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I have assembled a team to help prepare materials about evolution for the use of non-biologists, and we would welcome comments and suggestions. The topic arises in Religious Education in particular, hence the title of this post. Most of the material here is borrowed from an article by the Reverend Michael Roberts, retired Anglican Vicar, field geologist, School Governor, historian of ideas, and part of the team. But first, some background.
Recent developments increase the importance of what Michael has to say. The Society for Biology made two recommendations in its recent evidence to the Scottish Parliament. One, now incorporated into the stated Governmental position, was that creationism not be taught in a science class since it is not a scientific theory. The other was expressed as follows:
We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…
Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
The issues raised here are not confined to the science classroom, nor to Scotland. Religious reactions to such nineteenth century discoveries as the antiquity of the Earth, and the evolutionary relationships between living things, are and should be topics for discussion in the study of religion and of the history of ideas. Indeed, Creationism is singled out as a sub-topic in Scottish schools, as part of the syllabus for Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS). My own view is that an emphasis on Creationism in particular is unfortunate, since this is the most contentious, unhelpful, and indefensible of the various religious responses. There is also a real risk that discussion of the relationship between ideas might get sidetracked into irrelevant, and long since resolved, disputes about the underlying facts. But no doubt good teaching will supply the necessary balance.
Evolution is about to become part of the national curriculum in England, and non-specialist teachers there are urgently seeking helpful materials. No wonder, when one considers what is involved. Explaining evolution is a formidable task, not made any easier by the existence of a campaign of theologically motivated disinformation.
Teachers should of course be aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of accepting the facts of evolution and an ancient Earth, and know something of the lines of evidence that led to it, such as those mentioned by Michael below. It would also be an advantage to know something about the geological column, and radiometric dating. They should understand the concepts of natural selection and mutation, but preferably be aware that much if not most evolution is apparently neutral drift. Things being what they are, they must also be prepared to discuss the “objections” to evolution, such as why there are still monkeys, isn’t evolution only a theory, the alleged poverty of the fossil record, and the “problem” of the origin of new information. Here great care is needed. It is best for many reasons to let students come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think, and yet we are lying to them if we leave them with the impression that this is still an open controversy within science. Moreover, teaching with an emphasis on refuting arguments may prove counter-effective.
Finally, as if this were not enough, teachers should have some knowledge of the range of religious responses, and should realise that the Churches had generally accepted an ancient Earth and the fact of evolution by the end of the 19th Century.
Anyway, it is time to let Michael speak for himself, in the excerpts below. The full article is here. Michael is of course a Christian, and is mainly addressing his fellow-Christians, but I think that all of us can learn from what he has to say. There are things in his article that I like in it, and things that I don’t, and, in the spirit of intellectual enquiry, I will let interested readers work out for themselves which is which.
TAKING EVOLUTION SERIOUSLY
In essence, biological evolution means that all life is descended from a common ancestor, most popularly that we are descended from apes. Parodies and misunderstandings abound, and there is a prevalent view that evolution excludes creation and thus God.
The genius of Darwin in “The Origin of Species” (1859) was that he brought together previously unrelated aspects to biology; Variation and selection (leading to Natural Selection), the Geological Record, Geographical Distribution and the “Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings”. One of the main “gaps” in Darwin’s theory was the problem of inheritance or genetics. The solution to this was provided by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s but remained unknown until the turn of the century.
Genetics was what biologists were looking for and this resulted in the 1940s “Neodarwinian Synthesis” of Darwinianism and Mendelism. This has been further modified by such concepts as neutral drift (Kimura 1968), punctuated equilibrium (or stop-go evolution; Gould and Eldredge 1972), and molecular phylogeny (predominantly 1990s onwards). So our present science of evolution is far in advance of the original neo-Darwinian synthesis, let alone anything that Darwin himself could have imagined, and our appreciation of evolution has been both deepened and strengthened in the process. Evolution is regarded as much of a fact as the sphericity of the earth, – and rightly so!
To summarise the most obvious arguments for Evolution, these are
1) The Evidence of the Fossil Record.
The geological record shows a progressive “appearance” of life. ; invertebrates with shells at the base of the Cambrian (550m.y.); Vertebrates (fish) in the middle Ordovician (460 m.y.); leading up to Mammals in the Jurassic (180 m.y.); and finally “Man” a few million years ago.
2) “Mutual Affinities”
There are great number of mutual affinities between all forms of life. For example the structure of all vertebrates have much in common. If, say, the fore limbs of a bird, a whale, a dog and a human are compared, they all have the same basic structure and are said to be homologous, and point to a common ancestor. Here is a diagram of homologies
3) Geographical Distribution.
The oddities of geographical distribution were explained before Darwin by holding that God created different creatures in different places. Thus, for example in the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin visited when on the Beagle in 1834, God with would have created umpteen different finches on different islands. Evolutionarily this is seen as common ancestral finches living in isolation on different islands, and then diverging over subsequent generations. On a longer timescale lifeforms before the Mesozoic in Africa and South America were similar, but have diverged since then. The classic example is the Wallace Line in the middle of Indonesia. The reason became clear with the discovery of Continental Drift which demonstrated that the two continents started to move apart during the Mesozoic.
[To these one could add residual organs, evidence from embryology, defects of design, and the relationships shown by molecular biology, among other things, but this might overburden both class and teacher.]
This is a terribly brief summary of Evolution, but there are many excellent non-technical books, such as Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne), Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin), and The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being (Alice Roberts).
TAKING CREATION SERIOUSLY
Open any childrens’ Bible on the first page and you are usually confronted with an idealised picture of a giraffes and lions on Noah’s Ark.
Thus from an early age people are encouraged to believe in a literal six-24 hour day creation. This aids and abets youngsters to give up their faith at an early age, but the problem often persists to adulthood, leaving them with a nagging doubt that God could not have created the world, because Genesis is incompatible with science.
The Bible begins with the marvellous double “account” of Creation. I say double because Genesis 2 differs from Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is the best known with its structure of creation on six successive days. Approach it literally and you are in mess. Attempting to tie it in to scientific discovery always fails, as is inevitable as the Bible was “written” 3000 years before the rise of Geology. See it as a hymn to God the Creator and it comes to life. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The focus is on God, the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks. Again “And God said” occurs nine times as an introductory formula for God’s creativity. Ultimately Genesis One is a “Whodunnit” not a “Howdunnit”!
Genesis 1 and 2 are not the only parts of the bible, which speak of God the Creator. Take the last five chapters of the Book of Job, or Isaiah chapter 40 from verse 12, some of the Psalms especially 8, 19,and 95 (the Venite) to mention a few from the Old Testament, and John chapter 1 and Colossians Chapter 1 verses 15 to 20., both of which speak of a “Cosmic” Christ.
Taking Creation seriously is an affirmation that God is the Creator of all that is, with a realisation that the Bible gives no scientific explanation. Science will inform our understanding of Creation, not overthrow it.
4004 B.C. AND ALL THAT.
In the margins of many old Bibles, we will find dates in years B.C. for the Old Testament. For Creation the date is 4004.B.C., and this date is usually ascribed to Archbishop Ussher of the seventeenth century. Up to 1650 most Jews and Christians reckoned the age of the earth to be a few thousands.
With the rise of scientists such as John Ray, Whiston and others before 1700 the earth was seen as somewhat older. The flowering of geology at the end of the eighteenth century, with Smith, Cuvier, de Saussure and Hutton, developed that further, and before long talk was of millions of years. Many of the early geologists were Anglican clergy and soon the churches took the vast age of the earth on board.
There were a minority of Christians who opposed geology, as did some of Faraday’s colleagues at the Royal Institution. However, by 1860 hardly any clergy or educated Christians believed in 4004.B.C. The Evangelical clergyman-astronomer Richard Main wrote, in 1862, “Some school-books still teach to the ignorant that the earth is 6,000 years old. No well-educated person of the present day shares that delusion.” (Alas, many share it in 2015!)
Putting actual dates to the age of the universe, the earth or rock strata proved difficult,
even after biblical chronology was dethroned. Late 19th Century geologists favoured an age of around 100 million years, but radiometric dating proved this time much too short. For forty years now the age of the earth has been unchallenged at 4,600 million years, the oldest rocks at a little over 4,000 million, and the base of the Cambrian at 550 million. Such numbers are mind-boggling, but then so are black holes and the structure of the atom.
(Recently, Creationists have tried to demonstrate that the geological methods are fatally flawed, and that the earth is but a few thousand years young. Not one of the Creationist arguments has any substance to it. It is sad to be so negative, but Creationism is a confused hot-potch of bad science, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.)
The problems some have over geology is caused by a too literal view of the Bible, and not allowing the pre-scientific biblical writers to communicate truth about God in a non-literal way. It also does not recognise that most educated Christians never took Genesis literally!
[Michael goes on to speak of the absurdities of literalism, the apparent belittlement of human life by incorporating it in the animal sphere, the concept of humankind as made “in the image of God”, the differences between methodological and philosophical naturalism (I have a piece of my own on this), and evolution’s dismissal of the concept of a designer, as in Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker.]
An atheist will see “design” as a chance happening, a theist will see “design” as a recognition that God is above and behind all things: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19, verse 1)
However, not all “design” is beautiful; some is frankly horrific. Darwin could not see the work of a Benevolent Designer in the Ichneumon fly. This lovely little creature lays its eggs inside a caterpillar. The eggs hatch and proceed to eat the caterpillar alive, keeping it so until the larvae emerge. “Design” does not point conclusively to a Good God. Thus
Beauty of (apparent) design is a problem to the atheist; Suffering is a problem to the Theist.
THIS VIEW OF LIFE (AND DEATH)
Of the evolutionary picture Darwin said, “There is grandeur in this view of life”. But he should have added “AND DEATH”. The natural world is incredibly wasteful of life; just consider frogspawn. The spawn will produce hundreds of tadpoles, and if TWO survive to become frogs and breed, that is success. Three is a population explosion. The fate of the tadpoles is varied, some, to the horror of children, are eaten by other tadpoles. Then, one of my joys in late spring is to hear the Cuckoo calling. The music of the adult is not matched by the morality of its offspring casually heaving out its adopted kin. Life is shot through with suffering and death. Nature is Red in Tooth and Claw. Human life is also often cruel and short. Surely “an all powerful, all-loving God simply would not allow small children to die in screaming agony” (Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously)? Suffering is the great problem, whether personal, intellectual, or religious.
Contrast this with Milton’s view (Paradise Lost) that all suffering is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. Since the rise of geology in 1800, this view has been untenable, but it has not always been possible to bury it, especially in popular Christianity. Very often Milton’s view is accepted as the traditional view. As the admirable Bishop Colenso said in 1863, “We literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Milton’s mythology.”
We still do.
[Michael continues his discussion of the problem of evil, in highly personal ways. Does it make sense to blame Adam and Eve for the fact that children are dying today of malaria? This lets God off the hook, but at what cost? He invites us, instead, to share Darwin’s contemplation of the tangled bank, and sees science as a way of understanding and appreciating the work of the Creator.]
On May 12, the Education and Culture Committing of the Scottish Parliament formally closed consideration of the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, as having run its course. This petition sought guidance to exclude creationism from Scotland’s publicly funded schools. The Committee had asked the Scottish Government to clarify its position, and in his reply the Minister responsible had finally brought himself to say that creationism should not be taught in science classes. For more on the year-long process that led to this point, see here and here.
The Herald story itself remains top of the “most read” list at time of writing, after 5 days, and has attracted 57,000 on-site Likes.
To my surprise, the story has gathered international attention. A story in The Independent (does that count as international? Are England and Scotland part of the same nation? Do not attempt to answer this question here. The same comment applies to a summary by the London-based National Secular Society.) A report from our good friends at the California-based National Center for Science Education; also from Patheos. Favourable comment from Russia Today. An interview on The Sceptic’s Guide to the Universe, the leading US podcast of its kind (episode #516, about half way through; 100,000 downloads).
And a story on I Freaking Love Science , whose FaceBook posting had earned 292,706 Likes, 38,006 Shares, and 9,754 comments in its first 24 hours. A followup hostile letter in The Herald, May 31, notable for the comments it drew which were the very opposite of what the writer was hoping for; a report on that letter by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a widely read and superficially facetious but in fact well-informed critic of Creationists. A further commentary in the Herald on June 2 by Andrew Denholm, Education Correspondent, who celebrates a victory for common sense, while denying that anything has happened. (I will add details here if yet more stories appear about the Petition.)
So what has happened, and why does it matter? What has happened is that the Scottish Government has moved from merely saying that creationism is not part of the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught in science classes. A shift from “need not” to “must not”. In terms of mechanical application of the rules, no real change. In terms of framing and context, pivotal. If Creationism is not scientific in the science class, how can it be scientific elsewhere?
In the course of its submission to the Scottish Parliament regarding our petition, the Society for Biology commented:
We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…. [W]e urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
Quite so. But why only in science lessons? Creationism is, and should be, regularly discussed in Scottish schools, not in the context of science, but in that of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS).
As most readers will know, “Creation Scientists” and Intelligent Design proponents want to claim scientific respectability for the doctrine of separate special creation. The Government’s new position will make it far harder for them to do so. Nonetheless, it would run counter to the entire spirit of RMPS for instructors to tell students what to think. So teachers, who may themselves have had little formal training in biology, have to convey quite detailed evidence in such a way that students can come to their own well-informed conclusions. My colleagues and I are putting together materials that all those involved in these classes might find helpful, and would appreciate suggestions.
1] Filter-protected version of the real name
The petition is closed. It has done its work, and I’m impressed by the process. Creationism may not be taught in science classes; and we already have the Minister’s statement in Parliament that in other classes, where appropriate, it should be discussed but not promoted. It has been a long and tortuous process, so I have collected here links to the key documents, and to the more than 60 press reports I know of.
Attention will now inevitably shift to Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies, where Creationism is (and should be) one of the topics selected for in-depth study. The evidence in favour of evolution is conclusive, yet Creationists deny this, and RMPS laudably shies away from telling students what to think. How do we cut this Gordian knot? And how best do we help RMPS teachers without any formal instruction in biology, when they face the specious pseudoscience of the Intelligent Designers?
More on this in due course. Meantime, the story so far:
Official documents, petition details, public comments:
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
That’s all! NB: No need for legislation; a simple Ministerial or departmental statement would suffice. No distinction between science and non-science classes, and no suggestion of preventing discussion of such ideas, as long as they are not presented as viable alternatives to known science.
And what happened? In brief, exceptional public interest (see this list); two hearings before the Public Petitions Committee (as one of which Spencer Fildes, as petitioner and Chair of the Scottish Secular Society, and I as scientific adviser to the Society, gave evidence); referral by that Committee to the Education and Culture Committee; a request from that committee to the Scottish Government to respond to the issues we had raised; a Ministerial response that went some way towards what we had asked for; and formal closure.
And much more besides; see here. The issue is no longer hidden, the prerogative of the most unenlightened to do whatever they want in name of religion has been challenged and to some extent limited; and the genie is out of the bottle.
And so it ends, not with a bang, but a quiet sigh of satisfaction.
Petition site and comments: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance
BBC recording of hearing; Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to Public Petitions Committee http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/scotland-30004391
Or SSS version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi0RD3VAR1I
Official report of the second hearing by the Public Petitions Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9759&i=89401
Official reports of the hearings by the Education and Culture Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9836&i=90184#ScotParlOR and http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9951.
Press coverage: live links supplied where possible. Headline where different from link. Commentary as I saw fit:
(Additional post-May 24 2015 coverage at https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/scottish-victory-over-creationism-gets-300000-fb-likes-international-attention-what-next/)
Independent, 27 May: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/creationism-should-not-be-taught-in-schools-says-scottish-education-minister-10279509.html (quotes me as “delighted”)
[US] National Center for Science Education, reporting on Herald 24 May story: http://ncse.com/news/2015/05/update-from-scotland-0016382 Also reported on by IFLScience, http://www.iflscience.com/environment/creationism-banned-science-classes-scottish-government and Russian RT agency http://rt.com/uk/262377-scotland-snp-creationism-classrooms/ May 27
Herald 24 May 2015 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scottish-government-creationism-banned-from-science-class.126976076 Quotes the crucial new language (emphasis added) “Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the eight curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”
Herald 15 May 2015: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/creationist-teaching-just-around-the-corner-in-scottish-schools.126123235 Denholm, still spinning (see also his November 21 article, below), reports the Education and Culture Committee as agreeing that no new guidance was necessary (not noticing that new guidance had just been issued).
