Science in schools UK

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 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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Politics and sociology, Science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Science in schools UK

  1. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary of the issue, Jon, and for connecting your discussion up with what has been said on Uncommon Descent. It’s important that North American readers hear from people who actually know how the British educational system works, before they draw conclusions about the meaning of British policies.

    Thanks also for your critical commentary on the policy.

    By the way, I haven’t heard the expression “bog standard” before. Is it a Garveyism, or a common British phrase? I’m guessing that it means “abysmally low-standard,” but if I’m wrong, by all means educate me (and possibly other readers) in current British idiom.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Eddie.

      “Bog standard” (adj. phrase) = absolutely run-of-the-mill; common-or-garden; unexceptional. Etymology unknown!

      Since writing this I’ve mused on why it should matter so much if creationism is taught, seeing there is no legal barrier to religion in schools here. Why single it out as the one litmus test of education?

      The possible effects? Kids would fail national biology exams? Schools know that, and need to get good results, so will make sure kids are crammed OK.

      Those going on to biological subjects at university will be disadvantaged? They’ll sus out how to succeed quick enough, if they didn’t already know. They won’t advance their careers as Creationists, so science itself won’t be harmed (except for a few like Arthur Jones, a Creationist who got a PhD on Cichlids without compromising either science or Creationism).

      They may have a crisis of faith when they finally read real science? And the government is bothered two hoots about that?

      Or, most likely, they’ll go on to become lawyers, or hairdressers, or doctors, or parents and their Creationism, if retained, will matter no more than believing in evolution would help their lives one jot.

      If good science were the real concern, the criteria would be about nutrition, or medicine, or even global warming, where what you believe actually affects you and society – and which are pretty poorly taught in my experience, to judge by what people told me in medical consultations.

      So no – the real reason is that kids may end up believing there’s more to life than naturalistic materialism, and that’s the main thing to be discouraged on principle – if you’re a Humanist or atheist.

  2. pngarrison says:

    I would have thought that “bog standard” was whatever was common among those weird looking bog people you all dig up over there.

    Jim Kidder had a blog post on this development.
    From what he quoted I gathered that this standard depends on the school being supported by tax money. Schools that don’t get tax money (what we would call private) aren’t covered. Correct?

    Over here we have the same issue in different terms. There are charter schools, which are run by different groups than the public schools but receive tax money, and in addition there has been a movement to have vouchers, where the parents get tax money for spending on private schools. Of course, there is a similar doctrinaire movement insisting that any school that gets tax money by any route must stick to the straight secular story. In Texas, I have long been annoyed by the Texas Freedom Network (which may be the most mendaciously named organization in America) run for many years by the daughter of Ann Richards, a Democratic governor of Texas, back in the days when Texas had Democratic governors. These people always have the idea that any money which has passed through government hands is thereby “sanctified” to purely secular uses, never mind the variety of beliefs of the taxpayers who briefly possessed the money.

    Personally, I’m inclined to be a libertarian about this. Give the people their portion of the tax money dedicated to education and let them use it the way they want. I don’t suppose the present order is obligated to fund insurrection against itself, so they could draw the line against teaching that. Sure, some people would use their voucher to educate their children in ways I don’t think are wise, but that’s what liberty entails.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi pngarrison

    Yup – these are funding criteria, so private schools (here called public schools!) aren’t covered, and local-authority-run schools were already subject to the National Curriculum. The latter quite legitimately covers the teaching of evolution in biology, but I don’t think is spelled out in quite the same exclusive terms, which is why this has attracted attention.

    Jim’s post seems accurate, except that on a strict interpretation, as I suggested, theistic evolution is excluded too in all its even vaguely theistic forms. Can’t criticise Jim for that, though, since he’s a Yes fan and therefore infallible…

    Insistence on separation of church and state is less arguable here when we still (for the moment) have an established church whose secular head is the Queen whose office depends on a Trinitarian oath. So the underlying question, alluded to in your last 2 paras, is how these regs are held to be in the taxpayers’ interests should it happen not to be secular.

