outside of a textbook on hematology.


Tape (Catherine Moore):  When Moon peered through a microscope at a red blood cell, he looked through two lenses.  One was the physical lens revealing a nifty biconcave disc; the other was the invisible but equally powerful lens of faith.  The second lens may have had little to do with science but like science, it had everything to do with truth and certainty in an unsettled world.  [music]  Reverend Moon’s film set had two compartments but between them was a door.


P. Onuf:  That’s “”BackStory’s” producer Catherine Moore.  We’ll post links to a few of Moody’s films at


E. Ayers:  Yeah, that was really interesting.  I was surprised, though, to hear the phrase “intelligent design” being used way back in the 1940s because I don’t recall that until more recently.


B. Balogh:  Yeah, I think that’s right, Ed.  We associate Intelligent Design capital “I,” capital “D,” with the late 1980s and 1990s and I think there’s a very specific reason for why it starts in the late 1980s and that takes us back to the courts.  The Supreme Court says 1987, if I recall, that in fact creation science was not a science so it had no place in public school classrooms.  The intelligent design people turned around and said, hey, no problem, we’re fine with the idea of change over time, the heart of Darwinian evolution.  It’s just that that change isn’t random.  That change is the result of God’s work.  Look at the complex organs like the eye, they said—those organs could never have evolved randomly.  So basically, they’re saying if we can’t fight then, we’re going to join them.  We’re going to take our religious beliefs and kind of push them through this vessel that we’re going to call science, taking us all the way back to your period, Peter, taking us back to that clockmaker who started things off and then we have the evolution things set in motion, etc., etc.


E. Ayers:  And you know, there’s so many issues in America history, when this really gets into the schools is when it really hits the ground and this may be the leading example of how an intellectual debate really becomes concrete in our schools, so we wanted to figure out what this science versus religion debate really looked like in that context and so we called up a science teacher in my old stomping ground of East Tennessee.


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  My name is Joe Wilkey and I am the science teacher at Rhea County High School.  I have been here for 27 years.


E. Ayers:  Now, there’s a lot of things I don’t know about, but I am an expert on east Tennessee geography and I can tell you that teaching at Rhea County High School means that Mr. Wiley is teaching in none other than Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.  We thought it would be interesting to hear from the person who teaches science to the great grandchildren of the kids in John Scopes’ classroom back in 1925.  Mr. Wilkey actually runs the Rhea County science department, so we were a bit surprised to learn that he does not consider evolution to be a valid scientific theory because a theory is something you can actually test with evidence.


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  If you’re going to use a scientific term, I would call it an evolution hypothesis and I’m kind—  In my opinion, I’m kind of stretching it there [laughter] to call it a hypothesis.  It’s a little bit more like science fiction to me.  [laughter]


E. Ayers:  Well, let’s go over your understanding of what happened then, okay?  If one of your students comes to you and says Mr. Wilkey, okay, what did happen?  What would you say?


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  I would have to say no one knows, because science cannot prove that.  Science cannot tell you how you got here, the origins, of man or any other thing that you want to make.


E. Ayers:  So you would emphasize more what we can’t know rather than have another explanation, let’s say, creationism as we think about, or intelligent design.


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  Well, I think intelligent design is as viable of an explanation about the way life is as anything that evolution has to over.


E. Ayers:  I see.


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  There is no way that you can prove that there was an intelligence that caused this cell to be here but can you look at the cell right now and see the intricate nature of it and start to appreciate how marvelous and complex, I mean truly complex, I mean, we still don’t understand all the complexity of the cell.


E. Ayers:  So, it seems to me that you’re not really claiming then the undeniable supremacy of intelligent design over evolutionism, you just say that they’re sort of on an equal footing in their inability to prove their observations and so that they should be basically taught on an equal footing.  Is that your position?


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  Yes, sir.  If you’re going to test them, I would say both of them have equal footing.


E. Ayers:  Does the state of Tennessee agree with that?


Tape (Joe Wilkey): The state standard that we have been given by the legislature state that we are to teach about evolution and that’s what the teachers of Rhea County High School do.  They teach about evolution.


E. Ayers:  So, the Scopes trial began with in many ways testing the power of legislators to determine what was taught and not taught in the schools.  Do you feel that we have it about right now in Tennessee, that the scope of what, so to speak, of what you can teach is appropriate or is the legislature still kind of too involved in the educational process?


