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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 built among diverse peoples.

Socrates: That is a noble ideal, Thomas. But suppose you had the misfortune to live among the benighted people of the late twentieth century whom we see down here before us. Suppose you lived when there was no consensus on self-evident first principles of morality, when people scoffed at the idea of natural law, and there was no hope that science could lead to such a consensus?

Jefferson: The world would be unbearable without some self-evident first principles from which a universal science of higher morality can be derived. In such a world the citizens would be victims of rule by unprincipled attorneys. I can't think of anything worse.

Socrates: Would that grim prospect make you rethink your faith in the scientific method as the best basis for building American society?

Bryan: He's right, Tom. This old guy is smart.

Jefferson: [Looking at Bryan.] I just thought of something worse than rule by unprincipled attorneys: rule by preachers-and by sectarian politicians who can't tell the difference between the American people and a Sunday-school class. Society would be reduced to a shouting match until one sect took over. That's been proven by history.

No. The reason people need to trust the scientific method is that it's still the best thing we've got to adjudicate among conflicting sectarian opinions.

Socrates: But you say you have to trust reason because it works. When you say "trust," you use the language of faith. You put your faith in one method of settling arguments, and religious people put their faith in another.

Bryan: He's gotcha, Tom. He's gotcha. That's just what I was trying to say. It's your faith against mine. Maybe I'm not so dumb after all.

Jefferson: Sure, Bill. That's why you ended up as the laughingstock of every educated person of your day.

Socrates: Gentlemen, gentlemen. Break it up. What will our audience think?

But I am still puzzled by Thomas's view. If you advocate the scientific world-view as the highest standard for a society, how is that world-view exempted from being just another sect? Isn't it just that advocates of your sect promote the goals of technological cooperation and keeping the peace in a diverse society?

Bryan: Keeping the peace! They're a sect all right, but the only way they want to keep the peace is by winning the war. The real agenda of the sect of Jefferson and his crew is to impose a materialistic, atheistic philosophy on the whole nation. They made science the authority instead of the Bible. It's better to know the Rock of Ages than the ages of rocks. (I was always good at turning a phrase.)

Jefferson: [Aside.] To think this guy ran for president three times-and as a Jeffersonian!

Bryan: [Continuing.] That's why the teaching of the evolution of species in the public schools always leads to atheism.

Socrates: Whoa. Wait a minute. You just lost me there. I agree that an exclusive trust in science can foster an atheistic sect (or at least an agnostic one). But all of a sudden you lapsed into rhetoric. Why do you attack biological evolution when what you are against is atheism?

Bryan: Because it is materialistic. It assumes there is no God and that we must be products of natural forces alone. It promotes unbridled capitalist competition. I opposed it because I believed in social reform based on moral principles.

Besides, evolution is just a bunch of guesses strung together. The only reason it is convincing to people is that they start out by eliminating God from the picture. That makes biological evolution seem a lot more probable, since without God there has to be some naturalistic explanation. So since natural selection is the best explanation going-it doesn't matter how many holes it has-it still comes to the top as the best explanation. Before you know it, people are teaching kids that evolution is "fact."

Socrates: Your argument is more sophisticated than I had heard. But I still don't understand why you and your evangelical followers talk about evolutionary biology so much. If it's prior naturalistic or materialistic philosophy that's the problem, why not focus on that and attack materialistic philosophy?

What do you think would happen if tomorrow's New York Times reported some fossil discoveries that blew current evolutionary theory to smithereens. Do you think that the Clarence Darrows or Stephen Jay Goulds of the world would become believers in the Bible?

Bryan: Probably not. The human heart is perverse. They would just think up some other materialist explanation, equally absurd.

Socrates: So they would just shift to another best materialistic explanation?

Bryan: That seems right.

Socrates: So when you evangelicals attack a particular scientific theory, aren't you attacking the symptoms only, not the disease?

Bryan: The disease is what we're after, all right. What we need is a good way to really zero in on it-something the people can understand. Something that gets at the big picture, not just natural science.

Actually, I think the recent proposals for a school prayer amendment are a step in the right direction.

Jefferson: [Aside.] This guy is an idiot.

Socrates: [Patiently.] How would a school prayer amendment address the issue?

