Monthly Archives: March 2016

Learning from creationists; radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating only takes us back some 50,000 years. This makes it a much smaller threat to Young Earth creationists than, say, lead-uranium dating, which takes us back billions of years. So why do creationists single it out for attack? Because there are indeed problems with the most simple-minded application of the method, and it does not matter to the creationist that these problems have long since been solved. Creationists think, and argue, more like lawyers than like scientists. In the courtroom, changing your story under cross-examination will destroy your credibility, and yet this is what scientists do all the time. Scientists accept that even the most well-established findings are subject to revision and refinement; lawyers, like theologians, seek certainty whether the data justify it or not.


Leonard Sym’s presentation to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, 21 March 2016

This post is derived from a talk given by my friend Leonard Sym to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, and like Leonard I will follow Rapoport’s rules for debate, which specify that one should first summarise one’s opponents’ position in terms they would accept, next, list points of agreement, then point out what one has learnt from one’sopponents, and only at that stage embark on criticism.

I start with a simplified summary of the principles behind radiocarbon dating, without which the discussion would be meaningless. Most radiometric methods depend on measuring the amount of a parent radioactive isotope present in the sample, and the amount of the daughter into which it decays. Add up the amount of parent still present and the amount of daughter, and that gives you the amount of parent present initially.[1] If you know the rate constant for the decay, you now have enough information to work out how long has passed since the parent material was put in place. You can determine the rate constant by taking a known amount of parent, and counting the number of decays per second, as measured with a Geiger counter or a more reliable and up-to-date instrument such as fluorescence counter.

In the case of radiocarbon dating, the parent is carbon-14 and the daughter is nitrogen-14, which is lost from the sample.[2] So we can’t find the initial amount of parent in the way described above, because we don’t know the amount of daughter. This seems like a dead end, until we remember where carbon-14 comes from. Carbon-14 is formed in the upper atmosphere by the effects of cosmic ray bombardment on nitrogen, is rapidly converted to carbon-14 dioxide, and then mingles with the rest of the CO2 in the atmosphere (see Figure). If we assume a steady rate of bombardment, that means we will have a steady rate of production of carbon-14, and a steady state abundance of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, where the amount decaying each year is equal to the amount being formed.

Now consider what happens during the life of an organism, and after its death. As long as it is alive and metabolising, it will exchange carbon with its environment, taking it in directly as carbon dioxide by photosynthesis (for a plant) or indirectly as food (for an animal). At this stage, the proportion of carbon present as carbon-14 will be directly dependent on that in the atmosphere. But as soon as it stops metabolising, it stops exchanging, and the proportion present starts decaying according to the radioactive decay law, with a halflife of 5730 years. So it looks as if we can just use the proportion present in the atmosphere right now as a measure of the initial proportion, and compare it with the proportion remaining.


Production and decay of carbon-14**

So far, so good. Now let me list the creationists’ objections:

1) As in all radiometric dating, the decay rate is assumed to be constant. What if this isn’t true?

2) The production rate is assumed constant. But this is unrealistic, since the intensity of cosmic ray bombardment is known to change over time

3) For 150 years, and especially in the last 50 years, we have been adding carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to the atmosphere, diluting the radiocarbon since all the radiocarbon in the fossil fuels will have long since decayed

4) Considerable amounts of carbon-14 were added to the atmosphere by nuclear testing in the 1950s, further undermining the assumptions

5) What if carbon-14 is less readily taken up than carbon-12 by plants? Won’t this undermine the reasoning?

6) We can check the method by applying it to materials whose age we know, but this will only serve where we have a good historical record, and this record only goes back, at best, some 5000 years

7) The Genesis flood, which in Young Earth accounts is responsible for the formation of our fossil fuel deposits, would have further upset the clock by burying huge amounts of carbon-12. Moreover, it could have been associated with an increase in the rate of carbon-14 production, making pre-flood specimens look much older than they really are.

LibbyBookWith the exception of the first and last, all these objections have some degree of plausibility, but unfortunately for the creationists they have all long since been answered, many of the answers being set out by Willard F. Libby, inventor of the method, in his 1955 book on the subject.

