Creationism's far from unintelligent design on our schools

The real problem with "creationist schools" is not their attitude to science, says Nelson Jones.

 

I knew a creationist once.  He believed in a literal Adam and Eve and in the Tower of Babel, yet claimed to find natural selection implausible.  He was no-one's idea of a knuckle-dragging, inbred redneck, either, but went on to gain a first class degree from Oxford.

He could argue me under the table, and often did, since with the naive overconfidence of youth I imagined that I might somehow be able to alter his mind by presenting it with facts.  Small hope.  His sharp, subtle, trap-like mind was entirely dedicated to defending propositions that had been obsolete since the middle of the nineteenth century.  He knew all the rhetorical tricks and could deploy them with ease, weaving straw men with the skill of a master hatmaker from Montecristi. 

So I've never made the mistake of underestimating creationists. Creationism may be stupid, but creationists are not - or at least need not be.  It may well take a special sort of intellectual dexterity to maintain beliefs so out of keeping with the modern world as the notion (held by some but by no means all creationists) that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.  This may help explain why creationists can prove so effective at political manipulation.  Even so I never imagined that in Britain, unlike in the United States, we would ever see them plant their foot in the door of political or social influence.  Or run publicly-funded schools.  It's disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that at least three of the first batch of free schools, established as a result of education secretary Michael Gove's initiative, have backers behind them of known creationist sympathies

One of them, Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland (previously a private institution) has a statement on its website that, while not insisting on young earth creationism, declares a belief in the "inerrancy" of Scripture and promises to "challenge vigorously the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called Big Bang." The language it employs is quite nuanced, but it doesn't take too much reading between the lines to work out where they may be coming from.  They are "very happy to believe that God could have created the world in six days" but "do not feel it is helpful to affirm it as unarguable fact".

It's not helpful if you want to set up a school with government funding, certainly. The Department for Education is quite clear that creationism - a religious, not a scientific, opinion - cannot be taught in science lessons as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.  Another suspected creationist establishment, Sevenoaks Christian School, states on its website that while it plans to teach in RE lessons that God made the world "and is pleased with his creation", it is "content to accept" the DfE's  stipulation for biology lessons.  As it must be if it wants to take the money.

For some people, this is enough.  Anyone objecting to creationists running schools as such, regardless of what they say they will teach in biology classes, runs the risk of being called a secular fundamentalist.  The respected Christian blogger known as Church Mouse suggests that the British Humanist Association's campaign against the schools amounts to "hysteria". Taking at face value the schools' declaimers, he asserts that none of them is a "creationist school".  He suggests that opposition to them in motivated by two things: the political campaign against the Gove reforms (including the very concept of free schools) and the wider secularist dislike of state-funded faith schools in principle.  

Similarly, the Telegraph's Damian Thompson, while fully accepting that creationism is "pseudoscience", sniffs out something of a "witch-hunt" motivated by an "ultra-secularist" mindset that would see religion swept out of public sphere entirely.

There may be an element of truth in such claims.  The BHA does indeed campaign against state-funding of faith schools.  Pro-secularism campaigners have more than just creationism in their sights.  There are however good reasons to be particularly suspicious of creationism, which doesn't merely deny scientific facts but comes with a wider agenda. Hence the notorious "wedge" strategy, followed with some success in parts of the United States.  Ostensibly this aims to present evolution and creationism (or its more subtle variant, intelligent design) as competing and equal theories, and thus to persuade or require schools to "teach the controversy", even though there is no controversy.  The ultimate aim is "to see design theory permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life." 

Britain may be more resistant to the classic "wedge" manoeuvre.  DfE guidelines leave little or no room for it in science lessons.  Instead, we find creationists and their sympathisers appealing to principles of diversity and respect for deeply held religious conviction.  In Northern Ireland recently, the Evangelical Caleb foundation successfully (as least at first) persuaded the National Trust that the perspective of the creationist "community" deserved to be represented at the Giants' Causeway exhibition.  Likewise, creationists on the British mainland may be willing to concede on the limited question of science education if it enables them to provide schools whose more general ethos is anti-scientific.

Creationists have a problem with science, of which evolution is an integral part, because they see it not as humanity's search for truth about the universe but as a materialist, atheistic worldview in fundamental opposition to their understanding of Christianity (or indeed Islam).  A "secular" worldview that also encompasses such things as reproductive rights for women, respect and equality for gay people and a religiously neutral approach to lawmaking.  (One wonders what sex education will look like at creationist-run schools.)  As mainstream religion sheds adherents, the more fundamentalist strains, including creationism, become proportionately more significant and influential. Furthermore, they are adept at attracting publicity, and so increasingly come to represent "religion" in the public mind. Involvement in education is one way of gaining respectability and profile.

The real problem with letting creationists run schools is not that, given half a chance, they would fill children's minds with fake science and inaccurate information about the world.  This matters, of course, but people managed to get by quite happily for centuries believing that the sun revolves around the earth (as it clearly says in the Bible, though few "Bible-believing" Christians insist on it today).  In any case, they won't be allowed to present creationist ideas as "science".  No, the problem is with all the other stuff they believe.  A school with a creationist "ethos" would an unwelcome proposition even if no teacher there so much as mentioned the Book of Genesis.

Adam and Eve. Photo: Getty Images
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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

********

An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.