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Geology, evolution and Christianity in the 19th century

This by my friend the geologist, historian, and Anglican priest Michael Roberts, reminding us that the acceptance and active participation of clergymen and other believers in the emerging sciences of biology and evolution dates back more than three centuries.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

If you read many historical studies of Britain in the 19th century, you will read that a major conflict was over science. That claim is overstated. Here is a brief overview.

 Geology (Deep Time) and Evolution?

From reading many books on church history, general history or popular science, it is easy conclude  that advances in geology in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then evolution after 1859 had gradually been undermining belief in God as Creator as well as an almost official literal reading of the early part of the book of Genesis. The actuality is rather different.

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Genesis 1 from a 1611 copy of the KJV

So often the work of Archbishop James Ussher is cited as the “official” view of the churches. In 1656 he published his Annales Veteris Testamenti (Annals of the Old Testament) which gave the famous date of creation as 4004BC. (Actually, it has…

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Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism

Long but worth it. See in particular the section “Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist”. This post exposes Young Earth Creationism as a 20th-century heresy, with sinful disregard for reality. It also considers from the inside (as I cannot) the claims Creationists make based on Christian faith, and dismantles them. Compare my own posts Biblical literalism as blasphemy and Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics, extensive writings by my friend the geologist historian priest Michael Roberts, at Peddling and Scaling  and elsewhere, and Numbers’ detailed scholarly analysis  The Creationists.

For my own blog, I’ve settled on Primate’s Progress as title; a clear favourite. Many thanks to those who shared your thoughts on the matter, here and elsewhere. H/t John Bunyan, of course, but I shall do my best to avoid the Slough of Despond.

Letters to Creationists

SUMMARY

The Protestant consensus since the time of the Reformation has been that the physical universe and its history are real, not illusory. As God’s creation, the physical world conveys genuine information about the Creator and can serve to inform our interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, when geologists (many of them devout Christians) in the early 1800’s found that the rock layers showed the earth to be far older than the 6000 years derived from a literal reading of Genesis, Bible-believing Christians did not ignore, suppress, or lie about these findings. Rather, they adjusted their interpretation of the relevant Bible passages away from a simplistic literal reading, just as they had done 200 years earlier with the verses that depicted a stationary earth. Through about 1960, nearly all Christians, including conservative Old Testament scholars and most fundamentalists, were comfortable with interpretations of Genesis which accommodated an earth that was many…

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Reviewed: Young Earth Creationist books handed out in Scottish primary school

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From Truth be Told, one of the books handed out to children at Kirktenholme Primary

My friends in Scotland will know about how a local Church of Christ sect, with the help of missionaries from the US,  successfully infiltrated a Scottish state non-denominational primary school, were only properly scrutinised (after 8 years of activity) when the school chaplain (a sect member) gave the children two fundamentalist Young earth creationist books to take home, and how the sect has now been barred from that school and the two head teachers who made the mistake of trusting them redeployed.

My American friends will be surprised that a school should have a chaplain, let alone at the rest of these extraordinary goings on, about which I shall have much more to say later. I have read the books given out, and prepared a full report on them, which I attach here.

I had previously, as a backgrounder, sent it to some of the parents, to the school itself, and to the local authority that controls the school, before the local authority education officer met parents to discuss the situation. The immediate problem has been dealt with, but I would like to know what steps the school and the Council plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

The books are worse than I could have imagined. A mixture of Morris’s The Genesis Flood, Wells’s Icons of Evolution, and the most bizarre imaginings of Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, all packaged to look like authoritative school books; the more advanced one even had chapter end review quizzes. I would like to know what steps the school, and the local authority that controls it, plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

Anyway, It has occurred to me that I must be one of the few people in the world to have actually submitted himself to the tedium of reading these books from cove to cover, so I thought I’d append my report for those interested: http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=54  Truth be Told –  and http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=448 How do we Know God is Real? For these books to be handed out by a school was a betrayal of trust. Their content is contrary to the whole of present-day science, and to the principles and requirements of guidance from the Scottish Department of Education, and the Curriculum for Excellence. Their arguments are a re-hash of a long-refuted “creation science”, a 20th century heresy that has its roots in Henry Morris’s Genesis Flood, and in Seventh Day Adventism, rather than in mainstream Christianity. They are produced by Apologetics Press, the publishing arm of a group of exclusive US sects calling themselves “Churches of Christ”, who “shun” ex-members (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/mum-tells-how-cult-organisation-2261326) and reject the whole of modern science in favour of their own kind of biblical literalism.

