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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue