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5. Religion & Science

No event encapsulates the modern battle over religion and science as does the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925. Although John Scopes was convicted of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution in a public school classroom, the matter wasn't settled, of course. The debate over evolution, and whether an irreconcilable divide existed between religion and science, had raged long before John Scopes entered the classroom, and continues to this day. To what extent did the religion-science divide reflect other social and political divisions of the 1920s, and to what extent was it unique? How has the debate changed in the decades since? Combine these resources with those in Modern Faith to expand your study.

    Collected Commentary Religion & Science PDF file
  • Collected commentary. In 1928 the Forum, which described itself as "a magazine of controversy," addressed the religion-science debate in its monthly definition contest, offering prizes for the best definitions for religion and the scientific attitude. We begin with the entries of the winners to situate ourselves as "everyday Americans" of the time, then progress to commentary from eminent clergymen, scholars, scientists, poets, and a novelist. We conclude with excerpts from William Jennings Bryan's closing argument to the Scopes jury, which he never delivered since he and defense attorney Clarence Darrow agreed to submit the case to the jury without final statements. As you study the Scopes trial and the evolution debate, include this commentary to explore the broader aspects of the religion-science divide in the Twenties. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (11 pp.)

  • Felix Doubles for Darwin, 1924. This animated film, featuring the most popular cartoon character of the time, offers a unique view of the evolution controversy: how do you present a highly divisive issue in popular entertainment? And why do you? Felix sets out for South Africa to find proof of Darwin's theory of evolution. Showing a monkey some satirical illustrations of human types, he asks "Are these your relatives?" Insulted, the monkey calls to his family, "Ye gods fellers—he says we're related to these!!!" They chase Felix back to the U.S. where Felix is asked, "Well—? Do we come after monkeys?" "No," he replies. "The monkeys come after us!!" Is the cartoon pro- or anti-evolution, or noncommittal? Note that it was produced before the Scopes trial of 1925. Also note the caricatures of Africans; how does the cartoon use caricatures of white "types" (in the booklet Felix hands the head monkey)? How do these caricatures come across in the 21st century? [11:28, not 4:30 as indicated at the site; no audio] INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE

See also in this collection: Modern Faith.

Discussion Questions

  1. Study the commentary in small groups, with each group paraphrasing one or two items for the class. Identify the basic components of the religion-science debate and compile them in a single list to direct further classroom study. Though much of the commentary is dense, the basic points of each speaker can be discerned. You can do it.
  2. How were each of these positions defended in the commentary? Who were the most prominent spokesmen for each position?
  3. Explain the difference between the third and fourth statements in #2 above, as represented in the commentary.
  4. What are the possible consequences of life without religion, according to poet Edgar A. Guest, novelist Willa Cather, and scholar John Crowe Ransom?
  5. What are the possible consequences of life without science, according to clergyman Frederick Grant, journalist Walter Lippmann, and pathologist H. I. Gosline?
  6. Which commentators described religion as a form of science? Which described science as a form of faith? What did they mean?
  7. Which commentators argued that man's need for reverential emotion could be met through religion? How did others disagree?
  8. Which commentators argued that man's thirst for knowledge required the process of modern science? How did others disagree?
  9. What guidance for conducting the debate was offered by psychologist James Leuba, Catholic priest Wilfrid Parsons, poet Countee Cullen, the editors of the Forum, the Farmville Herald (as quoted in the Literary Digest), and other commentators?
  10. Judging from the examples in the commentary, how did the humorous songs, illustrations, animated cartoons, and pranks related to the evolution controversy help or harm the debate?
  11. To illustrate your position on the debate, create a poster, collage, mixed-media piece, or other visual representation. As the title banner or bottom panel of your work, select one of the statements below from the commentary. Remember that your message may not equate with the statement you choose, that your position is conveyed through the entirety of your visual.
  12. To expand your discussion, add the commentary in Modern Faith, especially the observations of Everett Martin, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Shailer Mathews, all Protestant clergymen.

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


Collected commentary
Felix Doubles for Darwin
11 pp.
  View online.
11 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Alfred North Whitehead, "Religion and Science," The Atlantic Monthly, August 1925

Religion and Science (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Roundtable: Science and Faith (PBS: Evolution)

Albert Einstein: four works on science and religion (Internet Sacred Text Archive))

Resources: teaching the issue of science and religion (National Council on Science Education)

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (ten papers; St. Edmund's College, University of Cambridge)

The Scopes "Monkey Trial," overviews and resources

- Scopes jury taking oath at beginning of the Scopes "Monkey Trial," photograph, July 1925 (detail). Bryan College Archives, Dayton, Tennessee. Reproduced by permission.
– William Jennings Bryan addressing the jury during the Scopes trial, photograph, July 1925 (detail). Bryan College Archives, Dayton, Tennessee. Reproduced by permission.
– Headline, "Wilbur, in Church, Defends Bible . . . ," The Washington Post, July 13, 1925 (detail). Reproduced by permission.
– Headline, "Evolution No Foe to Faith . . . ," The Washington Post, Nov. 15, 1924 (detail). Reproduced by permission.
– Sheet music covers (details). John S. Mitchell Collection, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University. Reproduced by permission.
    -"Don't Make a Monkey Out of Me," song by Bert C. Hodgson, 1925.
    -"Monkey Biz-ness," song by Perry Alexander, 1925.
– Al Frueh, "700,000 Years of Progress," cartoon, The New Yorker, July 25, 1925. Reproduced by permission.
– Stills from Felix Doubles for Darwin, silent animated cartoon, 1924. In the public domain; captures courtesy of the Internet Moving Image Archive.

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