The books are professionally produced, and Truth be Told in particular is formatted in the same way as a real textbook, complete with chapter headings and subheadings, end-of-chapter reviews, quizzes and discussion topics. A diligent pupil receiving these books, as the children at Kirktonholme did, with the blessings of the school, will conclude that the whole of modern cosmology, geology, and biology is fundamentally mistaken, and that those who promulgate it, including their own science teachers, all university biology departments, and all the world’s leading scientific societies, are lying.One particularly nasty feature is that established science is repeatedly misrepresented so as to make it look absurd, and the evidence for it is repeatedly suppressed or, worse, incorrectly described so as to make it seem unconvincing. This is most obviously true in the chapters regarding the age of the earth, the fossil record, and evolution.

The authors have no scientific qualifications. Kyle Butt graduated from a private Churches of Christ university, and his degrees are in Bible and Communications. Eric Lyons’s degrees, from the same university, are in Bible, History, and Ministry.

How do we Know  misdescribes the Big Bang as disorderly (H 14) [1], asserts (H 18 – 39) that because organisms are complex, each species must have been individually designed, and claims (H 40 – 41) that if evolution is true, dogs could give birth to animals that are half-dog and half-cat.

There are also other claims, not strictly scientific, that are repugnant in a pluralist society, such as, that “Only a belief in God can help people understand what actions are truly right and truly wrong.” (H 51); that those who deny the existence of God are “like those people who deny that Americans have ever landed on the moon.” (H 54), that “when a person properly looks at all the evidence with an open mind and honest art, he cannot be an atheist.” (H 55; emphasis in original).

Truth be Told is the worst kind of creationist anti-science, made to look like a real textbook, with chapter end quizzes (sample: Briefly explain why the trilobite is evidence of Creation), claims of fossilised trilobites inside human footprints, that evolutionists are liars who try unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the Second Law, that radiometric dating depends on flawed assumptions, and other long-exploded lies. It says that evolutionists (that would include their own science teachers at school and university) are dishonestly refusing to admit the truth, that the earth is 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood explains the Grand Canyon, and that people used dinosaurs as beasts of burden. All this presented as real science in a textbook-like format.

Within the first five pages of Truth be Told, I found nine major errors of scientific fact or logic. Even a brief summary of major errors runs to four pages, which I include here for those interested in the detailed arguments. Some of the highlights are:

Ch 1, Origin of the universe, claims that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing. False; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations.

Ch 2, Origin of life, describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution.

Ch 5, Geology in the fossil record; geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood, and the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, is said to argue against the gradualness of average change in general.

Ch 6, The age of the Earth; claims that radiometric decay rates could have been different in the past, although it has been known since 1928 that they could not have, since if they had been all the laws of physics and chemistry, responsible for the formation of rocks, would also have been different.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. It also claims that assorted rock art represents dinosaurs, speculates that humans could have used dinosaurs as beasts of burden, and even has pictures of dinosaurs pulling carts.

Ch 8, Arguing against evolution, misrepresents the facts regarding embryo development, and, of course, the peppered moth story.

Ch 9, The origin of humans, concentrates on errors from many decades ago, and dismisses intermediate forms such as Homo habilis because they are not fully human (of course they are not. That’s the whole point)

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here. In addition, the book repeatedly accuses evolutionists (remember that this includes the science teachers they will be meeting later, as well as virtually all research scientists) of deliberate disregard and distortion of the evidence, and refusal to admit the truth.

