No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts
I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted
Insulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/08/questions-atheists-find-insulting/. Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.
For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.
Why am I discussing this?
I don’t often talk about the fact that I’m an atheist. That’s because it’s usually irrelevant, especially as I collaborate with diverse groups of believers and unbelievers, in my attempts to share my scientific interests, protect education from theocratic interference, and advance my humanitarian agenda. I also exercise reasonable tact in discussing emotionally laden issues. The existence or otherwise of gods is an emotionally laden issue, especially for believers, but there is no shortage of emotionally laden issues in other areas, from economic theory to football. And the idea that atheism needs special protection is, for me, anathema.
What are the questions, and what are my answers?
Ok, then, here are the questions to which Christina objects (I think it’s fair use in a review like this to just copy them), which she doesn’t want to hear again because she believes she has answered them once and for all, and, for what they’re worth, my own answers, which I promise you are a lot shorter than hers:
- How can you be moral without believing in God?
- How do you have any meaning in your life?
- Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
- Isn’t atheism just a religion?
- What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
- Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
- But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
- What if you’re wrong?
- Why are you atheists so angry?
1.We don’t derive our morality from God. None of us do. We derive it from social norms, and our shared humanity, and then use gods to rationalise it. How, after all, do we know that what God wants is good, unless we know what good means already? (This argument goes back at least as far as Plato, and is related to Hume’s observation that we can’t derive morals from facts alone, whatever Sam Harris may say.) One reason for the current decline of religion in the West is the clear superiority of morality based on humanity to that based on traditional religion, in attitudes towards women, gays, minorities, and dissenters.
2.No, I’m not going to give you a recipe for finding meaning. You have to find your own.
3.Russell’s Teapot. I cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a china teapot circling the Sun, but it requires a lot more faith to believe in its existence than in its nonexistence.
4.I can’t improve on Penn Jillette: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.
5.I agree. The atheist and mainly atheist groups I belong to are united by such things as examining morality, improving education, and learning about current controversies. Atheism is not enough.
6.I have seen, and heard of, horrible things, and if I did believe in God, I would indeed hate him.
7.Of course I have. But as evidence, I don’t find it terribly convincing.
8.Pascal’s Wager. But what if there is a God who values integrity, who will reject those who accepted him out of hope for reward, and accept those who rejected him out of conviction?
9.I am very angry, and so should you be. I am angry about current inequalities of wealth and power; about the damage done by denial of global warming, evolution, and the usefulness of vaccines; and about the privileged access of Churches to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, where I live. But I trust I would be equally angry about these things if I were, myself, a believer. I certainly ought to be, unless my religion had corrupted my morality.
And on occasions, like this one, I am angry at those who presume to speak for me.
Saving the worst till last
But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking.
No, I do not expect people to do an online search before I condescend to talk to them about my beliefs, or the lack of them. Perhaps, after all, they want a conversation, are interested in seeing how an actual person responds, want to get to know me better, or simply want to spend time over a pint. And I detest the collective “we”; it should be obvious from the above examples that the way I field these questions is very different from the way someone else might. We are, after all, discussing questions about how we as individuals view the world, rather than questions about how the world is. So it is the height of arrogance for any of us to speak for the atheist community, as if we were compelled to march in step. Nor do I see any bigotry in someone being genuinely puzzled as to how I can differ from them over any of these questions, and I do not think they are dehumanising me by wanting to know more. The very opposite, in fact.
As for ” religious privilege embedded in the very asking,” yes indeed, but the questioner is probably completely unaware of this fact, and the best way to make them aware is to answer the questions, in good faith, on their merits.
No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts. And if we grant those we disagree with the common courtesy of putting forward their own views in their own words, and the further courtesy of actually listening to them, then we, too, might learn something.
Image: Greta Christina at Skepticon 2014, Mark Schierbecker via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence 4.0
Update: for a powerfully argued expression of the counter-view, see https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/trump-namazie-islam-free-speech-and-the-left/.
https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/114003 (you need to be a UK citizen or resident to sign). Well over half a million signatures to date.
