Maranatha Christian School, featured in a BBC news report this week, teaches that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that this is a scientifically established fact, and that evolution has long since been scientifically disproven. Then why do some scientists still advocate it? Because they don’t want to admit the existence of a God to whom they would be morally responsible. It is these same benighted evolutionists who are responsible for the theory that the Sun is powered by nuclear fusion., whereas in reality it is powered by gravity, and shrinking at such a rate that it would have been large enough to engulf the young Earth if the Earth really were millions of years old. But of course we shouldn’t be contemplating any such silly idea, because God has told us different and that settles it. The waters above the firmament in Genesis 1 ended up feeding Noah’s flood, which was accompanied, as in Henry Morris’s “Creation Science,” by fierce volcanic activity. Obsidian cliffs (!) prove that Yellowstone was once under water. Geological strata match flood geology, but not the Old Earth geology favoured by “some” [sic] scientists. Fossils were caused by rapid burial under flood sediments. Random mutations could not have led to progressive evolution; proving this “fact” is a stated course objective. Evolution in any case defies the laws of thermodynamics, which are clearly referred to in the Bible. All this and more is in the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, and you can find out much more about it at Leaving Fundamentalism, the website of my friend Jonny Scaramanga who speaks of ACE education from bitter personal experience. Despite all this, the school was rated “Good” last October by Ofsted, the English Schools Inspectorate, as are numerous other schools using the same curriculum. Why? Because, among other things like having improved on earlier safety standards,
Teaching and the curriculum are of good quality. Work is highly individualised and is mostly well matched to pupils’ capabilities. … Pupils demonstrate high levels of independence when learning…
In reality, Jonny tells us, pupils in ACE schools sit in individual carrels as they work through identical rigidly defined modules, albeit at their own speed, and are evaluated on their ability to answer multiple choice questions restricted to the content of these modules, while the role of the teachers is largely restricted to answering questions based on the text. This may explain why several staff members at Maranatha, described as monitors or supervisors, appear from the school’s web site to have no academic training or teacher training at all, other than that provided by ACE. But I have omitted a very important part of the report:
Pupils’ spiritual development is promoted outstandingly well. Christian beliefs and values permeate all aspects of school life.
When I hear the words “Christian beliefs and values,” I always wonder what they mean. What beliefs and values, for instance, are shared by American Tea Party politicians, the Pope, liberal think-tanks like Ekklesia, Unitarians (sometimes described as believing that there is at most  one God), and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland which refuses to celebrate Christmas? Happily, in this case, the school tells us how it defines Christianity in the Statement of Faith on its web site:
The Bible is the supreme final authority in all matters of doctrine and conduct… the original creation of all things by God for His own pleasure in six literal days
(Appeal: when you come across such revealing statements of faith or other matters from educational establishments, first take a screen shot since they have a strange habit of disappearing when publicised, and then please send me a copy for my files.)
How, I wonder, does the Bible display its authority in everyday matters? First, from a biology module, on why cheating on the job or at school is wrong. Illustrated by a father-son dialogue:
“The Bible tells us that we should be ‘subject’ to those who are in authority over us because those who are in authority have been placed in that position by God. If I fail to obey my employer, I also fail to obey God.”
“ I see what you’re saying, Dad. God has placed the school personnel in authority over me. If I disobey them, I also disobey God.”
Then on matters of social policy. Here the Ace curriculum is quite explicit:
“In economics, politics, theology, and so forth, people take their personal position somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes of the left and the right. They think, make decisions, and act based upon their position.
“Each man’s philosophy is rooted in his relationship with God. Therefore, where he settles on the spectrum depends on his relation to Biblical absolutes.”
So there you have it. Left Wing bad, Right Wing good, and the more Right Wing the better. That’s because the Left are godless and have no values. If this is not extremism, what is? And yet, the BBC tells us, of the nine ACE schools inspected by Ofsted since the start of 2013, eight of them were rated either good or outstanding. I can only wonder whether they would have come up with the same ratings if the values that “permeate all aspects of school life” had been based on any other faith or lack of faith, or if the Wisdom message had been that the Left, rather than the Right, had a monopoly of virtue. According to the BBC,
Ofsted said it had previously not been authorised to assess the schools’ curriculums – only the quality of their teaching and leadership – but that under a “new tougher inspection regime” for independent schools introduced in April schools were now “expected to teach a broad and balanced curriculum”.