Evening Express 2 May 2015: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/creationism-science-ban-bid-slammed/ Channelling David Andrew Robertson
Free Church News 18 March: http://freechurch.org/news/scotlands-science-minister-no-need-for-ban-on-creationism-in-schools Scotland’s Science minister: No need for ban on creationism in schools
Forbes Magazine 30 Dec 2014: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2014/12/30/creationism-in-europe-you-bet/ Reviewing Creationism in Europe (Johns Hopkins Press) writes:
As scientist blogger Paul Braterman reports on events in Scotland (https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/ok-to-teach-creationism-in-context-says-scottish-government/), this [introducing ID in schools]could prove to be a successful strategy.
Scotsman 27 Dec 2014: http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/letters/test-the-word-1-3644430  Richard Lucas of SOLAS advocates debates about the truth of creationism: ”Or are aggressive atheists afraid that evolution, an indispensable foundation of their belief system, might not stand up to open debate in our educational institutions?”
Herald [Glasgow] 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081 A hostile commentary.
Herald 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081Herald 1 December: Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Scotsman 26 Dec: http://www.scotsman.com/news/biology-teachers-need-more-guidance-1-3643988 To my surprise, the statement I gave them was printed intact as an article. I referred to the strongly supportive statement at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_DD_Society_of_Biology_10.11.14.pdf from the Society of Biology, the UK’s largest professional association of biologists, which states:
We encourage the Scottish Government to follow the strategy taken in other nations of the United Kingdom to provide clear guidance to schools and the teaching community stating explicitly that creationism and intelligent design are not considered to be scientific theories based on tested hypotheses, and therefore should not be taught in science lessons. Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
I mentioned that this had not been available as it should have been to the Committee and to the Government when considering the responses to our petition, and invited the Government to think again. I also drew attention to the need to provide appropriate training, especially to non-science teachers, as it is within a religious rather than a scientific context that problems are likely to arise.
Answers in Genesis 23 Dec: http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/12/23/scottish-government-rejects-creation-ban/. Ken Ham writes:
[T]eachers in Scotland still have the freedom to present the problems with evolution and millions of years as well as possibly present other alternatives, such as biblical creation, to their students. This is a victory for academic freedom in that country. Sadly, the secularists were trying to protect the teaching of their atheistic religion as the only worldview imposed on the current and future generations of kids.
Ham’s good friend, Dr Nagy Iskander of South Lanarkshire’s education Committee, is, we know, very keen on teaching alternatives:
Herald 21 Dec: Teaching with dinsoaurs http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teaching-with-dinosaurs.26133681
When it comes to Scotland’s culture wars, many would view this last week as a catastrophe for the Scottish Secular Society (SSS), and a success for the country’s religious fundamentalists
but facing it on the next page http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/call-for-debate-on-religious-privilege.26133800 has SNP Councillor Sandy Howat questioning, on behalf of many SNP members, creationist teaching, opt-out rather than opt-in Religious Observance, and the presence of unelected representatives of religion on Council Education Committees.
Herald, 16 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/schools-creationism-ban-rejected-by-scottish-government.114739893 The Government response to our petition, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_BB_Scottish_Government_15.12.14.pdf stated
…there are no plans to issue guidance to schools or education authorities to prevent the presentation of Creationism, Intelligent Design or similar doctrines by teachers or school visitors. The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary. However, Education Scotland will continue to monitor, through the school inspection process and by other means, any instances where schools are not ensuring the teaching of science is based on well-established science and scientific principles.
Spencer Fildes comments
The fear is that creationists will now use the government’s position to further validate the cause of creationism, young earth doctrines and the pseudo-science of intelligent design.
as happened very promptly; see notes on Dec 23, above, and I comment:
This [the Government’s] language blurs the crucial distinction, built into the wording of our own petition, between learning about creationist worldviews, and being taught that such worldviews are tenable. The SSS fear this will bring Scottish education into disrepute.
I note that the Government response was over the signature of a civil servant,not a Minister, and wonder if they are already aware that they may be asked to thinkagain. Of course, the Government’s view is not binding on the Committee, which can make, although it cannot enforce, its own recommendations.
Herald 1 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/adopt-the-american-model-for-our-schools.25879090 Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Herald 28 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/respect-of-parents-rights-in-respect-of-education.25989631 Letter, Hugh McLoughlin, says we don’t explain what we mean by creationism, invokes European Convention on Human Rights
Herald 27 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/should-creationism-and-evolution-be-taught-side-by-side-in-the-school-classroom.25979445 letters. Among other things, corrects Rev David Fraser, states “The EIS position is that teachers can be trusted to conduct themselves professionally without the need for legislation.”
Herald 26 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-only-want-to-keep-religious-teaching-in-churches.25966308 Letter attacking Dvd Fraser’s defence of creationist teaching.
Herald 25 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-need-science-lessons.25959745 Rev David Fraser
I think most of us have had enough of the aggressive and perverse campaign against free speech by the Scottish Secular Society … Our leaders need follow the robust example of the EIS and defend the rights of the majority for the expression of their faith across the spectrum of school subjects.
Herald 24 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teachers-reject-creationism-ban.25940642 Unnamed EIS spokesperson(s) condemn our petition. Herald reporter once again confuses the teaching of separate creation (the subject of our petition) with the idea of God as Creator, discussion of which we explicitly defend.
Herald 23 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scotlands-culture-war-secularists-and-church-head-to-head.25941169 Scotland’s culture war: secularists and church head-to-head. A wide-ranging review by Judith Duffy.
Herald 22 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-mccarthyite-campaign.25937147 : In response to Spencer’s remarks to the Herald on November 21, the Reverend David Robertson accuses us of a McCarthyite campaign and anti-religious paranoia
Record, 21 Nov: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/alasdair-allan-says-complete-confidence-2826128 Alasdair Allan says he has complete confidence in Scottish teachers following creationism debate
21 Nov, The Centre for Intelligent Design warns those on its mailing list: Government to impose Scientism on our children http://www.c4id.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=262:government-to-impose-scientism-on-our-children&catid=52:frontpage&Itemid=1 So now you know. The Centre regards evolution science and the study of the age of the Earth as forms of Scientism, whatever that may be.
Herald, 21 Nov, reports on submission made to the Petitions Committee by Ken Cunningham is Secretary of School Leaders Scotland: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/banning-creationism-lessons-is-dangerous-warn-headteachers.25925821 My comment:
Not Head Teachers; one ex-Head [in consultation, he later claimed, with the Association’s presidential team, whoever they may be] speaking for all his members with no further apparent mandate from his Association’s membership. And Cunningham and Noble [Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, whose plans to promulgate creationism are a major matter of concern to us] are not as reported both members of the Free Church of Scotland; they are Elders (Cunningham also Secretary) of the same small independent Church, Cartsbridge in Busby, with a total membership of around 250; a much closer association. As usual this reporter, Andrew Denholm, misdescribes what we plainly said we meant by creationism.
See also commentary “Creationist Manoeuvres in the Dark” http://secularspen.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/creationist-manoeuvres-in-the-dark/ by Spencer Fildes, who has done more than any one to unmask the concealed connections.
Premier News (a Creationist Christian radio channel), 20 Nov: http://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/Scotland-s-teachers-oppose-secularist-attempt-to-ban-creationism Again, the reference is to Ken Cunningham’s submission to the Public Petitions Committee, but here he is said to speak for “Scotland’s teachers”.
Scotsman 18 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/beware-the-trojan-horses-of-intolerance-1-3609240 The Reverend David Andrew Robertson, at that time Moderator-Intellect of the Free Church of Scotland, says Scottish Secular Society wants legislation against “teachers who might actually believe that God the Creator might have had something to do with creation.”
Christian News 17 Nov objects to banning the teaching of biblical creationism as fact: http://christiannews.net/2014/11/17/secular-group-seeks-to-ban-biblical-creation-from-public-schools-in-scotland/ (I continue to be amazed at the arrogance of those, like the authors of this article, who claim a monopoly of Christianity on the basis of their boneheadedly ignorant interpretation of its foundational documents.)
