Creationism debate moves to Britain
The debate over creationism in schools was an American problem. But now the controversy is taking root in Britain. Tim Walker reports
Thursday 18 May 2006
For once, an evolutionary biologist and a creationist agree on something. Professor Steve Jones, the author of an updated version of Darwin's Origin of Species, and John Mackay, an Australian preacher who believes the book of Genesis constitutes literal truth, are both convinced that creationism is making a comeback in British classrooms.
"It's a real social change," says Jones, a lecturer at UCL. "For years, I've sympathised with my American colleagues, who have to cleanse creationism from their students' minds in their first few biology lectures. It's not a problem we've faced in Britain until now. I get feedback from Muslim schoolkids who say they are obliged to believe in creationism, because it's part of their Islamic identity, but the people I find more surprising are the other British kids who see creationism as a viable alternative to evolution. That's alarming. It shows how infectious the idea is."
Creationism encompasses a spectrum of beliefs, from the Bible's account of creation in six days, a matter of mere thousands of years ago, to the more equivocal "intelligent design" (ID) theory, which seeks some form of accommodation with evolution.
Its opponents see the teaching of creationism in any form as an alternative scientific theory as a way for its exponents to drive religious dogma into schools across the entire curriculum. In about 50 independent Christian schools in the UK, creationism has been a feature of biology teaching for about 30 years; the fear is that state schools will begin to follow suit.
Jones's concerns are shared by the Royal Society and other scientific organisations; by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the Secular Society; and by teachers' unions such as the NUT, who at their recent conference called for an end to state funding for faith schools "to prevent the growing influence of religious organisations in education and the teaching of creationism or intelligent design as a valid alternative to evolution."
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that creationism should not be taught in schools. Jacqui Smith, schools minister until the latest cabinet reshuffle, was forced to draft a statement to the BHA, saying that the only controversies that could be taught in science lessons are scientific ones, and that "creationism cannot be used as an example of a scientific controversy, as it has no empirical evidence to support it and no underpinning scientific principles or explanations".
Despite this, a recent Mori poll for the BBC found that only 48 per cent of the British population accept the theory of evolution; 39 per cent of people surveyed preferred to put their faith in creationism or ID. Over 40 per cent believed that the controversial theories should be taught in school science lessons.
John Mackay claims to have found archaeological evidence of both Noah's flood and the Tower of Babel. His current lecture tour of the UK was disrupted when a Lancashire school cancelled his planned visit this month after pressure from secular groups.
Mackay agrees that faith schools are one reason for a rise in the acceptance of creationism among young people in the UK. "I think that's a grassroots reaction against the humanist, agnostic agenda being imposed in the classroom," he says. "Parents know that if you try to run a school where the moral structure is based on humanist, agnostic principles, then there are no morals at that school. Faith schools are an option that they are looking at."
The experience of one science teacher at a large London sixth-form college would appear to confirm Mackay's hopes and Jones's concerns, though it is the students, not the teachers, who question Darwin. "A significant proportion of my students - both Christian and Muslim - believe in creationism," the teacher says. "My colleagues routinely have creationist literature dumped in their pigeon-holes after lessons where they teach evolution. Most of our students can, however, separate what goes on in the classroom from what goes on in a mosque or church. Our biology results are very good. These are bright students who may well go on to do medicine."
London medical schools, too, have seen a rise in the rejection of evolution by their large proportion of Islamic students. During Islamic Awareness Week in February, students at the Guy's Hospital site of King's College were presented with leaflets refuting Darwinism.
"This causes fundamental problems in understanding, for example, the way bacteria respond to antibiotics, or the development of the Aids virus, whose power is in its ability to evolve quickly," says one lecturer. "Rejecting evolution deprives a clinician of some very important insights."
Another lecturer has encountered students who refuse physical contact with women during gynaecological examination and surgery. Moral judgements based on religious belief have an undeniable effect on the doctor-patient relationship and, at the very least, complicate a doctor's treatment of Aids, venereal disease, and someone wishing to have an abortion. Like the A-level students, however, the medical students can separate their religious convictions from their study long enough to pass their medical exams.