After all, aren’t I supposed to be an advocate of free speech?
“The United Kingdom is trying hard to disguise their massive Muslim problem. Everybody is wise to what is happening, very sad! Be honest.”
“We have places in London and other places that are so radicalised [by Muslims] that the police are afraid for their own lives. We have to be very smart and very vigilant.” [The Metropolitan Police, and Boris Johnson MP as Mayor of London, have both denounced this inflammatory falsehood]
These remarks are not merely disconnected from reality, but cross the line into hate speech, illegal in the UK. I do not think it should be, short of provocation of violence, but we do not have to provide a platform for it.
The counter-argument, however, also deserves respect: It would not be the UK as an entity but whoever invited Trump (if only himself), who provided the platform. It would be censorship to prevent him from mounting it. Trump, of course, is himself ill-placed to use such an argument, since he would ban all Muslims from entering the US, but that is not really the point.
I leave readers to choose between these two mutually exclusive positions. Each has its own set of problems, and there is no way to split the difference.
One final argument. To quote the petition itself:
The UK has banned entry to many individuals for hate speech. The same principles should apply to everyone who wishes to enter the UK.
If the United Kingdom is to continue applying the ‘unacceptable behaviour’ criteria to those who wish to enter its borders, it must be fairly applied to the rich as well as poor, and the weak as well as powerful.
And that. for me, is the clincher. Even if you think that governments should not be barring visitors with unpalatable and inflammatory opinions, they do. As long as such powers exist and are used, they should be used in this case also.
“And if he insists on being killed … then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.”
Sheikh Kamal El Mekki, who expounds with apparent approval the law on beheading ex-Muslims, spoke this February at Trinity College Dublin. Maryam Namazie, equal law campaigner, ex-Muslim and prominent critic of political Islam, was, after agreeing to speak in March, presented with conditions impossible to accept. We know from Trinity News, the excellent student newspaper, that El Mekki’s talk went ahead without restrictions despite concerns expressed by the President of the Students Union. We know from Maryam’s blog that her talk was cancelled, by the College, not her, and that she remains eager to speak there.
An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, and was sent on Monday March 30 to the three TDC staff named here, with invitation to comment. None has chosen to do so. So today, April 6, I am sending them this version.
El Mekki is on video (embedded in the Trinity newspaper report; also circulating under the curious title “The apostate – funny”), at an event organised by the AlMaghrib Institute (of which more below) in July 2011, describing how he explained to a Christian missionary the law about apostasy. The missionary was complaining because of his lack of success in Morocco, which he attributed to the law  against apostasy. In reply, El Mekki, visibly amused at the missionary’s predicament, draws an analogy between apostasy and treason (a justification that when examined makes matters worse), and goes on to explain
It’s not like somewhere you heard someone leaves Islam and you just go get him and stuff like that. First of all it’s done by the authorities, there are procedures and steps involved. First of all they talk to him, yeah, about, yanni, the scholars refute any doubt that he has on the issue, they spend days with him refuting and arguing with him, trying to convince him. Then they might even, yanni, threaten him with the sword and tell him ‘You need to repent from this because if you don’t you repent you will be killed.’ And if he insists on being killed that means really, really believing in that. And then, after the procedures take their toll, and then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.
“Yanni,” a common interection in Arabic, means “kind of.” I wonder how one “kind of” threatens someone with the sword. However, we are left with the impression that El Mekki would be opposed to recent well-publicised Jihadist beheadings, not out of any objection to beheading as such, but because of failure to conform to the proper procedures.
An on-line search also led me to here, where you can see El Mekki explaining why amputation is a more humane form of punishment than imprisonment.
Sheikh El Mekki’s response to criticism was reported by the student newspaper. He said that the clip had been taken out of context and was an excerpt from a 39-hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice, and wrote in response to questioning
[In the clip,] I first deal with the issue from the historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practice. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who thought they had the right to carry out that law in America…. I believe the best way to stop extremism is through moderate Muslims and Imams speaking against it.