Herald 14 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-danger-of-state-atheism.25869067 Correspondence arising from Andrew Denholm’s misrepresentation on 12 Nov.; see below
Times Educational Supplement Scotland 14 Nov: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6450346 Schools are being infiltrated by cults, say secularists
12 Nov NCSE ([US] National Centre for Science Education] News Update from Scotland http://ncse.com/news/2014/11/update-from-scotland-0015982
‘Religious extremists infiltrating schools’ This otherwise excellent article includes the statement “Creationism is the belief that the universe and living beings originate from acts of divine creation.” Not in this context. Our petition specifically refers to separate creationism is opposed to the established science of evolution. Although our opponents pretend otherwise, it has nothing to do with religious or philosophical positions regarding creation as a whole.
Aberdeen Evening Express 11 Nov: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/msps-warned-on-schools-creationism-1.677358
[Glasgow] Evening Times 11 Nov: http://www.eveningtimes.co.uk/news/u/msps-warn-on-school-creationism.1415707018 [“warn” for “warned” is a typo]
STV News 11 Nov http://m.stv.tv/news/scotland/299236-scottish-secular-societys-petition-discusses-creationism-teaching/ Teaching of creationism in schools ‘cannot be ignored’, MSPs told
Good Morning Scotland 11 Nov https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyo89F5CGTQ Spencer Fildes interviewed
Sunday Times 9 Nov: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Education/article1481607.ece MSPs to rule on creationism row
Press and Journal 9 Nov: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/politics/holyrood/395263/row-over-religious-education-in-schools/ echoing Scotsman of 7 Nov
Freethinker 8 Nov: http://freethinker.co.uk/2014/11/08/scottish-secularists-branded-as-bigots/ Reporting DAR
Scotsman 7 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/bid-to-ban-creationism-is-militant-atheism-1-3597863 Campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are “militant atheists” who want to impose their own views on youngsters and discourage questioning, a church leader has claimed. Reverend David Robertson…
(Interestingly, when preaching to Ken Cunningham, mentioned above, and Alastair Noble at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, the Reverend shows full awareness that many of us are religious believers. Maybe he takes the Ninth Commandment more seriously when he is actually in church.)
Premier Christian Radio 7 Nov: http://www.premierchristianradio.com/News/UK/Scottish-church-leader-condemns-petition-to-axe-creationism-teaching
Herald 4 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/topic-of-the-week-intelligent-design.25812362 A selection of letters
Herald 2 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/anger-over-move-to-teach-intelligent-design-in-schools.25756300 Introduces the topic
Answers in Genesis Sept 12 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/in-schools/academic-freedom-under-fire-scotland/
SecEd September 11 2014: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/news/nobel-winners-fight-the-teaching-of-creationism
Answers in Genesis Sept 7 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/09/07/nobel-winning-scientists-push-for-ban-of-creation-in-scottish-schools/
My own most relevant blog posts
Nov 10: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/the-battle-for-evolution-in-scottish-schools/ (reblogged from Jonny Scaramanga’s Leaving fundamentalism)
 Most recent first. Links made explicit, for ease of reference and copying. We would welcome notification of any coverage we have missed. NB this post refers only to coverage directly relevant to our petition PE01530
Guidance provided by Education Scotland… does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons ….
I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian… . Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise [emphasis added].
Alasdair Allan, Minister for Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, to Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, April 22 2015, in response to Scottish Secular Society petition (full text of letter attached at end of this post).
A tipping point.
This in response to the events set in chain by the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
As recently as December 2014, the Scottish Government’s official position stopped short of giving any guidance at all about the teaching of Creationism in science classes, on the grounds that such things should be left to teachers, and to bodies such as Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, rather than being dealt with by the Government as such. Now we have, at last, a clear statement from the responsible minister that Creationism should not be taught as science. This U-turn is concealed by the use of the word “therefore”. The Minister has now given the guidance that we sought. How does he reconcile this with the principle of governmental non-intervention in the curriculum? By implying that he is not stating a new position, but one that had been implicit in Education Scotland’s guidance all along.
I think supporters of science over superstition should be willing to accept this polite fiction. The Scottish parliamentary petition process, far superior to that at Westminster, has worked exactly as it should. A handful of individuals, with no external resources, have been able to force discussion of a politically uncomfortable topic at ministerial level. The Minister, doggedly defending the status quo, has tacitly recognise that all was not well, and, while explicitly refraining from issuing new guidance, has issued new guidance. The necessary commitment to teachers’ independence (see full text of letter below) has been displayed, in the very act of instructing them how to use it. All parties can claim victory, and I for one am left with an enhanced respect to that most maligned of professions, the politician.
In addition, the Government’s December 2014 position was that no cause for concern had been shown. Now, however, the Minister shows awareness of concerns involving’s three separate Education Authorities (there are more). In this new context, the reference to monitoring through inspection moves from poorly concealed denialism to active commitment.
Our Petition, having made its way through the Public Petitions Committee and been twice considered by the Education and Culture Committee, has now been formally closed. In the words of the Convener of the latter committee as stated in the official record,
One of the concerns that I raised was not about the banning of discussions of such philosophies and ideas in schools but about the possible intrusion of creationism into science classes. In the minister’s letter—which I will quote to ensure that it is in the Official Report—he has helpfully pointed out:
“Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”
The Government could not have made that any clearer, and I am therefore in accord with other members that, in light of the Government’s letter, we should close the petition.
So what have we achieved? Far more than I would have imagined possible.
- Over 600 signatures, including three Nobel prize winners.
- Strong letters of support from many bodies, including the Society for Biology, and the British Centre for Science Education, and from a wide range of highly qualified individuals, including professors, schoolteachers, and clergymen.
- Widespread public discussion of what had been until then almost a non-issue, with a total of more than 60 reports in every major newspaper in Scotland and many far beyond.
- An amazing piece of self-exposure from Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design, rapidly identified by the British Centre for Science Education as Creationist in its claims that macroevolution is contentious, and that the accepted science of evolution does not account for the origin of novelty
- Greatly heighten public awareness, and an end to the pretence that such outrageous incidents as that at Kirktonholme were rarer and isolated events. (Regular readers will know that at Kirktonholme, books handed out in school assembly showed dinosaurs being used as farm animals, and said that the reason for belief in evolution was the wish to justify personal wickedness.)
- A motion in the Scottish Parliament, signed by 22 Members (out of a total of around 100 eligible to sign), saying
That the Parliament congratulates South Lanarkshire Council on taking decisive action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools by introducing new guidance; condemns any promotion of creationism in publicly funded schools, including the reported distribution of creationist books at Kirktonholme Primary School; believes that creationism should not be presented as a scientific theory and viable alternative to the established theory of evolution, and supports the Society of Biology and the Scottish Secular Society position in opposing the teaching of creationism in the classroom.
(Happily, the time when South Lanarkshire was struggling with its response, concerning which more here, to the Kirktonholme scandal corresponded to the time when our petition was attracting maximum publicity.)
- And finally, this critical shift from merely saying that Creationism is not in the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught as part of science lessons.
There remains much cause for concern about how Creationism is presented in Religions, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) classes in Scotland. It is the laudable goal of RMPS to encourage pupils to make up their own minds between competing positions, but what if one of the positions, with many adherents in some parts of Scotland, is flat out wrong? It is difficult to maintain that an error-laden account of who we are and where we came from can be acceptable in RMPS, when it has been specifically excluded from the science classroom. The Creationist position cannot be discussed without presenting it, but how should we respond to a current textbook that states as a strength of Intelligent Design “Strong scientific arguments for the arguments properly researched according to scientific method,” none of which is true (in the context of the petition, see here and here; for more criticism see here)? Alasdair Allan has said in Parliament that Creationism should be discussed but not promoted, but where is the boundary between discussion and promotion? More on this in due course.
Text of Ministerial letter:
Mr Stewart Maxwell MSP
Education and Culture Committee
The Scottish Parliament
22 April 2015
Thank you for your letter of 18 March 2015 about the Education and Culture Committee’s consideration of Petition PE1530 from the Scottish Secular Society. I will reply to the points you have raised in turn:
Scottish Government position on Petition PE1530
Thank you for the opportunity to summarise the Scottish Government’s position on Petition PE1530, as was set out in the Learning Directorate’s letter of 15 December 2014 to the Public Petitions Committee.
