Maimonides said it best, over 800 years ago. The Divine Teaching is, of necessity, expressed in human language. We don’t believe that God has fingers and hands (Exodus, Isaiah, Psalms, Luke) or goes for walks in gardens (Genesis). I would add that no one takes the commandments in the Bible literally, and when Daesh comes close to following the rules of law laid down in Deuteronomy, we are quite properly appalled. All of this is familiar, but this piece combats biblical literalism on its own terms, shows how it is inseparable from interpretation, and thereby undermines its strongest attraction – the illusion of certainty.
In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science
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Last month, Professor Alice Roberts visited Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, a creationist establishment recommended by Answers in Genesis, and wrote a highly critical report of what she found there. The Zoo Farm has replied on the Bristol culture website, and their response only adds further credibility to her strongest accusations. Since this website does not want to be accused of quote mining, I attach, in full, the Zoo’s statement, with our own comments inserted as appropriate. It should be remembered that the Zoo offers a range of what it describes as educational activities, including “an educational day out” for schools, with price discounts, on-site workshops described as being linked to the National Curriculum, and school and nursery outreach packages.
Professor Alice Roberts, from her web site
Prof Roberts tells of posters in the auditorium and children’s play area, which is presumably where the on-site workshops take place, claiming among other things that there are “30 reasons why apes are not related to man”, that humans were around at the same time as the first tetrapods (was Tiktaalik tasty, one wonders), that rates of radioactive decay were greater in the past, and that these possibilities should be considered as part of “an open, critical approach to explain what we see in the natural world.” She comments
I believe that religious fundamentalism has the potential to ruin scientific education. Apart from obscuring scientific facts, it teaches a way of thinking that is incredibly rigid. The evidence for a (very) old Earth and for evolution is overwhelming.
But believing in these things isn’t like a religious faith – it comes from a belief in evidence…. This [the zoo presentations] is, purely and simply, subversion of science to fit a religious agenda. At Noah’s Ark, you are not allowed to question the Bible. And where science and the Bible clash, every piece of scientific evidence is called into question, shoehorned into place if possible, or thrown out if it’s too dissonant.
A poster at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm disputes the common ancestry of humans and apes. Image by Pip, via Wikipedia
I can only agree; if anything, I am surprised by the moderation of her language. But it is time to see what the Zoo has to say in reply:
There has been some local interest this week in a Guardian online article written about Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm by television personality Alice Roberts (BBC’s Coast, Don’t Die Young).
The article presents Alice’s personal view on the Christian message which forms a part of our zoo and which is well known by our visitors.
We’re not surprised by her comments as she is well known as a television atheist and humanist who doesn’t like the notion of God being introduced to science.
Alice Roberts is a University Professor (a fact belatedly acknowledged at the very foot of the Zoo Farm’s statement), qualified physician, Ph.D. in palaeopathology, former University Lecturer in Anatomy at Bristol, the University of Birmingham’s first Professor of Public Engagement in Science, and author of over 30 peer reviewed articles and technical reports, in addition to four books and numerous less formal articles.
Her critique of the Zoo Farm does not even mention Christianity. It does describe religion as being based on faith (surely the Zoo Farm’s owners would not dissent from this), and criticises the Zoo Farm for treating the Bible as a source of information on scientific topics. In all of this, every mainstream Christian denomination in the UK would agree with her. So, indeed, would most Christians in the US, and even one in three US Evangelicals. Prof Roberts is, in private life, an atheist, and she is among other things a highly respected television presenter of science, but the claim that she is a “television atheist” is without foundation.
Noah’s Ark is a Christian organisation which wants to give people the scientific freedom to believe in God as part of their view of how life was made and has changed over time.
No one is restricting anyone’s freedom to believe whatever they like, but the Zoo Farm’s claim that creationism is the same thing as believing in God is a monstrous piece of spiritual pride, and, according to Theologian Canon Prof Keith Ward, “the kind of thing that brings both religion and science into disrepute.” [KW to PB, private communication].
Christianity is the leading religion in the UK and followed either casually or seriously by over 31 million people (2011 Census), an interesting statistic when compared to the 13 million people who characterised themselves as having ‘no-religion’ in the same survey. An important part of our country’s heritage and education system for many decades, like many others we believe religious discussion is still very relevant and compatible with modern society, and the field of science.
Within two covered areas at our 100 acre park we provide some discussion boards which explain the theories of evolution, creationism and re-colonisation; a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation. We also question whether the biblical story of Noah and his Ark could be true and what evidence there is for a global flood – a popular story which ties in nicely with the theme of the zoo.
The suggestion that Christianity implies creationism is, as discussed above, mischievous nonsense. So is the suggestion that evolution and creationism are theories, in the same sense of the word. There is no evidence for a global flood, and if Noah’s flood is “a popular story,” or even a popular story with an important moral message, so are Aesop’s fables. Evolution is a well attested historical fact, as well as being the theoretical framework for the whole of modern biology, while creationism is a simpleminded fable based on a theology that was looking old-fashioned a thousand years ago. Re-colonisation is not, as claimed, “a new paradigm which accepts both the role of God and the complexity of the genome for evolution after an initial creation,” but an arbitrary and pseudoscientific hodgepodge that accepts the story of Noah’s Ark as history, but places it at the base of the Archaean.
Noah’s Ark is keen to promote thought and discussion for interested visitors, certainly not forcing religious views and pressuring unsuspecting families as unfortunately Alice Roberts’ article confusingly portrays.
For a scientist, Prof. Roberts [sic] article was surprisingly dominated by persuasive language and subversive opinion rather than simply a factual account of her visit, presumably with the intention of encouraging people to share her angry sentiments.
As the article makes clear, Noah’s Ark does indeed force religious views on unsuspecting families, by presenting nonsense as scientific fact. And does the Zoo Farm expect its critics to use unpersuasive language, and who or what is it accusing Prof Roberts of subverting?
It was interesting for us to see Alice with her family during her visit to Noah’s Ark, particularly her young daughter who apparently thoroughly enjoyed our indoor play barn and the large Rainbow Slide, unconcerned by posters discussing God and evolution – probably a little tedious for an energetic child. If Alice is concerned by the effect of these displays on children’s young minds, hopefully her happy daughter enjoying the zoo might allay her fears!
At the risk of aggravating the offence by drawing attention to it, I would ask what right the Zoo has to be monitoring Prof Roberts’s preschool daughter in this way, and publicising the way she spent her day there.
As a popular family attraction at the end of our busiest year with record visitor numbers, we remain confident that people are intelligent enough to make their own minds up about God, creation and evolution if they are interested in reading the discussion we provide at the zoo, and fundamentally come to Noah’s Ark for the enjoyable day out we continue to offer.
A well-known tourist attraction in the south west and winners of important industry awards including the regional ‘Access for All’ award from the Bristol Tourism & Hospitality Awards we have been recognised for providing good access for people of all religions and no religions, race, gender, age and sexuality.
For us, receiving occasional criticism for our Christian theme by opinionated atheists is not new and gives little cause for concern – fundamentally we are a popular family zoo with an excellent and well-cared for collection of animals which is enjoyed by thousands of public and school visitors each year. With the opening of the internationally recognised ‘Elephant Eden’ shortly and more exciting plans for 2014 we are looking forward to another bumper season after the Christmas break.
We enjoy Prof. Roberts television work and public contribution and wish her well in her future projects – both her and her family are very welcome to visit us again should they ever wish to.
Again, my apology for the tedious length. And again, the completely misleading equation of Christianity with creationism, coupled here with distracting remarks about equal access (is the Zoo claiming special credit not excluding gays?).
As my friend the Rev Michael Roberts continually points out, this kind of creationism is a 20th century heresy, spreading through the Abrahamic religions like a cancer, and the plain duty of church leaders is to denounce it as such. A duty that they are dismally failing to perform.
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.
Calderglen 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