Tape (Joe Wilkey):  As far as science goes, teach where the evidence leads you.  I don’t understand why the legislature or the courts should dictate what is being taught in science.  You know, if a scientist is going to be searching for the truth about something, let it go where the evidence takes him and, of course, I guess I’m prejudiced there because I believe that the Bible is truth and that’s because I’m a Christian and that’s why—  Let’s go where the evidence believes because I believe that the evidence will back up what is actually stated in some way in scripture.  That’s what I believe.


E. Ayers:  That’s Joseph Wilkey who’s a science teacher as Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tennessee.  [music]


P. Onuf:  You know, guys, it occurs to me that the real issue here is not science, it’s history—where do things come from and that the whole issue of modern science should be framed in historical terms and that we should think about history as the central problem is really a tribute to Darwin’s influence because with Darwin, we had a new cosmology, a new way of thinking about the sequence of things through time, and I think you could say really that what they’re doing, the intelligent designers, is synthesizing enlightenment science with Darwinian science.


B. Balogh:  Yeah.


P. Onuf:  So you get the best of both.


B. Balogh:  Peter, I think I’m following, but help me out with enlightenment science versus Darwinian science.


P. Onuf:  Well, Brian, you and I think we’re enlightened today.  Maybe we are.  But the Enlightenment has a notion of the cosmos and its history which suggests that it’s a great clock, an elaborate mechanism and what we need to do is figure that mechanism out.  It’s an empirical task.  We have to understand how the gears mesh.  Now, that’s a very static idea and Darwin introduces a dynamic idea, that is nothing ever is the same because of constant change through history.


E. Ayers:  And it’s interesting, too, that Mr. Wilkey then says let science go wherever it may and let the legislature stay out of it which is exactly the opposite, of course, of what had happened at his own school 85 years earlier in which the legislature was intrusive and it was Clarence Darrow and the voices of modernity that said stay out of this.  Now, it’s the voices of creationism and intelligent design are saying let science speak to us directly without the intrusion of the state, so, boy, all these different elements keep combining in different forms.


B. Balogh:  It’s almost like recombinant DNA, Ed, and on that note, it’s time for another break.  [music]  When we get back, we’ll return to my discussion with historian Ronald Numbers and look at the creation of creationism.


P. Onuf:  We want to know what you think about all this.  The discussion is underway at  We’ll be back in a minute.   [music]  We’re back with “BackStory,” the show that takes a topic from the here and now and explores its historical context.  I’m Peter Onuf, “Backstory’s” 18th century guy.


E. Ayers:  I’m Ed Ayers, that resident 19th century guy.


B. Balogh:  I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy.  Today’s topic—the history of the conflict between science and religion in America.


Tape (Matthew Brady):  A fine biblical scholar, Bishop Usher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the creation.  It occurred in the year 4004 BC.


B. Balogh:  This is another clip from “Inherit the Wind,” the movie about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.  The prosecution attorney, based on the fundamentalist icon William Jennings Bryan, is in the witness box, being grilled by the lawyer inspired by the real-life Clarence Darrow.


Tape (Clarence Darrow):  That first day, well, what do you think, was it 24 hours long?


Tape (Matthew Brady):  The Bible says it was a day!…


Tape (Clarence Darrow):  Well, there was no sun.  Hmmm, you know, how do you know how long it was.  Isn’t it possible that it could have been 25 hours?  There’s no way to measure it.  No way to tell.  It’s possible.  Then you interpret that the first day is recorded in the book of Genesis could have been a day of indeterminate length.  I mean might to state it is not necessarily a 24-hour day.  It could have been 30 hours.  It could have been a week.  It could have been a month, could have been a year, could have been a hundred years, or it could have been 10 million years!


Tape (Matthew Brady):  I protest.


B. Balogh:  In the movie, this moment is a kind of turning point—the William Jennings Bryan character is finally forced to admit a central flaw of biblical literalism.  But in reality it wouldn’t have really been all that dramatic.  The belief that the Earth is only six thousand years old—an idea now known as “young Earth creationism”–was a fringe view in the 1920s.  Ron Numbers, that historian we heard from earlier—he told me that most fundamentalists, including William Jennings Bryan himself, read Genesis metaphorically, with the individual days standing in for vast geological eras.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  And then there was this small little group associated largely with the 7th Day Adventist Church that kept insisting no, it’s no more than 6000 years and they took care of the fossil record by assigning it to the one year of Noah’s flood. 