1) Radiometric decay constants are just not the kind of thing that could change, unless everything else changes at the same time. We have known since the work of George Gamow in 1928 that radioactive decay is what is known as a quantum mechanical tunnelling effect, and that its rates depends on such things as the strength of nuclear and electrical forces, the mass of fundamental particles, and Planck’s Constant h, which gives the scale for all quantum mechanical phenomena. If any of these had been different, we would not have had the same kind of physics and chemistry that we have today. But we know from their structure that ancient rocks were formed under the same rules as we have today, because they contain the same kinds of elements combined to make the same kinds of minerals. The creationists have published theoretical curves for changes in decay constants, but these have no basis in science, and are generated merely to make observations fit the biblical timeline.

2) From the outset, radiocarbon dating has relied on calibration, using objects for which dates were known from historical records, then tree ring counting extending back 10,000 years. This method works because all but the outermost layers of a tree are metabolically inert, and out of circulation. The most recent calibration comes from organic debris in varves (annual layers of sediment) deposited in a lake (Lake Suigetsu, in Japan) that happens to be free of turbulent inflows. This has made possible the establishment of a calibration curve going back 52,800  years.


Near doubling of atmospheric C14 in the Southern hemisphere, as the result of nuclear testing

3) and (4) There have indeed been major disruptions since 1950, but no one uses radiocarbon dating for such recent material. The situation in 1950 is regarded as a baseline, material from that year is the standard for comparison, and 1950 is the “present” in conventional dating of “years before present”

5) It will surprise many people to learn that plants really do take up carbon-14 less readily than carbon-12. One of the lies you were probably told at school is that all isotopes of the same element have precisely the same chemical properties. This is not true, and generally speaking, heavier isotopes are slightly more sluggish in their chemical reactions. this gives rise to the process known as isotopic fractionation.


These North Ronaldsay sheep, which feed on seaweed, will show different isotopic fraction from sheep fed on grass

This effect has been measured for photosynthesis. In addition to very small amounts of radiocarbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide contains roughly 1% of the stable isotope carbon-13, the remainder being carbon-12. Carbon dioxide in plants is, as expected, slightly depleted in carbon-13 relative to carbon-12, and the effect is far from trivial; around 27 thousands of carbon-13 abundance for most kinds of plant. We expect the effect to be twice as large for carbon-14, which, using the known 5730 year halflife of carbon-14, corresponds to 435 years; not trivial when dating historical artefacts. However, exactly the same effect will apply to the material used to set up the calibration, and the errors will systematically cancel out. Ideally, the fractional abundance of carbon-13 should be measured, as well as that of carbon-12, to calibrate out any minor fractionation effects, and this is less arduous than it sounds because nowadays carbon-14 abundance is measured by direct counting in a mass spectrometer rather than, as in the original studies, indirectly inferred from sample radioactivity.

For plants, it is straightforward to match like with like. Not so for material derived from animals, where the total amount of isotopic fractionation will depend on their diets, and also on what they have been eating.

6) This objection would have had some force in 1946, when the method was newly developed. However, as already explained, we now have direct calibration back to 52,800 years before present, beyond which the amount of remaining carbon-14 is so small that using current techniques the method becomes useless.

7) This is pure special pleading. If carbon-12 had been buried in the flood, the appropriate amount of carbon-14 would have been buried with it. And the ideas of a changed rate of production or decay have been dealt with under (1) and (2) above.

There are other “objections” based on the obvious fact that organisms like cave water snails, alive right now but deriving their carbon from limestone, will have radiocarbon apparent ages measured in thousands of years. I have discussed this before. And marine specimens will always contain less carbon-14 than terrestrial specimens of the same age, because of the time it takes for mixing between the atmosphere and surface waters, and again between surface waters and the depths.

So how should we respond to the self-styled “creation scientist”? The first, and most difficult, thing is to realise that he is been perfectly sincere. He is certain that his reading of the Bible is true; but the facts of geology are also true; and it is therefore his mission to create an account that reconciles the two. If this means the mountains must have skipped like rams, then that is how they must have skipped. He will feel no more absurd at this point, than the cosmologist feels in invoking a time when our Universe was smaller than a tennis ball and its temperature was trillions of degrees. Counter-arguments will be dismissed as so many minor anomalies that will no doubt be explained away in due course. If the creationist repeats long-refuted claims, that is because he believes that there are refutations of the refutation, even if he cannot immediately call them to mind, or does not have time to explain them properly. He will remember the weaknesses of his opponents’ arguments, and attack them, while suppressing the recollection of their strengths, and in the process he will create, and then triumphantly destroy, a series of straw men. You and I of course would never do such things, but your friends might when it comes to defending emotionally precious but logically fragile beliefs; consider, for example, what passes for political discussion in your favourite pub or chatroom.