Bryan: It would say to the world that there is more to education than just science. It would challenge the monopoly of atheists and materialists over the public domain.

Jefferson: It would also breach the wall of separation between church and state that James Madison and I so carefully designed. It's essential to modern life that religion and the state be seen as separate spheres.

Socrates: "Separate spheres." Is that the same concept I hear your feminist friends complaining about?

Jefferson: Er . . . No. They are very different issues.

Socrates: Really? I should have thought they were part of the same pattern.

You moderns have built your civilization by making this sharp distinction between the public and private spheres. It seems to be related to your capitalist economy. For the sake of efficiency, you rationalize reality. Work is professionalized, emphasizing the boundary between public and private life. I've learned a lot about this by dropping in on the dead white male sociologists club when it meets Tuesday nights. You should talk to Max or mile, or maybe Jacques.

The problem, though, is that you have this image of walls separating these spheres. Somebody or something is always getting arbitrarily excluded when you try to define separate spheres so strictly.

Jefferson: So where are we heading? I'm not sure what this has to do with the scientific method and universal reason. Besides, I'm supposed to go out for drinks with Newton and Einstein.

Socrates: Try the hemlock. It has a nice nutty flavor.

But if you can stay with us a bit longer, I was just getting to the place of science. Natural science is an essential component of this artificially constructed public domain.

Jefferson: I don't have any trouble with that. Science is essential to the public sphere. In fact, it is the purest prototype for that sphere since it makes it possible for people of diverse faiths to work together for common goals. That's why there should be a wall of separation between religion and the sciences. And you really do need a wall-armed guards and all.

Bryan: But you can't do that. Don't you see that if you define science so as to exclude religion and then define most of education as scientific, you end up excluding the Bible from public life and establishing nonbelief?

Jefferson: That's better than establishing idiocy and superstition. Look at your right-wing evangelicals today. Even though they still call themselves Baptists, they act like Presbyterians, trying to take over and set up a Puritan commonwealth. Look at the influence of theonomy.

Bryan: That's an extreme.

Jefferson: I don't see how it's different from your view of science. They want to run the government on the basis of Old Testament law. You want to run natural science on the basis of Old Testament cosmology.

Socrates: Doesn't Thomas have a point there, William? You claim to put the Bible first, whether in government or science. But then why are you evangelicals such American patriots? You seem to have a tremendous loyalty to democracy and to the whole liberal polity that Jefferson and his friends designed. If you Christians are really committed to your rhetoric of always putting God's will first, then why aren't you working to destroy your liberal political system and its phony neutrality, and trying to take over the government?

Jefferson: That's what they are trying to do. In my day you Presbyterians were always trying to take over.

Bryan: That's a lie. We have always played by the rules in this country.

Socrates: By and large, that seems to be true. But I wonder why, if I am to believe your own rhetoric. Why shouldn't you evangelicals adopt theonomy and have a Puritan revolution? After all, shouldn't your goal be that there is not one square inch of creation that is not reclaimed in God's name? How can you compromise when you are talking about God's law?

Bryan: The powers that be are ordained by God. We do not have to have a perfect system in order to have an obligation to play by its rules. Besides, the American system of democracy is the best thing that humans have come up with so far.

Socrates: So, if I understand you, you really end up defending the American political system because it works. It keeps the peace better than anything else. You end up sounding a lot like Thomas here. The justification is pragmatic.

Bryan: Yes, I always claimed to be a Jeffersonian (of course, that was before I met Tom here). The difference was that I would not allow the system to become godless. Our system of government is founded on principles from the Bible, too, not just on natural law or what works best.

Socrates: It sounds to me as though you want to have it both ways. You want to say both that you put the Bible first and that you are loyal to the pragmatic rule of American politics. Don't you have to choose one or the other? Or at least work out a good theory of how your two loyalties are related?

Jefferson: That's why we need walls of separation. The only alternative is for one religion or another to take over, whether they admit it or not.

Socrates: But now it seems that we have come full circle. Thomas, you also enter the public domain with certain higher principles that you hold to, and these provide the context within which technical procedural activities take place.

Jefferson: That is hard to deny.

Socrates: So you concede that there should not be a total separation of spheres? Even in the public domain we need to work in the context of some higher principles.

Jefferson: Religious views are relevant to the public domain, so long as religious people keep them to themselves. They are free to have any private beliefs they want.

