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Australian Christian schools in creationism row

Many are calling this the thin edge of the wedge for Christians everywhere…

Published: 9 March 2010 (GMT+10)
iStockphoto Class room

“Christian schools angry over ban on teaching creationism” were the headlines on the Sydney Morning Herald website article on March 3, 2010.1

The issue was a policy release by the South Australian Non-Government Schools Registration Board “to effectively ban the teaching of creationism.”

The policy stated that the Board required ‘’teaching of science as an empirical discipline, focusing on inquiry, hypothesis, investigation, experimentation, observation and evidential analysis’’. So far, so good. But it also said that it

“does not accept as satisfactory a science curriculum in a non-government school which is based on, espouses or reflects the literal interpretation of a religious text in its treatment of either creationism or intelligent design.”

If a Christian school has its registration withdrawn, it means that parents who continue to send their children to that school would be in breach of truancy laws. In effect, it would shut down the school.

In short, even teaching the evidence for evolution fully and fairly (which we support, especially if it is “warts and all”) would not be enough to qualify for registration if a school decided to also permit its students to be exposed to even the possibility that the Bible’s account of creation might be true. Nor would they be allowed to tell them that this is supported by highly qualified scientists who have repeatedly shown that the same evidence that is interpreted to support evolution makes, overall, even more scientific sense when one starts with the proposition of the Bible’s truth. Even those who might not agree with that assessment should at least agree that students should have the opportunity to hear about the evidence that is claimed, by so many qualified folk, to do this; how else can they say they have been permitted to fairly consider the question?

Nor could science teachers in schools under the South Australian restrictions even use the controversy to teach their students in science classes critical thinking skills. They could not use the debate to explain to students how science works in relation to the past, and how two ways of looking at the world each try to make sense of the evidence within their framework.

The only mention of Genesis and the Bible that would be permitted would be in ‘religious’ classes. Consider the irony; the British Museum, for example, is full of artefacts that show the historical reliability of the Bible, utilizing the historical science of archaeology. But any discussions about that science in science classrooms could not lawfully mention that there is evidence that supports the Bible! It is equally ludicrous to not permit science students to hear about or discuss/analyze any of the evidence in other historical sciences (such as aspects of geology/paleontology) which supports the Bible’s account of creation (e.g. the evidence of ‘stasis and sudden appearance’ in the fossils; polystrate fossils, paraconformities, and so on.) Even the evidence of pollen reported in rocks supposedly formed billions of years before there was meant to be pollen, and reported in Nature2 as such—all of this evidence could not be discussed even as to whether or not it did support creation as possibly supporting creation!

But wait, it gets worse. From the Board’s statements, even schools which avoid the issue of Genesis history, creation in six days, global Flood and so on cannot even use the ‘ID’ approach. This reasons from the evidence of biology and biochemistry etc. merely to logically deduce, on the basis of empirical observations, that the mechanisms proposed by evolution simply could not have generated the vast complexity of living systems; the inference from observation is that they required an intelligent (unnamed) agent. Even this ultra-low-key approach is now made impossible in SA Christian schools, because it can be said to ‘reflect’ a religious text, albeit very indirectly. So science teachers in Christian schools could not lawfully encourage their students to even reflect on whether the awesome design in the molecular machinery of living cells might suggest that God had a hand in it!

South Australia is not the only state to have had pressure on Christian schools about creation. In the Australian state of New South Wales, there has for some time been a policy which makes it very difficult, though not impossible, for schools that wish to give creation evidences a fair hearing.

In the state of Victoria, while no such formal restriction has yet been issued, it has long been an open secret among Christian schools that school inspectors are applying informal pressure to individual schools on the subject of creation, hinting about how their registration might be under threat if they teach it. The tactic has been described by some as seeking to ‘pick us off one by one’.