While teachers will undoubtedly hold a wide range of views and opinions on religious, ethical and other matters, there are a number of safeguards already in place that are designed to ensure young people receive a balanced education. These include; a robust and independent school inspection regime, the positive influence on school life of Parent Councils, education authority and school management team oversight of what is being taught and presented within the school as a whole, a robust complaints process that is set out in statute, and an independent body established to set the professional standards expected of all teachers — the General Teaching Council of Scotland.
Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the “Principles and Practice” papers and the “Experiences and Outcomes” documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.
As you know the non-statutory curriculum is a long-standing feature of Scottish education. The difficulty of putting in place a ban for a specific issue, like Creationism in science, is that there will inevitably be calls for bans on other issues and the curriculum would risk becoming mired in legal arrangements. It is preferable to leave the curriculum to teachers and enable them to exercise their professional judgement on what is taught, rather than legislate to ban issues like Creationism in specific areas.
Prevalence of Creationism Teaching
Education Scotland’s science and Religious and Moral Education (RME) teams, along with HMI Subject Specialists, have engaged extensively with schools over the last two years. This includes visits to over 40 establishments as evidence gathering for the Sciences 3-18 Curriculum Impact Report; five sciences “conversation days” involving more than 250 stakeholders and Education Scotland engagement with many hundreds of teachers through events designed to support primary science and the new SQA sciences National Qualifications.
I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian. I can confirm that since these incidents were highlighted no concerns have been expressed to Education Scotland staff, either in the RME or Science teams, about the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines in Scottish schools and no school or teacher has sought guidance on this matter from Education Scotland. Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise.
Approaches to this issue in other parts of the United Kingdom
You will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to offer a view on how this issue is approached in other parts of the United Kingdom as this is a matter for the other UK administrations. My officials have sought information from their counterparts in the other UK administrations and there are aspects of their approaches that are similar to our own.
I remain confident that checks and balances are in place to ensure that the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines does not happen in school science classrooms in Scotland.
I hope the Committee finds this information of use.
Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages
Darwin Day 2015: Scotland’s creationist ‘dinosaur’ John Mason is fighting to take God back to school
With further memorable comments on creationism, miracles, and the age of the Earth.
Unfortunately, despite the headline, Mason is not fighting to take anything back. He is merely attempting to maintain the status quo. As I commented on the ibtimes site,
The shocking truth is that Mason is not fighting for change, but to maintain the status quo. He is reacting to attempts [Parliamentary Motion; Scottish Secular Society Petition] to get the Scottish Government to issue guidance to stop separate creation being presented in Scottish schools as a viable alternative to the established science of evolution and an old Earth. At present, no such guidance exists, and the Scottish Government, so far, is pretending that none is necessary.
Here, without cherry picking, is what Mason is reported as saying on the subject:
I don’t like creationism. It’s not a word that I ever use myself, like ‘fundamentalist.’ I’d see that as being a part of a package that’s more than a belief that god created the world. If that’s what you mean by creationism I’m fine with that, but I feel it has a lot of baggage. It gives a wrong impression.
I’m a mainstream Christian. The key thing is only that God created the world, I don’t get excited whether it’s six days or 6 million years. I don’t think timescale is important.
That’s why I put in the [Parliamentary] Motion with the option of God creating the world, be it over 6 days of six million years. That’s not fundamental to me. There are some things fundamental to Christianity, such as Jesus dying on a cross, but how long God took to create the world is not one of them.
In the words of the ibtimes reporter, Gareth Platt, Mason continues by insisting that neither creationism nor evolution can be proved by science. I want to press him on this… So, I ask my interviewee, how much proof do you need?
None of these positions can be disproved by science. Science has to know its limitations. The Bible says Jesus turned water into wine. Science can look at that wine but, assuming that miracle happened, science could not tell us whether that wine was five minutes or five months to make.
If God creates miracles, science is out of its depth. I don’t think science can make a statement on where we’ve come from, it is based on the assumption that God hasn’t created a miracle.
To discover something means finding out things that are already there. My fundamental belief is that God created the world and all the rules of science, so science cannot find out that god doesn’t exist. I’m totally committed to the truth so I want science to find out new things. Other people start off with the assumption that god does not exist, so there are assumptions being made on both sides.
The idea of a God that creates the world is a very central belief to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There’s nothing revolutionary about it. It is fundamental to the whole Christian belief that there is a creator, and Christianity would unravel if creationism was proved wrong.
I don’t see how you could be a Christian, Muslim or Jew and not believe that God created the world. Even those who accept evolution would say there was a God who set it in motion.
Concerning the East Kilbride scandal, Mason believes
that particular church probably went too far. It’s a privilege for any group to be operating in schools, we’ve got a long historical relationship between churches and schools and the state, [but] clearly we are now in a more secular society so the churches should be sensitive.
I am against abortion. I have no problem with gay rights, although I voted against same-sex marriage. But there’s a wider issue here. We’re trying to ensure that all minorities are respected, and there’s been more progress on some issues than others.
Let me comment briefly. I agree with John Mason when he says that we should be careful about how we use the word “creationism”, because it is so easy to slide from the general idea of God creating the world, to the specific anti-scientific belief that he did so more or less as described in some Iron Age document. Indeed, Mason does exactly that during the interview. That is why the Petition that I helped draft does not refer to “creationism”, but to “separate creation… as a viable alternative to the established science of evolution”
I also agree that if we assume a God who can do anything, it follows that he could have made a world that looks 4.5 billions (not just millions) of years old, within a universe that looks 13.8 billions of years old, in six days. I cannot imagine why he should wish to do any such thing, and indeed have said that I regard the suggestion is blasphemous, since it has him perpetrating the largest possible act of total deception. But let that pass. Perhaps John Mason has more insight into the mind of God than I do. However, if we are only supposed to teach those facts that could not be illusions resulting from a miracle, I don’t see how we can ever teach anything. After all, maybe the entire universe with all our memories was created only five minutes ago, by a God with a very twisted sense of humour. Science, I admit, can never disprove such a theory.
I am glad that John Mason admits that at Kirktonholme, the church “probably” went too far. As I commented on the ibtimes website, the church handed out, to every pupil in school assembly, two books saying, among other things, that dinosaur graveyards were the result of Noah’s flood, that radioactive dating is a trick to discredit the Bible, that evolution is an indefensible theory, and that the reason so many people accept it is in order to justify their moral irresponsibility. It does indeed show a certain lack of sensitivity to tell schoolchildren that the Curriculum for Excellence syllabus is a lie and that their science teachers are tricking them.
As for his final sentence about minorities, I do not have the faintest idea what he means. I know that some of John Mason’s allies pay me the compliment of reading my posts, and would be glad if one of them would tell me.
(I discussed this and related issues at the Humanist Society of Scotland’s Glasgow branch meeting on Sunday 15 February 2015)
The Parliamentary Motion
S4M-12148: That the Parliament congratulates South Lanarkshire Council on taking decisive action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools by introducing new guidance; condemns any promotion of creationism in publicly funded schools, including the reported distribution of creationist books at Kirktonholme Primary School; believes that creationism should not be presented as a scientific theory and viable alternative to the established theory of evolution, and supports the Society of Biology and the Scottish Secular Society position in opposing the teaching of creationism in the classroom.
Stewart Maxwell, SNP, West Scotland, Convener of the Education and Culture Committee, to which the Public Petitions Committee has forwarded our Petition.
In order of signing: Bill Kidd, SNP, Glasgow Anniesland; Christine Grahame, SNP, Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale; Kenneth Gibson, SNP, Cunninghame North; Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Green Party, Glasgow; Rob Gibson, SNP, Caithness, Sutherland and Ross; James Dornan, SNP, Glasgow Cathcart, substitute member, Education and Culture Committee; Richard Simpson, Scottish Labour, Mid Scotland and Fife; David Torrance, SNP, Kirkaldy (so that Spencer Fildes, Scottish Secular Society Chair, and sponsor of our petition, is his constituent), Deputy Convener, Public Petitions Committee; John Finnie, Independent, Highlands and Islands; Alison McInnes, Scottish Liberal Democrats, North East Scotland; Jean Urquhart, Independent, Highlands and Islands; Elaine Murray, Scottish Labour, Dumfriesshire; Joan McAlpine, Scottish National Party, South Scotland; Mary Fee, Scottish National Party, South Scotland; Tavish Scott, Scottish Liberal Democrats, Shetland Islands, substitute member, Education and Culture Committee; Mike MacKenzie, Scottish National Party, Highlands and Islands; Cara Hilton, Scottish Labour, Dunfermline; Claire Baker, Scottish Labour, Mid-Scotland/Fife; John Wilson, Independent, Central Scotland.
