In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ hit the big screen and hit South Carolina like a slap in the face. As a reporter at The State newspaper in Columbia, I was sent to a couple of local theaters on opening day to see the public reaction. I wasn’t disappointed.

At one downtown movie house, there were protesters carrying signs and praying on the sidewalk out front. One loon arrived in a pickup truck across the street from the marquee, removed a lectern from the back of the truck, and set it on the sidewalk. He delivered a bombastic, five-minute screed from pages of written text, loaded the lectern back on the truck and drove away.

Yep, I really saw it! There were signs and protests in other cities around the state as well.

Perhaps University of South Carolina officials had this history in mind last week when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins spoke at the Carolina Coliseum. One of the world’s most notable atheists, Dawkins is the author of several books, including the worldwide 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion. But the book he was touring with last Tuesday was his latest work, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

More than a thousand people were gathered outside the Coliseum Tuesday night, waiting for the place to open. They then filed in through single doors, one by one, under the gaze of uniformed security guards.

Before Dawkins was introduced to the crowd, a member of the USC biology department took the podium to remind the crowd that there would be no outbursts or shouting and no signs or banners during Dr. Dawkins’ reading. To the credit of all in attendance, it should be said that everyone behaved like perfect ladies and gentlemen. Maybe South Carolina has grown up a little over the last 20 years.

South Carolina has had a mixed history on the subject of religious tolerance. The Carolina colony was founded in 1670, and it was based on the Fundamental Constitutions, a system of government granting the greatest religious liberty of any society in the Americas. Yet, there were limitations. All who acknowledged a supreme being were allowed full citizenship in the colony, but atheists were barred on the grounds that they could not take an oath unto God and thus were not to be trusted.

A form of this intolerance lingered until recent times. The state Constitution of 1895 barred any atheist from holding public office in South Carolina. That came to an end in the 1990s, when Herb Silverman, an atheist, activist, and College of Charleston mathematics professor, applied for the job of notary public and was turned down. A trip to federal court with an ACLU lawyer by his side got the constitutional stricture struck down and granted atheists full citizenship in the state.

Catholics were not barred from colonial South Carolina, but they were so unpopular that no Catholic church was erected in the state until after the Revolutionary War.

The situation was somewhat different for Quakers. There was a significant Quaker presence in the state at the end of the 18th century, but as the ideology of plantation slavery took hold of the state’s politics and culture, the pacifist Quakers found themselves in a dilemma. They could either be silent on the issue of slavery and essentially abandon their faith, or they could leave. To their eternal credit, most of them left, heading to the Midwest. By 1860, there were no Quaker congregations in the state. The elimination of the Quakers was accomplished, not by law or edict, but by social and economic pressure.

All religious groups that remained — including Jews and Catholics — were forced to make their peace with slavery and ultimately embrace Southern nationalism. Religion in the South became strident, intolerant, authoritarian. Most Protestant groups embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, which meant, among other things, denying the scientific evidence of evolution.

Today the unevolved thinkers are still at work in this state and around the nation. Forty percent of all Americans accept the Bible literally, according to polls. In South Carolina, fundamentalist Christians are still trying to force “intelligent design” and “critical evaluation” of evolution into public education.

It is for these people that Dawkins wrote The Greatest Show on Earth, he said. All his previous books assumed the reader accepted evolution, but the persistence of ignorance and misinformation on the subject forced him to take a more elementary approach to the subject. Readings of The Greatest Show on Earth were followed last week by nearly an hour of questions from the audience.

Of course, he was preaching to the choir, and the choir loved it. As they say on the social page, a good time was had by all.

See Will Moredock’s blog at