The story so far: Spencer Fildes and I defended our petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on November 24. The Committee (transcript here; see “New Petitions) listened most attentively, questioned us closely but not unsympathetically, and agreed to write to a number of organisations for their views. You will find full details, including petition text and links to the submissions received, at the Petition website. Now read on:
There may still be time for individuals and organisations to submit their own views, but the window is rapidly closing. We would suggest that any submissions at this stage should be short and concentrate on the central issues, and that individual submissions mention any relevant personal details (e.g. parent, teacher, own schooling, professional qualifications and degrees). What follows is my own response, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society. If you find some of this material (especially the analysis of the arguments put forward by defenders of the system) repetitious and boring, I can only agree.
Response to submissions
We respond here to the specific arguments raised in submissions to the Committee. To avoid repetition, we present some relevant general points, before dealing with the individual submissions.
[A personal note: I am submitting this on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, as their Science Adviser. I have spent my life as an educator, my own children were educated in publicly funded Scottish schools, and I am currently collaborating with Prof Roger Downie, Glasgow University, in a study of evolution education in Scotland.]
1] Several submissions refer to the presence on the Education Committees of other non-elected members, such as parent, teacher, and pupil representatives, and Council officials. We would have no objection to the presence of religious representatives on the same terms, i.e. by invitation of the elected members, and non-voting.
Religious representatives hold the only positions within the entire Scottish government structure that are not answerable to the electorate or their chosen representatives. They are chosen without reference to the general public, and then imposed on Councils regardless of the wishes of the elected members; none of the submissions opposing our petition address this central fact.
2] (This matter was raised in Committee): the minutes of Falkirk Education Committee for September this year show that the religious representatives there do vote on divisions, including divisions on topics not directly related to religion, and we have verified that this is also the case elsewhere.
3] It is claimed that the religious representatives are independent, non-political, and broaden representation by their presence. We disagree on all counts. They may be independent of party, but that is only because they are independent of the electorate, and we do not see that as a strength in a democracy. They are, instead, totally dependent on their nominating Churches, and pursue those Churches’ agenda in Committee. Fully one third of the representatives are clergy, and there is no reason to regard the others as more broadly representative than the elected Councillors.
4] Our opponents refer extensively to the importance of religion. Religion is indeed important, and so are many other things, such as science and physical health. We trust our schools and the Education Committees that supervise them to teach pupils about science and health, without imposing on them representatives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh or the local Health Boards. Why this strange need for supervision by special interests when it comes to religion?
5] The petition is criticised for singling out religious representatives, as if this were an attack on religion. This is a straw man argument. Religious representatives are not singled out by us, but by the uniqueness of their situation. They are insulated from the discipline of the ballot box, and are the only persons so privileged within the entire Scottish government structure. We would object on the same grounds if there were similar protected positions for the irreligious.
The Scottish Government response
The Scottish Government response represents a significant change from its earlier position when responding to PE01498, a closely related petition 3 years ago. Their more recent response makes interesting use of the past tense (“was viewed as providing support to the authority“) and while stating that there are no plans for change, now stops short of declaring support for the status quo. The new response also invites the Scottish Secular Society to take part in the current consultation on education. We will of course do so. However, we are concerned in case the two processes (petition and consultation) interfere with each other, since we regard the subject of the present petition as a free-standing issue.
Submissions from the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
COSLA appears neutral, denying excessive influence by the religious representatives, but making no arguments in their favour, and referring, as if by contrast, to the broader question of community representation (see  above).
eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; Advance equality of opportunity between different groups, and Foster good relations between different groups
and states that
“the Commission believes that, as concerns have now been raised, an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above.”
We agree, and note that none of these issues have been addressed by any of the opponents to our petition, nor by the Scottish Government in its responses to date.
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council completely supports us on the central issue that the Churches should not have the right to appoint voting members of the Committees, and is generally in favour of membership of these Committees being broadened. It makes a number of detailed recommendations to that end, but these lie outside the scope of our petition.
