Why it needed saying, UK style

By Paul S. Braterman
British Centre for Science Education

Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, has said in as many words that “teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact.” This is progress. The existing curriculum guidelines stated only that creationism and ID should not be taught as science, leaving room for them to be advanced as philosophical or religious doctrines (in the UK, there is no separation of Church and State). In any case, the publicly funded “Free Schools” now being set up are not constrained by the language of the curriculum. Some half-dozen Evangelical church schools with pro-creationism policies have applied for Free School status. We hope, in the light of the Secretary’s words, that these applications will now be rejected.

More below the fold…

“The education secretary is crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact.” (Statement from Department for Education, responsible for education in England). This in response to a letter and memorandum here (this material may be freely copied) from the British Centre for Science Education, a collaborative effort but sent to him (with copies to as many other interested parties as we could think of) over my signature.

Why did this simple statement make the headlines of the Guardian? (Note that education is devolved; “England” here is notshorthand for “United Kingdom”.) Why was it so difficult to obtain this statement of the obvious, and why is it so important to have done so? For readers in the US in particular to understand this, we need to compare the legal framework governing education, and the very different constitutional approaches to religion, in the two countries.

In the US, education is controlled at a variety of levels. Large numbers of Americans reject evolution in favour of various kinds of Bible-inspired creationism, leading as most readers will know to the political exploitation of this issue, especially by Republicans from Reagan onwards. So we have “teach the controversy” or “academic freedom” bills, the latest in a long line of anti-evolution measures at the local or State level. However, all such measures have been thwarted in the courts by defenders of science, invoking the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. A string of court cases, from McLean v Arkansas through Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, have established that creationism and its Intelligently Designed offshoots are, as far as the law is concerned, religious in nature, and that as a result they have no place in the publicly funded school system. So the strategy of creationists in the US has been to present their material as science, the counter-strategy has been to emphasise the connections to religion, and the matter is in the last resort one for the courts. This strategy has so far proved formally successful, although the reality is that more than half of all US biology teachers avoid a firm commitment to evolution in the classroom, as a result of their own poor grounding in the subject, and their awareness of religiously motivated opposition (From M. B. Berkman, E. Plutzer. Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. Science, 2011; 331 (6016): 404).

The situation in the United Kingdom is almost a mirror image of that in the US. Outside Northern Ireland at least, creationism is confined to a small minority of the population. These, however, make no bones about the fact that their creationist beliefs are directly linked to the biblical text, and, even more fundamentally, to a particular evangelical view of the Fall and Redemption of humankind. One particular group of literalist Evangelical churches have established about 40 schools in England, outside the publicly funded system, in which all subjects are taught from a Christian point of view, as these churches understand the term. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of students within these schools come to believe in the historical validity of the Bible, with three-quarters of the students thinking that yes, there really was a worldwide flood, while two thirds of the remainder aren’t sure.

The US Constitution was crafted in deliberate contrast to that of the UK, where, so far from there being a separation of church and state, the Church of England is England’s established church, with the Sovereign at its head (harking back to Henry VIII; the situation is different in other parts of the UK). Given the nature of our constitutional monarchy, this means that the person with the last word on who should be head of this Church is the Prime Minister of the day, who may of course belong to any faith or none. That last remark is not merely rhetorical. In contrast to the US, religious scepticism is no bar to election, and of the three main parties, two (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) are led by avowed unbelievers, while David Cameron’s Christianity is thought to be at best lukewarm. There are further absurdities and paradoxes. No potential heir to the throne is allowed to marry a Catholic (but atheists, pagans, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jedi-worshippers are okay). 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for Church of England bishops, with, by custom, representation for other major religious groups, and while the powers of the House of Lords are severely limited, this has led on occasion to the rewording of legislation to suit their Reverences’ pleasing.

The Labour administration under Tony Blair established a system of Academies, whose sponsors had to find 10% of initial capital expenses, in return for minimum government interference, and full government funding of running costs. These Academies were, however, required to adhere to the national curriculum. This curriculum required the teaching of evolution, but said nothing about creationism. After a while, it came to light that some schools, sponsored by an evangelically minded used car dealer (I am not making this up), were teaching creationism as the truth, and telling their students that evolution was bogus but had to be studied for exam purposes. In response to the resulting public outcry, the Department for Education issued guidance stating that creationism and Intelligent Design were not scientific theories, and should not be taught as science. Notice, of course, that this left room (and was intended to; Tony Blair described himself as a friend to all “people of faith”) for them to be taught as sound philosophical or religious doctrine. Hence the mirror image situation that I described. In the US, the creationists pretend that creationism is science, and keeping them out of the classroom depends on convincing the courts that it is really religion. In the UK, creationism can be kept out of the school labs because of its lack of scientific merit, but, until the ministerial statement, could still be inculcating elsewhere in the school as a matter of religious belief. (Yes, English schools, especially those associated with a particular denomination, are allowed to teach a particular religion as true.)

