Creationism and the “conspiracy” of evolution: inside the UK's evangelical schools

Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but should we be trying to ban it? Jonny Scaramanga, a former pupil at an evangelical school, examines how we are failing to hold such institutions to account.

Should teaching creationism in schools be banned? Professor Alice Roberts has argued that it should be, even in private schools. Her comments come as a shock to those British citizens who assume that creationists, like grizzly bears, are a species local to North America. In fact, two networks of evangelical schools – Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) and the Christian Schools Trust (CST) – teach Genesis’ account as a literal explanation of human origins. That’s around 100 UK schools before we even talk about Muslim and Jewish institutions. I attended an ACE school in the 1990s, and emerging successfully indoctrinated at the end of 1999. I am still recovering from the experience, but I’m not convinced banning them will help.

ACE schools are “teacherless”. Students spend the majority of the week at desks facing the wall, with dividers preventing contact with their neighbours. In silence, they complete workbooks which integrate Bible lessons into each subject. During that time, the only contact with staff comes if a student raises a flag to indicate that they need help. By contrast, most CST schools use a more traditional classroom setup, but with a similarly strong biblical emphasis.

ACE’s UK distributor, Christian Education Europe, does not disclose the locations of all its schools, but in 2009 claimed there were 59 in the UK. They list 29, but these are only the schools which choose to be listed. In 2008, it was reported that 2,000 British children were being educated this way.

In my first week at the ACE school, the principal preached a sermon called “Birds of a Feather Must Flock Together”. This 45 minute rant can be summarised in one sentence: “Don’t be friends with non-Christians”. So began three years in which I learned to view ‘unbelievers’ with a mixture of fear and contempt.

Creationism was central to this understanding. I was taught that evolution was a conspiracy; scientists knew they lacked evidence, but wouldn’t admit it because they hated God. Evolution was equated with atheism;“evolutionists” were fundamentally dishonest. Students in ACE are still taught this. These quotes come from the compulsory course which current students take instead of GCSE science.

From year 11 biology:

No branch of true science would make these kind of impossible claims without proof. Because evolutionists do not want to believe the only alternative—that the universe was created by God – they declare evolution is a fact and believe its impossible claims without any scientific proof!

From year 10 science:

A person who is not right with God must find reason, or justification, for not believing. So he readily accepts an indefensible theory like evolution – even if it will not hold water. That is his academic justification for unbelief.

There was a second way creationism was used to fend off outsiders. The school claimed that creationism proved the Bible was the Word of God. Biblical authority thus established beyond question, I was forced to live by such Scriptures as Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is he that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly. . .” My only interaction with sinners was for evangelism.

There is a natural human tendency to fear the strange. Attending a school exclusively with other evangelicals turned the rest of the world into strangers. My knowledge of outsiders came from propaganda cartoons depicting non-Christians as evil and stupid. When I left that school at 15, I expected my new classmates to try to corrupt me. I told them to accept Jesus or face hell, and they lived up to my expectations.

Creationists teach that either every word of the Bible is completely true or none of it is. If you have doubts, that is the devil trying to deceive you. I knew if I doubted, I risked losing my faith, and then I would go to hell. This provides a powerful disincentive against thinking critically. In that sense, the education militates against real learning.

The same literal understanding of the Bible taught me that gay people were sinners, women should obey their husbands, and parents had a moral imperative to spank disobedient children. Creationism was the keystone that held these beliefs in place. If that was questioned, the entire edifice might fall. Teaching creationism is unquestionably harmful, but there are other avenues to try before we ban it.

If they are prohibited from teaching creationism, evangelical schools will not suddenly provide high quality instruction on natural selection. More likely, children would be withdrawn into fundamentalist homeschooling. Testimony from America is that this can be somewhat variable.

The scandal is that existing measures for quality assurance are not working. Ofsted inspections of ACE schools do not mention creationism at all, but frequently give generally glowing reports. Between 2007 and 2011, at least six Ofsted inspections of ACE schools were carried out by a Mr Stephen Dennett. At the same time, Dennett had a sideline as a freelance curriculum writer, and his name appears in the metadata of ACE curriculums as an author. He is also listed as a “consultant” to the board of the ACE-based International Certificate of Christian Education. I contacted Christian Education Europe, ACE’s UK distributors, asking them to comment on my concerns that Dennett’s Ofsted role had represented a conflict of interests, but to date they have not responded.

Compared with ACE, the Christian Schools Trust (CST) looks relatively moderate. Unlike ACE’s rigidly standardised curriculum, each CST school has its own policy on creation and evolution. There are still indicators that pupils in such schools are being misled, though. Research published in 2009 declared “the great majority of the schools teach their science from a creationist viewpoint”. The same survey found just 10 per cent of teenage CST pupils accepted the theory of evolution.

Dr Sylvia Baker, the academic who published this research, is a former teacher in a CST school. She insists the teaching of science is rigorous. “If you are seeking to imply that pupils in some CST schools are brainwashed into a simplistic ‘unscientific’ view of origins, you are sadly misinformed as excellent results in science subjects at GCSE have so often demonstrated,” she told me.

Together with the Muslim Schools Association, the CST has its own inspectorate, the BSI. The inspectorate was set up by the schools to “respect their distinctive ethos”. Since this ethos is the most contentious aspect of the schools, this strikes me as a wholly unwarranted privilege.

Organisations that ought to be holding these schools to account failing to protect the childrens’ interests. UK NARIC, the international qualifications comparison body, actually maintains that ACE-based qualifications are the equal of A-levels. The inspectorate ought to send a clear message to parents and staff at these schools that the current standard of instruction is unacceptable. We need scrutiny, not legislation.

 

 

The pupils at the evangelical school the author attended were taught that believers in evolution were fundamentally dishonest. Photo: Herbert/Getty Images
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.