B. Balogh:  I see.


Tape (Ronald Numbers): That was a view endorsed by the prophists who founded the 7th Day Adventist Church, Ellen White, and one of her disciples, George McGready Price who wrote probably 30 books in the first half of the 20th century advocating disposition.  Almost nobody outside his church accepted it and then in the 1960s, it was picked up by two non-Adventists fundamentalists, Henry Morse and John Whitcomb, and published as The Genesis Flood which became the Bible for the creation science movement and surprisingly this alternative became extremely popular among fundamentalists, Pentecostals and other conservative evangelicals.


B. Balogh:  And is it fair to say that the alternative that won out is the least scientifically plausible.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Of course.  It’s so counterintuitive.  You would think that there would be a tendency to accommodate science as much as possible.


B. Balogh:  Right.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  But the view that emerges more or less victorious in the ’60s and ’70s is the one that repudiates the most of modern science.  Now, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, although the most vocal and visible group of anti-evolutionists had been now for a number of years the creation scientists, there were other anti-evolutionists and they were a little annoyed by the insistence of the creation scientists on a particular interpretation of Genesis, so these people with a few liberal young earth creationists, if there is such a thing—


B. Balogh:  I’m sure there’s a group on Facebook.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  I bet there is—  Started the intelligent design movement.


B. Balogh:  I see.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  And the intelligent design movement was supposed to be a big tent movement that allowed all anti-evolutionists to participate, that did not talk about the Bible.  That was too divisive.  Set aside the Bible.  Let’s just focus on arguments against evolution, but their biggest goal was to turn back 200 years.  The consensus that in doing science one would only appeal to natural forces. 


B. Balogh:  Right.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  This had come fairly recently actually to be called methodological naturalism and it had been embraced by evangelicals and atheists alike and was a wonderful device for keeping peace while people with different religious views participated in this activity, but the intelligent designers claimed that if you couldn’t use God, then it was just as bad as denying God and so their primary goal has been to change what I would argue is the no. 1 ground rule for playing science—


B. Balogh:  Which is to take God out of nature.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  Exactly.  You could believe in God.


B. Balogh:  Right.


Tape (Ronald Numbers):  You can worship God.  You can talk to your Sunday School class about God and nature, but you’re not going to get by attributing anything in a scientific work to God or Satan.  [music]


B. Balogh:  Ronald Numbers is a professor of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  We’ll post an extended version of our conversation at backstoryradio dot org.




E. Ayers:   If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory,” we’re the American Backstory hosts, and we’re talking about the relationship between science and religion in days past.  For the past few weeks, we’ve been inviting your feedback on today’s topic at, and our producers have invited a couple of the people who left comments there to join us on the phone.


P. Onuf:  Hey, guys, rally round.  We have a call from Bellingham, Washington.  It’s Matthew.  Matthew, welcome to “BackStory.”


Caller (Matthew):  Oh, hi.  So, not all religions in the United States, really not all even Christian traditions, have the same sort of track record with science and even using the same Bible, not all traditions have read Genesis the same way and I was wondering if you could comment then on how these different belief traditions, even the ones that still have the book of Genesis, how they have different approaches to science.


E. Ayers:  I guess it strikes me that the two most powerful faith traditions that are not sort of evangelical Christianity are Catholicism and Judaism and it strikes me that both of those have had quite different angles of connection and dissent with science.  I’d be curious to know, is science problematic with Judaism in the 19th or 20th century.


[P. Onuf]:  Are you asking me based on my four years of Hebrew school, Ed?  Or simply as an historian?  As an historian, I would say that as an organized religion, Judaism has probably had the easiest relationship with science.