In more tedious detail [you don’t really need to read this unless you want to]:

Ch 1: that the Big Bank was an explosion, sending lumps of matter shooting through space (false; it was a highly orderly event, and lumps of matter only condensed out much later), that acceptance of the Big Bang is of relevance to the acceptance of biological evolution (they are completely different topics), that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing(false; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations), and that that a scientific law is “a principle in nature that is true in every observable case”, that (referring presumably the situation existing shortly after the Big Bang), “a tiny ball of matter is not an adequate cause” for our enormous universe (false; this claim neglects the effects of almost 14 billion years of expansion). The chapter also miss describes the use of the terms “law” and “theory” in science, and invokes an imaginary Law of Cause and Effect, which in reality is routinely violated by events at the quantum level, including according to some current thinking the Big Bang itself.

Ch 1 also incorrectly states that the Big Bang theory violates the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. False; the First Law is not violated because the positive energy of the contents of the universe is exactly balanced by its negative gravitational energy, and the Big Bang was a highly orderly event, not disorderly as stated here. All of this is clearly laid out in many popular books on the subject. Most seriously, T 11 incorrectly invokes the Second Law as saying that the spontaneous pattern formation required by evolution could not occur. In reality, the spontaneous formation of new patterns in far from equilibrium systems, of which he Earth-Sun-Space system is an example, has been known for many decades, and was the subject of Ilya Prigogine’s 1977 Nobel Prize.

T13 on describes the suitability of the Earth to life as clear evidence of providence. False; examining two of the examples given, the ozone layer is the inevitable result of the Sun’s UV light, and the Earth’s magnetic field is the inevitable result of its molten core, which in turn is the inevitable result of its composition and mode of formation. Subsequent pages point out ways in which the World is just right for us; but of course it is, since it is the World that we have evolved in.

Ch 2 describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution. This chapter also completely misdescribes conditions on the early Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, and the very restricted role now claimed for the Urey-Miller experiment. The claim that the work of Redi and Pasteur, refuting 18th-century theories of spontaneous generation, has any relevance to what could have happened over tens of millions of years on the early Earth is ridiculous.

Ch 3 misdescribes evolution, chooses Darwin’s finches as an example but ignores extensive recent studies, and claims that mutations cannot generate new information on the grounds that they merely rearrange existing material (this is like saying that an author does not generate new information, because he is merely rearranging existing words). It ignores well established cases of adaptation, such as (within humans) lactose tolerance in pastoral peoples, and resistance to local diseases.

Ch 4 asserts that “Design demands a designer” (this is simply asserting what it claims to prove), and points to good design within the human body while completely neglecting the cases of bad design (such as hernias, choking, the blind spot in the eye, along with many others) that can only be understood as evolutionary relics.  Like so much of the creationist literature, the book at this point misquotes Darwin on the subject of the eye.

Ch 5, on the geological record, is a travesty. Geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood. The fact that fossil tree trunks rise up through several layers of later sediment is said to refute the claim that these sediments accumulated over millions of years. The complexity of the trilobite eye is said to refute the plain fact that from the bottom up (i.e., according to three centuries of geology, but not according to this book, from older sediments onwards) the totality of life has become more complex and diverse. We have the usual (for the creationist literature) misdescription of uniformitarianism, and the claim that the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, argues against the gradualness of change on average.

Ch 6, the age of the earth, repeats the usual nonsense about radiometric dating depending on doubtful assumptions. In reality, the mineralogical assumptions made in the early work have been bypassed since the 1940s by the use of isochron dating techniques, while the “assumption” that decay rates have remained constant has been known, since George Gamow’s work in 1928, to be a necessary consequence of the fact that more fundamental quantities, such as the speed of light and the charge on the electron, have remained constant. If this were not so, we would not have had rocks laid down according to the laws of chemistry and physics in the first place.

