The Fundamentalist Agenda behind Tennessee’s Monkey Bill

The 'monkey bill' could be a vehicle for enlightened teaching, but the opportunity will be lost if fundamentalists usurp it.

WASHINGTON, October 5, 2012 — Tennessee’s recent “monkey bill” was a brilliantly conceived piece of legislation. Under the auspices of ‘academic freedom’ creationists had achieved their long sought after goal – they had found a voice in the science classroom. If this freedom is used to expand the context within which we teach evolution it will be a good thing; if it is abused by fundamentalists to attempt to undermine evolution’s scientific bona fides we will all be the poorer for it.

On face value, the monkey bill, or more properly “House Bill 368,” would seem to be manna from heaven. It provides an avenue for our teachers to avoid the pitfalls of Dawkin’s narrow and blindly mechanistic view of evolution, and instead teach our children how evolution is God’s wonderful tool for the ongoing development of the universe.

In the wrong hands however, the freedom offered to teachers by HB 368 will be misused to attempt to undermine the legitimate scientific basis of evolution. It is this potential that led the National Association of Biology Teachers to write to the Governor of Tennessee protesting the introduction of the bill, saying that evolution “should not be misrepresented as controversial or needing of special evaluation.”

If you think the introduction of this bill is an isolated case and can be ignored, think again. Over the last two years, ten other states have considered similar bills. Ninety years ago the Scopes Monkey Trial was the bellwether for a national change in attitude toward evolution. Now Tennessee’s adoption of the monkey bill may signal another national change – this time in the other direction.

In order to understand the probable implications of the bill it is vitally important to understand the motivation of those behind it. Of course the bill’s ostensible rationale of “academic freedom” is just an excuse to introduce creationism into the science class. I am not adverse to that – evolution needs context. What does disturb me is that many of the bill’s advocates would see evolution removed altogether.

The reason for this has nothing to do with science, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with the Bible’s message. This antipathy toward evolution springs from an adherence to the literal words of the Bible; in particular the words of Genesis - namely that God created Heaven and Earth in 6 days.

This is fundamentalism, and at its heart is a fear of transgressing the Bible’s letter, rather than a love of following its Spirit. 

Those motivated by such fear have continually opposed the advances of science. History is littered with examples that lend perspective to this current battle. Take a moment to consider the trial of Galileo.

In 1632 Galileo, a devout Roman Catholic, published a paper arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun. As a result Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life.

The reason for his conviction was that his ideas were at odds with the words of the Bible, in particular the following: “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” (Psalm 104:5); and the following passage where Joshua prays that the sun might stand still, “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; And thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon” (Joshua 10:12).

The Church of the time had bound itself to a literal reading of those passages, and anything that went against it was deemed heretical, no matter how strong the evidence.

Galileo’s frustration at this willful blindness can be heard in his letter to the astronomer (and committed Christian) Johannes Kepler. “My dear Kepler” he wrote, “what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope?  What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

It was definitely no laughing matter: Under threat of torture Galileo was forced to disown his ideas. It was another 120 long years before the Catholic Church finally dropped its general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism.

Today’s contentious issue is evolution, and according to some polls up to 50% of Americans don’t accept it as telling the whole story.

Some percentage of those have bound themselves to a literal reading of Genesis. These people have closed their minds and refuse to consider the evidence that God did not place us fully formed on Earth. They are of the inquisition, and in their hands HB 638 will be used for ignoble ends; it will be used to undermine the legitimate scientific basis of evolution in our children’s minds.

However there are others that read Genesis as it was intended – they are of St Augustine’s school of thought, which holds that Genesis is an allegory for God’s creation of the universe. These people should welcome HB 638 as it provides the means to teach our children that evolution is God’s marvelous tool for progressing life. This is the right use of HB 638.

Let us hope that this enlightened view will win the day, although history has schooled us we may have to be very patient. I must confess that my strong fear is that HB 638 will be abused in the short term, and indeed turn out to be the regressive step so many have forecast.


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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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