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24 September 2008

Darwin in Sunday School

That the Church of England is prepared to honour Darwin, if not quite by apologising to him official

By Paul Rodgers

Charles Darwin has set the cat among the pigeons yet again. A century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the Church and the Royal Society spent most of September in a dither over the theory of evolution, the surprise this time being that it’s not entirely clear which side each is on. While the Church appeared to apologise to Darwin, the Royal Society seemed to condone the teaching of creationism in science classes. Has the world really turned topsy-turvey?

Consider the ecclesiastical position first. The Church of England is preparing to mark 2009, the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s seminal book and the bicentenary of his birth, with a new section on its website, offering contributions from the likes of the Bishop of Swindon, the Right Rev Dr Lee Rayfield, who writes that he hopes it will be a “resource for growing wisdom and understanding”. Judging by the media reaction to another article in the section, posted on 15 September, it’s a faint hope.

“Good Religion Needs Good Science”, by the Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, the Anglican director of mission and public affairs, argues that the Church was wrong to vilify Darwin, though it also takes some passing swipes at social Darwinists and atheists. It concludes by saying: “Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.”

Rev Brown’s claim that the Church owed Darwin an apology was widely reported as being the apology itself. But clergymen are generally far more rigorous in their use of language than mere journalists. The Church has, in fact, long since reconciled itself with Darwinism (It allowed him to be buried in Westminster Abbey when he died in 1882), and this story was only news because of the ignorance of the reporters and editors involved. Predictably, only a few journalists picked up on a later Associated Press report that: “The Church of England said Brown’s statement reflected its position on Darwin but did not constitute an official apology.” The Reverend Doctor got to keep his job.

Less fortunate was Dr Michael Reiss, a biologist and, like Rev Brown, a Church of England vicar. His day job is as professor of science education at the Institute of Education, but he also served until mid-September as the director of education for the Royal Society. Then he made the mistake of presenting a paper at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Liverpool in which he argued that creationism and “intelligent design” should be treated with respect, not scorn, in science classes.

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This was in keeping with the society’s policy, and with that of the Government. He did not suggest for a moment that creationism and “intelligent design” should be taught on a par with evolution, but that when students raised doubts, teachers should be prepared to discuss them. Yet again, as in the case of Rev Brown, the media jumped on an old story as if it were new.

The backlash was quick and furious. Nobel laureates Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts demanded his head. Another Royal Society fellow, arch atheist Richard Dawkins, described his appointment as a “Monty Python sketch”, though he later relented a bit. The Royal Society stood by him at first, but by 16 September, it had decided that Dr Reiss’s comments damaged its reputation. He resigned. Arguably, it was the society’s failure to stand up to criticism, rather than anything Dr Reiss said, that caused the most damage.

The attitude expressed by Dr Reiss is fundamental to science. We trust science to discover the truth because it is based on reason. It does not merely dismiss contrary ideas, as dogmas do, but argues with them. And if it is proven wrong, it changes. The same can not be said of creationist views, which when proven wrong fall back on “faith”.

That the Church of England is prepared to honour Darwin on its website, if not quite by apologising to him officially, is due to evolutionists presenting reasoned arguments, not to a blind insistence that Genesis is merely a creation myth. Children deserve to be given the same intellectual choice.

And if they can be offered that choice in science classes, why not in Sunday school too? Since the Church accepts Darwinism, perhaps it should undertake to ensure that evolution is raised during discussions of Adam, Eve and Eden. It might not convert many eight year olds – the Bible has a better narrative – but it would at least sow the seeds of critical thinking that might sprout, years later, in some biology classroom.

Reason need never fear a fair fight.