Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Being Scared of Shadows

Recently, in my Law, Literature & Film class, we read a play called, “Inherit the Wind.” You might have seen it in film as it has been adapted multiple times. By way of background, the play is based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, an actual Tennessee case where a teacher was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution[1]. The Scopes trial occurred in 1925, and the play was written in 1955. What relevance, you might ask, has this to current legal issues? I wish I could answer, “None.” However, the issues presented the play seem to be reoccurring with greater frequency in recent years.

You see, these problems all started with the event called, The Enlightenment, which refers to “an intellectual movement…which advocated reason as the primary basis of authority.” Prior to this movement, individuals did not have rights[2] and lived in authoritarian states governed heavily by religious orders (think of fundamentalist Muslim countries of today). The Enlightenment spawned philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbs and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings set the stage for the American and French revolutions. These philosophical ideas also set the stage for what has become a centuries old battle between rational thought and religious faith.

In my opinion, The Enlightenment was a high point for human intellectual thought, leading into the early 19th century fascination with natural law and sciences, and then into the industrial revolution of the early 20th century. The human race then succumbed to a disgraceful display of non-rational thought with World War I and World War II (including all associated genocides) that lead to destruction on a scale never before seen. Following World War II, the human race then again rallied to a high point of intellectual thought with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, the human race seems to be unable to sustain this level of brilliance, and a half-century of political maneuvering has mired down the potential benefits of this Universal Declaration of the rights of all people.

Of course, the last century of American history has been accompanied with an associated decline in education, intellectual thought and reasoning. (Please read, “The Dumbing of America,” a recent essay on this decline whose only fault is that I did not manage to write it myself.)

The lack of education referenced in this essay, in my opinion, lead to the Kansas Evolution Hearings, where a Kansas school board opted to change the definition of science and the science curriculum to include “intelligent design.” Another case involving the conflict between teaching evolution and creation/intelligent design occurred in 2005 in the Pennsylvania case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In that case, the judge “ruled that intelligent design is not science, that it ‘cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.’ Therefore, the court concluded that the school district's promotion of intelligent design violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”[3] These school boards might have wanted to focus on the history curriculum so that they would not waste time and money re-hashing issues that have already been decided.

In addition, this surge of irrationality has lead to contradictions such as protestant religious conservatives who:

  • Criticize the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo for his theory that the earth revolves around the sun, but cannot see the hypocriticalness of denying the similar scientific advances in genetics, which naturally involve evolution.
  • Have religious beliefs based on “faith,” but then fear that their faith will be damaged by hearing other (and not necessarily opposing) points of view.
  • Support the President’s theory that we are battling religious fundamentalist terrorists who “hate our way of life and our freedom,” while they themselves systematically attack the very freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the separation of church and state, and privacy.

Emmanuel Kant’s ideas of freedom begin with rational, thinking, modern man. In Kant’s point of view, freedom is respecting the ability of man to make moral choices. In this case, doing what one wants to do because one feels like it is immoral and therefore not freedom. Kant’s view of freedom requires respect for the ability of man to make moral choices. This leads to his conclusion that one should, “never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become universal law.” However, the people who are the driving force behind such movements to limit the teaching of evolution forget this maxim. Would they be so inclined to inject religion into education if it were a religion other than their own? I doubt it.

[1] I find it an interesting contradiction that religious conservatives discount the theory of evolution when it comes to teaching the evolution of the human species, yet invoke the notion of “natural selection” as a reason not to assist poor people, who apparently need to be weeded out because they are too weak to care for themselves.

[2] These rights include ones that most Americans today consider fundamental, such as the right to live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness along with constitutional rights such as the right to property, to bear arms, to religious freedom, and to due process of law.

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