I leave it to readers to evaluate this claim to be a moderate in the light of his views on amputation and beheading. For the full text of El Mekki’s statement, see Footnote .
El Mekki spoke at Trinity on February 25 at an event, open to all, jointly organised by the Muslim Students Association and a body called the alMaghrib Institute; for one of many critiques from within Islam of this Insititute’s strict Salafism, see this, from the al Sunna Forum. (Salafism is a rigid, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual form of Islam, closely related to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.) It was the alMaghrib Institute that had earlier hosted his remarks on beheading and amputation. It has branches in 12 countries, including the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. and offers its own degree and diplomas, the curriculum for which includes a module on “Signs of the last day”, which are “All Around Us”.
Trinity News reported that eight students had expressed concerns over El Mekki’s visit, among them the President of the Student Union, and an ex-Muslim student who is not willing to be named because of the implications for his own safety. However, Joseph O’Gorman, strategic development officer for the Central Societies Committee (CSC), told McGlacken-Byrne that he “cannot see why there can even be a discussion about cancelling the event or not”. According to the CSC web page , Mr O’Gorman
is responsible for the development of the CSC’s long term strategy. The SDO [Strategic Development officer, i.e., currently, O’Gorman] ensures that the support that the CSC gives societies matches their needs as much as possible. The SDO works with the College Civic Development Officer and the Dean of Students to ensure that College neither forgets the importance of societies to the well-being of students and of the College nor that societies exist for students not for College’s own strategic aims. The SDO is responsible for the training and mentoring of the CSC Executive and Officers.
Maryam Namazie (shown R at the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain’s 5th anniversary meeting) is an outspoken ex-Muslim, vocal opponent of the creeping institutionalisation of Sharia law in British society, and well-known activist on behalf of freedom of thought, women’s rights, and human rights in general. (I have written here before about her role in the successful campaign to persuade London’s Law Society to withdraw its ill-judged guidance on the drafting of Sharia-based wills.) She was invited to speak at Trinity College Dublin on March 23rd, and the event was openly advertised by Maryam and on the inviting society’s Facebook page.
After she had already bought her ticket, she was contacted by that society, to tell her that Trinity was imposing conditions on her talk. In Maryam’s words on her own blog and also on the One Law for All website,
I’ve just been informed, however, that college security (why security?) has claimed that the event would show the college is “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”; they threatened to cancel my talk. After further consultation with college management, they have decided to “allow” the event to go ahead with the following conditions:
* All attendants of the event must be 1) Trinity students and 2) members of the society hosting the talk.
* For “balance”, they require that a moderator host the event; Prof. Andrew Pierce of the Irish School of Ecumenics has kindly agreed to do so.
I, however, will not be submitting to any conditions, particularly since such conditions are not usually placed on other speakers.
I intend to speak on Monday as initially planned without any restrictions and conditions and ask that TCD give me immediate assurances that I will be able to do so.
Dr Andrew Pierce is an Assistant Professor in Ecumenics, and Course Co-Ordinator of the M.Phil. in Intercultural Theology & Interreligious Studies. It is not clear whether he was aware that he had been invited to moderate behind Maryam’s back. If he was not aware, he should say so. If he was aware, he has betrayed his academic calling by colluding in this disgraceful episode.
It is worth reiterating that, although the ostensive issue was security, Noel McCann, the TCD Facilities Officer, told one of the students involved in organising the event that Maryam’s talk would (unlike El Mekki’s?) show the college as “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”. He also asked how “could she come and say whatever she wants without a moderator” and “with half the world knowing about it”. He also threatened to cancel the talk and said that he was meeting with “highest management of Trinity” to discuss whether the event would be “allowed” to go ahead.
On learning that Maryam refused to accept these conditions, Trinity revoked the invitation, while leaving the student society involved and Trinity News under the impression that it was Maryam who had withdrawn.
In truth, Maryam remains eager to speak at TCD, as initially arranged and without imposed conditions, and has said so repeatedly.
So there we have it. According to TCD’s criteria, it is legitimate for a college society to host, at an open meeting, someone who gives every impression of approving the idea of cutting Maryam’s head off, provided due procedures are followed. However, Maryam herself is such a dangerous character that her presence requires a moderator, and the well-being of students demands that only members of the society that had invited her be exposed to her opinions.
I am sending Prof Pierce, Joseph O’Gorman, and Noel McCann copies of this piece, and invite their comments.
Disclosure: I have met Maryam and we have corresponded several times. I have not met or corresponded with any of the other individuals named here.
1] Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions (Law Library of Congress, May 2014) reports that
Morocco does not impose the death penalty against apostates under the provisions of its Penal Code. However, in April 2013, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars issued a religious decree (fatwa) that Moroccan Muslims who leave Islam must be sentenced to death. Religious decrees are significant because Islam is the official state religion under article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution of 2011.54 Additionally, under article 41 of the Constitution, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars “is the sole instance enabled [habilitée] to comment [prononcer] on religious consultations (Fatwas).”
Apostasy is explicitly punishable by death according to the legal codes of Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Maryam’s native Iran,
While Iranian law does not provide for the death penalty for apostasy, the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Sharia’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders).
2] This, posted by a student on Facebook, is the fullest version I could find of El Mekki’s explanation:
That clip you watched was a five-minute excerpt from a 39 hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice. I first deal with the issue from a historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practise. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who felt they had the right to carry out that law! I believe that part of my responsibility as an educator is to work against any aspect that may lead to the radicalisation of Muslims. I have an entire course where one of the main themes is that bringing Sharia Law to the west has never been one of the objectives of Islam. At the end of the day, you find yourself attacked by Jihadi’s [sic] and extremists on the one end, and misquoted by those who have other agendas on the other. I make the above points crystal clear to students, but I have no control over which clips people isolate and pulled on the internet; and definitely no control over those who purposely take them out of context! Extremism is something that needs to be dealt with, yet those who deal with it in the Muslim communities are misquoted and made to appear as the ones that should be stopped from speaking. Doesn’t seem conducive to ending the problems that plague us! I will continue to be vocal and speak and critique what is wrong. I have not spared any one or group that advocates violence and that is what all our [the al-Maghribi Institute’s] instructors continue to do.
(I would invite readers to watch the clips in question, if they wish to evaluate this explanation.)
Public pressure works. Readers who followed my earlier suggestion and backed BHA’s Write-to-your-MP campaign, take heart. If you haven’t yet done so, do it now; the message has been updated to cover the most recent developments. And all of us, take note. Publicity, and public reaction, do make a difference.
BHA has told us that the Oxford-Cambridge-RSA Examination Board has reversed its earlier policy of allowing schools to censor its questions because of their religious beliefs, and I do not believe that this would have happened without exposure and public outcry.
Last summer we discovered that two schools had redacted questions before the students sat the exams. We immediately launched malpractice investigations and brought the issue to the attention of the Regulator, Ofqual.
We also alerted Ofsted and the Department for Education as we felt that it raised more general concerns that extended beyond matters of assessment, to the delivery of the National Curriculum and student entitlement. We also raised the issue with our fellow Awarding Bodies.
We have now been able to consider our position and have concluded that as a matter of policy schools should not be permitted to tamper with question papers prior to a student sitting an exam (in cases where changes are required to facilitate disabled candidate access, adjustments are made by the Awarding Body).
(Notice, by the way, the reference to two schools. As far as I know, only one of them, Yesodey Hatorah, had become public knowledge.)
There’s more. Ofqual,the Government body responsible for examination standards, now says
Having looked into the issue, we concluded that while the practice was very rare, it should not be allowed.