Religious freedom itself is ultimately at stake

Fortunately, many Christian schools, even in states outside South Australia, are waking up to the storm clouds that have been gathering around them for some time, with creation as the focal issue. Many, including those who might not be altogether onside with everything CMI stands for, are beginning to see the South Australian ruling as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ on religious freedom as a whole. And the issue is galvanizing them into action. Even secular Australian broadcasters are highlighting the increasingly evident battle lines. The national government-funded broadcaster, the ABC,3 reported that “Australian Christian schools will campaign against what they see as the effective ban on the teaching of creationism in South Australian schools”.4 With a South Australian election looming, the timing of all this could well be critical.

While CMI as a Christian information ministry is apolitical and not a lobbying organisation, we think it is crucial for all to be aware of these pressures on Christian schools. South Australians in particular may be well advised to ask their elected representatives and political candidates where they stand on this. Home schooling, too, could well be next on the hit list.

And the next phase of this encroachment on religious freedom can already be seen in other parts of the world. In the UK, for instance, a law has just been passed in the lower house which, it appears, will mean that Christian schools could lawfully be forced to teach children such things as how to get an abortion and also that homosexuality is normal.5

In all countries (especially the once-Christian West), the increased ‘evolutionization’ of our culture has meant not only a weakening of the authority of the Bible—it has also increasingly emboldened the antichristian forces, with all manner of antitheists pushing their agenda more brazenly than ever. The Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne on March 14, with its title The Rise of Atheism openly crowing about what is happening worldwide, is just one symptom of this. As, too, is lionization of their star attendee, Richard Dawkins, by the fawning Australian media. (For CMI’s formal response to the Global Atheist convention in Melbourne see here. This event will also include the public launch of Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s book, a devastating point-by-point rebuttal of Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: the evidence for evolution. Called The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on evolution, this book could be a great rallying point for believers to refute these nonsensical bans on telling students that God really did create.)

We encourage Australian readers in particular to throw their voices of support behind the Christian schools in this crucial battleground issue.

In the rest of this article, we will simply reproduce without comment a detailed (and we think, very well constructed) formal letter to the New South Wales Minister for Education by Robert Johnston, executive officer of the Australian Association of Christian Schools in response to an official notice by the NSW Board of Studies in June 2009 about the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

(We thank the author for giving permission to republish this, which as he said to us is already in the public domain. The granting of such permission does not necessarily imply agreement with all of CMI’s stance, nor does our publishing it necessarily imply agreement with all of its contents. One of the good things that is coming out of this governmental pressure is that believers in creation by God are seeing that it is important to stand shoulder to shoulder in this battle where possible.

The reasoning in this formal letter will, we think, be very helpful to many in this conflict, including those in countries where the battlelines are not yet as clearly drawn. We encourage folk to pass this article on widely.)

23rd October 2009

The Hon Verity Firth
Minister for Education
Level 31 Governor Macquarie Tower
1 Farrer Place
SYDNEY NSW 2000

Dear Ms Firth

Formal Submission to Minister for Education
Re the Official Notice 17/09
Advice to Teachers of Science from the Board of Studies

I write on behalf of the member schools of the Australian Association of Christian Schools in NSW concerning the “Official Notice 17/09 – Advice to Teachers of Science” issued over the signature block of the Inspector for Science, Ms Gina Grant.

First, on behalf of our member schools, I want to make it very clear that we are not, and have never been, opposed to the teaching of scientific paradigms/theories/models/ concepts/evidence/hypotheses that might have the effect of challenging the faith perspectives that are distinctive to our schools. Quite the contrary, our schools are very much about encouraging discernment and unwrapping the complex mix of observations, questions, hypotheses, apparent evidence, patterns and data from repeatable experiments, tentative explanations, concrete theories, gaps in evidence, issues of consistency, assumptions, perceptions of objectivity, issues of belief, evidences for belief, etc.