Other submissions in support
With one exception, individual submissions from a range of backgrounds and belief positions are strongly supportive; we let these speak for themselves. Note that Iain Campbell is founder of the Western Isles Secular Society, while Janet Briggs is Secretary of the Glasgow Unitarian Church.
Michael Zimmermann, of Clergy Letter Project, is rightly concerned about the disproportionate influence of science-denying fringe Churches. As emerged in Committee, what matters here is not merely that such views are educationally unhelpful, but that they are unrepresentative, so that their empowerment demonstrates fundamental flaws in how the system operates.
Edinburgh Secular Society draw attention to the lack of progress since they first raised the matter in 2013. They point out that the Churches have not owned the schools since 1872, now represent a minority of the population, and that their representatives are unelected, unaccountable, and use their influence to further their special interests. One example is the frustration of attempts to set up joint-campus schools. Those who wish to pursue such a divisive policy should do so by standing for election.
Glasgow Theosophical Society supports the petition on general grounds, and is specifically concerned “that the present arrangement does not support non-religious individuals and groups or promote the views of rational philosophy in shaping educational learning.”
Although our general points (above) anticipate many of the arguments against us, we prefer to discuss the hostile submissions in detail for completeness, and in case we appear to acquiesce. We apologise for the unavoidable length of this section, and make repeated references to General Points  through  in an attempt to minimise repetitiveness. The one hostile submission from an individual, Andrew Strachan, has already been discussed in Committee.
Church of Scotland accuses the petition of selective quotation from an outdated document. We had in fact intended to quote in full at greater length, to avoid such an accusation, but were advised by the Clerks to be selective for reasons of brevity. The petition gives the full citation to the source we used, and unfortunately the Church of Scotland does not provide a reference to the current version.
Turning to matters of substance, CofS denies, despite having itself introduced the term, that its position is one of privilege, but states no reason for this view, other than its own benignity. It denies that its representatives are “unelected”, since it considers its internal process (which it does not describe) to be a form of election. This completely misses the central point, that the representatives are not answerable to the general electorate. CofS refers to its 1.7 million adherents (less than a third of the population, and even this according to figures cited in the petition is an overestimate), but gives no details of how they are involved in the process, which we suspect of being restricted in practice to a handful of highly active members. It also asks how the petitioners know that the 37% (latest figures give 52%) of non-believers are unhappy with the Church of Scotland representatives. This is irrelevant to our arguments, but we could equally well ask what makes the Church imagine that nonbelievers would be happy with the situation if they knew about it, as most do not?
The CofS submission draws the usual misleading analogy between the religious representatives and co-opted Council members (see  above), and makes the unsupported claim (see  above) that its appointees broaden democracy and make it more participatory.
Finally, the submission denies our claim that present practice “violates equality by excluding non-believers, and many believers”, on the grounds that some small faith groups also have representatives in some districts, such as the Bahai in Shetland. We do not follow the reasoning here. How is an atheist, or for that matter a Bahai, in Glasgow, rendered any less excluded from the making of the decisions that affect them by the fact that there is a solitary Bahai religious representative taking part in decision-making, 300 miles away?
The Scottish Catholic Education Service claims that “[T]his current petition is discriminatory in nature against religious bodies as it refers solely to unelected Church representatives.” For refutation, see  above. It is worth repeating that our objection is not to their being Church representatives, but to their being unelected, imposed, and voting.
The Catholic Education Service refers to the “many unelected members” of Education Committees; for our response, again, see .
“Church representatives … operate on a non-political basis and therefore make a valuable and objective contribution to the local community.” For rebuttal, see .
Unaware of the self-contradiction, the Catholic Education Service in its very next paragraph describes its Church’s representatives as committed to the pursuit of a very specific agenda, saying that “their role in doing so is seen by the Church as vital to the welfare of Catholic schools.“ This passage shows a marked lack of confidence in the ability of Catholic voters to look after their own interests. The reality is that we will have Catholic schools as long as there is demand for them, but here the Catholic Education Service seems to be demanding protection over and above this.