Denying learners access to all the questions on a paper prevents the candidate achieving their full potential and therefore disadvantages them. It also threatens the validity of the qualification.
If awarding organisations suspect that schools or centres are redacting exam papers in the future we would expect them to act in the same way as they would for any other case of malpractice.
And more. As BHA reports, the Government has revised the single Academies model funding agreement to bring it in line with the Free Schools model funding agreement in preventing Academies from teaching pseudoscience and to require the teaching of evolution.
Two cheers at best. These requirements apply only to new Academies, not to those already agreed. Nor does it apply to those that are part of chains (yes, we have chains of schools, like chains of supermarkets, in Con-Dem England). And a further regulation for new individual Free Schools says
The Academy Trust must ensure that so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with [faith-based admissions, Religious Education and Collective Worship] and the Equality Act 2010, the policies and practices adopted by the Academy (in particular regarding curriculum, uniform and school food) enable pupils of all faiths and none to play a full part in the life of the Academy, and do not disadvantage pupils or parents of any faith or none [emphasis added].
Ominous language. What if a school claims that it is not practical to teach evolution, or that its ethos requires creationism to be taught as sacred truth in Religious Education? And a further requirement “that principles are promoted which support fundamental British values” raises other concerns, presupposing as they do that Government has the right to define such values.
Nonetheless, the take-home message is clear. Keep pushing. We are not faced, as we should be, with an open door, but neither are we face with one that is securely bolted against us. Numerous issues, which I have mentioned many times, remain, but both Government and other bodies are to some extent at least responsive to public opinion. It is up to us to keep on reminding them that we, the defenders of science, are part of that public.
Photo ALAMY from here
Readers in England in particular, please write to your MP in support of the BHA campaign to combat Creationism, including Creationism in publicly funded schools; details here. The rest of this post is an explanation of why, shockingly, such action is necessary. In post-principle politics, it would be naive to suggest that this or perhaps any feasible alternative Government is really interested in the merits. The Creationists are a coherent constituency, who make their voices heard. Defenders of scientific reality (regardless of their position on religious matters) must do likewise. Dr Evan Harris assures us, and he should know, that 20 letters to an MP are a lot (Glasgow Skeptics 2011). So the readership of this column, alone, is enough to make a real contribution. Do it. And ask your friends to do likewise.
The school “will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.”
Yesodey Hatorah (Charedi Jewish) Senior Girls School blacked out questions about evolution on pupils’ science exams in 2013. One wonders how this was even possible, given that exam papers are supposed to be sealed until opened at the specified time in the presence of the pupils. However, when the relevant Examination Board, OCR, investigated, they were satisfied that no students had received an unfair advantage, and took no action. The Board now tells Ofqual, the government agency responsible for the integrity of examinations, that it intends “to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will … respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.” And OCR’s chief executive says the case has “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools.
It gets worse; or perhaps it doesn’t. The school now says that it does teach evolution, but in Jewish Studies, that “there are minute elements within the curriculum which are considered culturally and halachically [in terms of Jewish law] questionable” (evolution a minute element!), that “This system has successfully been in place within the charedi schools throughout England for many years,” and that “we (the school) have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” The latest word, however, is that this agreement, and Ofqual’s acquiescence, may be unravelling under scrutiny, illustrating the importance of public awareness and response.
Creationist Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm claims 15,000 school visitors annually and boasts of Government body award
Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol, which claims to be visited by 15,000 schoolchildren annually, promulgates the view that Noah’s Ark is historic (and indeed, pre-historic), displays posters arguing that apes and humans are too distinct to share a common ancestor, and suggesting how the different kinds of animal could have been housed in the Ark, which it regards as historical (Professor Alice Roberts reported on her own visit last December; I have discussed the Zoo Farm’s reaction to her account) . The giraffes, for instance, would according to one poster have been housed in the highest part of the vessel, next to the T. Rex (Hayley Stevens, private communication).
