Is teaching ‘Creationism’ illegal?
It was Kirsty Wark, the presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, who raised the question in their programme of Thursday April 24th, 2013 The subject being discussed was the alleged Islamisation of some Birmingham schools and, among other things, the claim that ‘creationism’ was being taught in science lessons. Given the scale of the alleged abuses, this sounded like the least of their difficulties. Nonetheless on this point, to a member of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, Kirsty exploded, ‘but that’s illegal’.
Now I don’t know what may be happening in Birmingham schools, but, Kirsty, teaching ‘creationism’ is not illegal, not yet anyway. The guidance from the Department of Education to schools is that creationism is not to be considered as science, but if it is raised in science lessons it should be discussed sensitively. That’s quite different from ‘illegal’.
However, Kirsty, you’re not alone. In 2008, the Royal Society, yes the Royal Society – the distinguished national guardians of science – virtually forced Prof Michael Reiss to resign from his honorary position as Director of Education for the Society, for advocating that science teachers should follow the Government’s advice (!) and allow the discussion of creationism. I don’t think I’d be appealing to them for the protection of free speech and dispassionate discourse.
Of course, intelligent design also got dragged into the Newsnight discussion because it is convenient to treat it as a synonym for ‘creationism’, which most certainly it is not. ‘Creationism’ is now a term of abuse and derision because it has become associated, erroneously, with what is perceived to be a very literal interpretation of Biblical passages relating to the creation of the world and the age of the Earth.
I know many creationists and they are not the idiots they are portrayed to be. In fact, many are highly qualified and some even hold full professorships in science in UK universities. And it may come as a shock to their critics that most of the pioneers who gave us modern science, like Newton, Kepler, Faraday and a host of others, were ‘creationists’, if not actually Christians. So, a little respect and humility in the use of the term ‘creationist’ would certainly be in order.
But there is a much more important connotation to ‘creationism’. In a general sense, it describes the self-evident view that the universe has a Creator who is responsible for its origin, its natural laws and the wonder of the life it sustains. In that sense, Jews, Muslims and Christians are ‘creationists’, though they would disagree on the details of the various processes involved. In the current debate about whether Britain is a Christian country, it is worth remembering that the historic Christian Faith is inseparable from belief in a Creator.
‘Intelligent design’ (ID) brings a different perspective. It argues that certain features of the natural and living worlds show clear evidence of design and are not the result of a blind and purposeless process like natural selection acting on random mutations. ID does not draw on religious authority but argues for empirical data like the ‘fine-tuning’ of universal constants, the irreducible complexity of biological ‘machines’ and the massive sophistication of the digital genetic code carried in DNA. It implies, of course, an intelligent cause for the universe and is therefore supportive of theism. It should not, however, be equated with ‘creationism’ as popularly understood.
The reason why modern science cannot entertain ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ is because it has allowed itself to be defined by the assumption, without empirical evidence, of naturalism, the philosophy which does not permit any explanation which involves an intentional cause for the universe. This is how we get explanations that involve ‘matter out of nothing’ and ‘life by random accidents’ – completely counter-intuitive propositions which are entirely at odds with the evidence.
The greatest affront to scientific method in the matter of origins is the refusal even to consider an intelligent cause for the universe when the evidence in that direction is compelling. Just consider the questions science cannot answer: where did anything come from; how did life emerge; what is the origin of genetic information; and how does mind and consciousness arise? To dismiss out-of-hand the possibility of an intelligent cause when confronted with these realities is not science but sheer bigotry.
We need a serious re-appraisal of science education in the area of origins to allow young people to ask the obvious questions and hear a credible range of answers. To condemn a generation of enquiring students to the arrogance of naturalism is nothing short of intellectual fascism.
In an intriguing article in the Spectator of 19th April 2013 entitled ‘The slow death of free speech’, Mark Steyn writes generally about ‘an ‘inclusive culture’ ever more comfortable with narrower bounds of public discourse’ where the ‘next step should be for dissenting voices to require state permission to speak’.
Perhaps you’re on the right lines Kirsty. Maybe ‘creationism’ and intelligent design will soon be illegal after all.
Dr Alastair Noble
First published 2013