And what does this mean for debating with creationists? Simply this: don’t do it. Such a debate, unlike a discussion between people willing to learn from each other, is a zero-sum game. He will project simplicity, sincerity, and certainty, and when you come to reply, you will sound as if you are making excuses. He will present anomalies (did I mention those 2000-year-old water snails?), and when you explain the special circumstances, you will be the one who seems guilty of special pleading. His followers will end up confirmed in their convictions, as will yours, and those in the middle will come away confirmed in their own initial conviction that there are two sides to the story, both worth hearing. Which there aren’t.

But does that mean that we can learn nothing from the creationists? Not at all. In terms of Rappaport’s rules of debate, the scientific community had already come up with arguments (1) through (6), and taken the necessary countermeasures, and so cannot be said to have learnt from the creationists. But both Leonard and I have learnt a great deal from examining the creationist claims. Be smart, and learn from everyone.*

1] It is of course necessary to eliminate errors caused by the movement of material, or the presence of daughter in the initial material. There are standard techniques for doing this, for instance by measuring non-radiogenic isotopes of the daughter material, and, these days, by microsampling of single crystalline grains

2] Even if it is not lost as N2 gas, it will be undetectable against the background of organic nitrogen compounds already present

*Ben Zomah, Mishnah Pirkei Avot 4a

** extra credit for spotting (a) the misleading labelling in the diagram (h/t John Gribbin), (b) the reference in the text to Psalm 114

There are other creationist objections to radiocarbon dating, based on sample contamination or simple misinterpretation of data, but these have been discussed elsewhere  and need not detain us.

Lecture scene from Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub Facebook page. Atmospheric carbon-14 diagram public domain, by Hokanomono via Wikipedia. North Ronaldsay sheep by Liz Burke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Radiocarbon cycle schematic from ANU Radiocarbon Dating Lab materials

Intelligent Design is not Design!

A lengthy scholarly discussion by my friend Michael Roberts of the concept of design, from Paley to the present day, making important distinctions between different concepts of design, and placing the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in context. The author, a geologist and historian (and CofE priest), argues that Paley’s concept of the individual design of organisms was obsolete long before Darwin, given the discoveries of deep time and the rich sequential fossil record. Present-day ID is a curious hybrid, and its evolution is discussed in some detail. However, neither the refutation of Paley nor the demolition of ID affect broader design arguments, such as that from fine-tuning or the glory of the natural world. (Disclosure: as my friends will know, I do not find these latter arguments convincing, but I do consider them worthy of respect, and have criticised attempts to use them as justification for evolution-denying creationism, which is not.)

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Old Scratch



The first thing I should do is to define what Design is. That would be no easy task as the word is used in so many different ways to mean so many different things. I hope some of the variety of meanings comes clear in this paper. Part of the confusion is that Design can be synonymous with the teleological argument for the existence of God, but often it is more restricted to biological structures. Hence Design means different things to different people. Distinguishing between these meanings is important as confusion reigns when one switches from one to another. To give a rough typology there are four types of design;

1 Design of the universe; – front-loading or teleological (fine tuning)

2. Guidance of natural processes through history; Asa Gray

3. Ahistorical recognition of biological structures as designed; Hooke, Paley,


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Church seats on Education Committees; your help needed NOW


Church of Scotland in General Assembly. This Church, the Catholic Church, and one other in your area, each nominate one member to your local Education Committee

This is not about religion. It is about power.

If you think it is right that three unelected Church nominees should sit, by law, on every Council Education Committee in Scotland, please ignore this post.

If you think it is wrong, and want to do something about it, please sign and share this petition:

You will find more about these unelected Church nominees, and how they are shielded from democratic accountability, here.

The petition is organised by my good friends at Humanist Society Scotland, who tell me that they will be engaging with all the MSPs and candidates in the run-up to the election, and that the petition is aimed at MSPs and candidates. It runs as follows:

I believe that all members of local education committees should be accountable to their communities through the ballot box.

Local councillors are elected to represent the views of their communities. It is inconsistent with the principles of local democracy to have unelected religious leaders.

The current requirement for religious representatives stems from a reorganisation by the Westminster Government of 1973. It is time for the Scottish Parliament to consider these aspects of local democracy.

It is undemocratic to appoint members of particular religious communities to education committees without a mandate from local voters.

Previous efforts to change this law have failed because of opposition by a small band of well-organised constituents. The response must be to show our lawmakers that we are a constituency too.

I repeat; please sign and share

Atoms old and new, 1: Atoms in antiquity

What is now proved was once only imagin’d – William Blake

Really important ideas in science are not the work of a single individual or even a single generation. The idea of an atom, for instance, was developed by ancient Greek philosophers, revived by eighteenth century chemists to make sense of their discoveries about the composition of matter, and used by nineteenth century physicists to explain the effect of temperature and pressure on gases. Our modern idea of molecules, formed with definite shapes by joining atoms together according to definite rules, was developed by chemists studying naturally occurring substances in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the structure of the atom itself was explained in terms of more fundamental particles, while the last half century has seen advances that make it possible for us to directly sense, and even move around, individual atoms.


Roman fresco, illustrating front cover of R.E. Latham’s excellent translation

Atomic theory dates back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Leucippus and Democritus, who wrote and taught more than four hundred years BCE. The works of the pre-Socratics survive only in fragments, and in quotations by later authors. For example, Epicurus, some 130 years later, built this theory into his unified view of the world and morality. The views of Epicurus were beautifully expressed by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar, in his great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). According to this ancient atomic theory, atoms are eternal and indestructible. All forms of matter are built up from a relatively small number of kinds of atoms.

What led the early atomists to theories so remote from simple appearances? Greek philosophers were greatly puzzled by the phenomena of change and motion. If something is real, how can it be transformed into something that it is not? If something is in one place, how can it move, since that would imply that it was no longer in that place? Besides, how can anything move without displacing something (if only the air) that is already there, in which case which one moves first? There are serious problems here, that were not properly solved until the mathematics of fluid flow and the theory of limits were developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One radical approach to the problems posed by change is to say that change itself is an illusion, and that the world of experience, in which we live and act, grow and die, is in some important sense unreal. Plato was influenced by this approach when he compared knowledge gained through the senses to a mere shadow-play on the walls of a cave. Such a view is deeply hostile to science, which relies on observation, and the influence of Plato and his followers was to greatly hinder the development of scientific thinking.

An alternative view, that taken by the atomists, is that nature consists of two components; atoms, and the void. The atoms are eternal, since nothing can be created out of nothing. Everything that happens, happens according to natural laws, otherwise nature would not be predictable. The atoms have room to move because there is a void between them. The individual atoms are unchanging, but their arrangement can change, and the forces between atoms explain why objects have a definite shape. All natural processes are caused by collisions and rearrangements of atoms. The force of the wind, for instance, is attributed to the impact of the “atoms” (we would now say “molecules”) of air on objects. As Lucretius points out, the theory is consistent with common experience – for instance, the smell of a perfume diffuses through a room, so the perfume must be giving off invisible particles. Sheepskins hung up by the sea become wet overnight; this shows that “atoms” of water have found their way from the water through the air to the sheepskin’s surface. A pit dug a little inland from the sea fills up with drinkable water. This is because sea water contains more than one kind of atoms, and the jagged ones (which are also responsible for its sharp taste) stick to the ground through which the drinkable water flows (this is remarkably similar to the modern view, in which the ions that make up salt stick to clay). He could also have mentioned the way that things dissolve in water and can then be recovered unchanged when the water evaporates.

But let us allow Lucretius to speak for himself:

The headlong force of the wind lashes the body, overthrows great ships and scatters the clouds, then swiftly whirling strews the fields with tall trees … So there must be unseen particles in the wind, sweeping the seas, the land, the clouds of the sky.

Without seasonal storms, the Earth would not be able to give rise to the produce that gladdens us, nor could living things sustain themselves and propagate. So it is better to think that the same components occur in different things, much as the same elements occur in different words, rather than that anything could exist without an origin.

Some things are primary objects, while others are assemblages, but there is no force that can destroy the primary objects, for in the end they overcome through their own sheer solidity.

In other words, rain, plants and animals must be made of similar atoms in different arrangements, in order to explain the facts of growth and feeding (Lucretius, of course, had no idea that the plants needed carbon dioxide from the air, as well as water and minerals from the soil, but otherwise his account is surprisingly modern). The force of the wind, and its ability to carry clouds, is due to the impulse of the “atoms” in the air. All the changes that we observe in matter are due to the movement of atoms and their combining together in new ways. For Lucretius, as for Epicurus and Democritus before him, the atoms themselves are eternal and indestructible.*

I should mention that this is part of a moral, as well as a natural, world view. Lucretius was writing at a time of great civil disorder. The constitution of the Roman republic, originally designed for a small city-state, was breaking down even as the territory under Roman control grew. The central authority was increasingly unable to control its own generals, and the civil liberties enjoyed by the old governing class, to which Lucretius belonged, were being trampled underfoot. War, external along the expanding frontiers or internal between one ambitious general and another, seemed endless. At such times, individuals of spirit concentrate all the more keenly on the inner freedoms of thought and feeling. Thus Lucretius wrote to free the mind of superstitious fears through the light of understanding:

This fear and darkness of the mind cannot be dissipated by the rays of the Sun, nor by the clear shafts of day, but only by the perusal and understanding of nature.

His purpose, in short, was to demystify.

Why was there no progress from such a promising beginning? Bertrand Russell (History of Western Philosophy, Chapters IX, XXVII) suggests two types of possibility, one deriving from the way society was structured, the other from political circumstances.

In the world of Greece and Rome, there was a total lack of contact between the useful arts (cookery and brewing, dyeing, metallurgy, tanning, ceramics, even medicine), which were delegated to the laboring classes, and the speculations of gentlemen. When labor is cheap, there is little pressure to improve technology, and when thinkers despise manual activity, they will not develop any experimental technique. Lucretius himself often appeals to observation, but experiment involves more than simply observing what presents itself. It is the deliberate setting up of situations in order to observe them, and no Greek or Roman gentleman would be likely to soil his hands in such a business.

Secondly, there was what Russell calls a failure of nerve. Leucippus and Democritus were great intellectual innovators; Epicurus and Lucretius were not. Leucippus and Democritus wrote as citizens of free city states at their most confident, during and immediately after Greek successes in the Persian Wars. By the time of Epicurus, these city states had been subdued by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. Lucretius wrote when the Roman Republic was degenerating by way of civil war into a despotic empire. Later centuries saw the decline and fall of Rome, the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages, and the subsequent medieval reverence for authority and verbal argument rather than experience.

As Lucretius repeatedly reminds us, if everything happens according to natural laws, there is no need to fear the gods. Indeed, he regarded religious belief as a source of evil, and gave as an example how Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to the gods in order to secure a fair wind for the Greeks on their way to attack Troy. He also regarded the mind as the product of subtle atoms within the body, rather than a separate immaterial entity. As for the murderous political struggles of his time, these were the expressions of misplaced ambition, itself the product of incomplete understanding.

Such views did not endear him to the early Church. Thus St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, claimed, four centuries after the event, that Lucretius’s death was suicide, that he had been driven insane by a love potion, and that his books, written in lucid intervals, had been reworked and corrected by Cicero. I have found no reason to believe that any of this is true.

.Further south and east, in the Islamic and Hindu worlds, science and mathematics continued to flourish. Muslim theologians developed their own extreme version of atomic theory, in which matter consisted of dimensionless atoms, while space was atomised into separate points and time into instants, but the scientists of the Islamic world generally followed the continuous matter theories of Aristotle. There were major advances in the practical applications of chemistry, while the alchemists made important discoveries of how different substances react. However, a proper understanding of molecules, atoms, and the relationships between them requires an understanding of the mechanics of moving particles, and quantitative understanding of chemical reactions. We would have to wait until the 17th century for the first of these, and another hundred years for the second.

*But it would be easy to see Lucretius as more modern than he really is. He believes that he can discover facts about the world using purely verbal arguments, and many of his explanations amount to nothing more than “This is how things behave, because such is the nature of the atoms that compose them.” Such reasoning gives the illusion of understanding, and is the enemy of scientific enquiry. He describes a fantastical cosmology, in which the Sun is composed of lighter atoms than the Earth, squeezed out into space when Earth first cohered. Here we should not blame him for being wrong, but should blame him for being too easily satisfied. And while Democritus regarded all directions in space as equivalent, Lucretius, following Epicurus, thought that there was an absolute direction of “downwards”, in which direction atoms were eternally falling. This although Plato, centuries earlier, had taught that the Earth was round, at the centre of things, and stationary.

Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily. Translations by the present author. An earlier version of this material appeared in the author’s From Stars to Stalagmites, World Scientific, 2012.

