Creationism and political power in Northern Ireland

The row over the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre is more about politics than science or religion.

In 1892, the Rev Canon Alfred Barry gave a series of lectures at Oxford University reflecting on the relationship between faith and science. Referring to the debate about the origin of and evolution of life, he noted that:

Few men, I suppose, now doubt that the mutability of allied species, once considered as fixed and unchangeable, has been substantially proved...No one, again, seriously doubts that in this development the process which Darwin termed Natural Selection is one potent factor.

When Charles Darwin first outlined his theory, in 1859's Origin of Species, some Christians objected to the lack of divine guidance in the scheme. Few, however, still clung to the 17th century chronology of Archbishop Ussher, who had dated the creation to 4004 BC, or objected to the findings of geology that the earth was many millions of years old. "Young Earth" creationism is very much a product of the 20th century. It would have astonished and dismayed Barry, or indeed Thomas Burnet, a theologian who wrote in 1680 that it was "a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason."

Yet in the very week that 21st century science demonstrated its God-like prowess with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the National Trust stands accused of pandering to Young Earth creationists in Northern Ireland. An exhibit at its newly-opened Giant's Causeway visitors' centre refers non-judgementally to a "debate" about the age and origins of the structure, which geology has firmly dated at around 60 million years. In its initial statement, since modified, the Trust referred to a desire to "reflect and respect the fact that creationists today have a different perspective on the age of the earth from that of mainstream science."

Also causing concern was a somewhat self-congratulatory press release from the Caleb Foundation, a group which claims to represent "the interests of mainstream evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland". Caleb expressed satisfaction that the National Trust "worked positively with us" to incorporate the creationist perspective into the exhibit and suggested that their co-operation "sets a precedent for others to follow". By acknowledging the creationists' claims, the Trust had made the exhibit "inclusive and representative of the whole community."

On this view, the job of the visitor's centre isn't to inform visitors of the known facts, but rather to even-handedly disseminate views. Instead of being people who are either ignorant or in denial about the basic principles of geology, Young Earthers are elevated to the status of a "community" whose views are as worthy of respect as those of "the scientific community". Indeed, it implies that belief in a "young earth" is a means of expressing identity rather than a scientific or religious opinion. But why should creationists be so anxious for their views to be acknowledged or validated in this way?

The important thing to recognise is that this row is essentially about politics rather than science – and, specifically, about the politics of Northern Irish unionism. The Caleb Foundation's claim to being representative of mainstream evangelical opinion may be open to debate, but it certainly has considerable political influence. Its vice-chairman is Mervyn Storey MLA, a senior member of the DUP and the Orange Order, and several other prominent DUP politicians also have close links to Caleb. According to Roger Stanyard of the British Centre for Science Education Storey, who has no scientific background, "appears to have set himself up as an authority on the geology of the Giant’s Causeway."

Another MLA, the late George Dawson, wrote in a letter to a Unionist newspaper in 2006 that he and Storey, along with DUP Westminster MP David Simpson,

...have been pressing government on the need to ensure that interpretation at the new Causeway interpretative centre is inclusive of the views expressed by Rev Dr Greer [a creationist who argues that the Causeway provides evidence of Noah's Flood]... This is a matter of equality and tourism opportunity. In equality terms it is incumbent upon government not to discriminate against this equally scientific viewpoint and those who believe it.

According to Stanyard, "a core of, maybe, around half a dozen very senior politicians within the DUP" have been involved in promoting Young Earth creationism in the province and that "the evidence over the last few years suggests that there are very strong pressures within the party to get creationism into schools." They include Edwin Poots, who in a radio inverview in 2007, as culture minister, proclaimed without embarrassment his own belief that the world was created in 4000BC and accused scientists like Richard Dawkins of wanting to "indoctrinate everyone with evolution". It may not be a coincidence that creationism has grown in importance in Ulster politics as the peace process has advanced. The politics of creationism may partly be a replacement for the more overt sectarianism of the past.

Teaching creationism alongside evolution in school science lessons is the ultimate ambition of these campaigners and politicians. Getting creationism acknowledged in the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre, even tentatively, counts as a minor victory towards this goal. It helps to establish creationist views as mainstream. And it must be acknowledged that among Northern Ireland's unionist political establishment, as in parts of the US Republican party, they are. That is the problem. The age of the earth is of course a scientific question with a clear scientific answer. It's not a religious question. But it is, at least in Northern Ireland, increasingly a political question, and political debates are not primarily concerned about facts but about power.

 

A new exhibit at Giant's Causeway reflects "views outside mainstream science". Photograph: Getty Images
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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