Inherit the Wind: Everything old is new again

I first saw parts of this film, for reasons which still remain obscure to me, in religious school (Reform Jewish, for the record, so we weren’t really particularly expected to root for one viewpoint or the other). It’s of course loosely based on the real Scopes Trial, but divergest to tell its own story, so I’m judging it on fictional rather than documentary merit. It’s really Spencer Tracy’s show, and he delivers the perhaps a bit overwrought dialogue quite well, considering. It’s a passionate play, and that comes through, but the other characters seem barely sketched. Gene Kelly as H.L. MenckenHornbeck seems particularly ill-placed and irrelevant: he hangs around for the whole film just to say particularly irksome things at the end.

Anyways, enough about the film, time for the evolution-debate screed. Really, you think I’d pass up an opporunity to go on about an Issue of the Day thinly disguised as a review? Really, I didn’t pick this movie specifically for the purposes of talking about modern politics; it just came to the top of my queue. Anyways, one theme they try to work into this film (and the play on which it’s based) is the compatibility between religion and science. Since the main conflict is between religious and scientific teaching, it makes sense that they’d try to make the encouraging ending a reconciliation between the two viewpoints. But for most of the film, it’s the proponents of religion trying to tear down science, and the proponents of science trying to tear down religion. That does not seem to be strictly necessary.

I’ve never gotten the stances of the militants on either end of the religion debate. Militant atheists have a point, but they’re so intolerably smug about it, while the ultrafundamentalist Christians are just out of touch with anything resembling reality. These are ridiculous extreme viewpoints, and it scares me to think (as it is increasingly hard to deny) that these stances actually represent a good part of the American population. I can’t fathom biblical literalism: it’s not just evolution which is oppositional to the literalist viewpoint, but pretty much every scientific discovery from heliocentricism on. I wouldn’t think the viewpoint that the Bible contained allegory and poetry would be heretical. But I’m not a fundamentalist.

What bugs me about the debate, really, is that it seems like the sort of thing that shouldn’t be happening. One incisive line in Inherit the Wind is that “creation took a long miracle”. I’m surprised fundamentalism isn’t taking on the viewpoint that scientific stances on creation are evidence of God’s love too. Because, let’s face it, the fact that the end result of this extremely fiddly celestial process is us is pretty damn incredible (yes, I know this is easy to say in hindsight, and if it had taken a million more years and we’d evolved from lizards, we’d say the same thing. I’m just trying to frame it in a way that looks like the Hand of God). Seems pretty likely that millions of years of the universe might produce something else. I’d say a God with the wherewithal to engineer a system which after a few million years cranks out an upright ape is a lot more impressive than one who snaps his fingers and makes man just be there. This would be a far more satisfying theological take.

In my opinion, the debate rumbling through even the new century isn’t between science and religion. It’s between bad scientific metaphysics and bad theology. The theological underpinnings of the hard-line antievolutionists isthe “God of the Gaps” fallacy; as we’ve seen, the smaller those gaps get, the smaller their God does too, but if you give God a role in the processes between the gaps, we can see its hand in everything. The bad scientific metaphysics comes from a vocal but mercifully not representative group of shrill atheists whose essential stance is “God is not described by physics, so God isn’t worthy of consideration”. If there’s one thing 20th century physics should have taught us (especially relativity and quantum mechanics), it’s that the closer you look at the world, the more things you hadn’t even considered pop up. No, I’m not suggesting scientists start incorporating God into their theories. But there should be an openmindedness towards the possibility that underlying principles of the universe may be amenable to explanations not yet supported. Saying “there is no God” is shutting off an entrire realm of possible explanation.

All the wackjobs I actually know are on the militant-atheist end of the scale. But the fundie nutjobs (none of whom I actually know) outnumber them, and that sort of scares me. I don’t understand that stance at all, but I think it’s immune to reasoned argumentation.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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