The Catholic Church submission also refers to the legislation independently ensuring the continued existence of denominational schools, the legal requirement that the Catholic Church must, like other interested parties, be consulted over Council education policy, and the special entrenched role of the Catholic Education Service and the Council of Bishops in the management of Catholic schools. These are presented as reasons for the continued presence of the Catholic Church representatives on Education Committees, whereas on the contrary they are reasons for regarding those representatives as redundant. Nor do they excuse the fact that nominees from all churches have, and use, the right to vote on all matters of educational policy, whether their own denominations are particularly affected and indeed whether or not religion is specifically involved (see  above).
Interfaith Scotland reports that “diverse traditions support having a religious voice on Education Committees to ensure a balanced and nuanced approach to education in Scotland which includes an understanding of the potential religious needs of an increasingly religiously diverse Scotland,” and go on to speak of the role of faith groups in Scottish society. In response, we refer to , and also raise again the implied neglect of the educational needs of the nonreligious. To the extent that the religious do have special educational needs, these can surely be met, and generally are, from the religious community’s own resources.
Finally, Interfaith Scotland aspires to greater inclusiveness, as in the examples (also cited by CofS) of Bahai and Muslim representatives. This is mere tokenism, since religious views are so diverse that it would require an enormous commitment to accommodate them (how many different representatives would be needed merely to accommodate the diverse Presbyterian groups in Glasgow, for example?)
The Muslim Council of Scotland, MCS, claims that religious representatives do represent the majority of the population. This is no longer true, but is in any case irrelevant to the issues of discrimination and lack of democratic accountability. MCS deplores sectarianism, prejudice, and hate crimes, and argues for mutual understanding. Few would disagree. It further states “We believe that it is vital that the views of all faith and belief groups, are taken into account to inform committee decisions. Therefore, we would like to see wider representation where views of all faith groups are considered.” This is an interesting agenda, but it cannot possibly be achieved by representation of all groups. For instance, within Scottish Islam alone there are at least two major groups (three if one accepts the claim of Ahmedis to be regarded as Muslims), each with its own internal divisions. MCS suggests dealing with this problem by having one faith group speak for several others. We don’t see how this could possibly work.
MCS refers to “the very human values adopted by the Scottish people, over the years such as wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice,” and the role of religion in developing these. Yet the relationship between religion and morality is, as we point out in the petition itself, debatable, and the suggestion that religion is necessary for appreciation of these values is deeply offensive to non-believers. MCS recognise that many elected Councillors belong to religious communities, but notes (correctly) that that is not the sole determinant of how they vote. But why should it be? MCS claim that the religious representatives are not unelected, since they are elected by their own faith groups; for rebuttal see our response to this argument as advanced by the Church of Scotland.
MCS further states “This petition singles out religious representatives on Education Committees. Other Local Authority Committees, in fact the practice of the committee system as a whole, invariably include unelected voting members representing other bodies”. This is not true. In the cases that we have examined, the other nonelected members are always non-voting. Moreover, they invariably derive their mandate to serve from the elected Councillors; see . MCS states that the religious representatives’ contributions are “often greatly appreciated”. Maybe. Under our proposal, if Councils do indeed appreciate such contributions, they have but to ask for them. MCS then repeats the argument from the alleged diversity of religious representatives; here, again, see .
To summarise this section, our opponents use, repetitiously, a limited range of by now familiar arguments, none of them addressing the core issues in ways that will stand up to examination.
We rest our case on broad principles of democracy, equality, and fairness. In this we are supported (SPTC), or at least not opposed (COSLA), by those most directly affected, while EHRC agrees with us that the questions we raise require an answer; we are also supported by some religious groups and all but one individual commenters and respondents. As might be expected, we are opposed by those organisations whose undemocratic privileges we seek to remove, but their arguments will not stand examination. The system we have inherited is anti-democratic, unfair, and discriminatory. Changing demographics only underline its anachronistic nature. The time is ripe for change.
Prof Paul S Braterman, MA, DPhil, DSc, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society
Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)
Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”
The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)
As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.
Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.
At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.
We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.
One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.
To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.
To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:
“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.
Our supporters include
- Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
- Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
- The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
- Glasgow Theosophical Society,
As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.
It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.
It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.
It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.
Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.
The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.
Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.