E. Ayers:  Well, how about Catholicism, then?  I mean, one way to think about it is that Catholicism is in a different kind of—  a more corporeal conflict with certain varieties of modern science and one thinks of reproductive debates and so forth, but and obviously long before Protestant Christianity sort of became established in the United States, the Catholic church had been wrestling with science for centuries, so it’s interesting how we’ve narrowed the bandwidth so much to really to talk about in an American case of evangelical Christianity and we don’t really talk much about a conflict between Catholicism—


P. Onuf:  I think that’s a great question, Ed, and I think it has something to do with authority and ecclesiastical authority in the organization of the Roman Catholic Church so these issues, of course, have been and continue to be profound and important but the kind of personal engagement that is characteristic of the Protestant tradition where it’s you and your God as mediated through the Bible, I think that makes, every man, so to speak has to be scientist or an anti-scientist, that is, you have to answer these fundamental questions for yourself and in a way, most believers and most faith traditions in the world don’t in an ongoing way have to balance or resolve these problems on an individual basis because their church hierarchies, their religious organizations are in a way deciding these things, usually in a way that enable a lot of play and a lot of slack so people don’t have to march to the same drum.


B. Balogh:  I mean, the great irony here is on the flip side, science used to be what we associated with the individual natural philosopher or the inventor or the tinker and it is now science—


P. Onuf:  That’s a great point.


B. Balogh:  Organized in these gigantic organizational structures.


P. Onuf:  That’s a wonderful point, Brian.


B. Balogh:  That require panels that sign off on the validity of grant proposals.


P. Onuf:  It could be that there’s a real antinomian appeal, that is, the appeal of the individual believer to stand up against the hierarchies of science, just as you once stood up against the hierarchies of the Roman Church.


B. Balogh:  Right.  Have we totally confused you, Matthew?


Caller (Matthew):  No, no, no.  I think there are issues of authority but there’s also sort of a theological direction to it as well.  Part of it I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian and coming from an older Eastern tradition, in some ways older than Roman Catholicism, you know, coming out of the Middle East—we don’t have a pope or a magisterium.  We also don’t have a lot of the same rationalisms that came into theology in the Middle Ages.  It’s very mystical, but we’ve had a lot of freedom for scientists and really very notable scientists right up into the 20th century and the present day and we actually even have a lot of freedom on the question of evolution.  My faith has been described lovingly as disorganized religion, so there really isn’t a definitive stance on a lot of these things.


B. Balogh:  But, of course, Protestants are constantly engaging with these cosmic issues but they’re also monitoring each other, the individual believer is intensely concerned with other believers so there’s a real imperative to achieve some kind of, not consensus as if there were a compromise but to get to a shared truth—


E. Ayers:  A solidarity.


B. Balogh:  Yes, and Tocqueville talked about mass society in the 19th century.  The genius of American democracy is that people seem to believe the same thing and that’s no accident because it comes out of Protestant religion which is both incredibly diverse but also has powerfully conformist tendencies and you don’t have that kind of pressure toward conformity within more highly structured institutions or even within a disorganized Greek Orthodox church.


Caller (Matthew):  You guys are sharp.  Thank you very much.


P. Onuf:  Thanks for calling.


Caller (Matthew):  Thank you very much.  Bye.  [music]


P. Onuf:  We’ve got another call and it’s from Margaret in Lumberton, North Carolina.  Margaret, welcome to “BackStory.”


Caller (Margaret):  Hello and thank you.  My husband and I moved here a little over 20 years ago and local lore held that a farmer that lived not far from where we lived at the time had beefalo on his farm which for those who don’t know what that is, it’s a cross between cows and buffalo and somebody took offense to this and felt that it was the intermingling of species was wrong and murdered the man.


P. Onuf:  Whoa.  This is getting better and better.


Caller (Margaret):  And certainly breeding of livestock was considered a gentlemanly pursuit at one time.  Early research into genetics was conducted by monks, so clearly there was not the same kind of moral or religious meaning attached to things like beefalo and so I’m wondering if as we unravel nature’s mysteries with cloning and embryonic stem cell and things like that are we attaching more religious meaning or moral value than we did in generations past?


P. Onuf:  Well, listen, Margaret, that’s a great question.  One thing that came immediately to mind when you asked about the beefalo are some of the things that Thomas Jefferson said about race mixing, that if you loved natural philosophy you wouldn’t want to mix the races because nature had created them different, in some way.  This was an imprecise protoracial science argument but it suggests that nature had a design and that we should not inviolate it.  At the same time, somebody like Jefferson and people in his generation were in love with the idea of improved domestic livestock and that breeding was crucial to the improvement of the separate races, so one of the issues that it raises is what is nature and what is nature’s purpose and is there a design in nature.


