Editorial: Creating confusion
Far from being an atheist straw man, Biblical fundamentalism poses a real threat to British schools
A theology student contacted us recently, complaining that one of their lecturers had been exhibiting what they had found to be an uncharacteristic bias. Whereas “in the past all my lecturers have maintained a degree of neutrality when it came to their own beliefs”, the student said, this particular tutor had been far from neutral on the relationship between Christianity and science – haranguing “fundamentalist” scientists, and criticising scientific materialism because it betrayed a “basic distrust in the reliability of Scripture, church tradition and Christian belief”. His class, he told his students, was designed to offer Christians a defence against the criticisms of science. Our correspondent was not only appalled by the partisanship, but worried that if their essay did not reflect the prejudice of the lecturer they would be marked down (we helped them out with some advice about how to make an alternative case).
Now this is a class in religion not science and, as the letter-writer pointed out, is an isolated case. But it should still give us some pause. We are often criticised for focusing too much on the wacky hinterlands of religion and ignoring the reasonable middle ground, especially in relation to the biblically literal arguments like creationism. No one really believes that stuff, religionists say, it’s just an atheist straw man. But stories like this remind us of the damage that can be done by religious ideology in an educational setting. This is why James Gray’s story about Michael Gove’s free school plans is so troubling. Among the institutions scrabbling to jump on the free school gravy train is Nottinghamshire’s Everyday Champions Pentecostal Church, which has just applied to open a free school. It is planning, Gray reports, to include evolution in its curriculum, but not in science classes, since it is “only a theory”, and should therefore be taught alongside other theories like biblical creation.
Our own experience confirms that the established scientific fact of evolution through natural selection is routinely being doubted by schoolchildren. At a recent interfaith event in Wandsworth, where 100 children from a variety of state schools – some of which were religious – came to “speed date” different beliefs (and none!), by far the most common question I was asked was whether I “believed” in evolution, as if this were a question of choice and on a par with whether I believed in God or life after death. I reminded them that just because it is called a theory, that doesn’t mean it is equivalent to a fable. One young student, a Muslim who attended a Catholic school, was so upset by my statement that evolution was an established scientific fact and not a matter of taste that she made a point of returning to me later to tell me how “offending” she found what I said.
Under pressure from the fashionable idea that everyone’s view is valid and must be respected becuase if it is not then harm has been done to them, and in a world where anti-science propaganda circulates widely online, teachers arguably have a much tougher time now than in the past establishing the basics of science that all our children need to know.
But of course not everything in science is an established fact and scientists work hard to challenge or extend the orthodoxies of old. In this issue Laurie Taylor talks to biologist Lewis Wolpert about what we know and what we are yet to find out about the mystery of ageing, and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey tells me why he thinks there is a evolutionary explanation for the soul.
But lest you think it’s all hard science and lacking a bit of romance, see Jonathan Rée’s wonderful appraisal of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the “absolute toff” expelled from Oxford 200 years ago this month for publishing his famous godless pamphlet, “The Necessity of Atheism”. With godly anti-science apparently on the rise, we may find it’s more necessary than ever.