Religious privilege in Scottish schools increasing, says Glasgow University report

Denominational schools in Scotland are run according to a century-old Concordat between the British government and the Catholic Church. During that century, the influence of the other Churches within non-denominational schools has grown, even as their worshippers deserted them. The result is a mosaic of mutually contradictory objectives and provisions. Our children deserve better.

Religion-in-Scots-Law-header (1)Glasgow University has just published its long-awaited report, sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland, into the role of religion in Scots law. The full report runs to 355 pages, and the summary to 11. It is limited to discussion of the law, but my commentary here also includes in some places what is known about actual practice. I will concentrate on the three areas covered are greatest length; the legal status of the Church of Scotland, religion and marriage, and, above all, education. The report covers several other areas where the law gives special recognition to religion. There are, for example, some tax advantages for ministers in accommodation provided by their Church, but these are minor matters in comparison.


Church of Scotland offices, Edinburgh

Firstly, what about the Church of Scotland? Is it, for instance, an established church? And what beliefs does it subscribe to? There is no consensus on this. The 1921 Declaratory Act, which was supposed to resolve this issue, contains an attachment in which the Church describes itself as “a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people”, but since almost all its privileges are shared with other denominations, it is not clear what, if anything, this means. Church of Scotland ministers are automatically entitled to solemnise marriages, but since celebrants may just as easily come from other denominations, and even from groups such as the Humanists, this distinction is purely ceremonial. The Sovereign is represented at the Church’s General Assembly, and while she worships as an Anglican at Windsor, she attends Church of Scotland services when at Balmoral. However, she does not choose the Moderator, whereas she does, notionally and on the advice of the Prime Minister, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of Scotland subscribes to the Westminster Confession (apart from its anti-Catholic clauses, which it removed in 1986). Thus it is nominally committed to the belief that I, and most of my readers, will be physically tormented in hell for eternity and serve us right. It has, however, declared itself free to interpret (i.e. ignore) its own doctrine. A saving grace, if I may so put it.

The area where the legal connections between church and state has the greatest practical importance is education, and this is the one area where is the entrenched power of religion has actually grown over time. The Scottish publicly funded school system arose in two steps, the 1872 nationalisation of schools that had hitherto been the responsibility of Presbyteries, and the 1918 nationalisation of the Catholic school system. The first of these led to the establishment of notionally non-denominational schools, in whose running the churches did not have a formal role, while the latter led to the establishment of denominational schools, within which the power of the denominational hierarchy was formidable. I was surprised at how well entrenched religious privilege has since become, in non-denominational as well as in denominational schools, how recent much of this privilege is, and how much it conflicts with the principles of a democratic state.

The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, Para. 12:4, required Local Authority Education Committees to include two representatives of religion, chosen by discussion among local churches. The current requirement, for three such representatives – one Church of Scotland, one Catholic, and one other – was only formalised in 1973 (here, Sec. 124,  repeated here in 1994, Sec. 31. Notice the increase in the number of representatives, and the clearer formal role of the two favoured specific denominations. Notice also that all this is pre-devolution.


St Andrew’s Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow

The Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church each have one nominee on the General Teaching Council, the professional body responsible for maintaining standards of training and conduct among schoolteachers (here, Schedule 2).

For denominational schools, Parent Councils are required by 2006 legislation (here) to include at least one nominee of (note the choice of words) “the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted” [emphasis added]. This “in whose interest” language first appears in the 1918 legislation, but continues to be used in legislation and official guidance documents regarding denominational schools. As I have remarked elsewhere, this is very strange language indeed, suggesting that the church has an “interest” in the school, over and above its duties to pupils and the wider community.

Regarding religious instruction and observance, two opposed trends have been at work. Throughout the twentieth century, the role of religious observance, in non-denominational as well as denominational schools, has been strengthened. However, the idea of religious instruction (teaching, as true, the beliefs of one particular religion) has largely been replaced by that of religious education (learning about religion in our philosophical and cultural context). Recently, in response to public concerns, guidelines on the nature of religious observance have shifted in favour of reflection on shared values, rather than formal worship. All this, however, remains very much at the discretion of the headteacher in non-denominational schools. In denominational schools, religious observance and religious education remain firmly under the control of the religious body in whose interest the school is conducted.