Dr Keith Davidson is the director of education for John Loughborough, a Seventh-day Adventist faith school in Tottenham, north London. "Part of the requirement of a faith school is to transmit the ethos of our faith, so Christian beliefs are transmitted in all areas of school life," he says, "but, like any faith school, we offer the national biology curriculum to pupils."
However, Davidson argues: "Creationism should be taught as another school of thought. If evolution is acceptable as a point of view, then creationism should be too. Science works on observation; you can't observe evolution, so it is not strictly science. Evolutionists are hijacking science to make their case. The charge against faith schools of indoctrination is untrue. Having just one opinion about the origin of life is indoctrination. Christian schools present both sides of the debate."
Evolutionary biologists are unimpressed by this argument. "There is no controversy," Jones says. "Evolution is a central fact in biology. I am entirely unsympathetic to those who push creationism as an alternative scientific theory. It's astonishing that they have hijacked a place in the media."
The school that first sparked controversy over the involvement of religious groups in the state education system was Emmanuel College in Gateshead. The Emmanuel Schools Foundation is funded by Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian philanthropist, and secular groups have been up in arms about the college and its pair of sister academies' alleged teaching of creationism since 2002.
But three successive Ofsted reports have judged the college, its staff and the pupils' behaviour "outstanding", and its results speak for themselves.
Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has visited Emmanuel. He says: "They do not teach creationism in science lessons, they discuss it in RE lessons. That's perfectly acceptable on any curriculum. I get impatient with my colleagues saying that schools are being sponsored by strange evangelical sects. It's a nonsense, especially in a country that has had religious groups in charge of successful schools for hundreds of years."
No controversy followed the United Learning Trust, a subsidiary of the United Church Schools Trust, as it established academies in some of the most deprived areas of the UK, including Lambeth, south London in 2004 and Manchester's Moss Side in 2003.
The Rev Steve Chalke is the chairman of Oasis Community Learning, a Christian charity that plans to open its first academy in Enfield next year. "I have no evidence to suggest that any school in the state sector is teaching creationism," he says. "We will teach our view in RE lessons; that there is a God, that life has meaning. But teaching six-day creationism in biology is mad. Genesis is a theological text, and anyone who puts creationism into biology lessons is mixing apples and pears."
Creationism has been taught in the classrooms of the Christian Schools Trust for about 30 years. The trust supports a loose network of more than 50 independent Christian schools across the country, catering to more than 3,000 students. Sylvia Baker is the founder and ex-head of Trinity Christian School in Stalybridge, Cheshire, established in 1978. She has taught evolution and creationism alongside one another for 25 years, and now advises other Christian schools on the teaching of creationism.
"I tell children that I believe in a six-day creation, a matter of thousands, not millions of years ago," she explains. "But that is an individual belief, and there is no policy on it running through the new Christian schools. If you don't mention evolution to the children at a young age, they are naturally creationist. It fits how they see the world. There's no doubt that God is the creator and the Bible is reliable. We introduce evolution to them as part of the debate at secondary age."
Baker holds two biology degrees and obtained her BSc from Sussex University, where she was taught by the eminent evolutionist John Maynard Smith. "While I was there, I stopped being an evolutionist," she says. "You always hear there is overwhelming evidence for evolution, but no one could tell me what it was. There was a refusal to debate it when I tried to. If you couldn't find the evidence in Maynard Smith's department, where could you find it?"
Trinity's science GCSE results are well above average, Baker says. "Our pupils have gone on to A-level science and taken biology and other science degrees very successfully. Those who go on to do science degrees have been appalled by the ignorance of the mainstream school students as to the [evolution/ creationism] debate. Scientists have embargoed that debate in secular schools. But in Christian schools the debate is taught. I hope that will spread. It's galling to be thought of as flat-earthers, when creationists have put far more thought into the philosophical debate than evolutionists have."
Steve Jones has met teachers keen on creationism during his lectures to schools, which have confrontational titles such as "Why intelligent design is stupid". He is "disappointed that teachers would do this. It's very hard for anyone with two neurons bolted together to believe that the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Deliberate irrationalism is dangerous, but it's most dangerous to the people that believe it.
"Think of an intelligent 11-year-old who's told by a teacher that humans and dinosaurs lived together on the earth 6,000 years ago. Then think of the same kid doing A-level biology at 16, when it becomes clear that that's complete nonsense. Why, then, should they believe anything else that their religion tells them?"
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