Imperishable Bliss

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The headline was: “Issuing Rebuke, Judge Rejects Teaching of Intelligent Design.” When New York Times readers saw it on Dec. 21, most of them probably smiled with a complacent sense of satisfaction – science has triumphed again. But I found it chilling. Why is a judge telling a school district what it can or cannot teach (in this case, whether it could read a statement that challenged evolution)? Can’t a school district handle its own issues? Don’t we have a federal system in which experiments are conducted and succeed or fail, and other districts learn from their examples? After all, long before the judge made his decision, the offending.school board members in Dover, Pa., had been booted out of office.

Oh, and why do we have public schools anyway? Well, rather than pursue this track of libertarian outrage, I began to think about the case differently, as an illustration of a sturdy chunk of Americana that does not crumble or melt.

In no other country is there such a long-running conflict over evolution. It’s a conflict that erupted (but did not start) with the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn. Yes, it is about religion. And it is not going to be settled any time soon. Let me explain.

In the 1950s, 1960s, and maybe even later, many Americans suffered anguish over religion (they called it “angst”). They no longer believed in God and sought out new faiths, such as Freudianism, technological progress, existentialism, anything but old-time religion. This anguish is illustrated by “Sunday Morning,” a poem by Wallace Stevens, one of the most admired poets of the time. “But in contentment, I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss,” says the narrator, a woman struggling to accept her loss of religious faith.

Those days are long over, however. The uneasiness about religion expressed by intellectuals 40 years ago has ended. Many Americans don’t darken the doors of a church or a synagogue or a mosque. Christians are not stigmatized if they don’t attend church. Skiing, shopping, yoga, iPods, sex, and brunch fill up Sunday morning. The internal conflicts over belief in God have ended and the public face of our society is secular. Judge John E. Jones may have been constitutionally correct, given the history of Supreme Court decisions, to ferret out any taint of religion in the public schools. But for most individuals, secularism is not the whole story. The fact remains that, in their private lives, most Americans are religious. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey found that 76% of Americans are Christian. More Americans go to church regularly than in any industrialized nation except Ireland, according to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Across the country, social meetings start with prayer, families say grace, parents attend Bible classes, and children go to Sunday school. These Christians do not apologize for believing in God.

For some of them, Darwinian evolution is simply not compatible with their faith. Whether this is right or wrong is another subject {but famed Darwinian Richard Dawkins did say that Darwinism enabled him to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”}. When these Christians feel they have to choose, they choose God. And, whether some judge in Pennsylvania rebukes and disparages them or not, they are going to continue to do so – as long as we have freedom of religion in this country.

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