Note that support crosses party lines (only one Parliamentary Party is absent), and is strong in areas where creationism might be more of a problem, despite the possible electoral cost of opposing it.
I also note with some pleasure that two of the signatories were present when we gave evidence in favour of our petition.
The Kirktonholme Scandal, September 2013; all pupils in Assembly given copies of the extreme creationist pseudo-textbook Truth be Told; Exposing the Myth of Evolution, complete with images of dinosaurs as farmyard animals; for more details, see here and here and here.
The South Lanarkshire guidelines, formulated in the wake of this, ensuring proper supervision of chaplains, application of Curriculum for Excellence standards to their input, and school management accountability for their actions
The Scottish Secular Society petition, PE01530, now referred from the Public Petitions Committee to the Education and Culture Committee, as we had hoped. Petition Abstract (shown here yet again because of repeated real or affected misunderstanding):
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
Nothing more. No legislation needed, no attacks on religion, no restriction of discussion; only a ban on misrepresenting long-refuted doctrines as viable.
Re: PE01530 – Guidance on how creationism is presented in schools
I am writing on behalf of the Society of Biology, the single unified body for biology across the UK, as such we cover biological sciences and the teaching of biology in schools and universities. Our vision is to be recognised as the body responsible for supporting biologists and presenting their views in both public funding and policy debates and discussions of professional, procedural and societal matters. The Society
actively supports developments in schools across the UK; in Scotland this has been particularly as a core member of the Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish Science Education1 . We are therefore writing to convey our view on the proposal to offer Scottish schools guidance on the teaching of evolution and creationism in the science curriculum. As the voice of biology we advocate that biological evolution (together with the geological and astrophysical evidence on the history of the earth and universe) forms a core component of the biological sciences and as such should be taught in biology lessons, alongside the importance of an evidence-based approach to understanding our world. In contrast, creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas are not based on scientific evidence and therefore should not be taught in the context of a science class or presented as scientific theory.
We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage. When such topics arise in a science class there are opportunities to explain or explore why creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories. We encourage the Scottish Government to follow the strategy taken in other nations of the United Kingdom to provide clear guidance to schools and the teaching community stating explicitly that creationism and intelligent design are not considered to be scientific theories based on tested hypotheses, and therefore should not be taught in science lessons. Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
I regard that last sentence as particularly important. Teachers may well shy away from questions of this kind because of embarrassment at their lack of knowledge of how to deal with them (in the US, according to research published in Science, this is a problem even in the biology classroom). We would assume that in Scotland all specialist biology teachers will be well versed in evolution as part of their training, and hope that this is also true for other primary or secondary teachers dealing with the life sciences. We also think that science teachers need to be aware that creationism has no right to speak for religions, or indeed for any individual religion, as a whole, while all Religious and Moral Education teachers should be aware that creationism and what calls itself “Intelligent Design” have been thoroughly refuted.
We await further developments.
This morning, the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament held its third and final hearing on the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition PE01530. The meeting is archived here, and a transcript will be available in about a week here.
I quote this again, since the Petition’s opponents, with scant regard for the Commandment against bearing false witness, repeatedly claim that we want to shut down all discussion of religion, or of the Biblical account of creation, or whatever. Indeed, such claims were actually quoted at the Committee meeting, by members concerned to show suitable sensitivity towards the tender feelings of their own creationist constituents.
However, the issue was never really in doubt, given the support that our petition has received among Members of the Scottish Parliament; see here.
The Convener was admirably blunt in describing creationism as “bilge”, and while no one dissented from this, there was still some discussion as to whether it presented a real problem. Eventually, however, and without a division, the Petitions Committee agreed to our request to forward the Petition to the Education and Culture Committee for further consideration. We could not have hoped for a better outome.
I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the discussion stirred up by our Petition, individually or as members of organisations. By moving the issue into the limelight, instead of leaving it in the decent obscurity that many would prefer, you have stimulated an unprecedented level of debate, not only on this specific subject, but on the entire question of the appropriate role of religion in Scotland’s publicly funded schools.This is far more than I would have imagined possible at the outset, or even as recently as a week ago.
This is an issue that, in Scotland, cuts across party lines, and indeed the bulk of our recorded parliamentary support comes from members of the governing Scottish National Party, although the Government itself is still pretending that there is no creationism problem here.
For the record, I attach the Scottish Secular Society’s press release of this morning, and its list of links and sources. my own blog posts on the subject are all on this site, collected here. My posts on the interwoven topic of the Kirktonholme Creationist textbook scandal, and subsequent developments including the admirable new South Lanarkshire guidelines, are here. I will keep you informed of new developments, and, once more, I thank you.
SCOTTISH SECULAR SOCIETY SATISFIED ‘CREATIONISM’ PETITION TO GO BEFORE EDUCATION AND CULTURE COMMITTEE
· SSS seek guidance on how creationism is presented in schools
· PPC refer matter to E&CC
The Parliament Petitions Committee (PPC) has today advised the Education and Culture committee to look at the Scottish Secular Society’s petition on the teaching of creationism in schools. The SSS are very satisfied with this outcome, that Education and Culture committee are the people best placed to consider the matter and understand the importance of good science education to Scotland.
Spencer Fildes, Chair of the SSS said: “We are delighted that the Public Petitions Committee (P.P.C.) have agreed to refer our petition to the E&CC. Interestingly, the PPC specifically acknowledge the more stringent guidelines now in place across England and Wales regarding the teaching of creationism, they also noted although the E.I.S. and other professional bodies state there are safeguards in place for teaching staff, there were concerns within the PPC around the lack of safeguards regarding external third parties such as Chaplains and volunteers.
Unfortunately the obvious lack of safeguards allowed the teaching of creationism at Kirktonholme to flourish and go unnoticed for over 8 years. Encouragingly, South Lanarkshire have subsequently undertaken a complete overhaul of the delivery and presentation of religion in their schools, making it fairer for those of belief and those of none, with all proper safeguards and checks in place. An excellent example of a secular democracy at work.
They have actually implemented all the recommendations the Scottish Secular Society proposed in our last petition.”
Former Chair of the SSS, Caroline Lynch, said: “We are very pleased that the integrity of Scottish science education is taken seriously by the PCC, and that the appropriate committee will now be looking at this issue. It is important that they understand we seek no new law or ban on Creationism, but guidance that ensures that discussions of the creation myths of any religions featured in schools are conveyed in the appropriate place, the RME classroom. Guidelines mirroring those already in place in England need not stifle discussion and debate, but simply ensure that ideas without evidence are not given the stature of accepted science.”
Professor Paul Braterman, SSS board member and scientific advisor said: “I am very pleased that the committee showed awareness of dissatisfaction with the lack of guidelines within the teaching profession, although I regret that the Society of Biology was not mentioned, but I am pleased with this outcome and feel sure that the education and Culture Committee will take all this into account.”
Notes to Editors: –
Sir John Sulston, Sir Harold Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts.
Press release on Scottish Secular Society petition: –
Anger over move to teach intelligent design in school (The Herald):-
Faith has no place in the classroom (The Herald):-
Creationists take fire for wanting ‘objective’ education in Scottish schools (USA):-
Michael Zimmerman – “Creationism at Its Most Extreme: Will the Scottish Parliament Respond?”:-
Dr Alasdair Allan MSP Minister for Learning says he has complete confidence in teachers: –
Alastair Noble’s comments quoted in press release: –http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/would-you-adam-and-eve-it-top-scientists-tell-scottish-pupils-the-bible-is-true-1.1060545
Open letter from SSS to Mike Russell MSP Secretary for Education on 1 October 2013 asking for ban on teaching of creationism: –
Parliamentary TV footage of SSS petition and former Chair Caroline Lynch exposing Kirktonhome School scandal for first time at 11:00: –
This petition has already achieved more than we could have imagined. It has attracted major press coverage and comment in Scotland and beyond (details here and here), and a wide range of formal submissions, nearly all supportive (text of petition, official briefing, and submissions here). It has brought out into the open the entrenched position of creationists within the Scottish educational system, and further exposed the intellectual pretensions of the creationist Centre for Intelligent Design. I am sure that all MSPs were aware that there could be a political cost for attacking creationism. We have now shown that there is also a political cost for defending it.