Is this change going to help things? I doubt it. Ofsted may say they were not seeking to examine the curriculum at the time it last inspected Maranatha, but they did so anyway, describing it as “of good quality.” To be fair, the ACE curriculum only takes up a little more than half the school day, I have only focused on Maranatha because it happened to feature in the BBC story, and I have indirectly heard good things about Maranatha’s non-ACE activities. None of this, however, excuses it from espousing as its core activity a curriculum that presents creationist twaddle as real science, grants a monopoly of Christianity to a lunatic far-right fringe, and impugns the motives and credentials of generations of scholarly believers who seek to accommodate their understanding of Scripture to scientific reality, from John Ray in the 17th century through Darwin’s friend Asa Gray to Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and Francis Collins in our own day.
What of the BBC? They, after all, have a responsibility to a far wider audience, if a less individually powerful one, than Ofsted. In some ways, they come out of it rather well. They gave Jonny Scaramaga a good radio billing (BBC iPlayer here, 12/06/2014, 1:09:29 on; a planned TV billing was trumped by the breaking news from Iraq). And their news piece, to which this is a response, gives ample space to ACE’s critics. But how do they describe ACE’s teaching on evolution? As “particularly controversial.” No, it is not “particularly controversial”; it is flat out wrong. And ACE’s teaching of Young Earth creationism’s imaginative fiction as correct science doesn’t even get a mention, nor does its strange views on how religion relates to politics. But for a broadcaster, as for any journalist, time is limited, so I think we can forgive them. Not so UK’s NARIC, National Academic Recognition Information Centre. All EU states, and many others, have such centres which advise on the value of qualifications obtained in other countries, and other non-standard qualifications, so what they say matters. NARIC UK aroused alarm and dismay by recognizing ACE-based qualifications, and even after public questioning has continue to advise
that, despite the acknowledged differences in modes of learning, the ICCE [International Certificate of Christian Education, keyed to ACE] qualifications compared broadly to CIE [Cambridge Internal Examinations] O and A levels with regard to their learning outcomes and knowledge competencies. …
In particular, as part of this later study some issues were observed with the Biology programme, which were reported back to ICCE with recommendations on the redevelopment of certain aspects of the programme to ensure closer comparability with the academic level of A and O level qualifications. …
As a commissioned report to ICCE, UK NARIC are therefore not in a position to disclose any detailed content without the client’s consent. However, given the level of interest in the ICCE awards by universities and employers, and with permission from ICCE, an information section on the ICCE qualifications and the ACE curricula has been included in UK NARIC’s International Comparisons database, which may be accessed by registered users.
In other words, they won’t explain the reasons for this decision to the likes of you and me, because this is a study that ICCE paid for. Words fail me. What should now be done? Professor Alice Roberts has suggested that the teaching of creationism be banned in all schools. I see problems here; where in a court of law would you draw the line between teaching about creationism, as is surely appropriate when discussing the history of ideas, and teaching creationism as such? Besides, I have qualms about such close micromanagement of schools outside the public sector, given my opinion (as should be clear from this article) of the quality of management services that Government agencies and their like currently provide. But we can at least stop pretending that it has any merit, stop recognizing schools that practice it, stop accepting it as any kind of qualification, and stop funding all schools including preschools that provide it. Wouldn’t that damage pupils already in the system? Yes it would, but no more than leaving things as they are. I thank my BCSE colleagues, and Jonny Scaramanga, for useful discussions.  But even this condition seems to be relaxed nowadays, with the Unitarian Church admitting pagans.  For completeness, I should also mention that Christian Education Europe, who market ACE in the UK, have issued a statement to the BBC, in which they say
Our curriculum does point to God as the creator; this is a view we are entitled to hold as there is enough robust debate around the question of evolution/creation within the scientific community itself to make this a valid decision, based on personal choice.
Note the multiple confusions between the scientifically neutral idea of God as creator, the existence of robust debate among evolutionary scientists, and the specific claim of anti-scientific creationism. CEE go on to justify this claim by linking to the writings of one Jonathan Sarfati, a Ph.D. chemist who works with Creation Ministries International. The Sarfati material starts with a common misrepresentation of something written in 1929, so often repeated by creationists that I discussed here a few months ago, and goes downhill from there. For my fellow chemists: Sarfati has published on tetraphosphorus tetraselenide. I have published on tetrasulphur tetranitride. Obviously, our paths were meant to cross.
I will be giving the Sunday Lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society at 11:00 on 16th March 2014. Attached is my draft publicity material. Comments and suggestions welcome.
“Creation science” is a 20th century heresy, albeit with far older roots. Its central claim is that beliefs compatible with biblically inspired creationism are in fact scientifically superior to mainstream views on evolution and an old earth. Its arguments for supernatural intervention range from the ludicrous to the highly sophisticated; from “Flood geology” to the origin of biological information; from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to seemingly scholarly works invoking cellular complexity or the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The creationists themselves are not necessarily stupid, nor ill-informed, nor (in other matters) deluded. In all cases, their deep motivation is the wish to preserve the supernatural role of God the Creator, and a particular view of the man-God relationship.
There are several interlocking organisations active in the UK to promote creationism. These include Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (closely linked to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its notorious Wedge Strategy), Truth in Science, and The World Around Us/The Genesis Agendum, who between them have links to Brethren churches, the Christian Schools Trust, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International.
I will be discussing the attempts by such organizations to infiltrate the educational system, the inadequacies of official attempts to prevent this, and possible countermeasures. I will also be giving my own views on why creationist arguments are appealing to those without detailed background knowledge, and how we should respond.
Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at GlasgowUniversity, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, and of the Scottish Secular Society, and has been following creationist infiltration into education in the UK for some years. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and his most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, discusses aspects of chemistry in their historical and everyday contexts.
I have just found myself rebutting a Creationist engineering professor, on the Brazilian Air Force Academy’s cultural website.
“Scientific Creationism” is emerging as a problem in Latin America. As in the UK, it’s essentially a US evangelical import (recall that the Catholic Church accepts the historical fact of evolution). As creation-watchers may know, Henry Morris, widely regarded as the father of “Creation Science”, wrote its foundational work, The Genesis Flood,
together with the theologian John C. Whitcomb, under the influence of the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist, George McCready Price. So when the Brazilian Airforce Academy asked me to reply to an exposition of Creationism by Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira, Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of São Paulo and himself a convert to Seventh-day Adventism, I was very happy to do so. Here’s what I said:
Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy
Evolution is not an optional worldview but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a worldview either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.
Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable worldviews, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.
29+ Evidences for Macroevolution
The Scientific Case for Common DescentYour Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution is True by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.
Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.
Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis [substantive evidence]” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico [that can undergo examination according to the Scientific Method]”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.
Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformation of species and origin of new orders, as classified according to modern taxonomy. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformation of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge describes the transformation of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.
The whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, (approximately 12 feet long, coastal habitat) , courtesy Thewissen Research Laboratory
Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.
Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.
(Acknowledgements to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Douglas Theobald, Hans Thewissen, and Carl Zimmer, whose work I cite here)
The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE) has long maintained that the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (DI), of which Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) seems to be a satellite, is a religiously motivated Creationist organisation. Casey Luskin has now demonstrated this with great clarity in his response, in the misleadingly titled Evolution News and Views (“Serving the Intelligent Design Community”), to the recent opinion piece “Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics“, which we recently posted on this and on the BCSE website. Thanks Casey.
As our title and opening words make clear, our piece is addressed by us, as individual nonbelievers, to other nonbelievers, giving our reasons for cooperating with believers in defending science against Creationism. It does not even mention DI, or C4ID, or Intelligent Design. Nonetheless, Casey seems to find our piece relevant to his mission. Perhaps his concern with religion is not surprising, since the foundation document of DI’s Centre for Science and Culture gives the restoration of a “theistic understanding” as a core objective. As for Intelligent Design, few people can still believe the pretence that it is anything more than a cover for Creationism (in the strict sense of the term as applied to biological diversity), but it is good to see our thoughts on these matters so authoritatively confirmed.
There are many more reasons why being attacked by Casey has been compared to being savaged by a dead sheep. Here are a few of them (remember here that Casey is a trained lawyer, and has published on law in an internationally recognised journal, so presumably he has read what he refers to and means what he says about it):
- He describes the two of us as spokesmen for BCSE, although the very first words of our article are “We write here as individual non-believers” [ emphasis added]. We are not spokesmen for BCSE, although we serve on its committee.
- The spokesman for BCSE is a distinguished historian of geology and theology, the Rev Michael Roberts, Vicar of Cockerham, Glasson and Winmarleigh.
- Casey selects BCSE as an example (his only example) of British secular and Humanist groups. Yet BCSE takes no position on matters of religion, a fact that he himself acknowledges later, nor on matters of Church and State relationships in general .
- This is clear from the BCSE website, and indeed from the very piece he criticises.
- He describes BCSE as a participant in “the ‘fight’ to teach evolution”, although such teaching has been, as it must be, part of the standard curriculum for decades.
(Incidentally, he didn’t link to our piece properly – he just linked to the blog front page. The kindest interpretation is oversight.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the background, here are a few pointers. The Discovery Institute is a religiously driven Crypto-Creationist group pushing a stripped down and camouflaged version of Creationism called Intelligent Design. This approach was hastily adopted for legal reasons in the US, where schools in the public sector are not allowed to promote religion, when Creationism and later Creation Science were ruled in the courts to be religious, not scientific, doctrines.
Creationist tactics rest upon three pillars. The first of these is that Evolution is in fact Atheism and that this whole political fight is one of Christians versus Atheists. No wonder Casey refers to BCSE as secular and humanist.
We talk about this fact in the very piece that Casey is attacking. We mention that there are two reasons Creationists adopt this tactic. First of all the conflict narrative is effective for the recruitment and retention of Creationists to their cause, as to any cause that involves a conspiracy theory (see earlier post here). Secondly the conflict narrative is used to move the public debate away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues. Creationists know that by framing the debate in such terms, they have a far greater chance of obtaining mainstream support.
So you can see why the BCSE really do get up Casey’s nose. We are helping to stem his flow of recruits and we are making sure he fights on weak territory where he is very much outgunned.
The second pillar of Creationism is to argue that Evolution (and by implication most modern science) is bad science. One basic technique here is quote-mining, taking words out of context, so that debate among scientists is misrepresented as rejection of the agreed foundations of the science. Casey’s commentary on our piece is a fine example of such quote-mining. As you can see, he uses it to pretend that our discussion of why we  support BCSE is an admission by BCSE of what would, if true, be gross hypocrisy. This technique works well when leavened with lies, since the only rebuttal is a potentially tedious analysis of the actual texts. Creationists regularly do this with scientific papers, and their fake textbook, the misleadingly named Explore Evolution, is based on this strategy.
The third pillar of Creationism is an appeal to fairness. Usually Creationists need to stack the deck a little by lying about their opponents to make this approach seem reasonable. Just as Casey did in this case where he lies about our roles in the BCSE, the nature of the BCSE, the very existence of a respected Christian as our spokesman, our stated goal and the fact that we have already put this into practice. We ran a successful lobbying campaign that united notable scientists, atheists, Christians, secular and religious groups and contributed to a change in the way UK Free Schools are set up. Again this is actually described in the piece he is attacking.
The main thrust of our article is actually advice from two atheists aimed at anti-theists and points to evidence that working with the religious through the BCSE is a very effective tactic for fighting Creationists. Casey has chosen to misrepresent this as a plot by BCSE to lure the religious into supporting an atheist agenda, and this forces him to lump his fellow Christians, when they defend evolution science, together with atheists.
Perhaps now you can see why Casey is frightened of the BCSE approach. He needs to create a whole world of straw-men, if he is to avoid the truth. The truth is that his Creationist position is based on theology, and minority theology at that, and has no basis in science.
PS Dear Casey,
We would really like to know, from your point of view; our article didn’t mention Intelligent Design at all, so, if the Discovery institute is not a Creationist organisation, why did you even bother with it?
This piece was written by Mark Edon and Paul Braterman and is also available through the BCSE website here
1 Church and State issues are very different in the UK from what they are in the US. See e.g. http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2011/03/why-it-needed-s.html
2 Throughout this piece, as in our original piece, “we” and “our” refers to Mark Edon and Paul Braterman as individuals.