no fundamentalists among the primates. They believe nothing that is not
When they confront a fact they recognize it instantly, and turn it to their uses with admirable readiness.
There are liars among them, but no idealists. --H.L. Mencken
God must have a terrific sense of humor. During the same week that the learned theologians of the
Arkansas Legislature debated yet another creationism bill, the president of the International Flat Earth Research
Society died in his sleep.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Charles K. Johnson called himself "the last iconoclast”.
He referred to Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer who first demonstrated that the earth orbits the sun, as "Co-pernicious”.
see, feared that human dignity would be much diminished by taking man off center
He spent his life promoting the idea that the earth was "actually a flat disk floating on primordial waters instead of a
ball spinning and orbiting in space”.
Johnson sounds as if he'd have made a dandy candidate for public office in Northwest Arkansas.
According to the Times, he "regarded scientists as witch doctors pulling off a gigantic hoax so as to replace religion
with science. He based his own ideas on the Old Testament references to a flat earth and the New Testament saying
that Jesus ascended into heaven." Sunrises and sunsets he dismissed as optical illusions, the moon landing as sham
scripted by science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke. He and his late wife, Marjory, reasoned that only a flat earth
could explain why she hadn't spent her childhood in Australia hanging upside-down by her toes.
confident that Rep. Jim Holt, the Springdale Republican responsible for House
Bill 2548, formally entitled "
An act to prohibit state agencies and other public entities from using tax dollars to purchase or distribute material that
contains, or presents as factual, information which has been proven false or fraudulent," is not a member of the
International Flat Earth Society.
Without earth-orbiting satellites, after all, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network would be out of business,
and President Bush II's scheme to spend untold billions building a space-based missile defense that Chicago Sun-Times
columnist William O'Rourke aptly describes as "an imaginary Maginot Line in the sky" would be not simply impossible,
but literally inconceivable.
Even so, the reasoning behind this latest attempt to substitute fundamentalist
theology for the scientific
method in Arkansas schools is no less laughable.
Exactly like the Flat Earthers, creationists begin with conclusions and reason backward to facts.
They reject the procedures of science while claiming its cultural authority. They don't know what a scientific "theory" is:
not a guess or hypothesis, but a systematically organized body of knowledge based on falsifiable and repeatable assumptions.
Most revealing are the remarks of Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, who fears that
if children are taught
that they are descended from animals, they'll act like them. It'd be interesting to know which animals Altes thinks behave
worse than human beings. Or which gods.
Mark Twain liked to quote Numbers 31:1-18 in which the Lord instructs Moses to exterminate the Midianites. After putting all the men to the sword, the Israelites were given this divine injunction: "Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for ourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."
In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, the Lord calls for even sterner measures: "In the cities of the nations the Lord
your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them--the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites--as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise they will
teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods."
We call this kind of thing "ethnic cleansing" today. Even Mike Huckabee's against it.
But we digress. The problem here isn't really science vs. religion at all. Last
time the Arkansas Legislature
passed a "monkey law" back in 1981, 12 of the 23 plaintiffs in the successful ACLU lawsuit to overturn it were religious
leaders, including the Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal bishops of Arkansas.
Presbyterians, Southern Baptists and Jews also were represented.
Methodist Bishop Kenneth Hicks wrote an unusually articulate statement
explaining the absurd presumption underlying fundamentalist bibliolatry: that
puny man would limit divine power to the dimensions of his little mind.
"The universe is not only queerer than we imagine," wrote British scientist J.B.S. Haldane,
"it's queerer than we CAN imagine."
It's precisely this sense of awe at the fathomless complexity of space and time that scares the fool out
of people like Holt and Altes. Creationism flourishes among the semi-educated who deem themselves members of
contemporary Puritanism's visible elect and yearn to enforce the old-time Adam-and-Eve, Dick-and-Jane storybook
theology that makes their little sect right and everybody else's wrong.
The irony is that efforts like theirs have, if anything, quite the opposite
effect. Science teachers aren't
intimidated, and creationists end up looking like goobers.
Thomas Jefferson, bless him, saw all this coming. His own scientific studies convinced him that nature
showed evidence of intelligent design.
"Is uniformity [of religion] attainable?" he wrote. "Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the
introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.
What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half
the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."
Hence, the First Amendment, which makes this silly proposal, if enacted, unconstitutional on its face.
Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
This article was published on Wednesday, April 4, 2001