The news that “creationism” has been banned in science lessons in British Academy Schools by HM Government almost passed our national press by, whereas there are a multitude of Google hits from the US. In fact, on the main “secondary” source, a UK site, nearly all the comments are from US culture warriors of one persuasion or another. My conclusion from this is that (a) Americans are too obsessed with it and (b) the British are too complacent.
On the issue of teaching evolution as fact and shutting down dissent, this paper by the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel is essential reading. For an Australian view on the implications of the recent news V J Torley has done a good piece on Uncommon Descent. I’d just like to fill in some background on the English educational system for our colonial brethren, and then focus in on some of the detailed issues less covered, I think, elsewhere.
Academy Schools were set up to be funded directly by the government and free from local authority control. The aims were to encourage educational innovation and local initiative, allowing specialist subjects like music or technology to be emphasised, and, specifically, to enable faith-based education to expand (one category being “Church Academies” or, more broadly, “Faith Academies.”) It should be noted that the state already supports “faith-schools” such as those originally set up by the Catholic and Anglican churches.
It is also important that the UK has no “Establishment Clause” separating Church and State, so “keeping religion out of state schools” is not an issue here. In fact, state schools are still supposed, by law, to include a regular “act of worship, on broadly Christian lines.” So that’s very different fromn the USA.
There have been a few recent cases in which Muslim organisations have, within academies, overstepped the mark in imposing Islamic values and religious practice and, even inviting extremist speakers. Intimidation and levering out of staff has occurred. Yet it still remains unclear to what extent these are attempts to subvert British values in schools, and to what extent they were simply local attempts to compensate for the lack of British values in our inner-city schools. In either case, there have been no well-publicised cases of equivalent activity by Christians, Fundamentalist or otherwise – quite honestly, the British religious scene is too innately conservative for it to be a real problem.
So it would seem the only case being made in these regulations is the case for “good science education”. And that raises the question of why, in that case, the politics.co.uk article speaks of it as a triumph for secularism and quotes the British Humanist Association. Let me at this point reproduce the most significant paragraphs:
‘Creationism’, for the purposes of clauses 2.43 and 2.44 of the Funding Agreement and clause 23E above, is any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that Creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream Churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community.
The secretary of state acknowledges that clauses 2.43 and 2.44 of the Funding Agreement, and clauses 23E and 23G above do not prevent discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education, as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.
Since (apparently) creationism as defined here is rejected by most churches and religious traditions, why was it not rather a triumph for established religion? The answer, in my view, is that the real agenda has been lifted from the science education struggles in America – there is, indeed, a hidden, maybe unconscious, materialist and anti-religious current. Can I justify this, or is it paranoia (again)?
Well, let’s see. It is significant (in the context of the US origins debate) that here (a) the “scientific theory of evolution” has been pronounced canonical without actually being defined and that (b) “creationism” has been defined in such a broad way that it appears to include all that is not the undefined “scientific theory of evolution.” A commenter at UD, OldArmy94, remarks:
“Does that mean that The Third Way of Nagel, et al, is also outta luck?”
It’s a good point, and the answer must be, “Yes”. Nagel, an atheist and leading philosopher, has come to believe that NeoDarwinian evolution is untenable (ie he rejects it as an insufficient account), and proposes a non-naturalistic (but still atheistic) alternative. That defines him, in UK government terms, as a creationist. To discuss his important (and best-selling) book in an A-level class would render the academy liable to loss of funding. Do you not find that bizarre?
One might also question the status of other non-religious “Darwin dissidenters” – a number, like James Shapiro, because they see the accepted mechanisms as woefully incomplete, have gone as far as rejecting NeoDarwinism, which is currently the “established scientific theory.” They believe in evolution of various other kinds and in varying degrees of importance compared to RM & NS – but then so do YECs. At which point are these views anathema in class? Crick’s panspermia must be censored, as it’s creationism by definition… Better not to mention Wallace at all, even though he co-founded the theory, since he didn’t think it sufficient and rejected naturalism.
How did one particular variant of evolutionary theory come to be so sacrosanct and unchallengable? Is such canonical status good for science? “Scientists take nothing on trust, but are always ready to question everything…” Ya-da. Teach the kids to accept what’s established, and don’t even mention anything else – that’s what will make them scientists.
I’m more interested, though, in coming at this from the most sympathetic Christian viewpoint, given that these regulations are for Faith Academies established and encouraged by law. Look again at the relevant definition of “creationism” quoted above. “Creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream Churches and religious traditions.”
Is that actually true? Let’s look at the most considered and evolution-friendly position of orthodox Christianity, the familiar Evolutionary Creation of BioLogos – which is still, in fact, pretty much a minority think-tank. They certainly don’t “reject the scientific theory of evolution”, though they do reject the metaphysical naturalism that is often associated with it and is, arguably, indispensible to it since Darwin’s time.
