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A New Dialogue on Olympus: Science, Religion, and the State

Walter Lippmann provided some of the most astute reflections on the Scopes trial in his "Dialogue on Olympus," published in American Inquisitors, a Commentary on Dayton and Chicago (1928). In Lippmann's dialogue, Socrates challenges Thomas Jefferson and William Jennings Bryan to clarify their views on science, religion, and the state. Actually, the exchange is mostly between Socrates and Jefferson because, in Lippmann's account, Bryan is largely unable to follow the argument. Nonetheless, Socrates presses Jefferson hard on some telling points, such as whether he did not "overthrow a state religion based on revelation and establish in its place the religion of rationalism."

Recently we have discovered an updated version of the dialogue, set on Mount Olympus in the 1990s. In this version, Bryan is taken somewhat more seriously-except, of course, by Jefferson. However, the updated version still does not do justice to Bryan-or to the other historical figures, for that matter. In fact, the level of resemblance between these and the actual historical figures is somewhere between coincidental and irresponsible.

We pick up the dialogue with the same question Socrates had posed to Jefferson earlier.

Socrates: But Thomas, did you not overthrow a state religion based on revelation and establish in its place the religion of rationalism?

Bryan: [Intervening.] That's just the point, Tom. Soc's got it right. [Bryan has picked up the evangelical habit of excessive informality.] You have tried to establish a religion of reason in our public schools, and your scientists are the high priests.

Jefferson: That's ridiculous. We don't impose beliefs on anyone. Everyone is free to make up his-that is, his or her-own mind. Freedom is what our country is about. That's also the essence of the scientific method-you start by freeing your mind of prejudices. Then you seek principles that are self-evident to all. That is the only way to discover universal laws of nature on which a just society may be ...

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