It is not in our interests, nor our students, for these young people to enter the complex, challenging world of their day without knowledge, discernment and skills to weigh all these factors (and many others) and to contribute constructively to debate, the application of scientific data, paradigms, hypotheses and theories and to engage positively and proactively in their dynamic pluralist, globalized society.

It therefore alarms us that the wording of this Official Notice is so unguarded and simplistic and that its implications are so far reaching both for the many faith-based schools that explore these issues in depth and for the cause of genuine scientific enquiry which, we believe, is seriously compromised by this Notice. We note with some confusion and curiosity that the Notice is in direct conflict/tension with statements in the Board’s own Science Syllabus documents.

We therefore call on the Board to withdraw this Notice to allow sufficient time for meaningful consultation with representatives of faith-based education bodies over the concerns that have apparently given rise to the issue of the Official Notice 17/09.

In regard to the specific content of the Notice, we offer the following observations:

1. “extensive consultation with experts in the field” – Having read widely in the field, I am aware that experts from the many different scientific disciplines that contribute evidence to the many models of origins/evolution/etc are far from united in their conclusions. In fact, it is not uncommon to read of serious conflicts between experts from opposing scientific disciplines over the application of evidence and the conclusions drawn.

2. “consistent with accepted scientific knowledge and understanding” – It seems inconceivable that the Board would permit a reference to such a loose authority for the justification of this Notice. While we would acknowledge that the dominant models associated with issues of origins, adaptation, cosmology, etc are evolutionary in nature, it is not fitting for an independent organization that serves both government and non-government schools to appeal to a crude non-scientific measure of opinion – ie “accepted scientific knowledge and understanding” – to justify this Notice. It seems most disconcerting that leaders in the field of science education should compromise the integrity of scientific objectivity and established scientific process by settling on a nonscientific survey of selected experts as evidence for their demands. Surely an appeal to a simple majority in a non-scientific survey is a dangerous precedent for the future of science education.

But it goes further. To dismiss and demean the academic rigour and integrity of those academic scientists who propose a different model from that of the authors of the Notice is one thing. To dismiss, by implication, the evidence on which they rely as irrelevant and unworthy of consideration is tantamount to academic dishonesty. It is certainly playing raw politics with science education – a battle of ideologies and worldviews.

But, finally, this part of the Notice begs an important question: What have the Board and science educators got to fear or hide in taking this step?

3. “Creationism and Intelligent Design are not part of the Board’s Science syllabus” – Christian Schools have, for many years, accepted this position as a reasonable representation of the majority opinion both in society at large and within the science education community. We are not challenging this position nor appealing for an alternative position to be formally incorporated into the NSW Science syllabus. However, many of those in faith-based schools are claiming the right to identify, within their school curricula (whether in science or other disciplines) alternate models for origins and the evidence on which those models draw, keeping in mind that, scientifically, all models and theories must be held provisionally. Philosophically speaking, that’s science!

4. “If taught as part of any school-based program, it must be clear to students that Creationism and Intelligent Design:

  • Are not scientific, nor evidence-based
  • Will not be included in any task … ..
  • Will not be tested in any … examination … ”

To say the very least, this demand is both menacing and intrusive. It compromises a basic bipartisan commitment in Australian politics to choice in schooling. The very basis of choice in schooling is that schools must be free to establish their distinctive characteristics. One of the main distinctives that differentiates some schools from others is the worldview that is applied and taught in their schools – whether formally or informally. At the heart of any worldview is a set of beliefs, commitments, assumptions, authorities, values and cultural mores that are consistently applied in the articulation of the world view and reflected in curriculum content, resource selection, the policy framework, preferred pedagogies and selection of staff.

To insist that a BOS syllabus should be the basis of the corresponding curriculum taught in a school is one thing. To intrude into any school-based program is a very dangerous precedent and one that our schools will always strongly oppose.

At this time in the history of education in NSW, almost 40% of those receiving secondary education are attending non-government schools. Around 85% of those students are attending faith-based schools, a great number of which would have profound concerns about the requirements of this part of the Notice.

