30 Turning in their graves? A tale of two coalitions
Creationism: bad science, bad religion, bad education
© copyright Derek Gillard 2002
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
The roots of 'creationism' - the belief that the world was created a few thousand years ago exactly as described in Genesis - can be traced back to the completely fallacious chronology of scripture propounded by Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher (1581-1656) who set the date of the creation of the world at 23 October 4004BC. The teaching of this belief has been a controversial issue in the US for years.
Now it appears that at least two British schools are teaching their students to doubt the theory of evolution. In March 2002 The Guardian reported that Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead had hosted a 'creationist' conference and that senior staff have urged teachers to promote biblical fundamentalism.
Darwin and evolution
National Curriculum Science requires students to be taught about evolution. This is hardly surprising, since the theory is universally accepted as the basis of life on earth and has been repeatedly demonstrated to be true by observation and experiment.
The theory that all plant and animal species have a common ancestry and that life is a process of constant change and development was first developed by a number of naturalists including the French biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829). The most important figure in the development of the theory was British natural historian and geologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Between 1831 and 1836 Darwin (pictured) sailed the southern hemisphere as unpaid naturalist on HMS Beagle collecting the material which was to become the basis for his later work. He and fellow naturalist Arthur Russel Wallace (1823-1913) jointly developed the notion of a causal evolutionary mechanism which they called natural selection and in 1858 simultaneously published their thoughts on the subject. Darwin went on to publish many books and papers, the most significant being On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). His work 'changed our concepts of nature and of humanity's place within it' (Oxford 1998:399).
On the Origin of Species marked a watershed in scientific understanding and sold fourteen hundred copies on the day of its publication. Evolutionary theory quickly became universally accepted and has been confirmed by many branches of science. Genetics provides the basis for the study of heredity and mutation. Biogeography supplies evidence of the geographical variations within and between species. Palaeontology and geology have demonstrated the development of life forms on earth over 3,500 million years.
The theory of natural selection argues that, in the competition for survival, only those organisms best adapted to their environment will live to reproduce - the so-called 'survival of the fittest'. The theory has been 'confirmed by observation and studied by experiment' (Oxford 1998:955). While some details - especially relating to human evolution - remain unclear, the general outline is well established and is supported by every new discovery.
The only people who have a problem with evolution are those fundamentalist Christians who wish to believe that the Bible is, in every detail, the literal and inerrant word of God. 'Darwin's name has become a byword for atheism in fundamentalist circles, yet the Origin was not intended as an attack upon religion, but was a sober, careful exposition of a scientific theory.' Indeed, Darwin himself was 'always respectful of religious faith' (Armstrong 2000:94).
In fact, there was surprisingly little religious reaction to the book at the time, probably because the following year seven Anglican priests caused a much greater furore by publishing Essays and Reviews in which they sought to make textual criticism of the Bible available to the ordinary reader. This new 'Higher Criticism' represented 'the triumph of the rational discourse of logos over myth.' Higher Criticism - which demonstrated that it was impossible to read the Bible in an entirely literal manner - was to become 'a bogey of Christian fundamentalists ... but this was only because Western people had lost the original sense of the mythical' (Armstrong 2000:95).
Creationism in the US
While virtually everyone - and certainly all scientists - accepted the basis of evolutionary theory, a small minority of fundamentalist Christians - mostly in the United States - found it impossible to accept that the world could have been created in any way other than that described in Genesis. Despite Darwin's protestations to the contrary, they regarded the whole evolutionary project as an attack on their faith.
