'Culture wars', schools, science and religion

By Bob Carling
21 Sep 2011

In yet another twist to the ongoing saga about the teaching of science, the British Humanist Association (BHA) [1], in association with a range of prestigious individuals and organisations – including the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia [2] – has this week called for creationism and ‘intelligent design’ not to be taught as if they were science in British schools. [3]

According to the statement, both creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are being “portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools”.

As well as the BHA and Ekklesia, the organisations signing the statement include the Association for Science Education, the British Science Association and the Campaign for Science & Engineering. These are joined by those in the scientific world, including Sir David Attenborough and Professor Richard Dawkins, who also want evolution to be taught in schools much earlier, and for it to be taught as fact not as a theory (in the popular sense of supposition or hunch, rather than the technical one meaning a tested explanatory proposition).

As reported in several newspapers and online, the statement says that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are “not scientific theories” and therefore should not be taught in schools as such. It calls for “enforceable statutory guidance” that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ should “not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type”. This would include any other lessons outside science lessons, such as Religious Education. Any legislation “needs to be made comprehensive so that it is clear that any portrayal of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ as science (whether it takes place in science lessons or not) is unacceptable”.

But given that this campaign is led by the BHA, some will ask: is this yet another attack by the ‘new atheists’ on the cherished beliefs of the faithful? And is the principle of ‘teach the controversy’ being swept under the carpet? Where does this leave those who feel excluded in their religious beliefs?

Crucially, as well as the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, among the signatories is the Rev Professor Michael Reiss, of the Institute of Education, University of London – and who famously was forced to leave the Royal Society as their Director of Education following misrepresentations of what he had said about positively engaging children from creationist backgrounds. [4]

He and many others caught in the crossfire are all but being drowned out in their own call that the controversy can and should be taught about in schools – but not actually taught as ‘science’. [5] For example, good quality RE teachers could convey to students the importance and impact of the arguments without implying that creationism or ‘intelligent design’ is scientific, i.e. to really teach the controversy, including why so many Christian believers who are scientists are not creationists or IDers.

All of this invites comparison to the situation in the USA, where creationism in schools is often used as a political football, being kicked about in the same way as the abortion issue and global climate change. In the USA, those who place themselves on the right-wing of the political agenda are often so-called ‘Bible believing Christians’, many of whom are wholeheartedly behind creationism and the ‘intelligent design’ movement for idealistic reasons. Into this heady, potent mix is folded the agenda for ‘restorationism’ (the idea that America needs to return to the Christian God as represented by ‘dominion theology’, and abandon its secular leadership and agenda for a religious one).

Mix this in with home schooling (to ward against the ‘secular educationalists’), a strong denial of global climate change (if it’s being put forward by secular scientists who are also attacking religious belief by promoting evolution, then global climate change must be also be questioned, they say), and the older controversy between conservatives and liberals about abortion, and you have a very tense political situation. The dissipation of this political tension in the USA is very rarely due to deference to actual evidence – it has more to do with who shouts loudest – or who is funded the most. [6]

Similar worrying events are unfolding here in the UK, where home schooling is often advocated by those religionists who would rather withdraw from the world rather than engage with it, especially where science is concerned. Those who would deny global climate change are often encouraged by their own (often unexamined) idealism than any factual evidence. And so suspicion of scientists, including those who are believers, is sadly common among those who are themselves believers – despite the best efforts of organisations like Christians in Science, or the Faraday Institute and other organisations that represent scientists who are religious believers.

Both in the USA and here in the UK, there are many scientists who are believers, i.e. those who thoroughly disagree with both an exclusive atheist agenda and the creationist/IDers, who are thus caught in the crossfire of such ‘culture wars’. On the one hand they are completely unconvinced both by characterisations that religious belief is outdated and childish, and on the other are completely unconvinced of creationists’ claim that evolution is wanting and not the mechanism of species change. These folks are often vilified by both groups as being ‘compromisers’.

Thus the ‘culture wars’ is played out often by ignoring (or unfairly vilifying) [7]) those who take a very different view – namely, ignoring those who on the one hand take seriously the religious aspects of being human (and thus are theistic or agnostic) and who on the other hand take seriously the scientific evidence for evolution.

These and many others are tiring of the ‘warfare’ and long for the day when the warfare metaphor is dead. [8]

References:

[1] Top scientists and organisations come together to say: 'Teach evolution, not creationism!', http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/895
[2] See the news story from Ekklesia, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15402
[3] Teach evolution, not creationism, http://evolutionnotcreationism.org.uk/
[4] Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article4734767.ece
[5] Michael Reiss: How to convert a generation, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/nov/28/academicexperts.highered...
[6] Despite the best efforts of organisations like the American Scientific Affiliation and BioLogos.
[7] For example, there has been an extraordinary vitriolic attack on Francis Collins, a prominent believer and scientist in the USA, who is not a creationist nor ID supporter. I suspect that this attack is more to do with not being able to cope with the existence of high profile scientists who are believers, of which there are many, who just will not fit into the crude categories of some 'new atheists' or creationist/IDers. It seems that ad hominem attacks are the only resort of the desperate against such people.
[8] Perhaps when a modern-day equivalent of Asa Gray, a contemporary of Darwin and a believer, and who was convinced of the cogency of evolution, has his or her say. Darwin himself was much more comfortable with Gray than Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley.

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© Bob Carling is a zoologist/pharmacologist with 30 years' experience in science and medical publishing. He is a writer and speaker on ‘science in society’, philosophy/theology of science, and environmental ethics.

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