Rejecting the Sullen: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part III

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 3, 2008 10:43 PM


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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, "The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate," has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

I asked the bartender, what do you see?

Part man, Part Monkey.


—Bruce Springsteen

Last week, I started laying down an argument that it was time to leave the traditional science v. religion argument behind. There were, I said, far richer and more compelling ways of thinking about these great human endeavors than tired combat between tired polarities. Now it’s time to get specific. I can’t go any further, though, without defining who and what the “traditional debate” means. We begin with the most well known, vocal, and pointless promulgators of the traditional debate—those I call the Sullen. The Sullen are biblical literalists of one sort or another, and their descendants are in the Intelligent Design movement. They are “the Sullen” because of their anger at science for ignoring their imagined urgencies, and its continual ability to trash their arguments. It is the Sullen who have turned the metaphor of warfare between science and religion into a political reality. The very public rise (and first fall) of the Sullen came in March of 1925 during the infamous Scopes Trial. The Tennessee General Assembly had just published the Butler Act making it illegal to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The ACLU jumped in and offered defense to anyone prosecuted under the new statute. In a towering act of cynicism, George Rappleyea, a businessman in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, saw gold in them there creationists and convinced his colleagues that the controversy of a trial would put the small town on the map. He was right. After convincing John Scopes to teach Darwin in the local high school, Dayton soon got all the publicity it dreamed of as the trial became an early media circus. It ended as a widely perceived failure for the forces of “creationism,” but the circus never really stopped. Half a century later, the Sullen would return with no new claims to truth but something far more effective for their agenda: political power that was willing to flex its muscles on an issue that science had decided long ago. You don’t need me to detail the Sullen’s very public war with evolution theory. What matters in getting beyond this sad story of political bullying is how the Sullen stand as arbitrary rejectionists in their relationship to science. There are, after all, lots of Christians who have no problem with evolution (this includes the last Pope who, last time I checked, called himself a Christian). The Sullen take a particular interpretation of their scriptures and then pick and choose what’s allowed and what’s rejected. For instance, they want to fly in jets, so aerodynamic theory is o.k. They want to use cell phones, so electromagnetic theory is o.k. Evolution, on the other hand, runs afoul of their narrow literalism so it’s out the window. The hypocrisy is maddening, as well as damming for the rest of us: The power of the Sullen has risen to levels that present a clear danger to U.S. efforts and preeminence in science. As any scientist who has traveled abroad over the last 10 years will tell you, no one is fighting this public war in other scientifically ambitious countries. These are, of course, the same countries that would be happy to beat the economic pants off of us with the innovation and technical creativity we are about to cede. On a deeper level, the wealth and political power the Sullen marshaled in their pointless rejectionism has all but consumed the public discourse on science and religion. When I told a colleague I was writing a book on the subject, he said, “Oh so you are doing a critique of Intelligent Design?” It’s as if we cannot collectively imagine that there is anything else to think about in these domains. Without doubt, the battles with the Sullen over school boards and science curricula must be fought until their wave of power passes. We should not forget, however, that they represent an extreme. More importantly, we should not let them force us into an equally false extreme.

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