At this point, the specific Young Earth agenda comes into its own. If tree ring dating places a piece of wood at 10,000 years old, this book claims that this is simply because it was created with 4000 years worth of tree rings inside it. Here we also meet the first flat-out piece of fiction. The book says that there are human footprints in coal layers dated at 250 million years old.

Next come the usual and long refuted creationist arguments for a young Earth. The Earth’s magnetic field is decaying. Indeed it is (and we know that it has decayed and even changed direction many times in the past). The book then says that therefore, the Earth a few thousand years ago would have been so hot it would have cracked. This is nonsense on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. It is claimed that if the universe were billions, or even millions, of years old, then all the hydrogen would long since have been changed into helium. Again this is nonsense. We know how fast hydrogen is being converted into helium in the Sun, from how bright it is, and this fits well with the established age for the solar system of a little over 4.5 billion years. There is a ludicrous argument from population statistics, which effectively assumes a rate of growth over evolutionary time comparable with that only made possible since the development of agriculture.

At this point, the lies become embarrassing. T 109 says that “archaeologists have documented time and again that the period between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus was about 2000 years. Who do not believe in God… admit that this is true.” In reality, there is no archaeological evidence for Abraham.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that it “simply is not true” that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans, and that “there is much evidence which shows that humans, dinosaurs, and other extinct animals lived together only a few thousand years ago”. Abstract and fanciful monsters found in ancient art are described as evidence for dinosaurs. Herodotus’ description of remains of flying snakes resembling bats is taken as evidence for him having seen pterosaurs, even though pterosaurs are not in the least bit bat-like.  T 121 misdescribes collagen residues preserved in one tyrannosaur fossil by tight binding to bone as “soft issue”.

T 120 and T 121 accuse science textbooks of lying. T 120: “The reason you do not see it [the evidence that humans lived alongside dinosaurs] in your school science books is because it stands opposed to evolution…. When we look at the evidence, we can see the truth.” T 121: “Evolutionary scientists should admit… that dinosaur bones are not millions of years old…. An honest person who found soft issue in a dinosaur fossil would admit that the fossil could not be millions of years old.”

The rest of this chapter suggests that, by analogy with elephants and orcas, humans might have tamed dinosaurs, and shows (T 125, 132) humans interacting with dinosaurs and using them as beasts of burden. We are told that there were dinosaurs on the Ark, and there is discussion of how they could have been fitted in. Dinosaur graveyards are attributed to dinosaurs being drowned in Noah’s Flood.

Ch 8, Evolution is not a proven fact, starts off as is customary in the creationist literature with an attack on Haeckel’s drawings, ignoring everything that has been learnt about development since. It misdraws the human embryo as having the shape of a fully formed human, confuses gill slits with gill arches, and suppresses such well-known facts as the presence of fur and tails on human embryos at around six months. Next (T 138 – 139) we have the peppered moth story, complete with accusations that the camouflage story was false, and that “even though many of the writers and science have book publishers knew was false, they used it anyway” [emphasis in original].

By chance, I wrote at length about this a few weeks ago (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/08/creationism-as-conspiracy-theory-the-case-of-the-peppered-moth.html). There was no fraud. There were inadequacies in the original experiments. These were repeated, and the results confirmed and placed on a sound footing. That is how science works.

The story of horse evolution is misrepresented on the basis of a quote mined from 1953, while that of whale evolution incorrectly asserts that the evolutionary account is based on only a few bones, and suppresses the fact that we have a complete sequence of over 18 separate stages connecting whales with their terrestrial ancestors. We have confusion between analogy and homology, and misdescription of the evidence from vestigial organs. The chapter ends with the claim that the ability of vestigial organs to perform a new function is evidence against evolution. On the contrary, it is evidence for what is known as exaptation, a powerful evolutionary mechanism.

Ch 9, Did humans evolve? Suppresses the evidence for some 20 species more or less intermediate between us and our common ancestor with chimpanzees, makes great play with frauds and errors long since disposed of, misdescribes Homo habilis as merely an ape and therefore irrelevant in human evolution (the opposite is the case; its position on the borderline between Australopithecus and Homo is evidence that the continuity that creationists deny).

