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Trial that made a monkey out of religion

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Scopes trial, more commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

[Although history records the date as July 10, recorded history has an unfortunate Northern Hemisphere bias and, given the time difference between New Zealand and Tennessee – where the trial was held – this is a hill I’m prepared to, if not die, then at least sustain severe bruising on.]

As I dimly recall from learning about it at secondary school last century, the case involved high school teacher John T Scopes being accused of teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution at a state-funded school, something that was banned in Tennessee at the time.

The way the case unfolded was both colourful and complex but, to cut to the chase, Scopes was found guilty before that verdict was overturned on a technicality – and it’s now generally held that the trial was ultimately something of a PR disaster for fundamentalist Christianity’s insistence that the contents of the Bible are the literal truth as opposed to, say, a more poetic and metaphorical explanation of the world and humanity’s place within it.

As an arrogant adolescent atheist, that eventual outcome was more than okay with me – my faith in science as the font of all worthwhile knowledge and the solution to all our ills was strong, and rather paradoxically only grew stronger after I dropped all science subjects from my course of study and stopped paying much attention to the discipline for several decades.

These days, however, as a much older and hopefully less aggressively opinionated agnostic, I’m less comfortable with the way the secular faith of scientism has come to dominate the intellectual landscape of the Western world during the past century.

I increasingly wonder whether, as the religious habit of thought becomes less common in our technocratic world, its potentially positive purpose is becoming clearer.

As Russian-British satirist and social commentator Konstantin Kisin recently observed, “it is extremely easy to prove that religion is evil but I am not convinced that proving that it causes more evil than its absence is quite as easy”.

Lest we forget, 20th century riffs on the theory of evolution and “the survival of the fittest” have helped bring about neoliberalism, eugenics, and the Nazis’ death camps.

So, what’s my point?

I’m not sure, although in my defence that has a pretty good pedigree – as philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.”

What is certain is that we live in an age where religious certitude has largely been superseded by the idea that science has it sorted, when it really doesn’t [fun fact: we still don’t really even know exactly how gravity works].

At a time when the pace of technology is gathering inexorable speed – take AI; please! – perhaps there was something in the words of Scopes trial prosecutor William Jennings when he wrote, “Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.”

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