As I explained in my last post, a pre-devolution law requires three unelected church representatives as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland, and I strongly urge my friends to support the Edinburgh Secular Society petition ( to read and, if you agree, sign, click here) to change this. I recently discovered that the law also requires Diocesan representation in England, from Church of England and the Catholic Church. I suspect that the reason for having three representatives in Scotland is the fractious history of Scottish Presbyterianism.
The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee
Anyway, there we are, stuck (as the law stands) with three representatives of religion, whether anyone wants them or no. One chosen by (not just from) the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. Holding the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion, and 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.
So what are the implications for my own chief concern, the teaching of science? In the summer of 2015, the Scottish Secular Society use Freedom of Information requests to obtain a full list of these church appointees, and how they obtained their positions. At least ten of of them give particular reason for concern.
David Fraser, Baptist, Clackmannanshire, nominated himself when asked to consult with the District’s Baptists. He represents Alva Baptist Church, which links to Answers in Genesis on its website, while David Fraser himself hails from Metro Calvary Santa Monica. This church believes in the special creation of Adam and Eve as characters in history, and a literal historical Fall that left their descendants “corrupted in every aspect of their being”. I’m not sure I like the idea of my children’s education being directed, in part, by someone who thinks they are corrupted in every aspect of their being. And, that of the 150,000 people who will die today, the vast majority are entering Hell. However, there is some good news; they think they’ve found Noah’s Ark. Perhaps the Rev. David Fraser will make sure this discovery makes it into the syllabus of his Council’s schools.
John Jackson, East Dunbartonshire, represents Kirkintilloch Baptist Church, whose web site says almost nothing about the church’s beliefs. This does not bode well, although the list of sermon topics shows a commendable concern for social justice.
Falkirk Council gives us Michael Rollo, of Larbert Pentecostal Church, an affiliate of the modestly named “Assemblies of God”, whose beliefs include biblical infallibility, bodily resurrection, and “the everlasting conscious punishment of all whose names are not written in the book of life”. Charming. The Rev. Rollo owes his position to the fact that the Church of first choice, Episcopalian, failed to answer requests to nominate.
In Fife, we have Mr Alastair Crockett, from Cupar Baptist Church, whose statement of beliefs refers to the divine inspiration of the Bible, but does not mention infallibility. Promising, and I am aware that “Baptist” is, like “Evangelical”, a broad term including many whose attitude towards science is exemplary. As always, the devil (if I may so put it) is in the details. Regarding the Rev Graeme Clark, Central Baptist Church, Paisley (Renfrewshire) I can say even less, since his church seems to have lost its website.
No such ambiguity attaches to Mark Fraser, Assistant Pastor/Youth Minister, of The Bridge Church, Irvine (North Ayrshire), sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, which maintains that “[t]he one who physically dies in his sins without Christ is hopelessly and eternally lost in the lake of fire and therefore, has no further opportunity of hearing the Gospel or for repentance. The lake of fire is literal.” It also believes in divine healing through the laying on of hands. So now we know. He believes that anyone who disagrees with him, including a clear majority of the children whose education he is influencing, is going to suffer eternal torment, and serve them right.
The Rev. David Donaldson, of Greenock Elim Pentecostal Church, also obtained his position in response to a newspaper advertisement. He received his training at the International Christian College in Glasgow, now replaced by the Scottish School of Christian Mission, and his Church’s beliefs include the literary infallibility of the Bible, a historical Fall, the universal sinfulness of all men since that Fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation, and the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.
In South Lanarkshire, we have yet another sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, Dr Nagy Iskander, of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. This name will be familiar to my habitual readers for his direct association with Answers in Genesis, his presence (until last August) on the chaplaincy team of Calderglen High, and his commitment to the view that evolution and creationism are equally untestable, and should therefore be discussed evenhandedly. By all accounts, including those of his intellectual opponents, Dr Iskander is a thoroughly nice guy, and if (I’m not sure) he thinks I’m gong to burn in Hell forever, I am confident that he deeply regrets the fact, unlike some.
And finally, the Western Isles. Here the Church of Scotland is represented by the Moderator of the Presbytery of Lewis, currently threatening to secede over the ordination of gay ministers. We have the Free Church of Scotland, committed to biblical infallibility. There is a Catholic representative, although on my reading of the law there doesn’t really need to be one here. And then we have the Free Presbyterian Church, which regards all other churches as having fallen away in either doctrine or practice, maintains “that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired and infallible, from beginning to end” and that “[t]he duty of the civil magistrate is to protect the Church of God”, and devotes a page on its website to explaining why Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas.
All of the above, remember, sit and vote on committees designing educational policy for all the children in their area, believers and unbelievers alike, whether anyone else wants them there, or not.
Original post October 2013, updated October 2016. The petition to remove these unelected clergy is live for signature and comment, by Scots and others, here until November 16 2016.
More from Edinburgh on the future of religion, and some thoughts on accommodation and accommodationism
Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)
I have already posted my own introductory remarks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion. Here are my summaries of those from Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame, convener of Glasgow Brights, and Religious Moral and Philosophical Education teacher), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and my own reflections on these. Keith looks forward to the coming together of rationalists with liberal-minded believers, I, in contrast, think that we are looking out some unbridgeable divides, on topics that matter greatly to the believers, but wonder how much they should be allowed to matter to the rest of us.
Keith: To quote Niels Bohr, prediction is always difficult, especially regarding the future. Who in 1988 would have foretold the incredible drop in crime, divorce, and teen pregnancies, the legalisation of gay marriage, the smoking ban, the resignation of a pope, or Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen?
The obvious prediction for the Church is ongoing decline. I think of it more like an alcoholic, heading for rock bottom, at which point it might either go under, or make a comeback. Going under would mean continuing with the suicidal policies of gender inequality, and obsession with sexual guilt. A comeback would mean some major changes, leading towards a future with general acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption, a Catholic church purged of paedophilia, a Christianity free from literalist mythology, gender discrimination, “God of the gaps” reasoning and similar nonsense, and, in time, an Islam that has also freed itself from obscurantist nastiness.
In any case, religion will never disappear as long as we retain our fear of death, the dark and the unknown, and our tendency to wishful thinking.
The big questions of life, death, and meaningfulness will not go away, nor should they. And so religion will not die out. Faith, perhaps, yes, but not hope or charity, awe, wonder or mystery. If Dawkins can quote Psalm 19 with approval, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament show us his handiwork”, there may even be room for a grand coalition between non-dogmatic religion, and the rationalist’s sense of wonder.
Or, to put it another way: You say God is love, we’ll say Love is god, and let’s split the difference!
Andrew had walked that day in the steps of Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy in 1696, and to whom the General Assembly should now make a public apology. Jesus didn’t die as a sacrifice; he was killed. He was killed for being a protester by the power structure, of the rabbinical power structure who recognized him as a challenge, and the power structure of Rome who understood the threat posed by his message of love and common humanity. Aikenhead’s crime was to question biblical literalism, to suggest that Eden was a myth, and to attempt to bring the Church of Scotland of his day in line with the emerging Enlightenment.
Andrew’s hope is that some of the spirit of Aikenhead will survive. For him, Christianity is not a matter of accepting this or that belief, but of following in the footsteps of the Man on the donkey. The Church is not a hierarchy but a body of people, and its ministry is to serve people. The claim that same-sex marriage is a threat to Christian marriage is absurd, because there is no such thing as Christian marriage, only human marriage. When religion defines dogmas, develops structures, and limits enquiry, it is doing the very opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. The Church has already hit rock bottom. It hit rock bottom under the Emperor Constantine, when it allowed itself to be established as an official religion, and needs to redeem itself from this. As for the factual claims made by religion, these are simply beside the point. The message of love and self-worth does not depend on whether or not strange things actually happened in a particular tomb some 2000 years ago.
Andrew is as close a partner as Keith could hope for among believers, and yet I see the gap between them as unbridgeable. For Andrew, the universe has a purpose, even if we do not know what it is, the Gospel story has a special mystical significance, and some very precious part of a person survives physical death. For Keith, as for me, purpose is something we must each create for ourselves in an indifferent and unmotivated universe, the Gospels are an incoherent palimpsest, and the mind can no more exist without the body than a computer program can run without hardware. These are differences that cannot be “split”.
But how much does this matter? Keith and I totally disagree, whereas I suspect that Andrew and I generally agree, on questions of politics and economics. I see Keith’s acceptance of 21st century capitalism as an ideological delusion, whereas he sees the primacy I give to social concerns as soft-minded evasion. These also are differences that cannot be “split”. But they do not stop me from embracing Keith as an ally in the fight (it is a fight) against the infiltration of education by creationists and other religious obscurantists. And I do not see my differences with Andrew as reason not to embrace him in the same cause. Indeed, I value him particularly highly, as I value allies like Dennis Venema, because they can argue the case from within the tent of religion, as I can not.
And if this makes me an “accommodationist”, so be it.
Lawrence Krauss, physicist and amateur philosopher, in his Newsweek article, The Godless Particle, writes “The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.” John Lennox, Oxford mathematician and part-time theologian, accuses Krauss of talking ill-informed nonsense. Let me surprise my friends by saying that Lennox is right from beginning to end in what he says. The sad thing is that Lennox himself does not realise the implications. If he did, he might choose his friends more carefully. In particular, he might distance himself from the “Intelligent Design” movement, which is everything that in his view religion should not be.
Krauss does not seem to realize that his concept of God is one that no intelligent monotheist would accept. His “God” is the soft-target “God of the gaps” of the “I can’t understand it, therefore God did it” variety. As a result, Krauss, like Dawkins and Hawking, regards God as an explanation in competition with scientific explanation. That is as wrong-headed as thinking that an explanation of a Ford car in terms of Henry Ford as inventor and designer competes with an explanation in terms of mechanism and law. God is not a “God of the gaps”, he is God of the whole show.
Having read both articles, I have to say that Lennox is absolutely right in his critique of Krauss. Scientific discoveries tell us more about how the universe works, with the promise of yet more to come. But this in no way undermines Lennox’s vision of God as “God of the whole show”. On the contrary, from his point of view, our growing understanding of the laws of nature is at the same time growing evidence of the majesty of God’s design. Henry Ford’s production line works, and there are natural explanations for how it works, but it only works because of the way it was set up in the first place. In the same way, according to Lennox , the universe works, and there are natural explanations for how it works. The detection of the Higgs boson helps confirm our understanding of these natural explanations. However, this for Lennox does not detract from God’s glory, but adds to it.
Lennox is part here of a rich and venerable intellectual tradition. It was a 19th century theologian, Henry Drummond, who in as many words rejected the concept of a “God of the gaps”, for much the same reasons as Lennox, and not merely because the gaps were (and are) shrinking. I would trace this line of thought back even further, to the 11th century philosopher and polymath al-Ghazali, who taught that the laws of nature are required to be constant because they reflect the will of God, which is itself perfect and unchanging. And for me, as for many other intelligent atheists, the coherence of the laws of nature is the most nearly compelling of the arguments for the existence of God.
Then why in the name of all that’s holy is Lennox associating himself with the likes of Douglas Axe and the U.K.’s own self-styled Centre for Intelligent Design? Having stated that no intelligent monotheist would argue for a God of the gaps, why is he linking himself to people who by that very criterion must be lacking in intelligence (or monotheism)?
Axe is director of the Biologic Institute, a research organisation operating under the auspices of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, those wonderful people who brought you the Wedge Strategy for the undermining of current scientific explanation in favour of “theistic understanding”. The Biologic Institute itself is dedicated to attacking the entire present-day science of evolutionary biology, in order precisely to look for gaps that the God of the gaps can plug. Douglas Axe is also one of the authors of Science and Human Origins, a Biologic Institute publication. This book is not merely a concerted attack on the scientific arguments for a common origin of humans and [other] apes, but an attempt to reconcile the evidence from molecular biology with the view that all humankind is descended from a single breeding pair who lived 6000 years ago (why would anyone want to suggest that?) Yet Lennox is sharing a platform with Axe this autumn, and doing so at a conference being held under the auspices of the Centre for Intelligent Design.
If there is anything even more inimical to Lennox’s vision of “God of the whole show” than the antics of Axe in trying to generate gaps, it is the doctrine espoused by Norman Nevin, Chairman of the Centre. Nevin is a biblical literalist, who holds that death came into the world as the result of human sin. An intelligent monotheist, as Lennox uses the term, has no business supporting such people. This is not a matter of religious belief or unbelief, but of logic and the acceptance of reality.
To pursue the Ford analogy further, Lennox believes that the car works because it is well designed, Axe believes that it works because there is a miracle-working mechanic inside the gearbox, and Nevin believes that it was sabotaged by the drivers’ grandparents.
At the risk of annoying two Oxford professors at once, I would suggest that Lennox, with his reverence for the works of the Lord, is much closer to Richard Dawkins with his appreciation of the magic of reality, than he is to the gap-seekers and evolution deniers of C4ID and the Discovery Institute. You can have an intelligent Designer, or you can have what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design, or like me you can have neither, but you cannot possibly have both.