Many non-denominational schools have chaplains, or even chaplaincy teams, but there is no obligation to do so. The Church of Scotland receives no special legal preference, and I almost wish that it did, since extreme evangelical groups make it their business to get involved in school chaplaincies, as in the notorious Kirktonholme fiasco, when all pupils were given “textbooks”, describing evolution as a wicked lie, by a chaplain from an extremist sect who had been advising about the school’s curriculum for eight years.

Collecting information about chaplaincy teams is difficult, except when the school chooses to display it in its Handbook. Freedom of Information requests to schools, like all such requests, are forwarded to the Council, but the Council may not have all the relevant information, and some Councils even regard this information as personal and confidential. In denominational schools, chaplains are effectively church nominees.

The 1872 Act allowed schools to continue “instruction in religion”, but did not require it. It also recognised the rights of parents “without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not receive such instruction”, and more recent legislation applies this right to both Religious Observance and Religious Education. Current guidance goes further, in requiring the school to provide an educational activity of value to pupils during the time that they are withdrawn from religious activities, although it would be prudent for the parent to make this easy for the school, for example by supplying reading materials.

Note that the right to withdraw rests with the parents, although in practice many schools allow senior pupils, at least, to withdraw themselves.

The obligation to have religious observance in non-denominational schools only dates from the 1946 Act. Under this Act, a local authority can only remove this requirement when authorised to do so by a ballot of all constituents, not merely those directly involved with the school system. No authority has ever seriously considered such a ballot, despite a petition to that effect a few years ago from the Edinburgh Secular Society.

Details of religious observance and religious instruction are a matter of policy, not legislation. In 1991, the Scottish Government issued a circular saying that there should be religious observance in primary schools at least once a week, and in secondary schools at least once a month, and that this should have “a broadly Christian character”.

A major 2004 consultation, the Report of the Religious Observance Review Group (Edinburgh: The Scottish Executive, 2004), made major changes in official policy. Religious observance is now said to consist of ”community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”. This could be an act of worship, if the school community corresponds to the faith community. The Report also make clear the distinction between Religious Observance and Religious Education. The form of RO is very much up to the individual school and “Head teachers are encouraged to engage in full discussion with chaplains and other faith group leaders in the planning and implementation of religious observance” (here, para. 13)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that parents are made aware of their right to opt out. How much this commitment is worth, is another matter. At one time guidance clearly stated that the school Handbook should tell parents of their right to opt out, but many of them do not, and there is considerable anecdotal evidence of schools discouraging opting out, by requiring a formal letter or an interview with the head teacher, or even by telling parents that their children’s education will suffer.

The content of Religious and Moral Education (or, for Catholic schools, religious education)  is again a matter of policy, not legislation. Current policy (The 2011 “religious instruction” circular, Curriculum for Excellence – Provision of religious and moral education in non-denominational schools and religious education in Roman Catholic schools) lays out ambitious goals, including “well planned experiences and outcomes across Christianity, world religions and developing beliefs and values”. The details are left to the curriculum setting and examining bodies, and to the textbook writers. This could have unfortunate consequences; one topic properly discussed in RME is religiously motivated creationism, but this may be the only encounter that pupils (and RME teachers) have with evolution, and it would be going against the admirable spirit of RME to tell pupils which one they should prefer.

That European Convention on Human Rights specifies a universal right to education, and that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” However, the United Kingdom signed the treaty with the reservation that this clause only applies in so far as “it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”. This is as well, since otherwise it might be open to a parent to demand that their children not be taught about evolution. Even so, the ECHR would no doubt be quoted in support of the continued existence of denominational schools, should this ever be called into question.

Denominational schools are deeply rooted in history. In 1872, with legal restrictions on Catholics still a fresh memory, their schools stood aloof from the state system, but merged with it under financial pressure in 1918. The education (Scotland) Act, 1918, which accomplished this, contained guarantees still in force regarding ethos, the vetting of teachers, and religious observance and instruction in state-funded denominational schools. Denominational schools are usually but not necessarily Catholic; in addition to the 366 Catholic denominational schools, according to Government sources there are at present one Jewish primary, and three Episcopalian schools.   Admissions policies to denominational schools are a matter for the local authority, which can allow them to take account of religious adherence. This situation has recently arisen in Falkirk, where the Catholic school is oversubscribed. There is a specific exemption (here, Schedule 11 para 5) in the UK 2010 Equalities Act, to make this possible.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 circular on religious instruction states that “In Roman Catholic schools the experiences and outcomes should be delivered in line with the guidance provided by the Scottish Catholic 168 Education Service.” Parents still have a right to withdraw pupils, but “in choosing a denominational school for their child’s education, they choose to opt in to the school’s ethos and practice which is imbued with religious faith and it is therefore more difficult to extricate a pupil from all experiences which are influenced by the school’s faith character.” My own view, unfashionable in some circles that I move in, is that if you don’t want your child to have a Catholic education, you shouldn’t send them to a Catholic school. The situation here in Scotland is different from that which has recently been engineered in England, where nondenominational alternatives may simply be unavailable.

