In 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, Tenn., was indicted for the crime of teaching the theory of evolution to his students. Teaching Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" in public schools had been made a crime the previous year by the Tennessee Legislature.
What followed was perhaps the greatest spectacle to have ever taken place in an American courtroom. For most Americans, the Scopes trial was the moment when fundamentalism was exposed to the world as being anti-science, anti-reason and anti-logic.
Anyone who has read Mencken's now-famous coverage of the trial, or remembers the dramatization of the trial in the play and film, "Inherit the Wind," knows how ridiculous it all was. And even though Scopes was eventually found guilty and fined $100, the spectacle in Tennessee left fundamentalists as objects of laughter and ridicule for decades afterward.
However, when one reads about what has been happening around the country over the past year or so regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools, it's as if the Scopes trial never happened.
"Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man's possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands. The so-called religious organizations who now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters."
It's hard to say what's more saddening - that people still behave that way or that newspapers don't print reporting like that anymore.
I'll leave aside the current fear of newspapers, and how they're frightened that they might offend someone with a controversial thought. I'm more interested in Mencken's belief that "the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes ... a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them."
The "booboisie," as Mencken often called them, have always been with us. There just seem to be more of them today, and they are no longer backwoods curiosities, but people in positions of power. These are people who believe in the superstition of religion and in the literal truth of the Bible.
Mencken's belief that the vast majority of people find thinking to be a painful act is borne out by the opinion polls that show about two-thirds of Americans support teaching creationism and evolution side-by-side in public schools. Why are other countries overtaking the United States in science and technology? Might it be because education in this country is under attack by fundamentalists who want to censor what they don't agree with and bully teachers into only teaching the Bible's view of the world?
If you want to believe that God created the world in seven days, that is your right. However, you don't have the right to force me or anyone else to believe it. Even if you dress up creationism with a bit of science and call it "intelligent design," it still is pushing the Bible's version of events, a version thoroughly and completely discredited by science.
"It's a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity and diversity among Earth's living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say it's 'just' a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is 'just' a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun, rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a 'theory' ... Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact."
History shows us that when fundamentalism - be it Christian, Islamic, Judaic or Buddhist - takes hold, stagnation and disaster usually follows.