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
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Cuts to Short money aren't about balancing the books - they're about killing Labour

The Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation.

The history of this country has proved time and time again that we Brits don’t like it when the government gets above itself.  A fundamental sense of fair play – chwarae teg we call it in Wales – is our one national defining personality trait. That’s why we hate an overweening executive, we prefer to cut our politicians down to size and we are fundamentally distrustful of demagogues.  It’s also why we think good government needs proper scrutiny and the Opposition is every bit as important a part of the system as the government.

The sense of fair play is intrinsic to how Labour governments have always approached the Opposition.  When Ted Short was the Labour Leader of the Commons he invented ‘Short money’ in 1974 so as to ensure that the Tory Opposition could do its job of holding the Labour government to account properly.  And when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, with a massive majority in the Commons, we didn’t slash Short money, we trebled it.  The Tories were on their knees politically and financially, but we believed it was in the national interest for the Opposition to be properly resourced. 

The Tories agreed, of course.  Sir George Young, the then Conservative Shadow Leader of the House told his Labour opposite number, Margaret Becket, that “It cannot be right… for Opposition parties to be under-resourced, particularly when… the government have increased substantially, from taxpayers' money, the resources that they receive for their own special advisers.”  Not surprisingly not a single Tory voted against that increase and by 2010 the Tories had banked £46.2m in Short money.

Now the shoe is on the other foot and they’re in government, though, those very same Tories want to force through a 19 per cent cut to both Short Money and the Electoral Commission Policy Development Grant.  That hypocrisy is flagrant enough, but even more amazingly, they seem determined on cutting support for the Opposition while they continue to hire more and more Tory Special Advisers at an ever greater cost to the taxpayer.

The statistics tell their own story.  The proposed cuts to opposition parties amount to £2.1m.  In 2009, the last full year of the last Labour Government, there were 74 special advisers costing £5.9m. But in December last year the Government admitted they have 95 Tory SpAds on the books, costing £8.4m.  That’s £2.5m more a year.  In other words, the Tories think it’s fair play to push through a 19 per cent cut for the opposition and a 42 per cent increase for themselves.

That’s not all.  Since last year, the number of SpAds in the highest pay grade has jumped by 150 per cent, and in the next highest paygrade it has grown from 15 to 26. The number of SpAds paid above £63,0000 a year in the Prime Minister’s Office has increased by 51 per cent and in the Chancellor’s office by a staggering 277.1 per cent.

The Chancellor bangs on about financial rectitude.  He says were all in it together.  Yet he alone has ten SpAds. One of them, Thea Rogers – best known for giving Osborne his weird haircut – received a whopping 42 per cent payrise.  Just leaving aside the self-evident hypocrisy of Osborne enforcing a pay freeze of one per cent on the public sector whilst awarding his own bag carriers a dramatic hike, bear this in mind.  The Chancellor’s SpAds cost the taxpayer at least £540,499 a year dwarfing the entire Labour Party policy development grant of £333,500.   Jeremy Hunt’s three SpAds cost more than any of the minor parties – the SNP, UKIP, the Lib Dems, the DUP and the SDLP – get off the Electoral Commission.

Why this really gets me angry is that Cameron made such a play when he was in Opposition of cutting the number of SpAds.  He swore blind that no cabinet minister would have more than one.  Yet every Secretary of State has at least two SpAds, several have three and the total is now the highest it has ever been under Labour or the Tories. 

There are lots of Tory MPs who tell me they hate this vindictive and partisan aspect of the Cameron/Osborne government.  They too worry that a nasty authoritarian streak is developing.  You can see it in the systematic attack on Trades Unions, the attempt to curb the power of the Lords, the dramatic increase in unamendable secondary legislation for major legislative change, the gagging law on charities, the attack on the BBC and the attempt to water down Freedom of Information laws.

To add insult to injury, the Government’s latest sneaky manoeuvre is not to publish its proposals on Short Money today, when Parliament is sitting, but tomorrow, when we are in recess; and to allow just three weeks for a fake consultation.

Sadly the Tories, who were once the One Nation party, seem intent on turning Britain into a One Party Nation. My suspicion is that decent, fair-minded people will think this is just not fair play and in the end the Government will be forced to back down.  Democracy is not just about winning elections.  It’s also about holding governments to account.  And the one rule of politics is that what goes around comes around.