Scientist and Royal Society say creationism comments were misreported

By staff writers
13 Sep 2008

A leading biological scientist, and the prestigious Royal Society he works for, has said that his comments on creationism and the classroom have been misrepresented - and that it is opposed to creationism being taught as science.

"Some media reports have misrepresented the views of Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Society expressed in a speech yesterday," the Royal Society declared in a statement on 12 September 2008.

The Rev Professor Reiss, also an Anglican clergyman, has issued a further statement which is being described by the Society as a clarification.

He said: "Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview'; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility."

The Royal Society, the organisation declared, "remains committed to the teaching of evolution as the best explanation for the history of life on earth. This position was highlighted in the Interacademy Panel statement on the teaching of evolution issued in June 2006."

Government guidelines make it clear that neither creationism nor its cousin 'intelligent design' can be regarded as valid scientific theories.

A Church of England spokesperson, the Rev Dr Malcom Brown, who heads up the denomination's mission and public affairs unit, also made it clear that the Church has no truck for creationist propaganda - which is based on fundamentalist readings of Scriptural texts and denies 150 years of modern evolutionary biology.

Dr Brown said that science and thoughtful religion was “perfectly compatible” and attacked creationism as a minority strand of opinion within Christianity that created a false impression of the Church as a whole.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, from the Movement for Reform Judaism, said: “It would be as unacceptable for Judaism for schools to teach creationism in science lessons as it would be for them to teach the Dawkins secular fundamentalist view that Darwin and God are incompatible.”

The British Humanist Association said that creationism was “simply wrong” but agreed that those who struggle to accept science should be engaged by science teachers rather than ignored.

Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs for the BHA, said it was better to take the opportunity to talk rather than to belittle children. “Should a teacher say, ‘Shut up, that's for RE'? Obviously not,” he said. “If a child raises it in a classroom you don't say, ‘Shut up'. You say, ‘That's not a scientific perspective.' It can be an opportunity to demonstrate what a scientific perspective is.”

Some Muslim and Hindu spokespeople were more equivocal about whether creationist ideas should be taught, and the pro-creationist lobby group Truth in Science immediately tried to capitalise on Professor Reiss' reamrks.

There is concern among educationists that a small but growing number of faith schools are trying to infilitrate creationism into science classes.

The support for creationism in the UK, unlike the US, is small, but may be fed by a wider ignorance among the public about the difference between mainstream and fringe beliefs and the complex questions of faith and science, analysts say.

Meanwhile, the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia cautioned that the proposal from Profesor Reiss, in the way that it had been transmitted, could cause “unnecessary confusion.”

“Professor Reiss’ argument is well intentioned but potentially damaging, especially in the way that it has been misreported,” says Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. “We need to understand that the so-called ‘controversy’ he is responding to is one being promoted by well-funded, highly politicised lobby groups who represent a small but vocal minority of mainly fundamentalist believers.”

Barrow continued: “Seeking to talk respectfully to children who come from backgrounds suspicious of modern evolutionary biology is one thing, but anything that gives the impression that creationism is some kind of valid alternative theory of origins in a science classroom is not - as Professor Reiss has since clarified”

“In fact creationism, which derives from the misreading of ancient figurative religious texts, is not based on testable scientific hypotheses – but rather a dogmatic refusal of evidence. It is recognised by scholars and the major denominations as both theologically and scientifically untenable.”

“It may be important that classrooms dealing with world-views and beliefs should examine why such denial-based ideas like this arise, but this should not detract from the main task of science education – any more than a geography classroom should be distracted from teaching topography in favour of flat-earthism, or chemistry should include alchemy.”

Ekklesia also welcomed the recent statement from the Church of England’s director of mission and public affairs that science and faith can be “perfectly compatible” and that creationism has created a false impression of Christianity and the church as a whole.

Barrow declared: “It is vital that the churches explain why creationism, which denies science and biblical interpretation and which turns God into a ‘cosmic manipulator’, contradicts the genuine Christian belief that the whole natural process may be seen as divine gift to be explored and cherished.”

Also from Ekklesia: ‘Theology, science and the problem of Intelligent Design’ - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6707

More on creationism - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/101

Royal Society statement: http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=8004

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