Murphy’s Law: Intelligence v. Superstition
A century ago the Democratic Party was controlled by religious fundamentalists – now the Republican Party is saddled with them. Three times (1896, 1900, 1908) the Democrats nominated the darling of populism and fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, for President of the United States. Each time the voters chose Republicans over the pious and fanatical Bryan. He was defeated twice by William McKinley, a devout Methodist, who happily left the Discipline of the Methodist Church outside the grounds of the White House. He, and First Lady Ida, had their own ministers tearing their gowns because they continued the tradition of wine at state dinners. Duty above belief is implicit in the Presidential Oath of our secular Constitution. Bryan’s next opponent was Howard Taft, a Unitarian who rejected the divinity of Jesus, and all of his alleged miracles, and frowned at most of the Old Testament as well. Bryan condemned him in the campaign by repeatedly claiming “the American people will never elect a man President who disbelieved in the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ.” Taft exploded Bryan’s gift of prophecy by soundly beating him.
Bryan later was appointed Secretary of State, by Woodrow Wilson, and may have gone down in history as a reasonably sane person had he not involved himself, as lead prosecutor, in the Scopes evolution trial, in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Clarence Darrow, an open atheist, defended Scopes, and called Bryan as the last witness for the defense. Bryan had held himself out as an expert on the Bible, and this allowed Darrow to place his opponent in the witness stand. Darrow first made Bryan an object of ridicule, and then, when Bryan was forced to admit, according to “creationism,” that human beings are not mammals, he became an object of pity. The New York Times called the incident the most unbelievable court scene in Anglo Saxon history. It began as follows:
Darrow: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you Mr. Bryan?”
Bryan: “Yes, I have studied the Bible for over 50 years.”
Darrow: “Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?”
Bryan: “Yes, I believe what the Bible says. I believe the Bible absolutely.”
Darrow: ” Do you believe the story of the flood to be literal?”
Bryan: “Yes, absolutely.”
Darrow: “When was that flood?”
Bryan: “I would not attempt to fix the day.”
Darrow: “Well, what do you think?”
Bryan: “I do not think about things that I do not think about.”
Darrow: “Do you ever think about things that you do think about?”
Darrow: “How long ago do you think the flood was, according to the Bible?”
Bryan: “Two thousand, three hundred and forty eight years B.C.”
Darrow: “And every living thing not on the ark was destroyed?”
Bryan: “The fish might have survived. They could swim.”
Darrow: “And you believe that all civilizations, and every living thing, except maybe the fish, was completely wiped out by the flood?”
Darrow: “Don’t you know there were ancient civilizations thousands of years older than your creation date?”
Bryan: “No, that is not so, they would not run back beyond the biblical creation.”
Darrow: “You do not have any knowledge of ancient civilization, is that right?”
Bryan: “I do not know how old they are.”
Darrow: “Do you have any idea how old the Egyptian civilization is Mr. Bryan?”
Darrow: “Do you know how old Chinese religion is?”
Darrow: “Do you know how old the religion of Zoroaster is?
Bryan: “No sir.”
Darrow: “Have you ever tried to find out?”
Darrow: “Do you believe that the sun was literally made on the fourth day?”
Darrow: “Well, then, according to the story they had an evening and morning, the first three days without the sun?”
On and on it went – the hammer of thought striking the anvil of certainty. The jury would find Scopes guilty, but the conviction was reversed on appeal. Bryan died a few days after he left the witness stand. “True believers” still maintain Bryan was right, and it’s small wonder, as the history of the world is the battle between intelligence and superstition.
“Intelligence v. Superstition” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.
The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.