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9 April 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

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

By Sophie Elmhirst

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.”

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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.

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