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Make space for creationists to have their say

Evolution has disappeared from many school lessons in the US. If discussion about the origins of lif

Early last month Hampshire County Council found itself at the centre of an unlikely controversy. The council had published a document, entitled “Teaching About Creationism and Evolution in Schools”. Its author, Clive Erricker, county inspector for religious education, recommended that the “debate” around creationism and evolution should be incorporated into a “joint religious education/science unit”, allowing students to “explore the complexity” of the subject. He suggested various questions that could be asked in class: “What is your response to the idea of evolution?”; “Can the universe be both majestic and meaningless?”.

Erricker, who is also the joint editor of the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, rejects any insinuation that he is trying to introduce creationism into the science curriculum. He calls his idea an “interdisciplinary inquiry”, whereby RE and science lessons might complement each other, to “enable pupils to understand debates that go across disciplines”. But, he admits, it’s “a domain potentially fraught with misunderstanding”. And the vicious response to his ideas from some quarters in the science community makes him wonder if it might still be “too sophisticated” for schools.

He’s not without supporters, though. In 2006, Truth in Science, a Christian organisation “promoting good science education in the UK”, sent out resource packs to the heads of science at all schools in the UK “to assist teachers in allowing students to critically examine Darwin’s theory of evolution”. At the time, the government said the packs were “not an appropriate resource to support the science curriculum”. But to Andrew McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics and a director of the organisation, the developments in Hampshire suggest that its arguments are being taken more seriously. He said the document was “exactly the sort of thing we would like to see done more”, qualifying this with: “We are not saying don’t have any evolution teaching, that’s not our position [but evolution should be] taught with a critical mindset, not presuming that this is the only way to look at the evidence.”

The secularists, not surprisingly, are furious. “Talk about a misnomer,” says Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, of Truth in Science. “I get very angry about this organisation, which is introducing into people’s minds that there is some equivalence between creationism and evolution as scientific topics. There isn’t an equivalence – one is religion and one is science. They’re not the same thing.” He believes the problem goes back to the core of religious teaching in Britain. RE is the only subject that, despite being compulsory, is controlled by local authorities, not by the National Curriculum. What students are taught, and how those lessons might overlap with science teaching, is down to the local education authority under the guidance of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, made up of local faith leaders and councillors. It is such councils that worry Sanderson: “They are often taken over by very enthusiastic religious people – they’re almost all clerics. It’s inevitable that they will try to push the boundaries of religious education into proselytising.”

Nor is there any way of controlling how individual schools or teachers present the subject. Some are worried about city academies, such as the Grace Academy in Solihull, sponsored by the Christian businessman Bob Edmiston, who also runs Christian Vision (“touching a billion one by one”), a global missionary organisation. The school says it has a “unique curriculum”, founded on Christian values, with an “ethos that pervades all the work we do”.

Pam Hanley, of Southampton University’s School of Education, has examined the issue more widely, interviewing science teachers across the country about how they explain the origins of life. She found that religion is increasingly playing a role in science lessons. Out of the 35 teachers she spoke to, 28 said they “covered religious beliefs about creation”. Over a third (13) thought that “a divine being played a role” in the origins of humanity. And a few told her anecdotally that they “felt it was very important that their pupils learned there were scientists who have religious belief”. Most simply welcomed the possibility of a debate on the subject, however, as they are increasingly confronted in the classroom with stark questions from students growing up in deeply religious homes.

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, who is also an Anglican priest, argues that we must engage with such queries. “If in a science lesson pupils bring up issues of creationism or intelligent design it’s a great opportunity to talk about the evidence of evolution and the way in which science is done – the way that scientists build up scientific knowledge.” But he does admit that it’s a risky strategy. Reiss lost his post as education director at the Royal Society last September when he suggested creationism should be respected as an alternative “world-view” rather than a misconception. His departure has left the Royal Society in a state of uncertainty: he has not been replaced, and the society is conducting a “comprehensive review” of its position on creationism, according to a spokesman, though no one was prepared to talk about it.

So, the debate is not as clear-cut as the secularists would like. And it is gathering pace. Sanderson says he has heard reports that North Somerset local education authority is considering a document similar to that of Hampshire. And Reiss identifies a wider trend: that, as mainstream Christianity in the UK becomes less important, “the fundamentalist wing of the Christian tradition is, if anything, strengthening”.

He does not believe Britain will end up following the example of the US, where pressure from proponents of intelligent design has led to widespread pseudo-scientific teaching in schools and almost no mention at all of evolution. But a little more discussion, he believes, would be no bad thing. “I see too many 15- or 16-year-olds who are bored by science,” Reiss says. “I’d like science teachers to have the skills, the freedom and the confidence to be able to allow a ten-minute discussion about whether or not there is any scientific validity to creationism.” In other words, let them make up their own minds.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State