In 1920 the Presbyterian Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) launched 'a crusade against the teaching of evolution in schools and colleges' (Armstrong 2000:175). Bryan considered that Darwinism had been responsible for the horrors of the First World War, on the basis that the theory had persuaded the Germans that 'only the strong could or should survive' (Armstrong 2000:175). He was also influenced by James H Leuba's book Belief in God and Immortality which suggested that a college education damaged religious belief. Darwinism, Bryan concluded, was 'causing young men and women to lose faith in God, the Bible and other fundamental doctrines of Christianity' (Armstrong 2000:175). He toured the States lecturing on 'The Menace of Darwinism', drawing large crowds and much media attention. His conclusions were 'superficial, naive and incorrect' (Armstrong 2000:175) but people had been unnerved by the First World War and were uneasy about the power of science. Those who wanted a 'plain-speaking religion' were anxious to find a plausible reason to reject evolution. 'Intellectuals and sophisticates might follow these new ideas with enthusiasm in Yale and Harvard and in the big eastern cities, but they were alien to many small-town Americans, who felt that their culture was being taken over by the secularist establishment' (Armstrong 2000:176).
This anxiety was especially strong in the southern states, where people began to feel that the teaching of evolution in their schools was an example of the '"colonisation" of their society by an alien ideology' (Armstrong 2000:176). Consequently, bills were introduced in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas to ban the teaching of evolution. Tennessee's law was particularly severe so John Scopes, a young teacher in the small town of Dayton, decided to challenge it and to stand up for the right to free speech. He announced that he had broken the law by teaching evolutionary theory and was duly taken to court.
His trial, in 1925, 'ceased to be simply about civil liberties, and became a contest between God and science' (Armstrong 2000:176). William Jennings Bryan appeared for the prosecution and was torn to shreds by Clarence Darrow, head of the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He was forced to concede that the world was far older than six thousand years, that the six days of creation described in Genesis were not literally twenty-four hours each and that he had never read any critical account of the origins of the biblical text. Scopes was convicted and fined $100 (later overturned on a technicality by Tennessee's Supreme Court) but there is no doubt that the victor of the trial was modern science. Bryan himself died shortly afterwards amid widespread press criticism of him and his followers as 'hopeless anachronisms' (Armstrong 2000:177). Despite this, Tennessee kept its anti-evolution laws on the statute book until 1967.
Fundamentalists felt marginalised by the hostility to their views, but their faith, 'rooted in deep fear and anxiety', was, if anything, strengthened by the Dayton disaster. During the following thirty years, their resentment festered and their beliefs became even more extreme and right-wing. 'Fundamentalism exists in a symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism, and, under attack, invariably becomes more extreme, bitter and excessive' (Armstrong 2000:178).
Their cause was given an unintended boost in the 1960s. The federal government's policy of requiring state schools to be racially integrated was unpopular with many white middle-class Americans who began sending their children to privately run church schools, many of which taught creationism. Pupils were taught that 'Dinosaur bones were those of creatures killed during the Flood, while fossil dating - using the principles of the radioactive decay of atoms - was derided as a fraud' (McKie and Bright 2002).
Today, seventy-odd years after Dayton, creationism is making another come-back in the US. A recent survey by California State University's Professor Lawrence Lerner, published in Scientific American, reveals that creationism is spreading in the world's most technologically advanced nation 'at a disturbing rate'. Forty-five per cent of Americans - and even forty per cent of US Catholics - say they believe God created life some time in the past ten thousand years, despite the fact that Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Church's commitment to evolutionary theory in 1996.
Amanda Chesworth, head of the anti-creationist Darwin Day group, is worried. 'It is very, very scary. Creationism is spreading further and further. Creationists use some very effective tactics. They target small towns and get supporters on important local organisations, in particular boards of education. Then they launch campaigns to demand equal time for their views beside those of evolution. Voters get confused. They don't understand that creationism is a doctrine and is very different from scientific theory. Equating one with the other is simply false. One is science, the other is religious belief.'
Scientific American also reported that school textbooks and lesson plans are already being affected by creationism. Cheswell agrees. 'Our nation went from the Earth to the Moon a few years ago, and discovered these worlds date back billions of years. Now it is sticking its head in the sand, claiming the whole lot was made in a flash a few millennia ago by one entity. They even argue that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, like they do in The Flintstones. That's not healthy' (Robin McKie The Observer 24 February 2002).
