The controversy over whether creationism should be addressed in science lessons has been reignited after a leading professor said teachers should treat the belief with respect.
Professor Michael Reiss, head of science at London University's Institute of Education, argued that a rise in creationism was making it increasingly difficult to teach evolution in British schools. Some science teachers were, as a result, ignoring the topic of evolution completely.
In a book published yesterday which collates the views of various academics about the controversy, he argues: "I am not convinced that something being 'non-scientific' is sufficient to disqualify it from being considered in a science lesson."
His stance appears to put him at odds with government guidelines – reiterated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families yesterday – that creationism has "no place" in the science curriculum.
But Professor Reiss, who is a Church of England priest, insisted: "I would not want any such teaching [about creationism], were it to occur, to give the impression that creationism and the theory of evolution are equally valid scientifically. They are not (nor is it appropriate to insist on spending equal amounts of time on evolution and creationism in science lessons)."
Profess Reiss said he had adopted his stance as a result of science teachers telling him they were being faced with a growing number of students who believed in creationism.
He estimated about one in 10 people in the UK now believed in literal interpretations of creation stories – whether they were based on the Bible or the Koran.
"The days have long gone when science teachers could ignore creationism when teaching about origins," he said.
Instead, they should tackle the issue head-on but in a way that does not alienate students, he argues in the book, Teaching About Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism.
In another chapter in the book, the philosopher Michael Ruse, of Florida State University, criticised the "militant" stance taken by Professor Richard Dawkins, founder of the Foundation for Reason and Science, saying that creationists and those who espouse intelligent design – a modern interpretation of creationism – are "delighted" with the language used by the professor to attack religion.
"The creationists know that Christians of every kind find Dawkins deeply offensive and hurtful – as, of course, he intends," he said. They know, he added, that, "every time Dawkins opens his mouth, he is setting up prejudice against Darwinism in almost every stripe of Christian".
Some scientists hit back at Professor Reiss's comments yesterday. Dr Hilary Leevers, of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said science teachers would be teaching evolution not creationism and did not need a book to tell them how to "delicately handle controversy between scientific theory and belief".
A spokesman for the Department for Schools said: "Creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories nor testable as scientific fact – and have no place in the science curriculum.
"We advise science teachers that when questions about creationism come up in lessons, it provides an opportunity to explain or explore what makes a scientific theory."
God's work: Christian and Islamic beliefs
* Creationism is the belief that humanity, life, the Earth and the universe were created by a deity. Christian creationists base their belief on the book of Genesis, which states that God created the world in six days.
The Muslim version of creationism is also founded in a belief that the universe and humanity were directly created by God as explained in the Koran. Opponents reject the claim that a literalistic Biblical view can meet scientific criteria.
Controversy over the teaching of creationism in UK schools surfaced with claims that it was being taught during science lessons at the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead, which is sponsored by the Christian evangelist and car dealer Sir Peter Vardy. An inspection by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, rejected the allegation.
Intelligent design, a more modern version of creationism, argues that evolution cannot solely explain how life and the universe have come into being in their present form – arguing that human beings must have been created by a superior intelligence, ie God.
The controversy over creationism is fiercer in the US with a recent Gallup poll estimating about 43 per cent of Americans believe that God created human beings "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so".
According to experts on Islam the creation accounts in the Koran are more vague and allow for a wider range of interpretations than Genesis. Several liberal Islamic movements accept the scientific positions on the age of the Earth, the universe and the theory of evolution.