    All that said, it won’t change much on the ground. I had a Christian biology teacher as a patient once who’d come to the conclusion after researching the matter that Neodarwinian theory was far from watertight: can’t remember where his personal convictions lay. He still taught the curriculum, being a good professional. But he’ll have to keep quiet about his own views, whatever they are, now: it’s not so much separation of church and state, or science and religion, as separation of science and teacher.

    Incidentally, Jim’s June 10 post on the recent survey of American views neatly illustrates one main issue: he says his own pastor is bright, willing to discuss at length with Jim (an expert in his field), but finds himself unpersuaded to change his interpretation of the Bible. There’s loving disagreement between them, and we’d side with one, the other, or neither – but who has the right to adjudicate which view is able to be expressed as legitimate in the public domain? At least in Darwin’s time the debate was open and free.

  4. Avatar photo David Tyler says:

    Thanks to Jon for a helpful analysis of the situation. In my comments here, I am essentially agreeing with you that: “there is, indeed, a hidden, maybe unconscious, materialist and anti-religious current.” The qualification I would make is that the words “maybe unconscious” seem too generous. You have made the case yourself that the words are designed to “to catch Michael Behe, rather than Tom Nagel”. I’d like to suggest that the DfE stance is actually alien to the spirit of science and it is an indication that materialism is a universal acid that ends up destroying everything it currently holds dear.

    Before developing this argument, I’d like to respond to some points that seem to me to be distractors. The first is: “Crick’s panspermia must be censored, as it’s creationism by definition.” I do not see this. Crick was a thorough materialist. He was honest enough to acknowledge that the origin of life could not have happened on Earth and he found refuge in the hypothesis that it happened elsewhere. I do not understand how anyone could say this is creationism by definition. The other point I want to query is “It’s “natural causes are sufficient and Neodarwinian theory both correct and complete” or nothing.”” I know that Neodarwinism is embedded in school textbooks, and Darwinist concepts are equated with “evolution” in the new primary school science specification, but the wording of the DfE “supplemental agreement” does not require Neodarwinism. The document refers only to “the theory of evolution”.

    My concern is that the (new) DfE requirement is that “natural biological processes” are sufficient to “account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth”. The DfE asserts that there can be no “evidence based theory” that can challenge this principle. The problem we have is that the sufficiency of natural processes is presumed, and then imposed, on the educational process. It is not difficult to find acknowledgements in the research literature, that we do not have an explanation of the origins of life via natural processes, nor the origins of the first eukaryotic cell, nor multi-cellular organisms, etc. Naturalistic science is committed to the principle that answers will be found via natural processes, and (apart from a few enlightened scholars like Paul Davies) they neglect the study of biological information.

    So my first concern is that a philosophical assumption (regarding natural processes) is being confused with the essence of science. This leads to the second concern: that evidence-based reasoning is sacrificed before the altar of naturalistic philosophy. They insist that there can be no evidence to challenge their principle that “natural biological processes are sufficient”. This is how they can exclude intelligent design from the classroom: empirical arguments for Design (Precambrian complexity, irreducible complexity, specified complexity, the Edge of Evolution, etc.) are not allowed by Her Majesty’s Government as evidence for “a valid alternative to established scientific theory”.

    Which brings me to my third concern: the use made of consensus thinking. If there is one thing that the history of science should teach us, it is that giving great weight to consensus thinking is a disaster for science. Science thrives when there are no artificial barriers to freedom of speech and open enquiry. Wherever consensus thinking hits the media, the agenda is not science, but politics, funding, prestige, etc. Strong pressures are exerted to maintain the consensus – and we have seen secularists very active over the years getting science organisations to affirm a naturalistic definition of science. They conveniently forget that the explosive growth of science (known as the Scientific Revolution) was rooted in theistic science. The Enlightenment came later. Those of us who want to fly the flag again for Theistic Science are swimming against the tide – but what we do not want is to lose our voice completely because of an imposition of “consensus” thinking.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks David, and welcome to The Hump.