Spencer and I testified before the Petitions Committee on November 11, 2014 (links to video and transcript here). The previous Committee had seriously considered killing the petition at that stage, but after a division that ran across party lines, decided to seek further input before reconsidering. Since then, there have been major personnel changes on the Committee; hence the need for us to go over in this Submission what will for some be familiar ground.
The next meeting is on Tuesday 27th January, when the Committee can either close (i.e. kill) the petition, or, as we hope, forward it to the Education Culture Committee. More news here as it becomes available.
Sincere thanks to all our friends and supporters, who have made this possible.
The version you see here is the one that is being presented to the Committee. The published version will as a matter of Parliamentary protocol omit certain details about individuals mentioned, but all these details have already been published, elsewhere, by the individuals or organisations concerned.
Scottish Secular Society, Petition PE01530, Final Submission
We are calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time. NB: “presentation” rather than “teaching”, since the problems generally arise from non-teacher visitors.
As the SPICe briefing makes clear, this is a very modest request. A simple policy statement would suffice. We are NOT calling for legislation, the walling off of science (or RE) from other subjects, or the restriction of discussion. We are not attacking religion, and one of our strongest and most informed support messages comes from the Reverend Michael Roberts who writes for the British Centre for Science Education. We merely call for the issuing of guidance against presenting to schoolchildren as true what we all know to be false.
The petition, whose 651 signatories included three Nobel Prize winners and numerous parents, teachers, educators, and scientists, has aroused widespread interest across Scotland and beyond. It has generated widespread media interest with over 25 reports, features and articles (including one in Forbes), and concern about the damage creationism can do to science education. Individual responses have been overwhelmingly supportive, as have institutional submissions from scientific and science education bodies including the Society of Biology, the UK’s leading professional association for the life sciences.
The Scottish Government’s initial response, like that of EIS, assumes that adequate safeguards are already in place. We demonstrated to the PPC, and show here again, that they are not, and that creationist influence in schools is institutionalised. The remaining opposition, including the pseudoscience of “Intelligent Design” against which the Society of Biology warns explicitly, is from a small, well organised group of committed creationists who we believe enjoy disproportionate influence within our education system.
Inaction will be seen (as it has already been seen) by creationists worldwide as a licence to continue their activities, causing damage to Scottish education, and to Scotland’s proud reputation for the advancement of knowledge, on which so much of our economic future depends. Our petition has attracted intense media attention, reflecting and amplifying deep public interest. Many now await the PPC’s next steps, either with anticipative glee or with deep concern.
CONSIDERATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
We respectfully suggest that the Committee forward our petition to the Education and Culture Committee, drawing attention to the following points emerging from the petition itself and the debate and submissions that it has stimulated:
- The problem of creationist infiltration into schools and the need for guidance need to be recognised.
- “Intelligent Design”, as currently presented, should be recognised as creationism in a pseudo-scientific disguise.
- Good teaching and honest thinking both require that there be no artificial division between what is acceptable in science classes, and what is acceptable elsewhere. (Here we agree strongly with EIS.)
- As recommended by the Society of Biology, teachers should be professionally encouraged to learn how to answer questions about creationism appropriately and sensitively. For example, RE teachers should be aware that creationism and ID are scientifically indefensible, while science teachers should be aware of the bogus nature of creationist pretensions to speak for religion as a whole.
Over the past few decades, some theologically conservative Protestants and Muslims have succumbed to the blandishments of “creation science” as such, or in the guise of “Intelligent Design”. As a result, there are numerous groups and individuals who under the labels of RE and RO gain access to schoolchildren, despite being committed to doctrines of separate creation and a young Earth that we all know to be false. This is a direct threat to the children’s understanding of biology and Earth sciences: their understanding of who they are and what kind of planet they live on. That this is done in the name of religion makes it no less harmful: on the contrary, it brings religion itself into disrepute. It is shameful that this is allowed to continue.
This is why we are compelled to act, and are, in the words of the abstract to our petition,
“Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.”
We are not requesting much, and certainly not asking for legislation. We merely seek a simple statement, similar to those in force in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We warned that refusal to make such a statement would be regarded by creationists[i] as a licence to continue their activities. This has already happened; Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, now the world’s most prominent Young Earth Creationist organisation, has welcomed the Scottish Government’s initial refusal in three separate web postings,[ii] while Scottish creationists will regard it as a green light.
At the time when EIS and the Scottish government made its initial response to our petition, they did not have access to the most authoritative of responses, that from the Society of Biology, and we urge them to use this opportunity to rethink their position. Most organisations responding, and all but one[iii] of many individuals, have supported the petition. Such opposition as there is from organisations, including the Scottish Government, assumes that present arrangements are adequate; this is demonstrably not the case. (See Appendix).
The petition has attracted widespread interest in Scotland and beyond. We have logged over 25 press mentions,[iv] including one from Forbes magazine[v] warning of Intelligent Design as a vehicle for creationism that may well succeed in Scotland.
OVERVIEW OF RESPONSES
The most authoritative of responses (DD) is from the Society of Biology, the UK’s largest Life Sciences professional body, which strongly supports us. This should be read both for its clear statement of the scientific issues, and for its sympathetic understanding of the problems facing teachers.
Out of 41 individual comments, 39 support the petition, one is opposed, and one too generalised to classify. Out of 43 written submissions, all but five support the petition; 34 of these are from individuals, all but one of whom write in support. These individual supporters include contributors with a range of experience and technical knowledge, and some of these speak from direct experience of the impact of creationist teaching in Scotland and elsewhere, while a former Edinburgh Head Teacher (Submission AA) speaks eloquently of creationist pressures and the need for the requested guidance. Of the contrary submissions, one (individual) is curiously off-topic, while two (A, Dr Noble, writing for the creationist[vi] Centre for Intelligent Design whose activities are among those that give us concern, and X, Ken Cunningham, writing for School Leaders Scotland) originate from the same small biblical literalist Fellowship Church, Cartsbridge, where Cunningham is Secretary and Elder, while Noble is Elder and both are frequent sermon-givers. We do not understand why Cunningham failed to disclose this conflict of interest, nor how he managed to ascertain SLS members’ opinions in the very short time frame before his submission.
Regarding the pretensions of Intelligent Design (Submission A), note that the Society of Biology, like the guidance language at force in England, explicitly mentions Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism, an assessment confirmed by the content of Dr Noble’s own submission, despite his denials (see endnote vi). You can believe the Society of Biology, the Association for Science Education, the Royal Society, and the combined statements(L) of the world’s Learned and Scientific Societies or you can believe Dr Noble, but you cannot believe both, and if you believe the Society of Biology and other supportive bodies you must conclude that what Dr Noble and his colleagues wish to impart is contradictory to the basic concepts of present-day life science, concepts whose fundamental importance is recognised in the Curriculum for Excellence.
The only two contrary submissions of substance (Scottish Government and EIS; BB and CC) assert without evidence (as does Cunningham) that the guidance we speak of is not necessary because adequate safeguards are in place, through professional and Local Authority supervision. In reality, the safeguards referred to do not exist, information on the problem is fragmentary, young Earth creationists have privileged access to schools as visitors, volunteers, and chaplains, unelected young Earth creationists are embedded in the supervising Local Authority Education Committees, and some of the bodies responsible for local education have told us that they do not possess the relevant information. More details in Endnote vii, and Appendix.
Out of the five organisational comments in support, three are particularly noteworthy. The (US) National Centre for Science Education (Submission L) have extensive experience of the damaging effect of creationism on education. The submission (B) from the British Centre for Science Education comes from a respected historian of geology who is also a school Governor and an Anglican priest and retired vicar. Above all, the submission (DD) from the Society of Biology, the organisation best qualified to speak on the issue, gives the strongest possible support. This was submitted on 10th November, no doubt in the hope that it would be available to the Committee when it heard evidence on this Petition, but through a failure in the Clerks’ Office was not published until 17th December, meaning that it was not available to the Scottish Government, nor to EIS, when they prepared for their submissions. This in itself is sufficient reason for the Government and the EIS to reconsider. We urge the PPC to give particular attention to these three submissions above all others.
We believe the Committee wrote in November to the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association and the Association of Heads & Deputes in Scotland, but they have elected not to comment.
