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I believe in creation, but not in creationism.

by guest blogger Andrew Marfleet.  Dr. Marfleet was Chair of ACT from 2001 to 2007    posted  Tuesday 4th February 2014

I share Gill Robins’ disquiet over eminent scientists who advocate banning the teaching of belief systems they don’t agree with, but I wonder if Christians who promote the teaching of creationism should stop and think.  Have we contributed to an image of Christianity that’s all too easy to reject, resulting in the attitudes shown in the TES straw poll that Gill refers to?

I’m not a scientist, though I’m aware of the mounting evidence for scientific evolution, based more on DNA than on the fossil record these days.  The subject I studied and taught throughout my teaching career was English Literature.  I learned how to study texts, not least the Bible.  Appropriate engagement with a text means asking what sort of text it is.  The Bible offers a wide range of genres, the majority being narrative; stories are a powerful way of understanding life, but to be effective, they don’t need to be true.  Jesus’ parables are an obvious example.  The account of the nativity in Revelation 12 does not feature in many school productions! History and biography feature strongly in the Bible, but it offers us ‘truth’ in a variety of ways.

As a matter of integrity, I try to look at Biblical texts for what they are without reading my own ideas into them.  Genesis poses a challenge.  Not because it contradicts the science I was taught, but because it offers different stories about the origins of the world and of human life.  Chapter 2 talks of God creating the heavens and earth in a different order than in Chapter 1.  It’s clearly a different story, but included in Genesis by an inspired writer who saw the value of the different accounts.  There’s no problem unless you insist that both are literal accounts, true in a historical and scientific sense.

Christians of earlier generations, I’ve discovered, didn’t insist on literal readings of the text.  Origen, Augustine, Calvin and most pre-Enlightenment theologians weren’t constrained in this way.  Creationism, as we now know it, only emerged about 100 years ago.  It’s actually a modernist construct, an attempt to impose a scientific/historical reading onto the text.   Its impetus came largely from a movement in the 1920s in the USA.

Evangelical giants such as B.B.  Warfield, early in the 20th Century, had no problem with Darwinism.  Later Christian writers I’ve come to respect, such as C.S.  Lewis, John Stott, J.I.  Packer and Michael Green, also see no contradiction in accepting scientific evolution as a credible explanation of life on this planet alongside their strong faith in the Bible as God’s word.  I was greatly helped to think through these issues in my younger days by a former Chair of ACT, Charles Martin.  On his advice, I read authors who weren’t constrained by the American shackles.  Those with academic credentials in both science and Biblical Studies, such as Ernest Lucas and Alister McGrath, have impressed me particularly.  And if there’s one book I would recommend to all ACT members, it would be Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? He, and others from the Faraday Institute, will help anyone seeking to apply their mind to issues of science and faith.

Denis Alexander makes the point at the end of his book that we have more important things to do than knocking the theory of evolution.  I agree.  God’s revelation of himself in nature and in his word ought not to be contradictory.  Too much time, money and effort goes into fighting unnecessary battles in this area when our task is to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord.  

To teach or not to teach creationism: that is the question.

posted by Gill Robins   Wednesday 29th January 2014

Each week, TES runs a watercooler poll, a straw poll relating to a question of the moment.  Last week, following Professor Alice Roberts’ statement that teaching creationism equated to indoctrination, the question was: ‘Should creationism ever feature in teaching?’  The result: No: ninety-eight percent, Yes: ten percent.

I find this worrying, not because it influences my personal belief in a Creator God in any way, but because a staggering 89% of teachers who responded to the poll are keen to arbitrarily ban the teaching of an aspect of religious belief - and their subtext is probably the banning of religious belief in totality. 

Belief in a Creator God is not limited to Christianity, although this is the faith which seems to be the focus for the attention of the banning brigade.  All three mono-theistic religions believe in a Creator God and Seikh, Hindu and Buddhist religions also attribute the beginning of everything to a god.  So, if all major world religions share a common belief about the origin of the world and those religions pre-date the emergence of science as a discipline, teachers have a duty to introduce these concepts to children, regardless of any personal view of their validity.  It is not, and never should be, the role of any teacher to ban something which they disagree with when it forms part of the canon of human knowledge.

