Secular Humanists seek to ban origins debate in the UK education system
CrISIS campaign is launched against discussing creation
Published: 17 May 2011 (GMT+10)
Philip Bell of CMI was recently invited to take part in a Religious Education study day at St Peter’s Church of England school in Exeter. This has, though, created a great deal of controversy following the objection of one parent and the subsequent involvement of the anti-creationist pressure group the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) (Church of England schools in the UK are incidentally part of the state education sector).
A storm arose that made headlines in the local press.1 However, the initial report failed to mention the context: pupils also heard from a theistic evolutionist as well as from Philip Bell, although this was corrected in an editorial.2 The BCSE continues to ignore this context. Instead, the BCSE now support a campaign and petition to get any discussion of creation science removed even from religious education classes.3
Support has been given from the National Secular Society (i.e. atheists) and the “Christian Think-Tank” Ekklesia. According to a news release4 the group organising the campaign Creationism In Schools Isn’t Science (CrISIS), now has written an open letter to the Secretary for Education, Michael Gove, with signatories including, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Richard Dawkins, Christopher French, Adam Hart-Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon David Jennings, Professor J Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Prof J.S. K. (Keith) Ward, and Professor James D. Williams. The CrISIS petition reads as follows:
“Creationism is known, and officially acknowledged, to be contrary to scientific fact. We therefore demand that creationism should not be presented as a valid scientific position, nor creationist websites and resources be promoted, in publicly funded schools or in any youth activities run on publicly funded school premises.”
Science has incidentally advanced historically through debate and dialogue without appeals to special authority, and such dictatorial statements are a poor reflection of the true nature of science. Instead it reflects more the attitude of Cardinal Bellarmine and the Church authorities who tried to silence Galileo, than a genuine respect for freedom of enquiry in science. Such demands to ban some lines of enquiry may suit atheists who a priori reject creation, but it will not advance science. We may ask then whether science is really a search for truth, or as the signatories of this statement wish, merely a search for naturalistic explanations irrespective of whether such explanations can even exist for such things as the origin of everything.5
Creationists would welcome public debate with anyone who wants to defend the statement that “Creationism is … contrary to scientific fact”. But rather than allow such debate, the proponents of this campaign would rather suppress the matter.
Freedom of thought
But more importantly, this campaign and statement clearly has little respect for the beliefs of a significant religious minority in the UK, including children, as it seeks to deny freedom of speech to those who believe in special creation. The BCSE’s stated commitment to “democracy, pluralism and liberty” rings hollow in light of their belief in the dominance of ‘science’ over all other beliefs, and their attempts to silence some religious believers. There is a sad irony here, in that secularists and atheists are showing a degree of intolerance that they have accused conservative religious believers of displaying. This statement reflects a belief in the dominance of science over other areas of education and thought—this is really scientism; science as a worldview, a religious belief system.
Tessa Kendall, who is Senior Campaigns Officer of the National Secular Society is reported as saying in the CrISIS news release that, “When teaching evolution, as well as the origins of the universe and the age of the earth, it should be made clear that science is not an ‘alternative’ and that there are not other ‘truths’ of equal value.”
Ekklesia, which supports the campaign, also needs to explain just how strong their commitment to respect religious freedom is. Simon Barrow of Ekklesia, who has also signed the letter, has written about another matter (relating to Anglican schools’ admission policy6) in which he argues that he wishes “to end discrimination on grounds of belief in publicly funded religious foundation schools.” And that the “principle of openness … is thoroughly Christian.” For Barrow the correct ‘Christian ethos’ is concerned with being ‘open to all’. As with BCSE, Ekklesia’s commitment to genuine pluralism, respect and a “principle of openness” towards religious minorities rings hollow in light of their support for this campaign. One may wonder about motives here because it is hard to understand the two different sets of standards advocated.
Barrow seeks to justify his approach by claiming that “creationism is not an issue of religion per se”, but that it is “eccentric ideas that overtly or covertly reject scientific method—while falsely claiming to be scientific themselves.” Perhaps by rejecting this as an issue of religious faith it somehow softens his conscience that he is in fact discriminating against people on the basis of their faith. Furthermore, he writes that creationism has been “ … strongly criticised and rejected by mainstream churches, and by theologians competent in matters of religion and science, as it has been by the senior scientific community.”7
The historical truth is, though, far more interesting and belief in creation is not a modern phenomenon as is often claimed, nor does it deny true scientific method. Many of the founders of the scientific revolution were motivated by their belief in divine creation, including Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton. Peter Harrison, for instance, writes in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2009) that the scientific method of experimentation was developed by Bacon and the early Royal Society as a way of overcoming the effect that sin had upon the human mental capacity as a result of Adam’s Fall (see a quote). And creationists have more reason than most to uphold belief in the order of creation and objective truth that supports the scientific method.
In terms of theology, the Church Fathers such as St Augustine and St Basil (in Hexaemeron) believed in a recent creation of some 6,000 years (often with a millennial component where the six days of creation were compared to 6,000 years of Earth history, i.e. Hippolytus. On the Hexaemeron), as did more modern mainstream theologians and preachers such as John Calvin and John Wesley. Augustine wrote:
“They are deceived … by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed. (Augustine, Of the falseness of the history which allots many thousand years to the world’s past, The City of God, Book 12: Chapter 10).
Barrow is simply wrong to ignore this evidence8 in order to isolate Christian believers who hold to traditional Christian doctrines. A substantial number of Christians retain a belief in creation, and it is simply not true to imply that all mainstream churches reject this position.
If Barrow would care to read the statement Sir Ambrose Fleming (widely regarded as the father of modern electronics) made at a foundational meeting of the Evolution Protest Movement in 1935 (now Creation Science Movement), he would see a strong commitment to loving Christian ethics at a time when evolution was being used to justify racism and fascism. Fleming said that evolution takes away “the chief basis for all religion … and morality [is] reduced to mere human expediency.” He thought it was “of national importance to counteract the effects of reckless and indiscriminate popularisation of the theory of the wholly animal origin of mankind, especially among the young,” and that it risked undermining belief in the “altruistic, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and religious faculties in man.”9
Despite the fact that creationists are also voters and taxpayers who use the public education system, those supporting this campaign wish to deny them basic human rights. This campaign seeks to ban anyone from debating biblical creation, even in religious education classes.10 According to this petition, creationists may only then argue their case on the basis that it is false (!), which would completely prevent creation presentations in schools that have any integrity. It would also deny the rights of children from conservative Christian backgrounds from having their beliefs respected in the classroom.
This proposed discrimination is not against a tiny minority of the British population. For example, a 2009 Guardian report on a survey concluded, “Teach both evolution and creationism say 54% of Britons”—and this was for teaching it in science classes.11 Another survey published in November 2008 found that 29% of U.K. teachers think that creation and intelligent design should be taught as science. And nearly 50 percent said they think excluding these ideas from the classroom would alienate students from science.12
Considering that these surveys covered teaching creation/ID in science classes, it would be surprising if a survey of attitudes to teaching creation in RE did not show overwhelming support from the British people. Indeed, most would think it preposterous that anyone would try to prevent such teaching in RE classes.
The campaigners make much of the signatures of some churchmen, claiming that this shows that their scheme can “no way be characterised as a dispute between the religious and non-religious.” But we may ask to what extent these churchmen represent regular Christian views? Clearly they do not, and at least one cleric who has signed this letter appears to even question central tenets of Christian faith. The Revd Canon F David Jennings, one of the signatories, has, for instance, even questioned the doctrine of the Passion of Christ,13 and also questioned a traditional understanding of God. He has written:
“Let me, therefore, offer some thoughts that enable me to use the word God in a meaningful way. I have to let go of the metaphysical as anything that can be meaningfully understood or applied outside of the realm of science or mathematics. … . I have already let go of the classical theistic models and descriptions of God. That is of a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, timeless, benevolent and creator.”14
This perhaps reflects what biology professor Will Provine has stated:
“ … belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people. One can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.”15
Furthermore, when clerics are willing to sign a letter such as this alongside known militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, we may ask to what extent are they committed to building Christian unity in the light of Jesus’ prayer that “they [Christians] may be one?” (John 17:21–24). As Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice” (John 10:4). But it is also clear that Dawkins doesn’t even respect such approaches from clergymen having said that they are in reality “barking mad”.16 And we may wonder as well why it is that so-called liberal Christians are so keen to use the law to silence other Christians and deny them freedom of expression.