E. Ayers:  Yeah, you know, one word is troubling me here on all this and that’s mule.


Caller (Margaret):  Yes.


E. Ayers:  You know, I mean, mules have been around for a long time and are very obviously a human creation because they cannot recreate, you know.  It seems to me such an obvious challenge to the idea of the perfection and separability of species, but we know that people have been breeding livestock for centuries, right?  I guess one way to think about this, in era before Darwin, selective breeding did not seem as much of a challenge because you did not have any concept that the actual species could evolve or change.


P. Onuf:  Yes, that’s right.


E. Ayers:  You’re just improving, just bringing to the surface what God’s already put there.


Caller (Margaret):  Uh huh.


E. Ayers:  Yeah, and I would just add that this can be seen in religious terms because of the requirement that man be productive and improve upon his conditions and, of course, in the 20thcentury, this really runs wild with all kinds of hybrid corn.  A lot of this is funded by the government in order to improve the quality of corns and then by the time we reach the 21stcentury, genetic modifications.  I don’t have an answer for your question of whether this makes it more religious, less religious, or violates religiosity.


P. Onuf:  I think that’s just what Margaret’s getting at and that is the distinction between what Ed says about improving nature and that’s what we’re supposed to do.  That’s fully compatible with a notion of God’s creation but then somehow you can also be violating nature and it’s the boundary between improvement and violation, between doing something that seems to be in tune with some kind of harmonious larger design or end, and then the rampant violation of something that we should hold sacred.


Caller (Margaret):  Well, I think you see that with the embryonic stem cell questions, that if we’re using this to end cancer, then people have less problem with it than if we’re doing it to clone.


P. Onuf:  Right.


E. Ayers:  Yeah.  Well, that’s interesting because if you think about what man has created for is to have dominion over nature, to quote the Bible, right?


P. Onuf:  I think we’re also supposed to suffer.


Caller (Margaret):  [laughter]


P. Onuf:  However, and I think if we’re going to get theological about this and there’s suffering humanity, it’s not—  It’s, of course, ever since the fall is what we’re doomed to, but it’s a knowledge of our finite qualities, of our limitations, suffering as part of creation and, of course, the creation design transcends us.  It’s when we substitute ourselves for that creation as if giving ourselves eternal life.


E. Ayers:  But speaking of finite, Margaret, I would just complicate further your very good question and not just think about modification, but elimination and think about all the species that have been eliminated in the efforts to protect them.  This, too, strikes me as a deeply religious question as to whether man is entitled to eliminate entire species of vegetation and animals.


B. Balogh:  Well, we’ve done it already.  It’s too late.


P. Onuf:  Sorry, Margaret, you were going to say something.


Caller (Margaret):  No problem.  I was just going to say I think that that is probably the question that then will keep us going as human beings. 


P. Onuf:  Yeah, and I think you’ve done a wonderful job of identifying one of the things we will be arguing about.  In many ways, religion and science are part of our engagement with these fundamental questions, different approaches, you might say, but perhaps ultimately complementary and I think you’ve really drawn our attention to it.


E. Ayers:  Well, we just hope we’ve not made you suffer too much even though it is our human fate.


P. Onuf:  Right.


Caller (Margaret):  No problem.


P. Onuf:  Thanks, Margaret.


Caller (Margaret):  Bye bye.


B. Balogh:  Well, unfortunately, that’s where we’re going to have to leave things today.  But as always—the conversation continues online.  Drop by and let us know what you think—will science and religion ever truly make peace with one another?  You can find us on Facebook, and at  Don’t be a stranger.


P. Onuf: Today’s episode of “BackStory” was produced by Tony Field, with help from Catherine Moore and Eric Verkerke, and [Allison Quance].  Jamal Milner mastered the show, and Gabby Alter wrote our theme.  Special thanks today to listener Josh Grisetti, who suggested today’s topic on the “Pitch a Show” section of our website. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


E. Ayers:  Major support for “BackStory” is provided by the University of Virginia.  Support also comes from James Madison’s Montpelier, Weinstein Properties, Trish and David Crowe, Austin Ligon and an anonymous donor.


[Catherine Moore]:  Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History.  Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond.  “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VHF Radio at the University Foundation for the Humanities.