Some significant questions emerge from this current, irrational reaction of prohibition.  For example, what are the criteria for a ban?  And who defines the criteria? One respondent to Alice Roberts’ original article suggested sarcastically that we should return to teaching that the Earth is flat.  Well, guess what.  I do just that.  Oh, and also that the Earth is a spheroid.  It doesn’t take students long to examine the evidence for both views and work out which one is correct.  But what it also does is open fascinating discussions: How did we discover that the Earth is spheroid?  Before it was proved, why did people believe that it was flat?  And the killer question: So why do some people still believe that the Earth is flat when the evidence proves them wrong?  The outcome of that discussion is usually similar – that people are free to believe whatever they want, even when the evidence is conclusive.  Belief, as pupils seem to understand better than many of the adults that teach them, is a personal matter and in a democratic society that prides itself on tolerance, people should be able to believe whatever they choose to believe.

The fulcrum of this argument seems to be that people with religious belief, and more specifically Christian belief, indoctrinate students.  I hold a political view that is at variance with roughly half of the country in which I live.  That doesn’t impair my ability to facilitate learning across the political spectrum or to respect the right of anyone, even a right wing extremist, to hold and express a different view.

A final thought, in closing.  You cannot ban creation without also banning all of the art, music, literature and poetry which belief in a higher being has inspired over thousands of years.  Is that the sort of world in which you want to live and teach?   

Just because you have an opinion, it doesn’t make you right

posted by Gill Robins   Friday 24th January 2014

Professor Alice Roberts, newly appointed president of the  Association for Science Education,  has started her presidential tenure by suggesting in a TES interview that the teaching of creationism in schools should be  banned.  According to her argument, it amounts to ‘indoctrination’ (dictionary definition: teaching someone to accept something uncritically) and she calls for a new law banning its teaching in all schools, including faith schools. She states: ‘it is indoctrination; it is planting ideas into children's heads. We should be teaching children to be much more open-minded.’

Her views raise some serious questions. Firstly, equating the teaching of religion to indoctrination shows a lack of understanding of, and respect for, our professionalism. It also seems that she may have allowed personal prejudice to colour professional statements - a poor academic practice which we shouldn’t leave unchallenged.

Secondly, it is suggested that we should be teaching children to be much more open-minded. Well, in my experience, dialectic outweighs prohibition every time, and allowing the free and open discussion of any belief (even a dangerous political one) is much the best way to achieve balance. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his book The Great Partnership, the task of science is to take things apart to see how they work and the task of religion is to put things together to see what they mean.  Her proposed ban would deny students any opportunity for open-minded and balanced discussion: a neatly self-defeating viewpoint.

Professor Roberts goes on to say that science is about teaching people to say: 'I don't believe it until we have very strong evidence'.  I find the use of the word ‘believe’ curious (dictionary definition: accept that something is true, especially without proof) because it is the language of religion. I know that 2+2=4 because I can prove it. I know when I get up in the morning that gravity will hold me onto the earth, because science has proved it, irrefutably.  I don’t believe these things, I know them. I do, however, believe in God. I can’t prove His existence. There is no irrefutable evidence. I simply believe, as an act of faith. Science deals in evidence and knowledge. Religion deals in faith and belief. In the minds of some, science and religion are mutually exclusive. In the minds of others (including some eminent scientists) they are mutually inclusive. So, allow students to consider this dichotomy for themselves.

In the midst of the many responses that the article provoked, there was this:

‘there will always be one kid who raises the idea that God did it all! So I have about a dozen creation myth websites ready. Once we have had a look at the various creation ideas from a range of religions I ask him which one does he/she think is the real one.’

A clear example of a teacher imposing a personal worldview on a pupil.  Where is the open-mindedness?  Where is the balance?  Just because this person holds an opinion, it doesn’t make him right. 

Perhaps the last, and most effective, word should rest with an unnamed spokeswoman for the DfE: ‘Only countries like North Korea ban the teaching of religion in schools.’   


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