Creationist Britain (would you Adam and Eve it?)

The creationism row at the Royal Society has exposed the number of Britons who believe Darwin was wrong about man's origins – and the Bible right. James Macintyre investigates
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The Independent Online

On first appearances 12-year-old Caitlin McNabb is very much like any other schoolgirl. Sitting on the sofa with her parents, Wes and Jane, at their home in Greenwich, south-east London, Caitlin talks excitedly about her friends, her favourite subjects and the new school year.

But there is one difference between Caitlin and the other pupils at Plumstead Manor: she is reluctant to believe everything she is told.

"I was in a geography lesson and there was a lot of talk about 'this is how old the Earth is'," she says. "So I just said, 'there are different sides to it if you look at it in a religious way'. And the teacher said, 'Oh yes, yes that's true'."

"My friends have completely opposite opinions to my beliefs – but we get on fine." Her brother Caleb, six, is quieter, but asked if he believes in God and what is being discussed, he says: "Yes."

Caitlin and Caleb are two of a growing number of British children who are being brought up as creationists. Their beliefs were thrown into the spotlight this week by the enforced resignation of Professor Michael Reiss as director of education at the Royal Society. He suggested that so many children now believed in creationism that teachers should allow such views to be aired in the classroom.

The opinion – widely misconstrued in the media as a call for creationist teaching – provoked uproar and ignited a debate which until now had been largely thought of as an American problem. The traditional fudge of teaching Darwin in science and Adam and Eve in religious education is falling apart.

Caitlin's views were certainly formed, at least partly, by her father Wes, a pastor at the local church, who teaches his congregation as well as his children to believe every word of the Bible, and confirms he is a "literalist" six-day creationist based on the story in Genesis.

He – and his family – believe that event took place "in the last 10,000 years" and rejects the "extreme" views of Darwinian evolutionist theory. "Our confidence is completely in what we believe to be true in the Bible", he says.

His wife Jane adds: "If God is God and truly God, and worthy to be worshiped, then He's not truly worth it if He couldn't do creation – He'd be a weak and inadequate God."

Jane, who has written two books on her faith, condemns the media for failing to give Christian scientists a platform. She says: "You hear on TV the world is millions of years old – they just say it!"

Like her husband, Jane is critical of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who filmed at their church, the Slade Evangelical. "While evolutionists say they have all the answers, we are portrayed as the bigots," she says. "Yes," adds Wes, "we'd cringe at the bigoted view."

The couple met at college, and are proud that their children choose to attend the church.

"It does have an impact on how we function as a family," says Jane. "The whole idea that there's a designer who gives unique gifts to everyone and they don't have to be perfect and how the media portray people."

Wes explains that the problem with evolutionism is it denies the essential Christian belief that we are made in God's image. "It changes your view of society around you: to believe in literal creation will make you the most tolerant person in your community."

The couple, who carry out substantial charitable works in the area, are keen to emphasise their delight in the multi-culturalism of their children's school and the community. "If we're not doing more than the social club or the pub then it's shame on us really," said Wes.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, these are not foaming-at-the-mouth fanatics, but relatively non-prescriptive liberals. "I'd hate to get us into the state of the US. We're passionate six-day believers but we don't want to be branded as fanatics," he adds.

According to the Evangelical Alliance, almost 3 per cent of the UK population is now Evangelical, and its most recent figures show that a third of its members were "Young Earth Creationists".

Other surveys suggest that more than 10 per cent of school children now believe in creationism and an even greater proportion do not believe that humans and all other species of life on earth evolved from common ancestors as a result of Darwinian natural selection. There has also been a big rise in the number of schools which have a creationist leaning, such as Emmanuel College in Gates-head. They have increased since the introduction of academies under Tony Blair. The number of "home" believers – such as the McNabbs – is much harder to quantify.

Teaching unions are concerned. Martin Johnson, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "We're OK with the idea of creationism being taught as part of an RE lesson where it's taught as one of a range of beliefs," he says.

"But we'd be deeply sceptical about it being taught in science lessons, unless it was being taught or discussed as a theory and debated in a way that other scientific theories can be."

One factor which is behind the rise of creationism in the classroom is the growing confidence and religiosity of Britain's 1.8 million Muslims.

Just after breaking their Ramadan fast, Arshad and Kaneez Moosvi discuss over tea their firm appreciation of science, and belief that it goes hand in hand with their belief that God created the world.

The difference with Evangelicals, they explain in the living room of their home in Streat-ham, south-west London, is that the Koran is unspecific about timings, and Muslims do not believe in the literal interpretation of the six-day story in Genesis.

The Koran also makes reference, they say, to a form of Big Bang – "a dot"– while Islam is inherently more conciliatory to science than Evangelicalism because it accepts the existence of prehistoric times and holds that God intervened to create humans after them.

"We believe that God is 24-7, so he didn't rest on the seventh day," jokes Arshad. But, as their highly articulate 10-year son old Murtaza explains, the question is: "Who did the Big Bang? God must have done the Big Bang. I believe that God is the person who really invented it."

Asked crudely if he believes he is a descendant of Adam and Eve, his answer is nuanced. "Kind of," he says with a frown. "Adam and Eve were the first people to name all the animals around the world after the dinosaur period."

Murtaza, who can talk effortlessly through historical periods, from the Tudors to the present day, adds: "I also believe that Adam and Eve were the mother and father of the human race," before describing with some scepticism the story of the forbidden fruit.

Kaneez, a schoolteacher, backs her son's view: "This world has not been created out of a mistake," she says.

But she constantly emphasises the close relationship between Islam and science. "You see a lot of similarity. The Koran indicates the world was started by a dot and expanded, which is very close to scientific theory...

"We believe that God created the Earth, the Sun, but we don't disagree with the scientific theories – they might be right."

Like the McNabbs, the Moosvi parents are determined – with evident success – to make sure their children are exposed to every strand of culture and thought in the country in which they were born. "We don't want them to live in a cocoon," says Kaneez. "We want them to learn all about science, and within that we need to teach them how to respect other pupils' views."

Murtaza and four-year-old Zainab attend the local state primary. "The scientific approach can come hand in hand," agrees Arshad. "We don't want our kids brought up not to believe in the Big Bang."

Arshad, an auditor, repeatedly emphasises his appreciation for non-Muslim culture – and says the feeling is mutual. "My colleagues respect that I don't socialise in the pub with them. We get on very well."

This quiet family's only complaint, meanwhile, is the portrayal of Muslims as fanatics and fundamentalists in the media.

"We detest them," says Kaneez. "Probably more than you."

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