      On the “conscious materialism or unconscious ” question, farbeit from me to impute motives to anyone. Conscious is however, as you say, more likely. But I have met Christian teachers who seriously thought that by teaching a secularist agenda they were being neutral – many people have still not realised the issues. You’d have thought they’d be at least a little suspicious when antireligious organisations like the BHA and militant atheists like Jerry Coyne cheer and clap.

      My point about Crick’s panspermia is that by being so wide in their “creationism” definition as to catch IDers who are not pushing a divine designer, and by failing to define what “the scientific theory” includes, they’ve actually hoisted themselves on their own petard: directed panspermia surely can’t be regarded as naturalistic if ID isn’t? But we all know that should some teacher in a classroom happen to mention Crick’s ideas as a way of overcoming problems with the theory, nobody will bat an eyelid.

      But I guess the loose evolution definition is really for the reasons you state in your concerns. Firstly it makes its inseparable metaphysical materialism the usual moving target – sometimes it’s part of the theory so kids are taught evolution is purposeless; but sometimes it’s not, and evolution is quite compatible with religion, though not enough to be allowed to mention religion. Secondly it means that they can take refuge in whatever the consensus is at the time – but I’d suggest that if the consensus weren’t classical Neodarwinism the insistence on materialism would begin to weaken anyway: nearly every alternative has inherent teleology, and starts one on the road back to theistic science… which the next post concerns, so I must get on with it!

  5. ArthurJones says:

    Great piece (and good responses). We must recognise this affair as primarily a worldview issue, and thus, for many of us, primarily between Christian theism and naturalistic (materialistic) secularism. By failing to engage the debate on those terms the Christians on both the Jeremy Vine Show (12th June) and Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight (16th June) had no effective response to the secularist agenda.

    I would suggest that our strategy must be to refuse to answer specific questions (creation/age of the earth and homosexuality are the favourites) unless/until the worldview issues are recognised and addressed. In the first instance it does not matter, for example, whether we believe in theistic evolution or in creationism. Either way our position is not acceptable to the secularists (as Jon’s piece points out). To his excellent analysis, I would only add that we must seek to expose the implications of materialism (no plan/purpose/meaning, no morality out there; no grounding for reason, science, mind, free will ….) and press secularists to answer the hard questions they face (which are much harder than those faced by Christians) – e.g. “If materialism is true, then what should we teach the children in schools?” And “If children and young people become convinced that materialism is true, then how might they live and what might they do?” We know, for example, that almost all those (maybe ‘all’ if we had full information) who have committed mass killings of students and teachers in schools and colleges throughout the Western world in recent decades had, beneath the many individual factors, absorbed and believed the materialist story. “Isn’t it materialism that poses the real threat to us and to our communities?”

    Once the materialist story is also on the table, the ideological nature of the attacks on ID and creationism will be much more difficult to hide, and the evidence against Darwinian (materialistic) evolution much more difficult to ignore or dismiss.

    We live in a time when worldview education and appropriate strategies of response to aggressive secularism are a very urgent priority for churches and Christian organizations.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this, Arthur (and welcome). Hope you didn’t mind my taking your name in vain in my reply to Eddie. We met once (Danbury, Essex -around 1989 0r so). Still have your accompanying notes somewhere in the archive…

      It seems to me that although New Atheists are the vocal face of materialism, and some of the lobbyists, the bigger danger is its incipient creeping into the assumptions of ordinary people – as if it were not only progressive, but normal, for spiritual issues to be ghettoised in society.

      Your point about the TE/Creationist division being small beer in comparison is well taken.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Here’s a quote from Ed Feser, filched from a comment on Ed Feser’s blog. Seems somewhat relevant to Arthur’s comment:

    …the debate over materialism has arguably never been more than tangentially concerned with how best to explain physical phenomena – the motions of the planets, the nature of chemical reactions, or even the origins of life. That is to say, straightforwardly scientific issues seem never to have been the crucial ones. Rather, the debate has, for two and a half millennia, focused primarily on three fundamental metaphysical issues: the nature of the mind and its relation to the body,the ontological and epistemological status of mathematical and other apparently abstract objects, and the question of the existence of God. For materialism now genuinely to have the upper hand would require that materialist arguments have been victorious, or have at least been shown to be considerably more plausible, in each of these subject domains. Has this happened? No one familiar with the recent history of philosophy can honestly think so.