EIS AND SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT RESPONSES
We agree with the EIS that there should be no banning of discussion of particular beliefs, and that there must not be separate rules for different parts of the syllabus. However, the safeguards they refer to are illusory. They refer to the General Teaching Council for Scotland as enforcer of standards, but our major concern is that the relevant standards do not exist. They also invoke the Local Authority as employer, but at least five authorities[vii] (Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, N. Ayrshire, S. Lanarkshire, Western Isles) have unelected appointees of extremist young Earth creationist churches sitting on their education committees. Several authorities have told us that information about creationist visitors is not collected or not stored, and almost all have refused Freedom of Information requests for lists of chaplains’ church affiliations, on the grounds that these are personal data.
We also note, concerning EIS’s mandate to speak for the teaching profession, that six individual supporters of the petition identify themselves as teachers and educators, while the only individual writing in opposition makes no such claim.
Finally the Scottish Government response, prepared through an administrative failure without the benefit of the Society of Biology’s opinion, asserts that monitoring and safeguards are adequate. How can this be true when a fundamentalist Alabama-based sect was allowed to operate within a school (Kirktonholme) for eight years, with input into RE and RO, as well as individual tutoring and out-of-hours activities on school premises, only coming to light when children brought home materials stating that the Bible is literal historical truth, that scientists who deny this do so out of wickedness, and that dinosaur graveyards are evidence of Noah’s Flood?
The Scottish Government claims that this is not really a matter for the Government, but for teachers. This is unconvincing when its own submission is signed by “Head of Curriculum Unit, Learning Directorate”. It assures us that “Education Scotland will continue to monitor, through the school inspection process and by other means, any instances where schools are not ensuring the teaching of science is based on well-established science and scientific principles.” We hope that this does not imply an artificial distinction, against which EIS explicitly warns, between “science” and “non-science” activities. The Government claims, as does EIS (and SLS!) with no evidence or descriptive detail, that present safeguards and reporting procedures are adequate. How can they be when a handful of amateurs, with help from concerned parents, have unearthed problems of which officialdom seems blissfully ignorant? And in conclusion, we note that Education Scotland promises to continue to monitor the situation. We hope that they will regard our own evidence here as input to that monitoring, and take appropriate action, as we ask.
THE BROADER CONTEXT
Finally we note that the fact this is an issue at all is part of a larger problem, which has already come to the attention of the PPC at least twice, namely the embedded privilege of religion, including in the present context biblical literalist versions of religion, in the Scottish educational system. Thus we have three unelected representatives of religion on every Council Education Committee, including at least six Young Earth creationists; pupils are expected by default to attend Religious Observance which, despite protestations, is almost invariably confessional; and chaplains and chaplaincy teams play a role in developing the Religious Education programme, although this is supposed to be neutral between different worldviews. In a society as diverse as 21st century Scotland, this is surely unsustainable.
APPENDIX: SOME EXAMPLES OF CREATIONIST INFLUENCE OR ACTIVITY IN SCOTTISH SCHOOLS
Although EIS refers to council authority Education Committees as a safeguard, these committees include, in Scotland, three appointees representing religion. One or more such appointees are from explicitly Creationist churches in at least 5 Councils (Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, N. Ayrshire, S. Lanarkshire, Western Isles), see Endnote vii.
There have been addresses by supporters of creationism (including ID) in Kelso High (source: Borders Council 2013), although in 2014 Borders reported that no such events had occurred in the previous 3 years), Bellahouston Academy (source: Glasgow City Council), and Williamwood (source: FaceBook posting), although East Renfrewshire Council denied knowledge of any such event.
Kirktonholme Primary pupils were handed textbooks that claimed that old Earth geology is a trick to discredit religion, that humans may have used dinosaurs as farm animals, and that there are human footprints in coal, among other gems. A chaplain linked to an Alabama creationist sect had been in place and advising on RE for 8 years.
Skerries School (a very small school since closed for unconnected reasons) showed US-supplied “creation science” material, despite being in a region (Shetland) that is among the least church-relating in Scotland. We do not regard this as major in itself, but as an indicator of the fragility of systems.
Five councils, when asked whether their schools had been visited by Centre for Intelligent Design or by Creation Ministries International, or “any other speakers who claim that macro-evolution is still speculative, or that the evidence supports separate creation over evolution, or a young Earth over an ancient Earth” said they did not hold the relevant information or did not fully answer as asked. (Source: FoI request responses). These were Fife, W Dunbartonshire, N. Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Inverclyde. East Renfrewshire said they had had no such visits, evidently unaware of Rev Gordon Murray’s talk at Williamwood.
Western Isles reports with commendable frankness: “Ministers of religion will regularly visit schools as part of the churches’ contribution to religious observance or the Religious and Moral Education curriculum. Such visits occur weekly in many of our primary schools. Although the topic for study or reflection may not always be ‘The Creation’, it is possible that discussions may arise from time to time. It is not possible for us to provide a confirmation of each local minister’s views on the topics you have referred to in this request. The Education & Children’s Services department would not hold this information.”
Highland reports: “Schools do not always keep records of these visits … Schools may also have associated chaplains who speak at assemblies or lead religious observance. It is possible that chaplains might make reference to creationism, but this is not recorded by schools or the Council. The Council, therefore, unable to answer your question with any certainty.”
Glasgow City Council refused to reply to an enquiry about all schools (describing it as “too onerous”), but reported specifically on Secondary Schools (see note on Bellahouston Academy, above).
We hear a steady stream of reports of creationist activity and individual schools, although parents are understandably reluctant to complain about or publicise such matters. A school in Kirkcaldy had children paint a “Six Days of Creation” mural, and then denied having done so until challenged with photographic evidence (which we presented when submitting oral testimony and added to the records). We have also heard of the school in the Highlands with a “Creation Corner”, where children displayed such artwork. A parent asking “Where is Evolution Corner?” attracted hostile silence. Schools in Peterhead, according to a former teacher, have links to a wide range of ultra-creationist churches, including the US-based Living Waters.
Information on creationist chaplains is fragmentary, but we have some information from the churches themselves, or from what a few councils have seen fit to supply. In North Lanarkshire, John Dick, who told a parent that evolution is ridiculous because 6,000 years wasn’t long enough for it, is a full time employee of Craighalbert Church, a fundamentalist fringe group with US Evangelical connections. His listed qualification is that he was saved as a child, and his Church says that he serves on the Chaplaincy teams of Cumbernauld Primary, Woodlands Primary, Glencryan High, and Cumbernauld High. Freedom City Church also supplies at least one school in North Lanarkshire, and the creationist freelance MAD (Making A Difference) Ministries has visited. South Lanarkshire when asked in 2013 had 19 separate representatives of creationist churches in its chaplaincy teams, not counting Scripture Union which is frequently although not necessarily creationist.
Challenger buses, of which there are now three, visit schools ostensibly to provide RE, but this RE includes hymn singing, which raises questions about how they see their role. It is run by People With A Mission Ministries, whose website portrays, with approval, young Earth creationist material supplied by Answers in Genesis.
None of this seems have come to the attention of the regulatory authorities, on whom EIS, SLS, and the Scottish Government are asking us to rely. This to us indicates deep structural inadequacies, which our petition seeks, in part, to address.
[i] By “creationism” we mean, throughout, the separate creation of different living kinds, in contrast with the established science of common descent. This should be clear from our Abstract.
[ii] Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/in-schools/academic-freedom-under-fire-scotland/, http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/09/07/nobel-winning-scientists-push-for-ban-of-creation-in-scottish-schools/, http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/12/23/scottish-government-rejects-creation-ban/
[iii] The only hostile individual submission, R, is an off-topic ad hominem attack and garbles the science.
[vi] As Prof Braterman testified in person and in Submission C, the C4ID submission, A, is clearly creationist in that it denies that common ancestry (“macro evolution”) is established science and that the natural processes of evolution can give rise to new information. For a more detailed critique of C4ID’s “introductory pamphlet”, see http://robertsaunders.org.uk/wordpress/c4ids-introduction-to-intelligent-design-a-critique/ by Dr Robert Saunders, reader in Molecular Biology in the Open University (who also, in Submission J, endorses the points raised by Prof Braterman in Submission C), and http://wp.me/p21T1L-nY by Prof Braterman. Intelligent Design is also explicitly mentioned as a form of creationism in the authoritative Submission DD, from the Society of Biology.