This Zoo Farm recently received an award from the Council for Learning Outside the Curriculum, which justified itself by referring to”education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints; giving them the tools needed to be proactive in their own learning and develop skills to enable them to make well informed decisions.” Connoisseurs of creationism will recognise this as a variant of the “teach the controversy” argument, which advocates presenting creationism and real science as alternatives both worthy of consideration, and inviting schoolchildren to choose between them.
“We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”
Evolution will become part of the National Curriculum in 2014. However, that curriculum is not binding on Academies or Free Schools. The Government assures us that this is not a problem, because all schools need to prepare for external exams, and these exams, of course, include evolution. Exams that the schools have now been openly invited to censor. There is supposedly clear guidance for state-funded schools in England. Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has declared himself “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and official guidance to Free School applicants states “We would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. We do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school.”
The reality however is that what are clearly creationist establishments do get government funding. Creationist preschools, to which the guidance does not apply, can and do receive public money through nursery vouchers, while being run by organisations such as ACE (see below) that openly teach rigid biblical creationism along with even more rigid gender roles. BHA knows of 67 nursery schools that are run by Creationist or other organizations that openly reject the basics of biology. Some of these directly teach Adam-and-Eve history as fact that must be believed, and Government funding to these nursery schools may also be indirectly underwriting primary and secondary schools run by the same organizations.
“We will teach creation as a scientific theory”
In addition, a number of Academies and Free Schools have been licensed despite clear warning signals. Grindon Hall Christian School , formerly private, was licensed to receive public funding in 2012, despite a record of teaching creationism, and a website Creation Policy, hastily deleted after it received public attention, which stated “We will teach creation as a scientific theory”. Newark School of Enterprise, until recently expected to open in 2014, is a thinly disguised relabelling of Everyday Champions Church School, which was originally denied licensing because of its obvious links to a creationist church. (Last month, it was announced that the Government had withdrawn support for the school on other grounds.) Ibrahim Hewitt, of the Association of Muslim Schools, has said that his members’ schools, including six state-funded ones, taught children about Darwin, because they had to, but they also taught a different, Koranic view. The ill-fated al-Madinah School originally specified “Darwinism” as un-Koranic on its website, but under “curriculum” now says only “We are committed to providing a broad and balanced curriculum for all our pupils. Further information will be available in due course.”
In the private sector, we have Christian Schools Trust (CST), with 42 schools. Some of these are applying for “Free Schools” status; so far unsuccessfully, but Tyndale Community School, which has been approved, is run by Oxfordshire Community Churches which also runs the CST Kings School in Whitney. CST schools teach Genesis as historical fact, with the Fall as the source of all evil, and discuss evolution in such a way as to make it seem incredible. According to the Ph.D. thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder and core team member of CST, 75% of students end up believing in Noah’s ark. Dr Baker, author of Bone of Contention and other creationist works, is also directly linked to Genesis Agendum, a “creation science” website, and language in her style appears in the related WorldAroundUs “virtual museum”, which claims to show that
evolution and old Earth geology are outdated scientific paradigms in the process of crumbling (for a detailed analysis of the museum’s arguments, see here, where I describe it as a “museum of horrors”). Since 2008, CST and the Association of Muslim Schools have shared their own special inspectorate, of which Sylvia Baker is a board member. So the foxes placed in charge of the hen house have under two successive Governments been entrusted with the task of evaluating their own stewardship.
In an even grosser scandal, NARIC, the National Academic Recognition Information Centre, has approved the ICCE advanced certificate, based on Accelerated Creation Education (ACE), as equivalent to A-level. ACE has claimed, and in the US still does claim, that Nessie is evidence for a persistence of dinosaurs, and teaches that evolution has been scientifically proven false, and that those who accept its “impossible claims” do so in order to reject God. This in a text that prepares students for a certificate that NARIC would have us accept as preparation for the study of biology at university. And NARIC is the body that provides information on qualifications on behalf of the UK Government.
