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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Can non-voters win the next election for Labour?

Any Labour leader who pins their hopes on getting non-voters to the polling station will be defeated in 2020. 

Question: how can non-voters win the 2020 election for Jeremy Corbyn?

Short answer: they can’t.

This isn’t an anti-Corbyn point, by the way: they also can’t win a general election for Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall. There is no route to a parliamentary majority for any of Labour's leadership candidates which doesn’t involve addressing the concerns of Conservative voters.  Why not?

Well, there’s the obvious point that you can’t only raise your own turnout. Take, say, Barack Obama’s successful presidential bid in 2008: yes, he increased turnout among young graduates and ethnic minorities, contributing to his victories in traditionally Republican-leaning states like North Carolina and Florida. But he also increased turnout among Republican voters, losing by a bigger margin in Tenessee, Arkansas, Louisana, Oklahoma and West Virginia than John Kerry did in 2004.

The problem for British politicians attempting to emulate the Obama strategy is that Britain is less diverse than the United States.  British constituencies are, for the most part, what sociologists call “socially crunchy” – so if you increase turnout among, say, ethnic minorities and young graduates, but turn off, say landlords and middle-managers, there are very few seats where you will feel the benefits but not the punishment. (In fact, most of the seats where this is the case Labour already hold.)

Then there’s the bigger problem. Non-voters aren’t actually all that different from voters. After the election, the Trades Union Congress commissioned Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research to find out what had gone on. Here’s why non-voters and voters didn’t opt for Ed Miliband’s Labour party here:

As you can see, there is not a vast gulf between the two groups. (“Other” by the way, includes responses like “They weren’t leftwing enough”, "They sold the gold", "Iraq" and so forth.) Even if you assume the 35 per cent of “Don’t Knows” actually mean “I was waiting for a real Labour party”,  and that a more radical Labour party  would attract all of them, look at the worries that people who went on to back Labour despite them in 2015 had:

It’s hard to see how a more “traditional” Labour approach on public spending, welfare, and so on wouldn’t also lose voters from Labour’s existing 2015 bloc. But what about, say, the Greens and the SNP?

It is just possible that the 20 per cent "Other" in the SNP is all "Labour weren't leftwing enough" but it seems likely that at least some of it is "I want to leave the United Kingdom". But even if we take all of that 20 per cent, we're still talking Labour gais in Scotland of fewer than ten seats. Now let’s look at people in social grade DE, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, what you might categorise as Labour’s “traditional” core:

Look familiar? Now, here’s what Ukip voters and Tory voters made of Labour in 2015:

That’s not to say that the next Labour leader shouldn’t aim to increase turnout. It’s just to say that there is no evidence at all that policy prescriptions that turn off Conservative voters will have a more natural home among people who didn’t vote – quite the reverse.  Whatever happens, if the next Labour leader wants to win the next election, they are going to have to win over people who thought "they would make it too easy for people to live on benefits", and that "they would spend too much and can't be trusted with the economy". The next Labour leader – whoever they are – is going to have to try to win over people who voted Tory in 2015. This is one of the few times in politics where there really is no alternative.

 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.