In 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted to ban any mention of Darwin in its schools but members were voted off the Board and their anti-evolution policy was reversed. In the wake of this defeat the creationists tried a new strategy. They demanded that schools should teach the theory of 'intelligent design'. This acknowledges that the universe may be very old but claims that everywhere you look you can see clear evidence of a creator's handiwork (a view in stark contrast to that of most scientists, who believe the cosmos is random and unpredictable). The concept of 'intelligent design' had first been postulated by the eighteenth-century English theologian William Paley. He argued that if you stumbled on a watch on a heath you would have to assume it had a maker. Followers of intelligent design point to the example of the human eye. It is so extraordinarily complex, they say, that only a creator could have produced it. With Paley as its inspiration, the 'Intelligent Design Network', led by University of California in Berkeley law professor Paul Johnson, is now the main anti-evolutionary force in America (McKie and Bright 2002). There is a delicious irony here, as Lerner has pointed out. '[Creationism] evolves. It actually changes in response to the environment it struggles to survive in. It is natural selection in action.'
In March 2002 the Intelligent Design Network sought to persuade the Ohio School Board to require the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution. This was clearly an attempt to introduce creationism by the back door. 'There is a certain amount of deception going on,' said David Haury, Associate Professor of Science Education at Ohio State University in Columbus. 'The people who have promoted this are all creationists. They are looking for a test case.' He added that if Ohio allowed intelligent design to be taught, 'it would have a resounding effect across the country in terms of a wake-up call that there is a serious threat to scientific education.' The eighteen member School Board was divided and both sides predicted that the issue would end up in court.
The problem is not confined to Ohio. Creationism has taken a powerful grip on education at a local level in other traditionally liberal northern states such as Illinois and Wisconsin. Even New York and Massachusetts are reviewing their positions (Duncan Campbell The Guardian 12 March 2002). What's more, its tentacles are spreading beyond the US. Australia has its own 'Creation Research' organisation and according to Amanda Chesworth creationism 'has missionaries across the world and even has bases in Russia and Turkey.'
And now 'the fundamentalist doctrines that have polluted US education' (McKie and Bright 2002) are spreading to Britain. In March 2002 The Guardian reported that Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead had hosted a 'creationist' conference and that senior staff have urged teachers to promote biblical fundamentalism.
Emmanuel College (pictured) was set up by the Tories and was designated a 'beacon' school by the Labour government after it received a glowing OFSTED report in 2001. It is a non-denominational Christian school and there is no doubt about its religious credentials. Two Bibles (the New International Version and the Gideon New Testament and Psalms) must be carried by students at all times. Former pupil Hollie Brown told The Observer 'Sometimes there were checks. You were punished if you didn't have your Bible. It was like some sort of cult.' Some of the school's practices appear to come close to brain-washing. Students are required to attend weekly two-hour lectures on spiritual subjects and must submit a long essay at the end of each school year based on these lectures (McKie and Bright 2002).
The religious ethos of the school comes as no surprise. The College was built with £2m of sponsorship from evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, the multimillionaire owner of 'Reg Vardy' car dealerships. Vardy is Chairman of Emmanuel's Board of Directors. Another member of the board is Baroness Cox, the Conservative peer who sponsored the amendment to the 1988 Education 'Reform' Bill requiring religious education in state schools to be 'in the main Christian'. The Vardy Foundation's chief education adviser, John Burn, is a founder of the Newcastle-based 'Christian Institute', set up in 1991 to promote fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Its other founding members include Revd David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond Parish Church and founder member of 'Reform', an evangelical pressure group, and Revd George Curry, who chairs the council of the evangelical Church Society. Both are outspoken opponents of the ordination of women. Although there are no formal links between the Christian Institute and the school, senior members of staff have published papers on the Institute's website.
The current furore is the result of revelations in The Guardian that Emmanuel is teaching its students creationism alongside evolution. Head Teacher Nigel McQuoid (left) has claimed that he wants his pupils to learn to make up their own minds but several members of his staff have urged teachers to 'show the superiority' of creationist theories. Vice-principal Gary Wiecek has said 'As Christian teachers it is essential that we are able to counter the anti-creationist position.' Maths teacher Paul Yeulett has declared that 'a Christian teacher of biology will not (or should not) regard the theory of evolution as axiomatic, but will oppose it.'
In a lecture at Emmanuel College on 21 September 2000 Head of Science Steven Layfield told teachers 'Those of us engaged in the struggle to show the superiority of a creationist world-view against the prevailing orthodoxy of atheistic materialism and evolutionism in science have been viciously attacked.' Teachers, he said, 'must be prepared to express without compromise the integrity and infallibility of the biblical historical narrative.' In particular, science teachers should 'note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm is explicitly mentioned or implied by a textbook, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement. Wherever possible, we must give the alternative - always better - biblical explanation. (The Guardian 9 March 2002)
A number of prominent scientists, including Professor Steve Jones of University College London, one of the country's best-known geneticists, David Colquhoun, AJ Clark Professor of Pharmacology at UCL, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University's Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, and Professor Peter Atkins, SmithKline Beecham Fellow and Tutor in Physical Chemistry at Oxford, all demanded that the school should be reinspected. OFSTED initially refused, but on 25 March it emerged that Chief Inspector Mike Tomlinson had decided to contact Emmanuel to seek clarification of the school's policy on science teaching. An OFSTED spokeswoman said 'He is asking to see the schemes of work in science. He will decide whether any further action is necessary when he has seen these documents' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 26 March 2002).
But Emmanuel College is not the only problem. As the National Secular Society's Keith Porteous Wood pointed out in a letter to The Guardian (11 March), Emmanuel is not the first state school to teach creationism. 'A Seventh Day Adventist School in Tottenham is already part of the maintained sector and taxpayers have been stumping up the cash for it since 1998.' And it probably won't be the last. Creationists are hoping to develop another Christian school at Torfaen in South Wales and have already sought advice from staff at Emmanuel. Baptist minister Revd Richard Harrison, a leading supporter of the project, has said of evolution 'OK, it's a plausible theory, but it's a hoax'. The establishment of the new school is currently in doubt. The Welsh Assembly's Education Minister, Jane Davidson, fears that children might be brainwashed and David Rosser, the Director of CBI Wales, which had agreed to sponsor the school, said 'The CBI wouldn't be involved in anything like that' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 9 April 2002).
And it's not just schools. A determined campaign is being waged to infiltrate UK universities and colleges. The Australian 'Creation Research' organisation already has a British office and has sent its international director, John Mackay, to take part in debates with academics at meetings held by Christian Unions at several universities. Now, one of its members, fundamentalist Christian John Forbes, is carrying out a survey of staff at British universities to ascertain their views on the origins of life.
Scientists are unsure how to respond to the survey. Professor John Farrar, Director of the Institute of Environmental Science at the University of Wales, Bangor, feels that if they ignore it, the results will be skewed towards creationist views. 'I can't complete it because it's uncompletable - it is so badly worded that it clearly is not written by someone who knows about the area - but I'm going to write back making my views clear. Scientists have a responsibility to get involved in this kind of debate.' And Tim Astin, a geology lecturer at Reading University and a Church of England priest, said that creationism was growing in the UK and it was important to defend evolution. Geologist Trevor Emmett of Anglia Polytechnic University said 'To enter into engagement with them gives them credibility they don't deserve. But to ignore them gives them a free rein in schools and universities. They won't go away. These guys work to an agenda which isn't about open debate; they are only interested in promoting their own views.'
'Creation Research' complains that the media and schools have indoctrinated people with evolutionary humanism 'which denies creation, the Bible and Christ.' Its UK website even suggests that belief in evolution is to blame for the attack on the World Trade Centre. 'Believers should not be surprised when things like this happen ... The root cause of this increasing violence is sin - sin which is rooted in the refusal to glorify The Lord as the God who created the universe' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 25 March 2002). A bizarre interpretation, to say the least, of an attack perpetrated by Paradise-crazed individuals on a country where forty-five per cent of the population believe in the Genesis account of creation.
What are we to make of all this? Why do apparently intelligent people endeavour to promote as scientific fact something which was intended as religious myth? Do they not understand that such a stance ridicules science, brings religion into disrepute and undermines what education should be about? God gave us our brains. Presumably he intended us to use them. Creationism is bad science, bad religion and bad education.
Evolution is a fact. No straight-thinking person could seriously assert otherwise. Creationism, on the other hand, is, as Dr Neil Chalmers, Director of the Natural History Museum in London, told Robin McKie and Martin Bright (2002) 'quite literally incredible.'
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme at the end of March 2002, Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology as applied to Medicine at UCL, described the promotion of Genesis as literal truth as 'the equivalent of teaching that the sun goes round the earth ... The most important idea in the whole of biology is Darwin's theory of evolution.'
'Evolution by natural selection is a fact, as modern medicine knows to its cost,' wrote Dr David Harper of Cambridge in a letter to The Guardian (19 March 2002) 'Bacteria and parasites have grown resistant to the antibiotics and drugs that were developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they have done so by pure Darwinian natural selection.'
As for the theory of 'intelligent design', Richard Dawkins has demolished that (along with other criticisms of Darwinian theory) in his book The blind watchmaker. He suggests that the theory is based on what he calls the 'argument from personal incredulity' (Dawkins 1986:38) - which is no argument at all. 'Even if the foremost authority in the world can't explain some remarkable biological phenomenon, this doesn't mean that it is inexplicable. Plenty of mysteries have lasted for centuries and finally yielded to explanation' (Dawkins 1986:39).
In a letter to The Guardian (11 March 2002) Professor Niall Shanks of East Tennessee State University, USA, said that he 'read with sadness of attempts to introduce British students to creationist buffoonery as an alternative to evidentially well-grounded evolutionary biology. Evangelical creationists have elevated the art of lying for Jesus and Genesis into a science.' He concluded 'The US experience shows that good and sensible people frequently have their voices drowned out by well-funded purveyors of baloney.'
The teaching of creationism in schools has also been criticised by leading philosophers, including Jonathan Ree and Professor David Papineau, who signed a British Humanist Association petition urging the government to clarify the wording of the National Curriculum to prevent creationist theories being presented as science.
Genesis is religion, not science. This simple point seems to have been missed by creationists, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out. 'As a myth, the biblical creation story was not an historical account of the origins of life but a more spiritual reflection upon the ultimate significance of life itself, about which scientific logos has nothing to say' (Armstrong 2000:95).
Other writers have made the same point. The Biblical doctrine of creation 'must not be confused or identified with any scientific theory of origins. The purpose of the biblical doctrine, in contrast to that of scientific investigation, is ethical and religious' (Philip 1962:269). 'Genesis 1 deals with simple observable phenomena' (Thompson 1962:270). 'Something is lost if in interpreting this chapter we press the exegesis to unnecessary limits. The whole is poetic and does not yield to close scientific correlations' (Thompson 1962:271). 'The Bible is asserting that, however life came into being, God lay behind the process ... the chapter neither affirms nor denies the theory of evolution' (Thompson 1962:272).
In missing the point that Genesis is religion, not science, the creationists are damaging both science and religion.
Bishop of Oxford Dr Richard Harries (right) speaking on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day (15 March 2002) said he was saddened that Christians should oppose evolution, which 'far from undermining faith, deepens it.' He went on 'Historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution. It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years later, after so much evidence has accumulated, that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. This attempt to see the Book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth stops people taking the Bible seriously. Biblical literalism brings not only the Bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.'
Episcopal Bishop of Newark John Spong agrees. 'Those who insist on biblical literalism become unwitting accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love' (Spong 1991:32). 'The Bible relates to us the way our ancient forebears understood and interpreted their world, made sense out of life, and thought about God. Our task is the same as theirs. We must interpret our world in the light of our knowledge and suppositions' (Spong 1991:33).
Revd Arthur Peacock, winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and former Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for the Study of Science and Religion in Oxford, said 'Creationism is bad religion and false science. Creationism - as distinguished from a belief in creation - is not an alternative scientific theory. It is not even a proper way of interpreting the Bible and it certainly shouldn't be taught [to children]. Evolution is a very stimulating idea which expands our understanding of God the creator' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 16 March 2002).
Revd Ursula Shone, secretary of the Society for Ordained Scientists, said she was alarmed to learn that teachers were promoting creationism. 'Genesis is trying to say in a wonderful story that God created everything,' she said. 'But science and modern knowledge have shown us other ways of God's creating. To call science a faith position is to misuse the term "faith"' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 16 March 2002).
Sir John Polkinghorne, the physicist who became a Church of England clergyman and won the 2002 Templeton Prize, added 'If [creationists] are trying to serve the God of truth, they should not fear truth, from whatever source it comes. And it certainly comes from science' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 16 March 2002).
It is clear, then, that creationism is bad science and bad religion. It is also bad education.
The 1938 Spens Report on secondary education said that 'no boy or girl can be counted as properly educated unless he or she has been made aware of the existence of a religious interpretation of life' (Spens 1938:208). Few would disagree with this. It is also true, as Edwin Cox and Jo Cairns have suggested, that before 1944, 'the aim of religious education can be broadly defined ... as to enable the young person to find meaning in experience as a result of embracing the values of Christianity' (Cox and Cairns 1989:9).
Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, British society has become increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith and religious education syllabuses have evolved to reflect this diversity. The Christian church - which pioneered education in England - has largely ceased to be the keeper of the nation's morals. This has had implications for the nature and purpose of state education. 'Every school subject is an expression of an intention on the part of the educating society. If the church is conceived of as having the right to educate, and as being the educating society, religious education is likely to take a form different from that which it will assume when it is granted that the State has the right to educate and that, in a democracy, society as a whole is the educator' (Hull 1982:95).
It has long been accepted that seeking to persuade pupils of the truth of any particular set of beliefs is not part of the purpose of religious education in state schools. The point has been emphasised repeatedly since 1870, when the Education Act of that year included the 'Cowper-Temple clause' which stated that 'no religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination' was to be taught. The Cornwall Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education (1964) noted that 'most teachers in this country shrink from the idea that they should assist in propaganda and indoctrination.' Ninian Smart (1966:97) commented that 'propaganda is not the aim of teaching, but the production of a ripe capacity to judge the truth of what is propagated.' And the Durham Report The fourth R, commissioned by the Church of England Board of Education and the National Society, suggested that the religious education teacher should be 'seeking rather to initiate his pupils into knowledge which he encourages them to explore and appreciate, than into a system of belief which he requires them to accept' (Durham 1970:103).
Being human is about asking questions and learning to live with the fact that not all of them will have answers we can find. This is, in itself, a profoundly evolutionary task, since human knowledge and understanding have expanded in breadth and depth since humans began to think, and the speed of expansion has increased rapidly in the past hundred years or so as new technologies have been developed. Our knowledge is not set in stone. The contexts change. Old ideas and beliefs either evolve or are discarded. This is, if you like, natural selection in action. The danger of a purely dogmatic, inculcative curriculum is that unless pupils appreciate the limitations of the enquiry that produced the knowledge, they will be bewildered by revisions. On the other hand, if they are given freedom to speculate on the possible changes in structures, they will 'not only be prepared to meet future revisions with intelligence but will better understand the knowledge they are currently being taught' (Schwab 1964:267).
If, then, education is about inducting young people into this process of critical thinking, it is surely absurd to seek to persuade them that the knowledge and understanding of ancient peoples are still appropriate today. 'When knowledge expands, it renders the interpretive framework of ancient people inadequate, and it reveals the ignorance of the past. For people living in one age to try to cling to the objective truthfulness of the concepts of another age is to participate in a doubtful enterprise' (Spong 1991:25).
Yet this 'doubtful enterprise' seems to form the basis of the education provided by Emmanuel College. How else is one to explain the comments of staff that they should 'show the superiority' of creationist theories, that they should 'counter the anti-creationist position,' that they 'must be prepared to express without compromise the integrity and infallibility of the biblical historical narrative'? This would be bad enough if we were discussing religious education. In the case of Emmanuel College, however, we're talking - incredibly - about the science curriculum.
In an article in The Guardian (9 March 2002) Richard Dawkins wrote 'Any science teacher who denies that the world is billions (or even millions!) of years old is teaching children a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood. Teachers who help to open young minds perform a duty which is as near sacred as I will admit. Ignorant, closed-minded, false teachers who stand in their way come as close as I can reckon to committing true sacrilege.'
What is the motive of those who want to teach children creationist nonsense? As we have seen, there were various causes - some social, some political - which underpinned the faith of previous generations of creationists in the US. But what motivates the creationists of Emmanuel College? In the end, isn't this all about power? Religions have always sought to control their adherents through moral codes and threats of divine retribution. If you can persuade people to believe nonsense - in other words, if you can get them to deny their own intellectual capacity - you are well on the way to persuading them to accept the moral code you wish to enforce.
Denying one's own capacity to think certainly seems to be an essential prerequisite for believing in creationism. How else could apparently intelligent people accept this stuff? 'In the creation story, in the creeds of Christianity, and in countless stories in the biblical drama, a nonoperative, pre-scientific, and clearly false view of the world is perpetuated. Those who seek to preserve these biblical understandings have to become anti-intellectual or must close off vast portions of their thinking processes or twist their brains into a kind of first-century pretzel in order to maintain their faith system. It is no wonder that they are afraid of knowledge. Their faith security system is built on sand. It cannot and will not survive, and they have no sense that there is any alternative save despair, death and meaninglessness. This is enough to cause fear to erupt in anger' (Spong 1991:27).
Fundamentalism is diametrically opposed to education. Fundamentalists are certain they know the answers and are determined to force those answers on the rest of us.
Where does the Labour government stand?
Questioned on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (March 2002), Sir William Stubbs, Chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) pointed out that 'the science curriculum requires that young people should be taught about evolution, that the fossil record is evidence for evolution and how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction. The National Curriculum does not specify what young people should not be taught. It's a positive document. Creationism is not in the National Curriculum.' (All of which is fairly academic in relation to Emmanuel College, since City Technology Colleges are not required to teach the National Curriculum).
National Curriculum Science (Key Stage 4) requires that students should be taught 'how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence.' On this basis, it could be argued that schools should 'subject creationism to rigorous critical analysis by their students, if only to reveal its total inability to explain the history of life on Earth. But there must be limits to how far we ask our schools to devote their precious time to the teaching of error' (Dr Neil Chalmers The Observer 17 March 2002).
All of which means that, as things stand, teachers are free to present evolution as no different in status from the idea that the world was made during a quiet week in October 4004BC. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills told The Guardian 'What schools need to do is teach the National Curriculum in an impartial way. Personal doctrines should not override anything that should be taught in the curriculum' (Tania Branigan The Guardian 9, 26 March 2002).
