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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear