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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.’   

Seasonal lessons from Luke

posted by Robert Hall Friday 20th December 2013

This all started at half past three the other morning, and, in the wonderful way that God sometimes does, he laid this out in front of me. Not wishing to lose any of it, I hastily got to my computer and wrote down the salient points. I hope you’ll think it was worth it.

In a day or two those of us who give presents will be acutely aware of human reactions to the gifts they have been given. We Christians in education learn to read pupils’ faces to get important feedback. I was thinking of the human reactions to the angelic announcements about the events around the nativity. Luke’s gospel in chapters one and two gives us a great deal of information.

Firstly, when Zechariah heard the news that his wife was to produce a child – John the Baptist – “he was startled and was gripped with fear”.

Isn’t it interesting to note that disbelief makes us unable to communicate [Zechariah], whilst belief [the shepherds after they had visited the stable] makes us articulate?

Secondly, in Luke1.29 we read, “Mary was greatly troubled at his [the angel Gabriel] words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” I would imagine that “greatly troubled” could be an understatement. The Message has “thoroughly shaken”, and JB Phillips: “deeply perturbed”.

And the shepherds, rough, hardened men accustomed to fighting off wild animals and not afraid of the dark; Luke 2.9 “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

Even days later, Simeon, moved by the Spirit to go to the temple, “took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.

Elderly Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2.38

One can imagine that the wise men in the east must have been deeply moved when they observed his star, moved enough to embark on a long and hazardous journey.

For Mary, the implications were of great significance which must have led to a lot of negative comments. But she bore it all, nurturing the Christ-child in her body, regardless of her reputation.

I’m not pregnant like Mary. But then again, I am. We know that God indwells his people. God within us. Christian people are an expectant people. We have great expectations. God plants inside us his Holy Spirit whom we need to nourish, to nurture.

What is the outcome? We are called to give birth to the fruit of the spirit. “…”the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [or patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

So we can thank God for the incarnation: the embodiment of God the Son in human flesh, and thank him for indwelling each of us too.

“Lord, the giver of every perfect gift, may we know your indwelling this Christmas, interpreting, understanding, knowing, believing, healing, prophesying, discerning, articulating. And may these things be increasingly evident in our work with our students in the coming year. Amen.”


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