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Social Text 18.3 (2000) 123-136

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Late Secularism

Robert J. Baird

In August of 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted to downgrade the teaching of evolution in its public schools by approving a new curriculum, which removed evolution from the state tests that students are required to take. As radical a move as this may have seemed, the Kansas board did not stop there. A balanced curriculum, in its view, also required removing the science that underwrites evolution, so the board also voted to delete the big bang theory from the statewide science standards. As James Glanz of the New York Times pointed out, removing big bang cosmology from the state curriculum was, from the board's perspective, an issue of fairness. As it stood, the state curriculum privileged evolution not only by including big bang cosmology but also through the wider canon of scientific knowledge, such as radiocarbon dating, which postulates that the universe originated around 15 billion years ago as opposed to the creationists' claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old. The twist in the Kansas debate was that fairness rested not on equalizing the balance of power between scientific knowledge and religious faith but rather on recognizing both positions as theories. Framed in this light, the problem for the board was clear: here are two theories as to the origins of life on earth; on what grounds can one legitimately and fairly choose one over the other?

Americans are used to hearing elected government officials either arguing on behalf of creationism, creation science, or biblical stories of origin or arguing for a strict exclusion of religion from the public arena. Indeed, this has been a commonplace since before the Scopes trial. What is interesting about the Kansas debate is not finding another crack in the putative wall of separation between church and state. State-supported religion in the United States, although it is still shocking to die-hard liberals, is such a part of our cultural landscape that even the invocation of Jesus Christ at the national prayer breakfasts that launch the new congressional sessions (attended by the president, members of both chambers of Congress, the justices of the Supreme Court, governors, mayors, you name it) cause not even a tremor of constitutional anxiety. So what!

What is significant here and speaks to our particular moment, which I call late secularism, are the arguments being deployed by the state in defense of downgrading evolution and giving creation science equal [End Page 123] billing. The argument made against teaching evolution, in Kansas and elsewhere, is that no one was there to see how life began--and students should be given only firsthand evidence. The state of Alabama provides a variation on this theme; all K-12 students are warned, "No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." 1 Clearly, this line of reasoning has been victorious with popular culture as of late; every presidential candidate, no matter of what stripe, has agreed that evolution and creationism are theories, not fact, so teach both--we are no longer obligated by the factual register to favor one over the other.

How did this happen? How did two antipodal positions in modern American life, so crucial to our cultural and political identities, become leveled? How did evolution and creationism become logically and epistemologically, in J. L. Austin's words, on all fours? And a related question of moment: Why has the effort to reconcile scientific observation with biblical revelation become so galvanizing to research institutions and those who fund them? This essay will attempt to link the theory/fact distinction as we have seen it applied to this contemporary issue to three hundred-plus years of the co-constitution of "the religious" and "the secular." Let me be clear: I am using evolution to point to the issue that is of greater interest to me, and that is the philosophical-historical landscape of late secularism. It may be that the conceptual landscape of the evolution-versus...


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