The very existence of the two paradigms that are the main focus of this Notice (ie Creationism and Intelligent Design) is the product of a body of evidence that invites a response. While accepting that these paradigms may not fully satisfy the demanding criteria of a fully developed scientific theory, there is, without doubt, a substantial body of evidence that constitutes grounds for plausible, if controversial, propositions to be put forward and considered. This is as true of the paradigm of Evolution by chance as it is of Creationism or Intelligent Design.

There is much in all three paradigms that has to remain speculative because no observations were made of the beginnings; none of the speculative theories can be repeatedly tested and proven; there are major gaps in the evidence and even contradictions in evidence.

Notwithstanding these observations, Christian faith-based schools do not demand that the scientific paradigms of Creationism and Intelligent Design be included in formal assessment tasks nor examinations that contribute to the award of the SC or HSC. There are many within our schools who would find the science behind the Creation Science model and the Intelligent Design paradigm less than convincing. We do, however, appeal to the Board to withdraw the offending and dishonest Notice that they “are not scientific, nor evidence based”. That statement is simply indefensible and misrepresents science, logic and truth.

Again, we say that such a statement dismisses and demeans the academic rigour and integrity of those who hold to a different view from those responsible for the wording of the Notice. Again we would say that such a statement is playing raw politics with science education – unbecoming of the leaders in that field to say the least.

In addition to the observations arising from specific content, we also make the following general observations.

5. Any professional scientist who operates in a supervised and peer-reviewed environment that produces data/evidence which invites a response and further investigation is worthy of respect, irrespective of how inconvenient their data may be. Evidence is evidence. By what authority do the authors of the Notice discredit some science and accept other science?

6. Much of education, including science education, is about teaching the skills of weighing evidence and evaluating it in the light of dominant theories and plausible paradigms. However, not only do we teach with an eye towards evidence and scientific method, we also teach with an eye towards other evidence (historical, archaeological, etc), critical thinking, logical argument, statistical correlation, resonance with human experience, consistency with data across disciplines, issues of philosophy and ideology, issues of belief and faith, etc.

The Notice gives the very clear impression that ideological considerations relevant to science education are being elevated above other issues and philosophical considerations relevant to other disciplines within K-10 school education. The implication is clear; perceptions and insights gained in other disciplines must be set aside in favour of an overriding ideology that is declared by edict to be strategically unassailable and therefore protected.

7. Philosophically, what human beings believe will always shape the questions they ask, the hypotheses they propose, the evidence they draw upon, the theories they put forward and the confidence with which they espouse their theories. That’s human experience and it is true for those with non-theistic and anti-theistic beliefs as much as it is for those with theistic beliefs. Sometimes those beliefs cloud our judgments and mask our assumptions and, in such situations, it is possible that inelegant and implausible ideas, theories and propositions will be put forward.

Many within faith-based schools would regard much of the science surrounding the theories of evolution as interesting, though, in their present state of development, as implausible or incomplete or overstated. We reserve the right to critique the theories and to identify the underlying ideologies that potentially mask assumptions that may even underpin the science. We also expect and welcome a constructive critique of other paradigms that we find interesting and even compelling. That’s education. To dismiss such crosscritiquing out of hand by means of an Official Notice in our view demeans science. If evolutionary models are really the best models going around, what has the curriculum committee for Science to fear from those who don’t embrace them with enthusiasm?

Finally, the following observations arise from a reading of the BOS Science syllabus.

8. The BOS K-10 Curriculum Framework, amongst other statements, makes the bold guarantee that the BOS syllabuses are about preparing “all students for effective and responsible participation in their society, taking account of moral, ethical and spiritual considerations” (p5). With respect, how can such a guarantee have any credibility when those who oppose or reject faithbased paradigms (as in Notice 17/09) move to compromise spiritual considerations in the syllabuses and in pedagogy?