May 2010, and the collapse of public confidence in Labour led to the return of a government dominated by a Conservative party with a strong ideological objection to “government interference,” even in such matters as the provision of public education, by definition a government responsibility. This has led them to invite proposals to run what they have called “Free Schools”. After all, who could object to freedom? These will be completely government funded, subject to inspection, and required to follow a broad and balanced curriculum, but will not require any start-up contribution from their organisers and will not need to follow the national curriculum. One organisation that has applied to run such a school is the Everyday Champions Church. This Church is everything that you might fear from such a name. Evangelical, Pentecostal, talking in tongues, biblical literal infallibility, a social hub with its own Starbucks, the lot. Hard on their heels are around five schools from an organisation calling itself the Christian Schools Trust, which includes 40 or so schools run by a loose coalition of evangelical churches. At present, CST schools are generally very small, and dependent on student fees, but Free School status would remove this financial constraint (small irony; the apostles of market forces will have liberated them from the discipline of the market), as well as, by implication, validating their programs.

What will those programs be like? Regarding Everyday Champions, I cannot do better than quote Pastor Morgan himself: “Creationism will be embodied as a belief at Everyday Champions Academy, but will not be taught in the sciences. Similarly, evolution will be taught as a theory. We believe children should have a broad knowledge of all theories in order that they can make informed choice.” In case there is any doubt as to the meaning of “all theories”, someone called John Harris (qualifications unknown), who lectures on these matters at the church and runs the website http://www.creationscience.co.uk/, has enlightened us both on his website and in an ongoing discussion thread in the Times Education Supplement. There you will learn that the Grand Canyon was carved out by Noah’s flood, that it is an open question when (or indeed if) dinosaurs became extinct, that the flood was able to cover the mountains because the mountains, some 5000 years ago, had not yet attained their present height, and that we have “Uneducated, dogmatic, close minded, humanistic, evolutionists trying to impose their false religion on mankind! What’s worse, is that they deceitfully call it SCIENCE. It is nothing but a religious worldview that has NOTHING to offer to science or humanity other than lies.” My own contribution to the TES thread drew this no doubt well merited rebuke, “Sorry, I tried to ignore PaulBraterman comments about proof of evolution but I just couldn’t. I cannot help not react to LIES! There ought to be a law against those who mislead and deceive other people.”

The Christian Schools Trust, we should be clear, is formally committed to the teaching of evolution. Indeed, their statement on how they propose to do this (Sylvia Baker, PhD Thesis in education, Warwick University, 2009, Appendix 3, available here) is a model of how to teach material in such a way that it will not be believed. A false dichotomy is presented between Christianity and evolution, and a parade of prominent pre-Darwinians (including Newton!) presented as Christian creationist role models. The overwhelming pro-evolution consensus among scientists is diminished to “many, perhaps most”. Perhaps, indeed. The science itself is misrepresented, although we cannot tell whether this is informed strategy, or simply a failure of understanding. Thus evolution is said to ascribe change to the operation of chance, a demonstrable impossibility, whereas the reality is that selection is what drives change, with chance mutations merely providing fresh material for selection to work on. Evolution is also described in morally repugnant terms, as requiring “the deaths of countless billions of mutants.” So it does, since, given the error rate in replication, all of us are mutants, and countless billions have died. Finally, CST prides itself on the fact that its graduates are “surprised at the ignorance, on this topic, of their peers who have been educated in a secular context.” This ignorance consists, evidently, in their being unaware of the existence of a non-existent controversy.

CST is politically savvy and well-connected. One of its leading spirits, Sylvia Baker, even serves on the body that examines faith schools on behalf of the schools inspectorate. We strongly suspect that CST is also responsible for a website, The World Around Us, that describes itself, with no mention of creationism, as an educational resource. Students using this resource will indeed learn about evolution and, at the same time, geology. They will learn about polonium halos as evidence for sudden creation, Baumgardner’s background carbon-14 as proof of the youthfulness of coal deposits, flash floods as evidence of catastrophism, the cross-linked web of life as proof of its very opposite, separate creation, the lot. (Don’t take my word for it, visit the site, but remember to take your blood pressure medication first.) This site claims to be presenting the latest scientific developments, and of course does not mention its own creationist nature. Nonetheless, it is impossible to conceal the connections between the CST schools and the churches who run them, biblical literalists all of them, adhering to a theodicy that blames human sinfulness for the loss of the Edenic paradise. This, even more strongly than the plain word of Genesis, requires belief in the historicity of Noah’s flood, Adam’s rib, and a lost golden age. A time when the glory of God’s work was still untarnished, when human disobedience had not yet brought sin and death into the world, and when lions were vegetarians.

Such are the doctrines of the would-be organisers of this round of Free Schools. So, for this reason, even more importance may attach to the second sentence of the ministerial statement, than to the first, with which I opened this piece : “Ministers have said they will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project.”