The Big Question: Why is creationism on the rise, and does it have a place in education?


Why are we asking this now?

The theory of evolution has held sway in British science curricula for decades. But yesterday, Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Royal Society, made the case for bringing creationism back into the classroom. And a recent documentary found that there are a number of schools where creationist ideas are taught as an alternative to the mainstream evolutionary point of view.

How do these theories differ?

Proponents of evolution believe species change by a process of random genetic mutations. They believe the world is 13-14 billion years old. Creationists, in contrast, believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that its existence is the result of one of the processes described in religious texts like the Bible. They reject the idea that one species could evolve into another. A related theory, intelligent design – sometimes described as "creationism in a cheap tuxedo" – attempts to strip the religious element out of the formal theory, instead referring to an unknown intelligent force at the beginning of the universe.

Why is teaching creationism controversial?

Many who oppose creationism in the science classroom are quite happy for it to be discussed in Religious Education. But it is very hard to make the case for creationism as a legitimate scientific theory. Teaching creationism in the classroom, says Richard Dawkins, "would hand creationism the only victory it realistically aspires to. Without needing to make a single good point in any argument, it would have won the right for a form of supernaturalism to be recognised as an authentic part of science."

What does Professor Reiss argue?

Reiss is a priest as well as a scientist, but he is far from an advocate of the intelligent design theory. But, he says, treating intelligent design as too obviously simple-minded to merit discussion is a mistake. Creationist beliefs, he argues, are much more likely to be part of a complex set of related cultural ideas than a simple misconception; a 50-minute science lesson that ignores them is more likely to alienate a student than suddenly endow him with a new worldview.

Instead, according to Reiss, the best a science teacher can hope for is to lay out the evidence for evolution, and at least make sure that they see that the word "theory" does not simply mean a hypothesis about the way things might work, but a rigorously supported system of ideas that fit with the available evidence. "While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict," he concludes, "good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science."

Is creationism taught now?

According to a More 4 report earlier this year, there are at least 40 schools in Britain that teach creationism in science lessons. Of those schools, five were part of the state system, but defied government guidelines. The report was the result of enquiries to just 50 faith schools, of almost 7,000 in the country (over 99 per cent of which are Christian) – so there may be many more schools doing the same thing.

This is not the first suggestion that creationism is on the rise. In 2006, a group called Truth in Science sent out intelligent design teaching materials to every secondary school in the country, at least 59 of which began using them. And there has been a longstanding controversy over the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an evangelical organisation that already runs three schools under the Government's academies scheme and hopes to take on four more, and which has been widely criticised for teaching evolution and creationism as competing scientific theories – although Ofsted found no problem with its science provision.

What's the official position?

In 2002, Tony Blair said that he was relaxed about the Emmanuel Schools position, saying that "it would be unfortunate" if the issue stood in the way of "getting as diverse a school system as we properly can". The Government's Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design, to which Professor Reiss contributed, is the most recent official word on the subject. It says that creationism and intelligent design should not be taught as part of the national curriculum; but, crucially, it adds that "there is a real difference between teaching 'x' and teaching about 'x'", and argues that questions about creationism "could provide the opportunity to explain why they are not scientific theories".

What do the public think?

Professor Reiss estimated yesterday that perhaps 10 per cent of the public believe in creationism, but this may be a severe underestimate: according to a 2006 Mori poll, 39 per cent of people believe in either creationism or intelligent design – and more than 40 per cent believe they should be taught in schools.

How does this compare internationally?

Our 39 per cent of people being adherents to creationism may sound high, but it is considerably lower than the United States, where surveys say that 66 per cent of people believed that the world was less than 10,000 years old – and even 16 per cent of biology teachers are creationists. America's culture war makes it particularly fertile ground for evangelical Christians, whose catchphrase – infuriating to a unanimous scientific community – is "Teach the Controversy".

Elsewhere, the Council of Europe recently declared that member governments should "firmly oppose" the teaching of creationism in science classes, denouncing it as a potential threat to human rights. Most countries in the developed world take the same stance. Islam has historically been much more well-disposed towards the theory of evolution than Christianity, in part because the Qu'ran does not go into detail about the creation process – but Islamic creationism is on the rise, in particular in Turkey, where creationism is included in school syllabuses.

Why is it an issue again?

It's hard to give an empirical answer. It is partly to do with an increasingly organised evangelical Christian movement and a growing number of Muslims in the UK who subscribe to creationism; according to Professor Reiss it may be a reaction against the exclusion of dissenting views from the science classroom. What's certain is that it's a phenomenon on the rise. "There is an insidious and growing problem," says the geneticist Professor Steve Jones. "It's a step back from rationality. They (the creationists) don't have a problem with science, they have a problem with argument. And irrationality is a very infectious disease."

Should creationism be taught in science lessons?

Yes...

* If science education ignores creationism, those who believe in it will ignore science

* It may strengthen the case for evolution to explain why creationism is not scientific

* A belief held by large numbers of people should not be dismissed out of hand

No...

* Presenting creationism alongside evolution gives it a false scientific credibility

* No one says evolution should feature in RE classes: why should this be any different?

* Science education should be decided by facts, not pressure from special interests

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