In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.
Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details
Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.
The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.
The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.
Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?
Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.
What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.
Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.
Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:
God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).
Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.
At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?
I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.
As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.
That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.
But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.
Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.
As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.
Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.
Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.
All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.
Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-education-denying-democracy/
Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)
And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
On May 12, the Education and Culture Committing of the Scottish Parliament formally closed consideration of the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, as having run its course. This petition sought guidance to exclude creationism from Scotland’s publicly funded schools. The Committee had asked the Scottish Government to clarify its position, and in his reply the Minister responsible had finally brought himself to say that creationism should not be taught in science classes. For more on the year-long process that led to this point, see here and here.
The Herald story itself remains top of the “most read” list at time of writing, after 5 days, and has attracted 57,000 on-site Likes.
To my surprise, the story has gathered international attention. A story in The Independent (does that count as international? Are England and Scotland part of the same nation? Do not attempt to answer this question here. The same comment applies to a summary by the London-based National Secular Society.) A report from our good friends at the California-based National Center for Science Education; also from Patheos. Favourable comment from Russia Today. An interview on The Sceptic’s Guide to the Universe, the leading US podcast of its kind (episode #516, about half way through; 100,000 downloads).
And a story on I Freaking Love Science , whose FaceBook posting had earned 292,706 Likes, 38,006 Shares, and 9,754 comments in its first 24 hours. A followup hostile letter in The Herald, May 31, notable for the comments it drew which were the very opposite of what the writer was hoping for; a report on that letter by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a widely read and superficially facetious but in fact well-informed critic of Creationists. A further commentary in the Herald on June 2 by Andrew Denholm, Education Correspondent, who celebrates a victory for common sense, while denying that anything has happened. (I will add details here if yet more stories appear about the Petition.)
So what has happened, and why does it matter? What has happened is that the Scottish Government has moved from merely saying that creationism is not part of the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught in science classes. A shift from “need not” to “must not”. In terms of mechanical application of the rules, no real change. In terms of framing and context, pivotal. If Creationism is not scientific in the science class, how can it be scientific elsewhere?
In the course of its submission to the Scottish Parliament regarding our petition, the Society for Biology commented:
We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…. [W]e urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.
Quite so. But why only in science lessons? Creationism is, and should be, regularly discussed in Scottish schools, not in the context of science, but in that of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS).
As most readers will know, “Creation Scientists” and Intelligent Design proponents want to claim scientific respectability for the doctrine of separate special creation. The Government’s new position will make it far harder for them to do so. Nonetheless, it would run counter to the entire spirit of RMPS for instructors to tell students what to think. So teachers, who may themselves have had little formal training in biology, have to convey quite detailed evidence in such a way that students can come to their own well-informed conclusions. My colleagues and I are putting together materials that all those involved in these classes might find helpful, and would appreciate suggestions.
1] Filter-protected version of the real name
Guidance provided by Education Scotland… does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons ….
I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian… . Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise [emphasis added].
Alasdair Allan, Minister for Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, to Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, April 22 2015, in response to Scottish Secular Society petition (full text of letter attached at end of this post).
A tipping point.
This in response to the events set in chain by the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
As recently as December 2014, the Scottish Government’s official position stopped short of giving any guidance at all about the teaching of Creationism in science classes, on the grounds that such things should be left to teachers, and to bodies such as Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, rather than being dealt with by the Government as such. Now we have, at last, a clear statement from the responsible minister that Creationism should not be taught as science. This U-turn is concealed by the use of the word “therefore”. The Minister has now given the guidance that we sought. How does he reconcile this with the principle of governmental non-intervention in the curriculum? By implying that he is not stating a new position, but one that had been implicit in Education Scotland’s guidance all along.
I think supporters of science over superstition should be willing to accept this polite fiction. The Scottish parliamentary petition process, far superior to that at Westminster, has worked exactly as it should. A handful of individuals, with no external resources, have been able to force discussion of a politically uncomfortable topic at ministerial level. The Minister, doggedly defending the status quo, has tacitly recognise that all was not well, and, while explicitly refraining from issuing new guidance, has issued new guidance. The necessary commitment to teachers’ independence (see full text of letter below) has been displayed, in the very act of instructing them how to use it. All parties can claim victory, and I for one am left with an enhanced respect to that most maligned of professions, the politician.
In addition, the Government’s December 2014 position was that no cause for concern had been shown. Now, however, the Minister shows awareness of concerns involving’s three separate Education Authorities (there are more). In this new context, the reference to monitoring through inspection moves from poorly concealed denialism to active commitment.
Our Petition, having made its way through the Public Petitions Committee and been twice considered by the Education and Culture Committee, has now been formally closed. In the words of the Convener of the latter committee as stated in the official record,
One of the concerns that I raised was not about the banning of discussions of such philosophies and ideas in schools but about the possible intrusion of creationism into science classes. In the minister’s letter—which I will quote to ensure that it is in the Official Report—he has helpfully pointed out:
“Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”
The Government could not have made that any clearer, and I am therefore in accord with other members that, in light of the Government’s letter, we should close the petition.
So what have we achieved? Far more than I would have imagined possible.
- Over 600 signatures, including three Nobel prize winners.
- Strong letters of support from many bodies, including the Society for Biology, and the British Centre for Science Education, and from a wide range of highly qualified individuals, including professors, schoolteachers, and clergymen.
- Widespread public discussion of what had been until then almost a non-issue, with a total of more than 60 reports in every major newspaper in Scotland and many far beyond.
- An amazing piece of self-exposure from Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design, rapidly identified by the British Centre for Science Education as Creationist in its claims that macroevolution is contentious, and that the accepted science of evolution does not account for the origin of novelty
- Greatly heighten public awareness, and an end to the pretence that such outrageous incidents as that at Kirktonholme were rarer and isolated events. (Regular readers will know that at Kirktonholme, books handed out in school assembly showed dinosaurs being used as farm animals, and said that the reason for belief in evolution was the wish to justify personal wickedness.)
- A motion in the Scottish Parliament, signed by 22 Members (out of a total of around 100 eligible to sign), saying
That the Parliament congratulates South Lanarkshire Council on taking decisive action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools by introducing new guidance; condemns any promotion of creationism in publicly funded schools, including the reported distribution of creationist books at Kirktonholme Primary School; believes that creationism should not be presented as a scientific theory and viable alternative to the established theory of evolution, and supports the Society of Biology and the Scottish Secular Society position in opposing the teaching of creationism in the classroom.
(Happily, the time when South Lanarkshire was struggling with its response, concerning which more here, to the Kirktonholme scandal corresponded to the time when our petition was attracting maximum publicity.)
- And finally, this critical shift from merely saying that Creationism is not in the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught as part of science lessons.
There remains much cause for concern about how Creationism is presented in Religions, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) classes in Scotland. It is the laudable goal of RMPS to encourage pupils to make up their own minds between competing positions, but what if one of the positions, with many adherents in some parts of Scotland, is flat out wrong? It is difficult to maintain that an error-laden account of who we are and where we came from can be acceptable in RMPS, when it has been specifically excluded from the science classroom. The Creationist position cannot be discussed without presenting it, but how should we respond to a current textbook that states as a strength of Intelligent Design “Strong scientific arguments for the arguments properly researched according to scientific method,” none of which is true (in the context of the petition, see here and here; for more criticism see here)? Alasdair Allan has said in Parliament that Creationism should be discussed but not promoted, but where is the boundary between discussion and promotion? More on this in due course.
Text of Ministerial letter:
Mr Stewart Maxwell MSP
Education and Culture Committee
The Scottish Parliament
22 April 2015
Thank you for your letter of 18 March 2015 about the Education and Culture Committee’s consideration of Petition PE1530 from the Scottish Secular Society. I will reply to the points you have raised in turn:
Scottish Government position on Petition PE1530
Thank you for the opportunity to summarise the Scottish Government’s position on Petition PE1530, as was set out in the Learning Directorate’s letter of 15 December 2014 to the Public Petitions Committee.
While teachers will undoubtedly hold a wide range of views and opinions on religious, ethical and other matters, there are a number of safeguards already in place that are designed to ensure young people receive a balanced education. These include; a robust and independent school inspection regime, the positive influence on school life of Parent Councils, education authority and school management team oversight of what is being taught and presented within the school as a whole, a robust complaints process that is set out in statute, and an independent body established to set the professional standards expected of all teachers — the General Teaching Council of Scotland.
Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the “Principles and Practice” papers and the “Experiences and Outcomes” documentation for each of the 8 curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.
As you know the non-statutory curriculum is a long-standing feature of Scottish education. The difficulty of putting in place a ban for a specific issue, like Creationism in science, is that there will inevitably be calls for bans on other issues and the curriculum would risk becoming mired in legal arrangements. It is preferable to leave the curriculum to teachers and enable them to exercise their professional judgement on what is taught, rather than legislate to ban issues like Creationism in specific areas.
Prevalence of Creationism Teaching
Education Scotland’s science and Religious and Moral Education (RME) teams, along with HMI Subject Specialists, have engaged extensively with schools over the last two years. This includes visits to over 40 establishments as evidence gathering for the Sciences 3-18 Curriculum Impact Report; five sciences “conversation days” involving more than 250 stakeholders and Education Scotland engagement with many hundreds of teachers through events designed to support primary science and the new SQA sciences National Qualifications.
I am aware of concerns you have previously expressed about Creationism being taught in 3 schools in Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian. I can confirm that since these incidents were highlighted no concerns have been expressed to Education Scotland staff, either in the RME or Science teams, about the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines in Scottish schools and no school or teacher has sought guidance on this matter from Education Scotland. Education Scotland will, however, continue to monitor this through the independent inspection process, and other on-going engagement with practitioners and schools, including with science teachers, and address any issues that arise.
Approaches to this issue in other parts of the United Kingdom
You will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to offer a view on how this issue is approached in other parts of the United Kingdom as this is a matter for the other UK administrations. My officials have sought information from their counterparts in the other UK administrations and there are aspects of their approaches that are similar to our own.
I remain confident that checks and balances are in place to ensure that the teaching of Creationism or similar doctrines does not happen in school science classrooms in Scotland.
I hope the Committee finds this information of use.
Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages
This morning, the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament held its third and final hearing on the Scottish Secular Society’s Petition PE01530. The meeting is archived here, and a transcript will be available in about a week here.
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.
I quote this again, since the Petition’s opponents, with scant regard for the Commandment against bearing false witness, repeatedly claim that we want to shut down all discussion of religion, or of the Biblical account of creation, or whatever. Indeed, such claims were actually quoted at the Committee meeting, by members concerned to show suitable sensitivity towards the tender feelings of their own creationist constituents.
However, the issue was never really in doubt, given the support that our petition has received among Members of the Scottish Parliament; see here.
The Convener was admirably blunt in describing creationism as “bilge”, and while no one dissented from this, there was still some discussion as to whether it presented a real problem. Eventually, however, and without a division, the Petitions Committee agreed to our request to forward the Petition to the Education and Culture Committee for further consideration. We could not have hoped for a better outome.
I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the discussion stirred up by our Petition, individually or as members of organisations. By moving the issue into the limelight, instead of leaving it in the decent obscurity that many would prefer, you have stimulated an unprecedented level of debate, not only on this specific subject, but on the entire question of the appropriate role of religion in Scotland’s publicly funded schools.This is far more than I would have imagined possible at the outset, or even as recently as a week ago.
This is an issue that, in Scotland, cuts across party lines, and indeed the bulk of our recorded parliamentary support comes from members of the governing Scottish National Party, although the Government itself is still pretending that there is no creationism problem here.
For the record, I attach the Scottish Secular Society’s press release of this morning, and its list of links and sources. my own blog posts on the subject are all on this site, collected here. My posts on the interwoven topic of the Kirktonholme Creationist textbook scandal, and subsequent developments including the admirable new South Lanarkshire guidelines, are here. I will keep you informed of new developments, and, once more, I thank you.
SCOTTISH SECULAR SOCIETY SATISFIED ‘CREATIONISM’ PETITION TO GO BEFORE EDUCATION AND CULTURE COMMITTEE
· SSS seek guidance on how creationism is presented in schools
· PPC refer matter to E&CC
The Parliament Petitions Committee (PPC) has today advised the Education and Culture committee to look at the Scottish Secular Society’s petition on the teaching of creationism in schools. The SSS are very satisfied with this outcome, that Education and Culture committee are the people best placed to consider the matter and understand the importance of good science education to Scotland.
Spencer Fildes, Chair of the SSS said: “We are delighted that the Public Petitions Committee (P.P.C.) have agreed to refer our petition to the E&CC. Interestingly, the PPC specifically acknowledge the more stringent guidelines now in place across England and Wales regarding the teaching of creationism, they also noted although the E.I.S. and other professional bodies state there are safeguards in place for teaching staff, there were concerns within the PPC around the lack of safeguards regarding external third parties such as Chaplains and volunteers.
Unfortunately the obvious lack of safeguards allowed the teaching of creationism at Kirktonholme to flourish and go unnoticed for over 8 years. Encouragingly, South Lanarkshire have subsequently undertaken a complete overhaul of the delivery and presentation of religion in their schools, making it fairer for those of belief and those of none, with all proper safeguards and checks in place. An excellent example of a secular democracy at work.
They have actually implemented all the recommendations the Scottish Secular Society proposed in our last petition.”
Former Chair of the SSS, Caroline Lynch, said: “We are very pleased that the integrity of Scottish science education is taken seriously by the PCC, and that the appropriate committee will now be looking at this issue. It is important that they understand we seek no new law or ban on Creationism, but guidance that ensures that discussions of the creation myths of any religions featured in schools are conveyed in the appropriate place, the RME classroom. Guidelines mirroring those already in place in England need not stifle discussion and debate, but simply ensure that ideas without evidence are not given the stature of accepted science.”
Professor Paul Braterman, SSS board member and scientific advisor said: “I am very pleased that the committee showed awareness of dissatisfaction with the lack of guidelines within the teaching profession, although I regret that the Society of Biology was not mentioned, but I am pleased with this outcome and feel sure that the education and Culture Committee will take all this into account.”
Notes to Editors: –
Sir John Sulston, Sir Harold Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts.
Press release on Scottish Secular Society petition: –
Anger over move to teach intelligent design in school (The Herald):-
Faith has no place in the classroom (The Herald):-
Creationists take fire for wanting ‘objective’ education in Scottish schools (USA):-
Michael Zimmerman – “Creationism at Its Most Extreme: Will the Scottish Parliament Respond?”:-
Dr Alasdair Allan MSP Minister for Learning says he has complete confidence in teachers: –
Alastair Noble’s comments quoted in press release: –http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/would-you-adam-and-eve-it-top-scientists-tell-scottish-pupils-the-bible-is-true-1.1060545
Open letter from SSS to Mike Russell MSP Secretary for Education on 1 October 2013 asking for ban on teaching of creationism: –
Parliamentary TV footage of SSS petition and former Chair Caroline Lynch exposing Kirktonhome School scandal for first time at 11:00: –
Updated November 29
If you as parent, teacher, or student have come across examples of separate creation or a young Earth being presented as scientifically credible (or, worse, as true) in Scottish public schools, please let me know (details in confidence) and if you are willing to go public please write to email@example.com citing petition PE01530
Petition site and comments: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/creationismguidance
BBC recording of hearing; Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to Public Petitions Committee
7 Nov Scotsman; Bid to ban creationism is militant atheism: Campaigners bidding to ban schools from teaching creationism in science lessons are “militant atheists” who want to impose their own views on youngsters and discourage questioning, a church leader has claimed. Reverend David Robertson…
Academic freedom under fire in Scotland, warns AiG
“Nobel laureates petition Scottish government to prohibit teachers from presenting creation science as alternative to evolutionism”
Yes, it’s true. We dangerous radicals at Scottish Secular Society are petitioning the Scottish Government to protect our schoolchildren (and our teachers) from those who want to present separate creationism and Young Earth doctrines as valid alternatives to the established science.And we do have Nobel Laureate backing. And AiG is attacking us for it, not once but twice. And if you think we are right to do so, please let the Petitions Committee (and if you live in Scotland, your MSPs) know about it (see here for contact details and suggestions).
There is still time to help, wherever you are. Separate creationism and the ultimate lunacy of YoungEarthism have gone international; the resistance will be stronger for doing likewise.
A special plea to those of you who live in Scotland. The science deniers are a constituency. We need to show that science lovers are a constituency too. Let your MSPs, both constituency and regional, hear from you. And let me know what they say in return.
You may well know of the petition seeking to keep evolution denial from being taught as valid viewpoint in Scottish schools. You may not know of the full horror of the Centre for Intelligent Design’s submission to the Petitions Committee, which raises the stakes by claiming that macroevolution (i.e. common descent) is “unobserved and speculative”, and that students should therefore be made aware of the challenge that Intelligent Design poses to what it calls “Neo-Darwinism”.
C4ID, a close affiliate of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, and clearly committed to its notorious Wedge Strategy, is asking for a licence to present Intelligent Design to schoolchildren as legitimate science. I will be accompanying Spencer Fildes to the Petitions Committee hearing on November 11, charged with the task of defending science from this attack, and convincing the Committee that Intelligent Design is non-science, in what has suddenly turned into Scotland’s version of Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District.
We need your help.
If you live outside Scotland, please email the Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org stating your views, and why the issue matters to you. If in Scotland, then in addition to him, please write to your constituency and regional MSPs. For how to contact them (very easy), and my suggestions about how to go about this, see the Letter Writing Suggestions below.
These letters make a difference. Those who deny evolution are constituency. We need to show our lawmakers that we are constituency too. And every letter counts; I heard a senior politician explain that 20 letters to a Member are a lot.
NOW is the time to act, so that these emails are in the MSP’s in-trays in the few days remaining before they consider our petition on Tuesday.
It would be useful for me to have a copy (send to email@example.com), but not essential. It would be very helpful to have copies of any reply you get.
Thanks. We need all the help we can get.
LETTER WRITING SUGGESTIONS
ALL SUPPORTERS: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Essential: specify that you are writing in support of Petition PE01530. The full text of the petition is at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/petitionPDF/PE01530.pdf
SUPPORTERS INSIDE SCOTLAND: in addition, go to https://www.writetothem.com/
This will give you the names of your constituency and regional MSPs. Click on a name and a letter-writing form will open. (Hint: use cut-and-paste, Control-V and control-C, to recopy the same message to each MSP). Do not write to your Westminster MP; education is devolved.
ALL SUPPORTERS: Compose your message (Hint: use cut-and-paste, Control-V and control-C, to re-copy the same message to each MSP)
Notice that the expressions “evolution denial” and “separate creationism” are probably better than the more respectable-sounding “creationism”.
Keep it short. The most important part from the politician’s point of view is the simple fact that you have bothered to write.
Some points you may want to include:
Mention if you are a teacher, parent, school pupil, scientist, or any other relevant fact. Attach any degree etc letters to your name.
Very useful: any examples you personally know of, of evolution denial or young Earth doctrines presented as possibly true in publicly funded schools
Do NOT attack religion. This is not about religion. It is about not lying to children.
The importance of science to Scotland’s future.
The fact that evolution, common ancestry, and an ancient Earth are fundamental well-established principles of the life sciences and Earth sciences.
Known examples of anti-scientific activity, such as the handing out of anti-science books in school assembly at Kirktonholme; the Challenger bus, run by an organisation that supports the extreme Young Earth separate creationist Answers in Genesis; schools staging “debates” giving evolution denial equal consideration with genuine science; and well-funded evolution denial groups such as Creation Ministries International, Truth in Science, and Centre for Intelligent Design active or seeking to become active in our schools (more details here).
Such activities directly undermine the teaching of science and often include directly accusing mainstream scientists of dishonesty.
The petition has already gathered international attention, including support from the (US) National Center for Science Education (see here)
Thanks again for your help.
Links to science-denying sites are nofollow