Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics

By Paul Braterman and Mark Edon. This piece first appeared on November 30, 2012, on the BCSE website.

 We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve.  We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position.  As non-believers defending science, we are being unreasonable if we criticise the godly for failing to combat Creationism, and then, for fear of ideological impurity, refuse to link arms with them when they do.

Followers of the political & religious controversy surrounding evolution [1] will be aware of a subsidiary debate amongst those who do accept modern science, that encompasses such issues as; “Is it possible to believe in god and accept the science?”, “Should the objective of the debate be the acceptance of science or the rejection of god?” and “What is the best way to get people to accept the science?

The British Centre for Science Education  (BCSE), comprising volunteers from science, education and business backgrounds, is a single purpose organisation.  Our objective, shared by our members regardless of their religious position, is to keep Creationism out of UK schools.  The simple fact is that the Government (in its policy statements at least), other mainstream political parties in the UK, the established Church and other mainstream churches all agree on this.  In the UK, only a minority of self-identified Christians think that creationism should be taught, while Young Earth creationists complain that the vast majority of evangelicals reject their doctrine.

The current Coalition Government Free School and Academy programs have given Creationists in the UK opportunities that they had never previously dreamt of and, through what we sincerely hope is mere oversight, July 2012 saw the first crypto-Creationist free school applications approved.  They will be getting tax payers’ money to teach children, at the expense of the local authority education budget, although the local authority will have no control over them and at this stage no-one knows what they will teach.

The BCSE wants to campaign against Creationism in a way that unites the widest possible range of opinion and so we don’t campaign for or against any of the following; atheism, religion, faith schools, free schools or academies, although many members and committee members hold strong views on many of these issues.

If you look at the activities of Creationists here in the UK you can see that their main campaigning tactic is to present themselves as Christians making perfectly reasonable requests about education policy, all in the spirit of fairness, whilst being attacked by militant atheists.

So it is in these circumstances that the BCSE campaigns against Creationism with all and any who will agree with us on this issue, regardless of any disagreement on other issues.  This means we are neutral on matters of religion and we are glad to work with the religious and non-religious alike.  The CrISIS campaign, in which we took part last year, which culminated in a letter to Michael Gove signed by the National Secular Society, Richard Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili, Susan Blackmore, Andrew Colman, David Colquhoun, Christopher French, Adam Hart -Davis, Julian Huppert MP, The Rev Canon Theologian David Jennings, Steve Jones, Dr Stephen Law, Clifford Longley, the Rev Michael Roberts, Simon Singh MBE, Canon Theologian Keith Ward, and education lecturer James D.  Williams, exemplifies this, as did a similarly broad-based subsequent campaign, which we supported, by the British Humanist Association.

BCSE’s experience of working with representatives of the clear majority of the religious population in the UK that accept the science, and our knowledge that UK Creationists unremittingly promote an “Atheists versus Christians” narrative during recruitment and campaigning, has lead us to often repeat the fact that the majority of religious people have no problem with the science.

These two aspects of what we do: 1) working with the religious and non-religious alike, 2) pointing out that accepting the science is fine with the established church and the large majority of the religious, are far from protecting us against criticism.

Creationists still accuse us of promoting an atheistic ideology, and even level this charge against ordained ministers and other committed believers amongst our members but then they do the same to that vast majority of Christians who accept the science, and even the (outgoing) Archbishop of Canterbury is not spared.  Some nonbelievers label us “accommodationists” for working with the religious and for not arguing against the existence of god, claiming that because religion is correlated with Creationism the only way to counter Creationism is to campaign against religion.  For want of a better label, we will refer to nonbelievers in this camp as “anti-theists”, in the belief that many already call themselves this and that it doesn’t offend or mislead.  This seems less clumsy than “anti-accommodationists”.  If a better label exists we will happily adopt it.  Whilst we are on the subject of labels, we reserve the term “Creationists” for those who deny the well-established science of evolution and common descent, and, in many cases, of an ancient earth and even more ancient Universe. This is quite different from the philosophical creationism that accepts these realities, but sees them as, ultimately, the work of a deity.  Some who should know better seem unsure of the difference between these positions and thereby play into the hands of the enemies of reason.

Unfortunately, anti-theists or those who can be labelled as such, when campaigning against Creationism, are vulnerable to the line invariably taken by Creationists that they are just Atheists persecuting Christians.  Thus our good friend Richy Thomson, BHAFaithSchools and Education campaigner, found himself outmanoeuvred in a radio phone-in discussion of a proposed Creationist school in Sheffield, when the advocate of Creationism change the terms of debate by pointing out that his opponent was against faith schools and religion in general.  Similarly, when a Creationist on Radio Five was asked to say if he wanted Creationism taught in science classes or not, he ignored the question and claimed that the BHA was prejudiced when evaluating the scientific evidence and wanted to restrict the rights of the religious.  The correct response would be to point out that the large majority of religious people think that Creationism is silly too, perhaps with some examples but again the point at issue was lost.  While only a very tiny minority of people are pushing Creationism into UK schools, they create the illusion of broad support by such muddling of issues.

It is worth stating plainly here that the BCSE neither calls for the religious to give up their faith (indeed, how could it, given the range of opinions in its membership?) nor for the anti-theists to stop campaigning against it.

It seems to us that the Creationists adopt the “Atheist versus Christians” tactic at every available opportunity for two good reasons.

