It is all Sarah Palin's fault. The European bien pensantry is horrified at the thought that she might become Vice-President, with a serious prospect of going one up. She is a creationist, for God's sake, and she wants to ban books. That girl could make Lefties feel nostalgic for the Neo-cons. So this was not the ideal week for a British scientist to propose that creationist views should be tolerated in schools. From the way that his critics carried on, one might have thought that there was a transatlantic conspiracy to repeal the Enlightenment and bring back the Inquisition. Torquemada, thou shoulds't be living at this hour.
As is generally the case when those on the political left become over-cooked, they are exaggerating: more's the pity, sometimes. However high Mrs Palin rises, her views on evolution are unlikely to have much influence on the American educational system. As for banning books, anyone who has recently browsed across the political shelves of an American bookstore will understand her feelings. Volume after volume alleging that George Bush is the worst schmuck in recorded history: authors who make Michael Moore seem like a serious intellect: there are plenty of books which would be infinitely more useful as cat litter. Even in rock-ribbed Alaska, the lower sort of librarian can have appalling taste. Even though there is no evidence that she succeeded in banning anything, Governor Palin had a point.
So do those who would like schoolchildren to be exposed to creationists. Genesis versus Darwin: ecologists and eco-sceptics: atheists against Christians; the more children are stimulated by argument and debate, the more books they will read. That sort of educational quickening should take place in every school.
That said, there is a worry. It is much easier to stir up kids by discussing creationism or the threat to the planet than it is to teach them the science to help them assess the conflicting positions. Good schoolmasters have always used controversy to stimulate their classes and thus encourage the assimilation of facts. Argument is a sauce which makes palatable the necessary drier phases of learning. But with the collapse of hard science in so many state schools, the balance is lost. It is to be feared that much of what passes for science teaching is just windy propaganda, turning out children who may have different views, but who are quite as intellectually unsophisticated as the most extreme hell-fire preacher in Boondocks county.
Creationism is not the answer to the problems of science in schools, yet last week's brouhaha had an ironic aspect: the enthusiasm with which most churchmen rushed to the aid of the politically correct majority. One might have thought that churchmen too would have indulged in some pointless nostalgia, for the days when the first chapter of Genesis was at the core of the national curriculum. In those days, the sea of faith was full.
Christians must believe that man is at the centre of God's moral preoccupations: hence the incarnation, the most important moment in human history. In the days when everyone assumed that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that fossils were mere curiosities and ornaments, it was much easier to believe in the special relationship with the Almighty. Geology and astronomy have destroyed those certainties. One can understand why the Church wanted to silence Galileo, for modern science throws up one unanswerable question. If God merely wanted to create a playing field for the contest between Divine grace and original sin, why did he go to all that trouble?
St Paul would tell us that for the moment, we must have faith and content ourselves with seeing through a glass, darkly. But St Paul did not have to contend with our knowledge of the scale of the Universe and the age of the Earth. That glass is a lot clearer than the glass of faith. Galileo still moves and creationism cannot be revived.
Refusing to acknowledge a conflict between religion and science, many contemporary churchmen take comfort from the fact that Newton was a devout Christian – too fundamentalist for today's tastes – and that Darwin died a Christian. But there is a difference. Darwin passes the key test for modern Christians, in that it is not clear what he actually believed. Was he much more than an agnostic with a sense of awe and a conservative temperament, who was also attached to the pieties of childhood? Would that not be a fair description of most Anglicans now, especially the Bench of Bishops? After the inroads of geology and astronomy, how much theology is left? The low, melancholy withdrawing roar continues.
Not, however, in Alaska. One reason for relishing the prospect of McCain/Palin is the outrage that she would cause to the platitudinous pieties of the left-liberals. For that, one is prepared to forgive her almost anything, even creationism.
It is not as if the creationists were the only fanatics. Last year, Nigel Lawson finished a book on global warming. He had recruited the services of Ed Victor: there is no more effective literary agent on either side of the Atlantic. Yet for months, the former chancellor and the doyen of agents were unable to find a publisher. One letter of rejection went as follows: "My fear, with this cogently argued book, is that it flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy that it will be very difficult to find a wide market."
It would be excessive to compare the eco-fanatics to the Inquisition at the time of Galileo, but there is an equal zeal for suppressing debate and hunting down heresy. Lord Lawson's book was eventually published, under the title, An Appeal to Reason. This should remind us that it is not only creationists who appear to repudiate reason. The same is true of some flourishing contemporary religions, most notably environmentalism. So let reason prevail, in all circumstances.