  7. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Arthur Jones wrote above about the logical extension of materialism perhaps being an explanation for increased destructive or nihilistic behavior (‘mass killings’, etc.)

    I know where you’re coming from Arthur, and I agree with you in it –we may be pretty much “the choir” here discussing this unless Lou is lurking nearby, but I don’t think he would have let this go if he was. We need to wrestle with this some more, and I will at least in part anticipate some of our atheist friend’s responses to that end.

    It isn’t fair (at least at the outset here) to lay morally deficient aggression at the feet of materialism as its default consequence. If we could somehow tally up all the atrocities of history neatly into two categories: 1. “performed by religiously motivated people” vs. 2. “performed by atheists”, I’m not at all sure such a statistic would land where Christian apologists would like; not to mention running afoul problems like how to define “Christian” or “religious” and if one begins to incorporate a “fruits evaluation” criteria into that definition (e.g. Hitler could never have been Christian despite some things he occasionally said because look what he did after all!) –then atheists cry “no true Scotsman fallacy!” which is not really a legitimate objection since Christians are quite justified in calling such claims into question. But in any case it’s all a mess, and even if the statistic landed where you wanted what would it really prove? A lot of self-appointed religious people have done really horrible things no matter what portion of the “atrocity pie” that turns out to be. And conversely a lot of atheists have done what look to be apparently great/kind/selfless things. Given their apparently materialist outlook, what could possibly motivate that? I keep using these qualifiers like “apparently” because the “fruits evidence vs. verbal claims” objection cuts both ways. There is some scriptural warrant for suspicion here when we hear parables like the two sons, one of whom says the right things in response to his father’s request and the other does not, but then the second one actually does his father’s bidding. We know which son Jesus commended as approved. I obviously think there is massive warrant for not taking a person at their word on their own world view if I see that their actions contradict their words –even for self-identified atheists! By this point most materialists will have worked up a froth over perceived “true Scotsman fallacies”, but Christians have scriptural backing for this. (I once had a blogger cheerfully inform me that Hitler was a Christian — because Hitler claimed it at some point! —apparently all I need to do to actually be a Rhodes Scholar is claim to be one, and my claim alone would make it so by this bizarre logic.)

    But that is just one response. Other apparently philanthropic atheists will swear up and down that they want nothing to do with religion (especially Christianity). And if we take them at their word, then we are left either doubting the veracity of their good works (maybe it is all just selfish in the end –but the same charge is leveled against Christians who are motivated to avoid hell after all!) Or we are left needing to explain how materialists can be decent folks just because that is the decent thing to do. Are they a moral law to themselves? Does Paul mention something of that in Romans? Could self-acclaimed atheists possibly fit underneath that umbrella?

    In any case our charge that materialism removes *all* basis for being good is challenged by apparent counter-examples. I think part of my answer to this is that conscientious materialists smuggle in truckloads of religion by the back door and then deny any such indebtedness when asked. We can let them call it “philosophy” or “world view” or “cultural influence” to help them feel better about it. But one thing is certain: it has nothing to do with science.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I suspect Arthur was dropping by because education’s his area of interest so he may not be around to reply. But to be fair I don’t think he was talking about general human behaviour so much as the specific nature of educational worldviews. Loss of moral compass is not an inevitable or universal result of secukar educational values, but it is a logical one.

      In Soviet days, many people did not become convinced communists despite pervasive indoctrination, owing to family influence, reaction to its crassness and the sheer resilience of human nature. But it remains true that education infuses worldview more effectively than it infuses knowledge – and Russia is still suffering from the effects of Soviet education on the national psyche.

