By Robert Wilson
In the years after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, Susan Jacoby writes in our cover story, American intellectuals believed that the “science-proof ” thinking of religious fundamentalists “would simply disappear in the enlightened 20th century.” That complacent perception held sway until the 1980s, when the religious right began to assert itself in national politics. In the years since, science-proof (the term comes from Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday) has evolved into an attack on science and reason. Evolution itself is perennially back on trial, as is the scientific consensus on global warming—as is, it seems, any truth that stands in the way of ideology.
When Jacoby draws a line from Charles Darwin to John Scopes, she finds the imposing figure of Robert Ingersoll in between. Known as the Great Agnostic, Ingersoll traveled the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century, lecturing for the separation of church and state and the triumph of reason over religion. He was a popular orator; even those who disagreed flocked to hear him speak. He influenced a Who’s Who of Americans of his day, from Frederick Douglass to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Mark Twain, and his ideas if not his fame lived on after his death in 1899.
Ingersoll also occupies a substantial position on the line between the Founders and the present day. One of his achievements, Jacoby writes, was retrieving the reputation of the person in American history who thought most like him—Thomas Paine. Paine’s Revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense ought to have secured his place in our history, but the reaction to his antireligious The Age of Reason sent him into obscurity. The Founders, themselves deists like
Paine, were products of the Age of Reason: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect the era’s belief in secular government and reason over superstition. We could use a Paine or an Ingersoll today.
Also in this issue, we launch a department that will survey leaders of colleges and universities on issues facing higher education. We call it the PBK Presidents Poll, because we are asking for responses from leaders of institutions with Phi Beta Kappa chapters and because PBK (which graciously pays the bills around here) is helping make it happen. We will ask a question about a single issue each time, and encourage the presidents to elaborate. Their elaborations will appear on theamericanscholar.org.
Go to our website, too, for a tribute to Jacques Barzun by our Friday columnist, Michael Dirda. Barzun, who died in October at age 104, was a legendary scholar and writer, and a longtime friend of this magazine, where he published more than 50 articles and served for 30 years on the editorial board. Three of those articles are also available on our site.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the SCHOLAR and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.