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
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Alex Jones spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre – grieving parents may see he pays for it

A lawsuit filed by parents of those killed in the 2012 massacre means the Infowars host might finally have to face the consequences of his actions.

It can be easy to think of conspiracy theories and those who spread them as crazy but essentially harmless. Mad ideas, repeated by kooks who are so far removed from reality that their impact on society is minimal.

The experiences of the parents of the 20 six- and seven-year-olds killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre should serve as a reminder that they are anything but.

Following the mass shooting, one of the US’s most deadly, rumours spread online that the whole thing had been staged. As now happens with almost every mass school shooting, social media and forums like 4chan filled with claims that the news footage was faked, that the grieving parents were in fact actors, that their grief was not real.

One of the chief enablers and amplifiers of these theories around Sandy Hook has been Alex Jones, the puffed-up, red-faced ball of rage that runs and hosts the Infowars radio show and web TV channel.

Jones was initially cautious in his approach to Sandy Hook, despite being a regular promoter of other conspiracy theories including 9/11 being an inside job, and more recently the now infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which led to a man discharging an assault rifle in a restaurant that he had become convinced was a cover for a Democrat-linked paedophile ring.

However, in the months and years after the shooting Jones became less and less cautious, raising doubts about the stories told by parents about cradling their dead children, implying and sometimes outright stating that the massacre had never happened and that the parents and authorities were lying.

As an outlet with millions of viewers and listeners, ones already susceptible to conspiracy theorising, his statements can only have encouraged those who harried Sandy Hook parents like Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son Noah in the shooting.

As Pozner told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, when he finally began emerging from the “catatonic” state he was left in after the shooting and began posting picture of his son on social media , he was deluged with comments such as “Fake kid”, “Didn’t die” and “Fucking liar”. He has received death threats, and moved many times, not just because it helps him cope with his loss, but because pictures of his home were regularly posted online.

He told Freeman of the inadequacy of government response that “lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4chan trolls, this is their playground.”

But while the many lone trolls are difficult to pin down, Jones is a public face with a broadcasting infrastructure, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Pozner, along with two other parents of Sandy Hook victims, is suing Jones for defamation, seeking at least $1m in damages.

The bar for defamation in the US is (rightly) high, certainly higher than it is in the UK, because what is defined as “political speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Pozner and his fellow plaintiffs must prove not only that Jones was not telling the truth, but that he did so either knowing it was false or with a “reckless disregard” for the truth. So while Jones patently spread falsehoods on his shows – and continues to do so – it is far from guaranteed that they will win. Jones, for example, has said he was playing devil’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the case raises a number of intriguing prospects, such as what happens when the claimants ask for disclosure of how Jones verified his wild claims in a bid to prove he took a reckless disregard for the truth. What will Jones do when asked in court to provide evidence of his sources?

There is also the question of how his previous submissions, during a court battle with his ex-wife for custody of their children (a fight Jones lost), that his show was “performance art”. On the one hand, it might provide him with a way of claiming that he was never making any statement designed to be interpreted as fact. On the other, it makes it difficult to argue that he truly believes what he says, which would make it hard to claim he was making his statements in good faith. 

This is not even the first time Jones has been sued over his penchant for spreading untruths. He is facing a number of other defamation suits, including one from a man who Jones claimed had organised protests against white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorising is the most heartbreakingly cruel. The victims are people who lost children in the most horrific way, and who have had their grieving interrupted constantly by strangers on the internet telling them they are making it up.

And there is another aspect to Jones that makes his theorising even more deplorable. As numerous articles and a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have explored, Jones makes money selling products that appear to offer solutions to the terrors he conjures up. From water-filters that Jones claims will cut out the kind of pollutants that, he says, turn frogs gay, to the much ridiculed Brain Force dietary supplements, Infowars operates like a crazies-only version of Amazon, slinging products on the back of the fears and anxieties he’s spent the show stoking.

These products are by and large over-priced, and of highly dubious effectiveness. Jones claims that the money is all ploughed back into his own show, which he says costs $45m to $50m a year. But as Oliver pointed out, he’s at least making enough to afford more than a couple of Rolexes.

So whether Jones truly believes the deranged theories he parrots, or is simply using their mass appeal to make a fast buck, he is still making money by preying on the easily persuadable and paranoid, and aggravating the pain suffered by those they target.

If Jones is found guilty, one of the considerations used to decide the scale of damages awarded against him is likely to be the emotional harm caused by his actions. Whatever Jones’s personal relationship with the truth, the pain he has caused to parents is undeniable. By that measure, I hope a judge decides to bankrupt him. I hope Posner and the other parents succeed in suing him into oblivion.

There would be little more fitting, or just, than if it were these bereaved parents who finally put Jones and Infowars out of business.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.