The Strength that Comes from a Free Mind

On July 21, 1925, the verdict of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, better known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was handed down, which made it unlawful to teach evolution in state-funded schools. Today, nearly ninety years later, the intersection of education and religion still produces many areas of friction. This week, blog contributors considered aspects of both conflict and harmony in church-state relations in the area of education, from prayer in schools to religious and scientific inquiry into the origins of humanity to autonomy in hiring policies for religious institutions.

By: Leah Farish

I was once talking with an attorney who had just succeeded in getting an injunction against a school board that wanted to inform students that evolution was only a scientific theory. He bragged about how potent their witnesses had been because they stood for Science. His side, he said, had “the facts” about evolution. “After all,” he intoned, “science is about facts.” “No it’s not,” I said. “Science is about doubt.” Listeners looked stunned, but it’s true; any time you think you have proven anything with finality in a scientific pursuit, you’re at risk. The facts are never established, as they are in a court of law. There are only data obtained under recognized protocols, and careful inferences from that data. Procedures and inferences must constantly be questioned, assumptions exposed, new hypotheses advanced. Thus the wisdom of the Supreme Court when it cautioned against narrow-mindedness in academics: “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967).

I spent two summers at the University of Texas at Dallas in a micropaleontology lab, helping turn core samples drilled from the earth into specimens we could look at with an electron microscope to identify their geological strata and age. Scientists and assistants from many labs would gather for lunch with reports on how their research was progressing. The conversation was always the same: challenges to each premise, each process—endless probes into the finest or grandest of theories. I don’t remember the word “fact” being part of the discussion. To say that good humor or civility were part of the scenario distorts the picture: truth was the only concern—the endless search for truth. Anyone who questioned a colleague was of course doing that colleague a crucial service. It didn’t occur to anyone to respond to inquiry with anything but a humble gravity.

In Adler v. Board of Education (1952), Justice Douglas’s dissent reminded the court that the Framers of the Constitution "knew the strength that comes when the mind is free." As Thomas Jefferson said, “God Almighty hath made the mind free.” As students are taught science in secular schools, they should not have to shelve their religious beliefs and viewpoints, but should rather bring them to the discussion, especially on the topic of human origins and the origin of the universe, since these matters by their nature are not subject to the scientific methods of measurement and repeatability. And pragmatically speaking, humanities-oriented students will take an interest in open discussion on origins in a way that they won’t when they are learning about photosynthesis or polymers. Whether it’s intelligent design, Native American creation stories, or just critiquing Victorian models of evolution that were touted in ignorance of irreducible complexity, there are stimulating arguments to entertain in a secular course.

So let’s not react with fear or bigotry when students want to integrate scientific learning with the ultimate issues their faith addresses. That integration is cognitively important and emotionally thrilling—and is an opportunity to model for young people how adults seek for truth.

Leah Farish is a civil rights attorney who has practiced and published in the area of religious civil liberties for thirty years. 

This piece was originally authored on July 21, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/the-strength-that-comes-from-a-free-mind