The ACE curriculum’s straw man version of evolution
In all these cases, the actual offence is compounded by official complacency or collusion. I can only guess at why is this allowed to happen, but among relevant factors may be official concerned with procedures rather than outcomes, scientific illiteracy among decision-makers, free market forces (the exam boards, after all, are competing for the schools’ business), misplaced respect for differences, and electoral calculation. Religious zealots form an organised political pressure group, while their reality-orientated co-religionists are far too slow to condemn them. Ironically, these co-religionists have even more to lose than the rest of us, as their institutions are subverted from inside, and their faith brought into disrepute.
In response, those of us who oppose the forces of endarkenment must become recognised as a constituency, not necessarily in any formal sense, but in the sense that politicians are aware of the depth of our concerns. Numbers are increasingly on our side, since young people are more sceptical than their elders, and Humanists, secularists, Skeptics, and even geeks are our natural allies. And so, on this issue, are liberal-minded believers from all faiths. There is need for coordinated public pressure, through teachers’ organisations, other educational bodies and learned societies, publicity and protests after specific cases revealed, and campaigns such as the BHA letter-writing campaign that is the subject of this post. So here, once more, is the BHA link: Use it.
For other posts on the issues discussed here, as they apply in England and Scotland, see Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission; PhD Thesis of Sylvia Baker, founder of “Christian” (i.e. Creationist) Schools Trust; Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm Responds to Criticism; ACE Infantile creationist burblings rated equivalent to UK A-level (school leaving; University entrance) exams; and Young Earth Creationist books handed out in a Scottish state school. Poster displayed at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, image by Pip through Wikipedia Commons. This post is based on a talk I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society on March 16, 2014.
Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission
England’s largest examination board, OCR, has agreed to let publicly funded schools censor (“redact” in official sanitised language) examination questions involving evolution if they offend the religious sensibilities of the schools concerned. You will find more details here and here and here. The Sunday Times story on the subject neglects to mention the key fact of Government involvement, but quotes further disturbing comment from the exam board.
Last summer, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ High School in north London blacked out questions on evolution from science exams. OCR investigated the matter, concluded that no student had gained any unfair advantage from this procedure, and took no further action. Yesodey Hatorah follows Charedi Judaism, an extreme sect that does not allow access to television or social media, and does not encourage its daughters to take part in further education.
We now have the exam board’s explanation of their position, and the explanation is far worse than the offence. It is a pre-emptive cringe in the face of censorship. The Government colludes, confirming long-standing fears that its official commitment to teaching real science is a hollow sham.
We know all this because the National Secular Society raised the Yesodey Hatorah incident with England’s Department for Education under the Freedom of Information Act, and was told that a “proportional and reasonable response” had been agreed with the school. According to the NSS,
The Department’s response reveals that that faith schools will still be permitted to redact questions they don’t approve of as long as this is done in collaboration with the exam board. Setting out the response to the uncovering of exam malpractice, OCR wrote to the [governmental] exam regulator Ofqual, stating:
“In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”
But maybe this is just a one-off? No. As the Sunday Times reports, the Chief Executive of OCR also said that such redaction had
“significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools”
So the right of these schools to censor exams is to be respected, provided exam board agrees, but the exam board, as a prelude to negotiating with the schools, has announced that it is going to respect their need to censor in view of their religious beliefs, because otherwise
“we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”
There ought to be “a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates,” and for the best of all possible reasons. One of the most important functions of the exam system is to impose generally recognised standards on the schools whose students take those exams. To allow schools to censor the exposure of their students to the central concept of the life sciences is to default on this vital function.
Indeed, Government policy relies on the examination boards carrying out this function. The Education Minister assures us that as of this September, Yesodey Hatorah, a voluntary aided school, will be required to teach evolution because it is part of the National Curriculum. However, the Free Schools being so recklessly created at the moment are not required to follow that Curriculum. The Government tells us that such a requirement is unnecessary, because the Free Schools will have to follow good educational policy, in order to prepare their pupils for exams.
Exams which, as is now clear, the schools will be allowed to censor.