9. The Framework also expresses the intention that its syllabuses will “encourage and enable all students to enjoy learning, and to be selfmotivated, reflective, competent learners who will be able to take part in further study, work or training” (p5). The theories of evolution and natural selection have far reaching implications far beyond the disciplines of science alone and, with such high stakes hanging off the theory, it is appropriate, even essential, that the science educator should be required to welcome searching reflection within the class, including an examination of possible ideological assumptions and assertions that underpin theories, inconsistencies in evidence between the contributing disciplines of science, unanswered gaps in evidence in the theories, untestable assumptions and evidence of the irrecoverable past, etc.

The Notice has the effect of undermining confidence in the integrity of available evidence unless it is open to genuine reflective critique, debate and investigation.

10. The Framework claims to promote a fair and just society that values diversity” through its syllabuses and curriculum requirements (p5) yet, in the face of what can only be seen as a perceived threat to the status quo that evolution has enjoyed for decades, the Board of Studies approves the constraint of diversity. Not only is this Notice applicable to Science education in schools, but to any school-based program. Surely this constitutes a serious assault on freedom of expression, belief and religion. (Refer to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Australia is a signatory.)

11. The Framework claims to want students to “access, analyse, evaluate and use information from a variety of sources(p5). It appears that students and teachers can access, analyse and evaluate information (evidence, data) from any source as long as they don’t call it Creationism or Intelligent Design. Is this a blind spot in the logic of the Notice or a flagrant attempt at censorship of beliefs?

12. Science, it is claimed in the syllabus, “provides opportunities for students to become independent learners and promotes the development of informed attitudes towards science and the environment” (p8). We fail to see how there is any credibility in this statement when so-called informed attitudes towards science are censored and restricted.

13. The study of science is said to provide “opportunities for students to develop the skills of working scientifically by engaging them in thinking critically” (p8). If the published Notice is seriously expected to have the effect of engaging young science students in thinking critically and working scientifically, there is something seriously missing from the Notice. It does precisely the opposite. It removes or compromises an opportunity for critical thinking.

14. If the contribution of philosophy of science has resolved anything, it is that science is an evolving body of knowledge that is always of a provisional nature and consists of scientific explanations that are the meeting place of a complex evidence and ideas. The Board of Studies has seriously departed from this view of science in approving this Notice for publication. Instead, it positions itself to reduce/remove the opportunity to explore the “complex relationship between evidence and ideas.” (p8)

Conclusion

This Notice is primarily about the politics of competing ideologies in science education and, in our view, seriously compromises the statutory independence of the Board of Studies. We are already aware of at least one of our member schools being called to account against the measure of this Notice as an apparent condition of its continued registration and accreditation. We therefore call on the Board to:

  • withdraw the Notice;
  • refrain from taking any action against faith-based schools based upon the Notice;
  • enter into serious consultation with representatives of faith-based schools to address any specific concerns that the Board might have in respect of the teaching of the science syllabus in general, and evolution and related theories in particular, in NSW schools.

We would be more than willing to meet with you and/or your representatives to address our concerns should you be prepared to proceed down that path.

Robert Johnston
Executive Officer
Australian Association of Christian Schools


References

  1. www.smh.com.au/national/education/christian-schools-angry-over-ban-on-teaching-creationism-20100302-pgjb.html Return to text.
  2. Stainforth, R.M., Occurrence of pollen and spores in the Roraima Formation of Venezuela and British Guiana, Nature 210(5033):292–294, 1966. Return to text.
  3. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not to be confused with the US’s ABC. Return to text.
  4. ABC Radio National Breakfast program, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/breakfast/stories/2010/2836050.htm, broadcast 4 March 2010. Return to text.
  5. White, H., U.K. Commons Passes Sex-Ed Bill Forcing Schools to Promote Homosexuality, Abortion, LifeSiteNews, Wednesday February 24, 2010; http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2010/feb/10022403.html Return to text.

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