      So if behind the educational system is a metaphysics that assumes, “We arrived accidentally, we’re going nowewhere, and religion is just a comfortable if irrational crutch to some people out there,” that message will silently inform all the liberal “respect others’ autonomy” lessons constituting moral instruction in schools. Any thinking student will ask themselves what solid foundation underpins that respect, and the truth is that nothing does, as discussions we’ve had here have demonstrated.

      Does Dawkins’ brand of humanism – “we and our behaviour are the helpless and meaningless products of purposeless genes, but we can buck all that and practice morality anyway” – have any rational traction? His stated values are the clear product of European liberal Christian family and “public school” values, and they fly in the face of his chosen metaphysical system. If he actually achieved his goal of the eradication of Christianity in education and family for the next generation, there would only be the blind watchmaker, and evolutionary ethics left. He’d have achieved what Os Guinness long ago called “The Striptease of Humanism”. And he has, with others, had a good platform to achieve it through books, TV, an Oxford chair in Public Science Education, and his prominent campaigning roles in both the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association.

      The effect of such secularisation is reflected in all kinds of stats, from the lack of respect in state schools themselves, family breakdown, increased narcissism amongst young people – and, of course, the inexorable decline in religious faith. If you educate people that God doesn’t matter (simply by excluding him as a factor in the real world), then you won’t be surprised that he doesn’t matter in the real world.

      Now a person who is taught that because the foundation of all things is a God of justice and love, then we ought to love our neighbour for a range of reasons from graitude to fear of punishment, may still commit atrocities, but it will be in spite of, rather than as a logical consequence of, the worldview they have imbibed during their education.

      Clearly mass school killings are very rare. But once upon a time they were unknown. Clearly political atrocities have always occurred – but the sheer scale and intensity under materialist ideologies from the French Revolution through Pol Pot is hard to refute historically. Compare the actual combined deaths from Crusades, inquisitions, witch trials and even Muslim conquests with those from Marxism in just one century – the orders of magnitude are not comparable.

      Even the current Islamist tide of immoral violence has no parallel in Muslim history until Islamic faith and Bader-Meinhof nihilistic ideology fused in an unholy alliance.

      All this certainly has nothing to do with science … well, it wouldn’t, if there were such a thing as a science that isn’t dependent on prior worldview commitments. But there isn’t, and there can’t and won’t be until science is no longer being done by people, as decades of PoS should have proven beyond reasonable doubt. Until then, all science is an expression of worldview.

  8. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    “All this certainly has nothing to do with science … well, it wouldn’t, if there were such a thing as a science that isn’t dependent on prior worldview commitments.”

    I agree, Jon. When I typed that broad claim I actually had a narrower target in mind: …that nowhere from science does the materialist find any foundation or justification for any kind of ethical imperative.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for clarifying that Merv. Let me broaden it more and suggest that nowhere from materialism does the materialist find any foundation or justification for any kind of ethical imperative.

      And that makes a secularist-materialist basis for state education a potential disaster for society. Whatever moral instruction schools give will be seen to be arbitrary (especially when kids grow up and begin to see that what was wrong yesterday becomes mandatory today, and vice verse); and when they look for the justification for it, there is nothing substantial.

      That is, quite simply, a failure to educate. In this country, we’ve probably had such a setup for a couple of generations now. Adult ethical behaviour doesn'[t appear to have benefited much.

  9. ArthurJones says:

    Hi Jon, Merv and others,
    Yes, I did drop by because education is a prime interest, but I will check back regularly. Responding to the feedback on my post, I am happy to accept all the qualifications. My real concern is unaffected. In the education debates secularists are always implicitly asserting that it is religion/faith that is the problem and is harmful/dangerous in education (and in public life in general), whereas secularism is harmless and benign. I am quite content if secularists will admit that, if we are talking about the dominant materialism, the assumption is very difficult to sustain. Our main problem at present is the lack of a level playing field as long as materialism is taken for granted and protected from critique.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for your interest and feedback, Arthur. It’s appreciated. I don’t know if you noticed that the discussion of your stuff has leaked over into another thread with no obvious connection (the one on contingency).

      We have contributors here with a professional interest in science education.

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