Elitist education policies
This campaign also reflects an elitist class-ridden attitude to education that in many ways is similar to that of Greek Platonism and to some extent the Prussian education system. Plato believed that in an ideal city-state, Polis, Philosopher Kings should rule with the rest turned into productive workers. Only the elite should be allowed to think for themselves with the general public taught enough to be obedient and economically useful. This attitude towards social control in education was taken up by the Prussian state in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which wanted total obedience so that children could be trained for the civil service and the military. Fichte, for instance, asserted that “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”17 But I don’t believe such indoctrination creates an environment in which science and educational excellence, or even democracy, can flourish. This destructive approach is reflected in the statement signed by these high profile academics who want children to only learn ‘official facts’ and be denied the opportunity for gaining skills in critical thinking and debate.
With so many challenges in our world involving very complex environmental and social issues there is a need to give children the freedom to discuss important questions about the origin and meaning of life (matters that are really not accessible by scientific experimentation) and the world. Unlike this elitist ancient Greek way of thinking, socially conservative Christians have a vision for education that seeks genuine equality and respect across the board, allowing all children the freedom to think beyond that of simply learning officially sanctioned ‘facts’.
Oxford Professor Peter Harrison18 has also pointed out that the Reformation’s more literalistic approach to the Bible was a major factor that allowed modern science to get going. Protestant groups, especially non-conformist ones, also have encouraged ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves and this also helped to open up learning and education.
There is a need for genuine respect and freedom in the classroom that allows for real meaningful debate and dialogue over differences in scientific and religious belief so that children are given freedom to think through issues. Creationists have been unfairly painted in a very negative light by ‘progressives’ who seem to be losing sight of genuine respect and freedom for religious minorities. We are witnessing here the rise of a radical secularist hegemony that seeks to isolate some religious believers, ironically supported by those who like to think that they are the heirs of the Enlightenment, and even sadly some clergymen. In this light, we need to express concern about this CrISIS campaign that is supported by BCSE and some leading academics. True pluralism is only possible where people are allowed to hold and defend their own core beliefs in a respectful manner and framework. We should reject a post-modern relativistic pluralism where the very notion of objective truth is lost. But we also should reject the type of dictatorial dogmatism reflected in this campaign that doesn’t respect people and diversity and seeks to exclude a significant minority view from the marketplace of ideas.
- The newspaper item is found here with a long list of comments; http://www.thisisexeter.co.uk/news/Anger-creationist-invited-talk-school/article-3433995-detail/article.html, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- Controversial ideas on origins of life arouse strong emotions http://www.thisisexeter.co.uk/news/Controversial-ideas-origins-life-arouse-strong-emotions/article-3445317-detail/article.html, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- Available here http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/crisis-creationism-in-schools-isn-t-science.html, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/2011/05/close-that-loophole-mr-gove.html. Return to text.
- See “It’s not science”. Return to text.
- http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14619, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14756 and http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14753. Return to text.
- See also: Did the early Church leaders and reformers believe the literal creation account given in Genesis? Return to text.
- See: https://www.csm.org.uk/whoweare.php. Return to text.
- A point confirmed by one of the signatories, Rev Canon David Jennings, when challenged directly by CMI’s Philip Bell on BBC Radio Leicester, 12 May 2011. Return to text.
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/oct/25/teach-evolution-creationism-britons, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/nov/07/creationism-intelligent-design-religion, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- What was God doing at the crucifixion, David Jennings, Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral. Pdf article available here: http://www.burbage.leicester.anglican.org/about/rector.html: http://www.burbage.leicester.anglican.org/sermons/WHATWASGODDOINGATTHECRUCIFIXION.pdf, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- God talk—Hello Mr Wittgenstein; http://www.burbage.leicester.anglican.org/sermons/2010wittgenstein.pdf, last accessed 13 May 2011. Return to text.
- Prof. Will Provine (Biology, Cornell Uni.), ‘No free will’. In Catching up with the Vision, ed. Margaret W Rossiter, Chicago University Press, 1999, p. S123. Return to text.
- See: Dawkins in compromising churchians. Return to text.
- Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, 1807. Second Address : “The General Nature of the New Education”. Chicago and London, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922, p. 21 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_education_system. Return to text.
- Weinberger, L., Reading the Bible and understanding nature, A review of The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science by Peter Harrison, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998. Return to text.