Socrates: But suppose someone has a religious belief that is not strictly a private matter. William here thinks the Bible teaches that we should be particularly concerned for the common person. Should he be required to hide the biblical basis for his concerns for justice when he is acting in a public capacity, as a politician or as a teacher?

Jefferson: He could identify the source of his belief so people would understand his prejudices. But in the public domain he has to argue the case on some other grounds. It is just like natural science in that respect. If you are not dealing with evidence that is equally accessible to all, you are not doing natural science. You can't bring in your special revelations.

Socrates: OK. So at least you would permit people to argue for religiously based beliefs in the public domain, so long as they argue according to the rules of that domain.

Jefferson: That seems right.

Socrates: So might not religious beliefs be relevant to the scientific enterprise in just about the same way that they would be relevant to politics: as background beliefs that control what you think is important or not important-like William's belief in the common person, and so forth?

Jefferson: Fair enough. But still they have to remain in the background. They have no relevance to the technical theorizing. There is no Christian version of 2 + 2 = 4. There is no distinct Christian view of photosynthesis. There is not even a Christian history, if history is done as a science.

Socrates: But didn't you conflate two things when you said that background religious views had no relevance to technical theorizing? The examples you gave all had to do with purely technical processes. But what about the larger theoretical context within which even the technician works? What of the context that includes questions like Why am I doing this? What is the wider significance of this work? What questions are important to investigate in this field? What assumptions about the nature of reality are relevant to this work? Does this work tell us anything about the nature of reality, or only about the nature of our assumptions?

These and others are all big questions that bear even on technical work.

Jefferson: I suppose so. But this gets pretty subtle when you deal with everyday questions in natural science.

Socrates: But we have been talking about the larger issue of the significance of the public domain in modern life. That is why the analogy of politics is relevant to the question of a wall of separation.

In politics, it's clear that you bring with you some major background commitments that-even if not made explicit-still determine which questions you ask: for instance, Will this bill help the poor? Then you do your technical calculation.

That's why the whole idea of a "wall of separation" seems too rigid. We need an image that is much more porous.

Jefferson: What image would work better?

Socrates: I'm glad you asked that. It looks to me as though both of you do make a distinction between a public domain and other loyalties, but neither of you keeps them separate. Both of you are, in fact, loyal to the pragmatic American political system, but you also have religious and moral loyalties. So how are these two realms actually related in the modern world-whether in science or politics?

Suppose that every city, town, county, and so forth had a separate territory within it that most everybody entered every day. This is the so-called public domain.

Now what is different about this territory is that as soon as you cross the border you have to speak a new language-the language of public discourse. Let's call this the "publican" language.

Bryan: As in publicans and sinners?

Socrates: Actually, that's not a bad allusion. The publican language is part of a larger set of pragmatic rules of the road that are necessary to get particular jobs done when not everyone believes the same things. These are the rules for tax collectors and the like. They are not derived directly from any one group's religion, so it may look as though this realm is just godless and pragmatic. But isn't it the case that you both acknowledge the need for this realm, so that even you, William, have learned its language and play by its rules?

Jefferson: All too well.

Socrates: But maybe there is nothing wrong with that, even on William's own principles. Your Jesus dined with publicans and sinners. And he did not tell them to cease being publicans-only to stop cheating people. William, you made more or less the same point when you said that your American system-which is the prototype of such a modern system-was ordained by God.

Bryan: OK, I follow you.

Jefferson: This is a first.

Socrates: But William, let me ask you a hard question. Isn't your problem that, in practice, your primary allegiance is to this realm?

Bryan: But politics was my life. My calling was to reform the system according to biblical principles.

Socrates: Ah. There's the rub. You Christians do have a duty to reform the publican realm-whether in politics or science-by bringing your Christian principles to bear on it whenever appropriate. But that calling to reform seems to bring with it the temptation to take publican land too seriously. You forget that it is an artificial construction that God has ordained for limited purposes-for keeping the peace and working together among diverse peoples. Instead, you Christians tend to think of this land as the primary location of the kingdom of God.

Bryan: How did you become such an expert on Christianity?

Socrates: I've had lots of time. And Augustine and I talk a lot.