First of all, the conflict and persecution narrative aids recruitment and engenders zeal, especially among the many potential recruits who are at difficult points in their own lives.  Creationist organisers know that being part of a valiant band struggling against the odds offers both a sense of belonging and the chance for the leaders to prove their honesty and intelligence by accurately predicting ridicule and rudeness from people outside the group.  In this way the weirder the claims, the stronger the ridicule, and the more strongly members are driven into the group.  This is why you find so many Creationist groups publicising the fact of their opponents calling them names.

Secondly, and more at issue here, the conflict narrative very often means the public debate can be swiftly moved away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues such as faith schools.  Creationists know that in such debates they are part of a much larger and more respectable group and readily identify themselves as simply “Christians”.

So how should we proceed?

There seems to be agreement amongst anti-theists and accommodationists that some Creationists can be won over to accept the science, although both sides currently see this as a rare event and base their claims upon anecdotes [2].  Is loss of faith or is accommodation of science with religious belief the reason for such changes of mind? Well, the anecdotes suggest both are possible paths that individuals do travel.  However we still have no quantitative data on the reasons why, despite this obviously being of great interest to all.

A recent paper in Evolution Education and Outreach by Southcott and Downie [3] does give us some hints at data on this topic, but not much more than a reason for more research.

The data relates to biology students at GlasgowUniversity between 1987 and 2011 who rejected evolution.  Here are a few highlights but please go and read the thing for yourselves if you are interested.

First of all things that anti-theists and accommodationists agree on:

From the abstract.

Evolution rejection was closely related to accepting a religion-based alternative, whereas acceptance was related to finding the evidence convincing.  Although many religious students accepted evolution, 50% of Islamic students were rejecters, compared to 25% of Christians.

Anti-theists seem to go on from this to deduce that as Creationism comes from religion you must counter religious belief to counter Creationism.  This simply does not follow.

A question testing acceptance of several scientific propositions showed no evidence that evolution rejecters were generally more skeptical of science than accepters.

That is surprising, although it could be that evolution rejecters were simply unaware of the full implications of their position.  Moving on.

A breakdown of evolution into three components (human origins, macroevolution, and microevolution) found that some evolution rejecters accepted some components, with microevolution having the highest acceptance and human origins the lowest.  These findings are discussed in terms of strategies for evolution education and the phenomenon of evolution rejection worldwide.

This reflects the common Creationist tactics of claiming to accept micro evolution so as to avoid the appearance of rejecting all evidence out of hand.

Now some highlights from the rest of the paper.  Rejection of evolution at GlasgowUniversity is running at between 3.9% and 4.4% in samples taken irregularly between 1987 and 2011 (they used some data from previous studies for comparison) and from the small numbers available it seems that Islamic students are about twice as likely as Christian students to reject evolution.

The overall level of students with a religion was down over the various study years and the association of religion with evolution denial strengthened.

This next bit made us sit up and pay attention (our emphasis);

All level 4 [now in their final year at uni] rejectors belonged to “low evolution” degree programs.  It is clear that for most of them, no amount of scientific evidence would overcome their beliefs, a more entrenched position even than that taken by level 1 rejecters.” (“Low evolution” here describes courses such as psychology or pharmacology, as opposed to, say, zoology.)

So it would appear that logical and evidence based argument is futile with these folks.

This next bit was also very interesting.

By level 4, our evolution rejection sample size was very small, but the importance of a belief precluding evolution remained the main factor.  Our sample size for switching from rejection to acceptance was also small (n=7), but it is fascinating that these students were less affected by scientific evidence than by a realization that evolution and their religious beliefs were not in conflict.

So for these students in Glasgow, reaching some kind of personal accommodation between the science and their faith was the path to accepting evolution.

This next finding fits in with recent survey findings for the UK population as a whole.

It is worth emphasizing that, although evolution rejection was strongly associated with holding a religious belief, the majority of believers accepted evolution.

These are the results of just a few surveys in one university and more research will be required to inform appropriate educational strategies.

In the meantime we have a political battle on our hands and this article lays out the reasons why opponents of Creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK should think carefully about their tactics.

In summary, the reasons for even the most dedicated opponents of religion to adopt accommodationism in the political fight against Creationism are twofold.

  • Tactical advantage gained by appealing to a huge majority support by including the religious non Creationists.
  • Strategic advantage as the Creationists are denied one of their main recruitment and retention tactics and we give ourselves the best chance of reducing their hardcore support.

Anti-theist groups need no permission from us to continue their own wider campaigns and agendas but they should seriously consider working with an accommodationist umbrella group like the BCSE to maximise their political effectiveness in this particular fight.

As for the situation at the time of writing, BCSE strongly supports the BHA campaign of protest against the recent decision to allow Creationist groups to open Free Schools, while (in accord with the spirit of this article) drawing attention to the fact that the issue here is not religion versus irreligion, but science versus the denial of science.

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1  but which on examination includes the denial of such vast swathes of modern science including physics, earth sciences and cosmology as they all speak to an old earth, plus so many other related disciplines, that one might as well say that such deniers simply reject science.

2 See Richard Dawkins converts corner for examples of loss of faith and the BCSE community forum for examples of both kinds.

3 Southcott, R.  & Downie, J., Evolution and Religion: Attitudes of Scottish Bioscience Students to the Teaching of Evolutionary Biology, Evolution: Education and Outreach, Springer New York, 1936-6426, pp.  1-11, , Doi: 10.1007/s12052-012-0419-9

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on November 30, 2012, in Creationism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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