It was a hot summer in Dayton, Tenn., almost 86 years ago.

John Scopes, a 24-year-old science teacher and football coach, was to be tried for daring to teach evolution — banned at the time under Tennessee law. The famed lawyer Clarence Darrow came to his defense; the former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan opposed him.

Crowds gathered for the trial like flies flocking to fresh meat. The press was buzzing. H. L. Mencken even showed up, producing a series of scathing tirades.

We tend to look back on this trial and grimace. Put a man on trial for teaching science? And convict him? How mortifying!

But this week, the Miss USA contestants were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools. And by and large, the answers were horrifying.

“I think evolution should be taught but I also think that maybe the biblical stuff should be taught as well, you know. I think kids need to make their own decisions. We’re smarter than ever these days, so, I mean why not teach everything and let people make their own decisions,” Miss Georgia said. And that was one of the more coherent responses.

I understand that Miss USA aspirants are not a representative sample. And people who persist in asking serious questions of frivolous people – yes, I know it’s a scholarship competition, but you’ll have to remind me again after the swimsuit portion – deserve what they’re getting.

But that people believe evolution should not be taught in schools — or maybe should not — or that this is a “tough question” — in the enlightened year of our lord 2011 is terrifying. It convinces me, as a friend once quipped, that we are descended from monkeys.

It’s astounding how far we haven’t come since that hot July.

Hume said that through some misguided apprehension of the past, we tend to think of it as a more miraculous age than our own.

But for all our gadgetry, we are a credulous age. People abandon their livelihoods and families to anticipate the arrival of the End Times. There are Creation Museums. Someone is rebuilding the Ark. Then again, maybe this person just believes very strongly in global warming and is trying to be prudent.

Haven’t we been over this?

Perhaps if the relationship between religion and science remains so fraught, it’s because we don’t know our history. It has been a forgetful 86 years since that Tennessee summer. It has been even longer since Galileo decided that his allegiance to fact trumped his obligation to offend no one.

Say what you will about pageant contestants, they are fundamentally complaisant, and these days, that means saying we don’t have to teach evolution because some people might find it offensive. And this vague desire not to offend is more pernicious, in some ways, than any official ban.

It might be offensive to people to teach evolution? Maybe it’s offensive to other people to teach special relativity, because it implies that regular relativity is not good enough. But both of them have proved handy tools for explaining the world. That’s what science is supposed to do, explain the world. It will not tell you why the world hates dodos and what it was that happened to it in its youth to make it yell incoherent things at passersby. That is religion’s job.

We once understood that.

But an inability to distinguish between how things occur and why seems increasingly characteristic of us these days.

How’d the moon get there?” Bill O’Reilly demands.

Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a fairy story. Neither one is relevant.

Science is one thing. “Who put the moon there?” That’s down the hall.

Science and religion have always commingled in intriguing ways. A theory, unlike a creed, does not depend upon belief. Religion can tell us truths that are not factually true. In science, those are just inaccurate.

But these days, we either don’t know science or pretend not to. As far as we’re concerned, it is some malignant thing designed to offend People Who Are Just Trying To Go To Public School In Peace.

Are we so credulous as to believe that the truth is just What People On The Internet Agree On?

If so, we are moving back to the left on the evolutionary scale, and fast.

But there was some hope. Miss Vermont insisted that evolution be taught: “Not everybody necessarily has the same religious background and it’s important to have scientific facts about the world,” she said.

That’s the case in a nutshell. Forget the embarrassment of the Scopes Trial, and the world winds up watching 50 young women insist that evolution is a painful and offensive topic. Yes, it’s a beauty pageant — but still.

“Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details,” wrote Mencken, that hot summer. He was right.