But to continue. If you saw the primary locus of the kingdom in the church-that is, in the hearts of communities of believers-then you would be clearer regarding modern pragmatic inventions like political systems or natural science. You would see that there is no way that believers with changed hearts are not going to bring their hearts-and hence the kingdom-with them into publican land. That will influence everything they do. It will influence the questions they ask and help control the theories they are willing to entertain.

Bryan: So I could work for reforms like keeping the state from mandating the teaching of godless evolution in the publican schools?

Socrates: You could certainly insist that the "godless" part does not follow. You could point out that that is the premise of the method, not the conclusion of any research. That is a point of logic, not something drawn directly from the Bible.

Bryan: But if I don't bring the Bible in directly-whether in politics or science-wouldn't I then be selling out? I'd be making the publican rules the standard for my life half the day and Christianity the other half.

Socrates: Not necessarily. It's more like observing the rules of the road for a particular cooperative purpose. When a Christian gets on a public road she enters publican land and agrees to the rule of driving on the right-hand side of the street. That rule has a specific ad hoc purpose of keeping drivers from running into each other-and you can say it is God-ordained that people should make up such rules. But accepting that rule for that ad hoc purpose is a secondary allegiance. If she sees a child run out on her side of the road, she drives on the other side if she can-because she has higher loyalties than to the traffic rules. It should be the same for all these activities; Christians should just be clear about it.

Jefferson: What about non-Christians? They'll swerve to the other side also.

Socrates: True. That's the point I made earlier, that we all bring our higher principles into publican land. Though you have an additional problem as I see it, Thomas. It is not clear that you have any source of higher allegiance that is distinct from publican land. You ground your higher beliefs in science, in natural law, in universal principles accessible to all. In essence, you define your whole life by the rules of the publican land. So you need a revolution every generation if things are not going just as you like.

Jefferson: Seems to me you had the same problem, Socrates. It's just that you resolved it in another way. Which is better: to participate in a revolution or to die a victim of unjust laws? You might have escaped Athens and then led an insurgency based on just principles.

Socrates: You're perfectly correct in seeing that we had the same problem. For me, like you, the state was all I had (even the gods I believed in were ultimately the gods of the state). So I had to die to uphold the law, even though I was its innocent victim.

Jefferson: So why aren't you recommending to others that they give their all to uphold the law of the city state? Why this idea of a higher allegiance and limited ad hoc loyalty?

Socrates: Because you people profess to follow Jesus. Compare my death to that of Jesus.

Jefferson: I think of them as much the same. You both were innocent but were willing to die even when condemned unjustly.

Socrates: But my reason was very different. I died to uphold the law and the civil order, even when it acted unjustly. I thought the gods demanded such loyalty. Now, it's true that Jesus also accepted death by the unjust law. He rendered to Caesar what was Caesar's, and he did not foster political revolution or destroy the regime with his legions of angels. He believed that the Roman law was ordained of God, and he even told the publicans to reform their ways. But he would never have thought of dying to uphold the Roman law. His first allegiance was to a kingdom in which love would rule, and you are not going to get that from a state.

I'm just trying to get you Christians to think like Christians. I have since come to admire Jesus immensely, but I don't think most Christians follow him very closely.

Jefferson: I've always admired Jesus, too-enough to get rid of all the superstition about him.

Socrates: Ah, but here's the difference. You admired him only as an ethical teacher. You accepted Jesus only when you could fit him into the rules of science and of publican land-as though that were the only reality. You had no resort but to absolutize the principles of science and claim a universal natural law as the basis for your ideas. Science became your god and the god of your state. Now that science has failed to provide a basis for a universal morality, your followers are stuck. All they have is politics and resorts to power.

Bryan: [Wistfully.] I wish Tom would repent. He would make a fine Presbyterian elder. But I'm afraid it's a lost cause.

Jefferson: I feel that I've been unfairly worked into a corner here. Next time we have a symposium, I want to ask the questions.

Socrates: Here on Mount Olympus, I get to ask the questions.

Jefferson: This is Mount Olympus? You mean with Zeus and Athena and that whole bunch. That's impossible!

Bryan: [Musing.] Mount Olympus? That is impossible. This all must be a dream. Just my luck. All those good ideas from Socrates, and as soon I and the audience wake up, they'll all be forgotten.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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