The 1918 Act specified that teachers in denominational schools must be “approved as regards their religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted”. The 1980 Act inherited this requirement, although the reasons for objecting to an applicant must be stated in writing. According to the Scottish Catholic Education Service, a person’s faith and character could be vouched for by their priest, if they are Catholics, or by some other suitable person if they are not. I find this interesting, since it implies that being a Catholic is not a necessary condition of employment as a teacher in a Catholic school, yet (anecdotal evidence) this criterion seems to apply in practice. It also continues the right of the denomination to appoint a supervisor of religious instruction. This seemingly innocuous provision has serious effects, since in Catholic schools teaching about human sexual behaviour is included as part of the “Made for Love” module of Religious Instruction. Thus education on this topic is under the direction of the Council of Bishops, a committee of middle-aged middle management males pledged to lifelong celibacy.

I rest my case.

Reference: Callum G Brown, Thomas Green and Jane Mair, Religion in Scots Law: The Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow: Sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland (Edinburgh, HSS, 2016),


Selected media reports:



Christianity Today:


National Secular Society newsletter:

In whose interest? Denominational schools in Scotland

You may think that all Scottish schools are conducted in the interests of their pupils, and of the wider society in which they will be participating. But as a recent report shows, that is not how Scots law is worded.

When assumptions are ripe for challenging, the first step is to examine the words that embody them. And in Scottish educational law, the following words occur repeatedly (emphasis added):

“the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted”

Many readers will know that here in Scotland there are two kinds of school; so-called non-denominational schools (which may nonetheless strongly reflect the religious views of their community, or even of their own senior teaching staff), and denominational schools. The latter are overwhelmingly Catholic, and arose historically from the 1918 merger of the Catholic schools with the general state system. My purpose here is not to question the existence of these schools, but to draw attention to a toxic assumption built into legislation under which they are run; the assumption that the Church has an interest in the schools, over and above the interests of its pupils.

The language dates back to the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, which established denominational schools. It is repeated in the 1980 Act, in 2006 legislation regarding Parent Councils, in 2010 UK legislation exempting denominational schools from some provisions of the Equalities Act, and in current (2011) Scottish governmental guidance.

Over the coming years, there will be much discussion of the institutionalised role of religion in Scottish public life, and particularly in education. Defenders of existing privileges will claim that the the language of the law implicitly accepts the special interests of the Churches. But where the interests of the Churches and the interests of the pupils coincide, there is no need to invoke the Churches’ interests. And should they conflict, there can be no doubt as to which deserves priority. Pupils are not property, and the appeal to the interests of the Churches as a separate consideration should be exposed for what it is; morally corrupt special pleading.

Appendix: citations

Data from the 355-page Glasgow University report, Callum G Brown, Thomas Green and Jane Mair, Religion in Scots Law: The Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow: Sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland (Edinburgh, HSS, 2016), published February 2016, on which I will be reporting in more detail shortly.

The 1918 Education (Scotland) Act itself specifies (c 48, section 18(3)) that teachers in denominational schools must be “approved as regards their religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted”.

This same language appears word for word in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 21: (2A). Current (2011) governmental guidance on how the 1980 act is to be interpreted regarding school closures refers to “any church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted other than the Roman Catholic Church, by a person authorised for that purpose by that church or denominational body and, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, by the Scottish Hierarchy of that Church”.

Schedule 11 Para 5 of the UK 2010 Equality Act specifically exempts “a school transferred to an education authority under section 16 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (transfer of certain schools to education authorities) which is conducted in the interest of a church or denominational body. Such a school is allowed under UK law to discriminate in employment on grounds of religion; it would be interesting to see if European Human Rights law allows such discrimination.

In addition, the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006, section 7, requires that Parent Councils in denominational schools “must provide for at least one of the council’s members to be so co-opted and to be a person nominated by the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted”.

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