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here.

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[1] References with page numbers; H, How do we Know, T, Truth be Told

Answers in Genesis supporter providing Religious Observance at Scottish “Non-Denominational” School

Creation_Museum_10Calderglen High School, a publicly funded school in East Kilbride near Glasgow, has a seven-member chaplaincy team,   which, according to the School’s website, “provides for the school a rich and key resource for the curriculum”. The team includes three representatives of Baptist churches, three from the Church of Scotland, and one, Dr. Nagy Iskander, from Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. Generally speaking, the Church of Scotland accepts scientific reality, while views within the Baptist churches vary. So what of Dr. Iskander, who holds the balance?

On the school website, he says

I am interested in Science and the Bible and always happy to tackle questions in this area, so please feel free to contact me about any questions regarding Science and the Christian faith.

What he does not say is that he is an out and out supporter of biblical literalism, singled out for praise by Answers in Genesis, and a welcome visitor and occasional speaker at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, where you will learn that the fossil record is a result of Noah’s Flood, and that “Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs.” You will also find on the AiG web site recorded lectures by Dr Iskander, in which he states that belief in the literal truth of Genesis is foundational to Christianity. As for the relationship between Science and the Bible, Dr. Iskander had this to say to his local newspaper, on the occasion of Answers in Genesis’ Scottish Conference this month:

Both the creationists and evolutionists have the same facts – we have the same earth, the same geological layers, the same fossils – but when we examine the facts we might come to different conclusions, depending on our starting point.

And in case you are charitable enough to see some wriggle room here (note that weasel word “might”) for reconciling science with Dr. Iskander’s view of religion, consider this, from his statement to a reporter from the [Glasgow] Sunday Herald:

Creation according to the Christian faith is a supernatural act of God, so it will not be repeated and we can’t test creation in the lab. Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that either. My view on this is we should mention everything – we should examine all the evidence and all the facts and have an open and civilised discussion about all of this without excluding one or the other.

In response, I cannot improve on the words of my friend Roger Downie, Professor of Zoological Education in a letter he sent to the Sunday Herald (published 16 June):

Your quotation from Dr Nagy Iskander illustrates why creationists should not be let near science classes. He said ‘Evolution needs to take place over millions of years and we cannot test that…’ On the contrary, evolution through Darwin and Wallace’s process of natural selection is happening all the time, sometimes quite quickly. Since Dr Iskander is said to be a surgeon, I would hope that he is fully aware of the evolution of the antibiotic resistance that has made hospital procedures so risky. Science advances through the testing of hypotheses and the accumulation of evidence. Both medicine and biology have greatly benefited from this process. I presume Dr Iskander’s medical practice is based on such advances, rather than the superstitions of previous times.

It is perhaps unkind to describe pre-scientific views as “superstitions” when considered in the context of their time. But to put such views forward today in the name of religion, as serious alternatives to scientific knowledge, brings religion itself into disrepute.

Who appointed Dr. Iskander to his position with the school? Were they aware of his Young Earth creationist views? What do the school’s own teachers, including both the science teachers and those who teach about religion, think of his role, and does he have any influence over their teaching? How often does he address the school, and on what subjects? Are parents notified of his views and influence? Do he and his fellow members of the Chaplaincy Panel receive any payments or reimbursements from the school? And does the school obtain any materials from a company called Christian Schools Scotland, of which he is a director?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but intend to find out by addressing a Freedom of Information request of the school. I will let you know what they say.

PS: Today’s small country viewing here is the Cayman Islands, population 55,000.

Illustration: Humans living peacefully before the Fall with vegetarian tyrannosaurs. Public domain photo of actual exhibit, through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_Museum_10.png

Religion and Creationism in Schools: England, Scotland, and the US

In the US, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is generally agreed, despite the ravings of a few noisy radical revisionists, to imply that no Government-run institution, such as a public school, can advocate a religion or sponsor any kind of religious observance.

In the UK, the very opposite is the case (I would like to hear from readers about how this matter is handled in other countries). Schools are actually required to incorporate both Religious Education and Religious Observance into their timetables. Religious Observance means, in general, a school assembly with hymns and prayers, and may also include taking part in church services, and visits from ministers of religion. Religious Education, in theory at least, is something entirely different – a faith-neutral liberal arts subject, explaining without proselytising what the contents are of the world’s main religions, and how they respond to philosophical scrutiny. In practice, the teaching tends to be heavily weighted towards Christianity, which is perhaps well justified given Western cultural traditions. Less justifiable is a tendency to assume that Christianity is true, a difficult problem to avoid when most of those who opt to teach the subject will themselves be believers. There is also a very specific problem in primary schools, where the boundaries between different subjects is blurred, and where children hearing, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark will not know whether it belongs alongside the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or of dinosaurs, or somewhere else altogether.

In principle, parents (or, above a certain level, pupils) have the right to withdraw from Religious Observance and/or Religious Education. Reality on the ground is more complicated, if only because of bureaucratic hurdles, and the entire Religious Observance system is coming under increased critical scrutiny. I will report further on this as events unfold.

As a result of these different attitudes towards religion in schools, the tactics adopted by creationists in the US and  the UK are diametrically opposed (I discussed this on pandasthumb a couple of years ago). American creationists claim to be teaching the best available science, and support this claim by describing parallel universes, in which (for example) the fossil record is full of inexplicable gaps, while the Grand Canyon is readily explainable in terms of Noah’s flood. Pandering politicians then claim to be exposing schoolchildren to the best available science, or educating them by exposure to a concocted controversy. In England, officially at least, the authorities are having none of it. After some close questioning, in which I am proud to have played a part, the Education Secretary was pressured into describing himself as “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and the Department of Education also clearly states in its materials that it recognises Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism.

None of this, however, affects what happens in Religious Education, as long as it doesn’t claim to be science. So creationists in England, trying to smuggle their material into schools, will find it much easier if they can do so in the name of teaching about religion. This is a growing problem, in view of the current Government policy of establishing schools free from local authority control, many of them run by groups with religious affiliations. Then the way is open for pupils to be taught evolution as an examination requirement, while also hearing it that it is in conflict with the school’s preferred interpretation of Christianity, or (a recently emerging problem in England) that it is un-Koranic.

In Scotland, the situation is different again. Education is “devolved”, meaning that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, rather than the UK Parliament at Westminster. Evolution is in the syllabus, but when it comes to creationism and Intelligent Design the Scottish Qualifications Authority has repeatedly ignored calls from teachers and others requesting guidance similar to that on offer in England. The stated reason, incredibly, is that no such guidance is necessary, because creationism is not a problem in Scottish schools.[1] As for the actual motivation, that requires a little knowledge of the present state of Scottish society. Growing numbers of Scots, especially younger Scots, have no religious affiliation, and secular marriages (in Registry Offices, or carried out by recognized Humanist celebrants) outnumber religious marriages. On the other hand, Biblical literalism retains its hold in some areas, especially the Highlands and Islands, where a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (not to be confused with the Church of Scotland, nor with the Free Presbyterian Church, or others with almost identical names) continues to describe evolution as “dangerous pseudoscience”. Scottish politics is in a state of flux, with the collapse of support for the Westminster coalition parties and an upcoming referendum on total independence, so the Education Minister in Edinburgh doesn’t want to upset anyone. But if he lets his civil servants says anything on the topic, someone is bound to be upset, and his only escape is to pretend that nothing needs to be said.

More later.


[1] SQA to me, 4 Nov 2010: “There is no evidence from HMIE [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education] school inspections or other sources to suggest that creationism or ID is currently being taught in schools in Scotland.”

More from Edinburgh on the future of religion, and some thoughts on accommodation and accommodationism

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I have already posted my own introductory remarks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion. Here are my summaries of those from Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame, convener of Glasgow Brights, and Religious Moral and Philosophical Education teacher), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and my own reflections on these. Keith looks forward to the coming together of rationalists with liberal-minded believers, I, in contrast, think that we are looking out some unbridgeable divides, on topics that matter greatly to the believers, but wonder how much they should be allowed to matter to the rest of us.

Keith: To quote Niels Bohr, prediction is always difficult, especially regarding the future. Who in 1988 would have foretold the incredible drop in crime, divorce, and teen pregnancies, the legalisation of gay marriage, the smoking ban, the resignation of a pope, or Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen?

The obvious prediction for the Church is ongoing decline. I think of it more like an alcoholic, heading for rock bottom, at which point it might either go under, or make a comeback. Going under would mean continuing with the suicidal policies of gender inequality, and obsession with sexual guilt. A comeback would mean some major changes, leading towards a future with general acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption, a Catholic church purged of paedophilia, a Christianity free from literalist mythology, gender discrimination, “God of the gaps” reasoning and similar nonsense, and, in time, an Islam that has also freed itself from obscurantist nastiness.

In any case, religion will never disappear as long as we retain our fear of death, the dark and the unknown, and our tendency to wishful thinking.

The big questions of life, death, and meaningfulness will not go away, nor should they. And so religion will not die out. Faith, perhaps, yes, but not hope or charity, awe, wonder or mystery. If Dawkins can quote Psalm 19 with approval, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament show us his handiwork”, there may even be room for a grand coalition between non-dogmatic religion, and the rationalist’s sense of wonder.

Or, to put it another way: You say God is love, we’ll say Love is god, and let’s split the difference!

Andrew had walked that day in the steps of Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy in 1696, and to whom the General Assembly should now make a public apology. Jesus didn’t die as a sacrifice; he was killed. He was killed for being a protester by the power structure, of the rabbinical power structure who recognized him as a challenge, and the power structure of Rome who understood the threat posed by his message of love and common humanity. Aikenhead’s crime was to question biblical literalism, to suggest that Eden was a myth, and to attempt to bring the Church of Scotland of his day in line with the emerging Enlightenment.

Andrew’s hope is that some of the spirit of Aikenhead will survive. For him, Christianity is not a matter of accepting this or that belief, but of following in the footsteps of the Man on the donkey. The Church is not a hierarchy but a body of people, and its ministry is to serve people. The claim that same-sex marriage is a threat to Christian marriage is absurd, because there is no such thing as Christian marriage, only human marriage. When religion defines dogmas, develops structures, and limits enquiry, it is doing the very opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. The Church has already hit rock bottom. It hit rock bottom under the Emperor Constantine, when it allowed itself to be established as an official religion, and needs to redeem itself from this. As for the factual claims made by religion, these are simply beside the point. The message of love and self-worth does not depend on whether or not strange things actually happened in a particular tomb some 2000 years ago.

Andrew is as close a partner as Keith could hope for among believers, and yet I see the gap between them as unbridgeable. For Andrew, the universe has a purpose, even if we do not know what it is, the Gospel story has a special mystical significance, and some very precious part of a person survives physical death. For Keith, as for me, purpose is something we must each create for ourselves in an indifferent and unmotivated universe, the Gospels are an incoherent palimpsest, and the mind can no more exist without the body than a computer program can run without hardware. These are differences that cannot be “split”.

But how much does this matter? Keith and I totally disagree, whereas I suspect that Andrew and I generally agree, on questions of politics and economics. I see Keith’s acceptance of 21st century capitalism as an ideological delusion, whereas he sees the primacy I give to social concerns as soft-minded evasion. These also are differences that cannot be “split”. But they do not stop me from embracing Keith as an ally in the fight (it is a fight) against the infiltration of education by creationists and other religious obscurantists. And I do not see my differences with Andrew as reason not to embrace him in the same cause. Indeed, I value him particularly highly, as I value allies like Dennis Venema, because they can argue the case from within the tent of religion, as I can not.

And if this makes me an “accommodationist”, so be it.

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