At the beginning of April 2002 some of Britain's leading clerics and scientists wrote to the Prime Minister expressing their 'growing anxiety' about the spread of faith schools in Britain and the introduction of creationist teachings. The group, amongst whom were biologist Richard Dawkins, Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, Sir David Attenborough and six bishops including those of St Albans, Hereford and Oxford, called on Tony Blair to monitor school curricula to ensure that scientific and religious teaching in Britain is properly respected. 'Evolution is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a "faith position" in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose,' they wrote. 'It is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines. The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college,' they added. 'There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.' Downing Street officials told the group that Blair would respond to their concerns 'in the near future' (Robin McKie The Observer 7 April 2002).
Despite the deluge of criticism from leading scientists, philosophers and clerics, the Prime Minister (left) remained silent. Questioned in the House of Commons by Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Dr Jenny Tonge about the use of taxpayers' money to fund the teaching of creationism, he avoided answering the question and said 'In the end, it is a more diverse school system that will deliver better results for our children and if you look at the actual results of the school, I think you will find they are very good.' Labour MP Paul Flynn commented 'Why couldn't he come out and say such teachings should have no part in state education?' The National Secular Society condemned Blair's comments as 'a deplorable acceptance of anti-science by a man who purports to value education' (Tania Branigan and Michael White The Guardian 14 March 2002).
Did Blair refuse to condemn creationist teaching for fear of upsetting Peter Vardy? After all, in addition to sponsoring Emmanuel College, Vardy has already donated a further £2m to build a 'city academy' in nearby Middlesbrough, due to open in 2003, and has offered to fund five more. 'If it turns out that Blair's response in Parliament had anything to do with Vardy's offer of £12m for the city academies, this is very worrying,' said Jenny Tonge. 'Is this Government prepared to accept money from anybody, regardless of the doctrine or religious beliefs of the donor? Tony Blair needs to make it clear where he is coming from. Does he believe in creationism himself?'
So far, Blair has not enlightened us with his own beliefs on creation and evolution. It is little comfort to note that his weak defence of creationist teaching in Britain looks 'positively comforting' compared with the views of President George W Bush, who claimed during his election campaign that 'on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth' (McKie and Bright 2002).
It's quite a spectacle, isn't it? Bush and Blair stand 'shoulder to shoulder' in their fight against fundamentalists who hijack aircraft to kill the innocent. They stand equally 'shoulder to shoulder' in their fight for the right of fundamentalists to kill the minds of the innocents.
The teaching of creationism is the inevitable outcome of Labour's policy of encouraging private sponsorship of religious schools. That children should be taught such nonsense is inexcusable. That taxpayers' money should be used to fund such teaching is outrageous.
Armstrong K (2000) The battle for God: fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam London: HarperCollins
Cox E and Cairns JM (1989) Reforming religious education London: Bedford Way Papers/Kogan Page
Dawkins R (1986) The blind watchmaker London: Penguin Books
Durham (1970) The fourth R The Report of the Commission on Religious Education in Schools London: National Society/SPCK
Hull J (ed) (1982) New directions in religious education London: The Falmer Press
McKie R and Bright M (2002) 'In the beginning' The Observer 17 March
Oxford (1998) Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia Oxford: Oxford University Press
Philip J (1962) 'Creation: the biblical doctrine' in The New Bible Dictionary London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship 269-270
Schwab JJ (1964) 'Structure of the disciplines: meanings and significances' in M Golby, J Greenwald and R West (eds) (1975) Curriculum design London: Croom Helm/Open University 249-267
Smart N (1966) Secular education and the logic of religion London: Faber and Faber
Spens (1938) Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO
Spong JS (1991) Rescuing the Bible from fundamentalism San Francisco: HarperCollins
Thompson JA (1962) 'Creation: the Genesis account' in The New Bible Dictionary London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship 270-272
British Centre for Science Education Website of a group dedicated to promoting and defending science education in the UK.
See also my articles:
Gillard D (2001) Glass in their Snowballs: the faith schools debate
Gillard D (2007) Axes to Grind: the first five years of Blair's academies
Gillard D (2007) Never Mind the Evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools