Periodically one hears about some dust-up in some school district over a book that has been assigned — or not assigned — in an English course. "The Catcher in the Rye," "Huckleberry Finn," and most recently the Harry Potter books are among the more notable objects of the censors' ire. Suffering the accusation of corrupting the youth — the charge lodged against Socrates — may or may not be more noble than shameful, but to an English professor the whole business seems more than a little ridiculous. That is because I see all too little evidence that students have read anything in their schools, let alone that they have absorbed it in life-threatening doses.
But the school curriculum has long been the site of a battleground that has less to do with schoolchildren than with the cultural conflicts of their elders. This holds true, I think, for the current debates about "Creationism," Darwinian biology and "Intelligent Design" in the secondary school curricula.
The historic Christian creeds hold that God created "the heavens and the earth." That is their entire "doctrine" on the matter. The first chapter of the book of Genesis gives a beautiful poetic account according to which the works of creation are distributed over six "days." In its context, the word "day" practically requires the kind of mystical or allegorical interpretation that it received from ancient rabbis and the early fathers of the Christian church alike. As the last in a repertory of special creations, human beings claimed a special place.
In many places in the Bible itself physical phenomena are said to attest to the power of their creator. The theme is a common one among early Christian writers and is reflected in Shakespeare's lines about "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing." But it was in the English eighteenth century — the "Age of Enlightenment," with its rapid growth of scientific spirit and its retreat from dogmatic Christianity into Deism — that "Intelligent Design" really came into its own. Even more influential than Paley's "Evidences" (the famous "watchmaker" of last week's column) was Butler's "Analogy of Religion" (1731).
This bring us to Darwin and the Victorian "crisis of faith" of the mid-nineteenth century. It has always seemed to me that the design principle underlying "natural selection" was about as intelligent as you could get; but there were too few Paleys and Butlers to greet his work in that fashion. The crisis came not from what he said about God (he became increasingly agnostic), but from what he implied about man, who suffered much loss of face.
It was a cruel recompense for the gentle genius of a great scientist that "Darwin" has become for so many a kind of surrogate for the hard-edged secular, the godless and the intellectually coercive. The ancient Christian "fish" symbol, a kind of antique rebus in which the letters of the Greek word for fish (?????) form the initials of the phrase "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior," has been revived by modern evangelicals. You surely have seen such a medallion or decal attached to the back of a car behind which you languished in slow traffic. You may have one on your own car. Probably also you have seen its parodic riposte: a fish that in its amphibian ambitions has sprouted evolutionary feet and now bears the name "Darwin."
The absurd construction of the constitutional prohibition of the "establishment of religion" to mean a prohibition of intelligent and civil conversation about religion in the public sphere has nearly guaranteed that we shall suffer cyclical episodes of the genre emblematized by the Intelligent Design "debate." If we seek to bask in the feel-good sunshine of our much-vaunted "diversity," we may have to prepare ourselves for a few cloudy days on which diversity means something other than lockstep conformity.
A substantial majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians (three-quarters, indeed, and actually growing), and lots of them don't consider it a thought crime to wish somebody "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays." There are about 50 million baptized Roman Catholics. The number of "evangelical" Protestants cannot certainly be established, but it is huge. The fact that such a large group is barely represented on Ivy League faculties (as opposed to the secretarial staff, the grounds crew, the carpenters' shop or food services workers) suggests something about the way our categories of affirmative action have been defined. So long as most of my colleagues place Southern Baptists and Kalahari bushmen in the same category of cultural alterity, we are unlikely to make much progress in addressing the problem for which "Intelligent Design" is but a presenting symptom. John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild '24 professor of English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Mondays.
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