In squaring that circle, they hold a number of tenets of significance here:
(a) Natural mechanisms are, ultimately, insufficient to explain the whole of life without the creating and sustaining oversight of God. Their science is underpinned at least by divine conservationism and possibly (though they won’t say) by concurrentism.
(b) As a matter of preference, they suspect that (but are ultimately agnostic about whether) natural processes would provide a sufficient account in their own terms, ie God’s activity is there, but may not be detectable behind the science. Or in other words, the sufficiency of natural causes has not, in their considered view, been finally established.
(c) There are specific areas of “the history, complexity and diversity of life on earth” about which they often hold serious reservations with respect to naturalistic sufficiency. The origin of life is one. The image of God in mankind is another, where ECs are till tossing around the case for the supernatural origin of mind, or spirit, or moral sense, or covenant relationship with God as what make us what we are. But as soon as you say the human condition is not 100% evolved, you have fallen foul of the law.
(d) Their account of “directness through natural causes” relies heavily on accepting Simon Conway Morris’s theories on convergent evolution, which are not part of the “established theory” and themselves depend of laws of self-organisation that have not yet been demonstrated at all.
So even BioLogos science in its enirety could not be discussed in a UK Christian school science lesson. It’s “natural causes are sufficient and Neodarwinian theory both correct and complete” or nothing.
That Darwin-friendly kind of Evolutionary Creation is still, though, a minority view. The surveys suggest, and anecdotal evidence confirms, that the commonest “evolution-friendly” Christian position is evolution that is, to a variable degree, directly guided by God. Official Catholic teaching, for example, still insists on the separate creation of each individual human soul, and strongly hints at God’s continued guidance of evolution through concurrence – neither does official doctrine exclude miraculous events in creation.
At the other extreme, an old Christian friend I visited recently, with no science or theology background and little specific interest in origins, said, “There’s no problem with evolution if God is guiding it…” That kind of guided view is inevitable, for the simple reason that even interested and informed readers here find metaphysical concepts like “concurrence” hard to grasp: for the man in the pew, or even many bishops in the synod with Cartesian worldviews, what is natural is not supernatural and vice versa, and Creation is God’s work, not nature’s. But that is not good enough for schools – natural processes alone have to be able to account for everything, or your funding goes.
My experience of British Christians overall tells me that the creationism as defined above has not been rejected by most churches and traditions, as the regulations claim. That’s just untrue. Even Young Earth Creationism, far, far narrower than what is proscribed in the regulations, is still held by large number – in some cases a majority – of conservative Evangelicals and Charismatics in all denominations including the Church of England, where Evangelicals are a substantial minority. It’s also common in mainstream Islam and in Orthodox Judaism.
Add to that churches that are sympathetic to Old Earth Creationism, or Progressive Creationism – both of which insist on supernatural agency and the inadequacy of current evolutionary theory – and you have a lot of believers having to leave their true views at the classroom door and preach metaphysical materialism.
That’s even before you get to Intelligent Design – at which presumably the wording was targeted, since it pointedly omits reference to God in keeping with ID’s limited programme. My guess is that they wanted to catch Michael Behe, rather than Tom Nagel.
Now, given what I’ve just said, the actual wording of the sentence about faith groups rejecting what they define as creationism is pernicious. For it is not simply an explanation of why they have outlawed such creationism: rather it is an article of faith to which the schools must subscribe:
The parties acknowledge that Creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream Churches and religious traditions…
You want the money, you have to agree that only kooks have a problem with naturalistic Neodarwinism as Ultimate Truth.
Finally, let me just focus on that little clause later in the document, about what you can teach outside science classes. In religious studies you can discuss creationism (remember the definition of that, folks):
…as long as it is not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory
Now, not being a YEC it’s easy to be sympathetic to the idea of preventing the religion teacher dissing the biology teacher by literal interpretations of Genesis. But on sober reflection, if it’s mandatory to teach science without giving any room at all to religious or metaphysical considerations, then science should be equally unprivileged when the discussion is religion and metaphysics. I’m not in favour of forcing kids to choose between science and religion, but if they do produce cognitive dissonance, surely only kids themselves have the right to decide if they’re going to be on the scientific or the religious side.
When I was at school, my Religious Studies teacher was a bog standard liberal theologian. My English teacher was an Evangelical. I had to decide which way I would lean for myself (and of course, most of my classmates rejected both and followed the unbelieving history teacher).
But the definition, as I’ve discussed, is far broader than what is properly called “Creationism”. It includes the whole the Christian doctrine of creation and much more. Imagine a religious studies lesson or philosophy class: “Neodarwinism claims to explain all of life by natural efficient causes alone, but physicist Paul Davies is typical of many scientists who now believe that information is as fundamental a constituent of the Universe as matter and energy. That of course theologically links to the belief that Jesus is the Logos of God, the wisdom of God who creates all things by his power. Maybe evolution only works because of that – or maybe natural efficient causes are sufficient to explain all life. You must consider the validity of the alternatives.”
Well no, you mustn’t, because there are no valid alternatives to natural causes we’re allowed to teach you.