The petition is closed. It has done its work, and I’m impressed by the process. Creationism may not be taught in science classes; and we already have the Minister’s statement in Parliament that in other classes, where appropriate, it should be discussed but not promoted. It has been a long and tortuous process, so I have collected here links to the key documents, and to the more than 60 press reports I know of.
Attention will now inevitably shift to Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies, where Creationism is (and should be) one of the topics selected for in-depth study. The evidence in favour of evolution is conclusive, yet Creationists deny this, and RMPS laudably shies away from telling students what to think. How do we cut this Gordian knot? And how best do we help RMPS teachers without any formal instruction in biology, when they face the specious pseudoscience of the Intelligent Designers?
More on this in due course. Meantime, the story so far:
Official documents, petition details, public comments:
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.
That’s all! NB: No need for legislation; a simple Ministerial or departmental statement would suffice. No distinction between science and non-science classes, and no suggestion of preventing discussion of such ideas, as long as they are not presented as viable alternatives to known science.
And what happened? In brief, exceptional public interest (see this list); two hearings before the Public Petitions Committee (as one of which Spencer Fildes, as petitioner and Chair of the Scottish Secular Society, and I as scientific adviser to the Society, gave evidence); referral by that Committee to the Education and Culture Committee; a request from that committee to the Scottish Government to respond to the issues we had raised; a Ministerial response that went some way towards what we had asked for; and formal closure.
And much more besides; see here. The issue is no longer hidden, the prerogative of the most unenlightened to do whatever they want in name of religion has been challenged and to some extent limited; and the genie is out of the bottle.
And so it ends, not with a bang, but a quiet sigh of satisfaction.
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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/scotland-30004391
Or SSS version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi0RD3VAR1I
Official report of the second hearing by the Public Petitions Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9759&i=89401
Official reports of the hearings by the Education and Culture Committee at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9836&i=90184#ScotParlOR and http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=9951.
Press coverage: live links supplied where possible. Headline where different from link. Commentary as I saw fit:
(Additional post-May 24 2015 coverage at https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/scottish-victory-over-creationism-gets-300000-fb-likes-international-attention-what-next/)
Independent, 27 May: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/creationism-should-not-be-taught-in-schools-says-scottish-education-minister-10279509.html (quotes me as “delighted”)
[US] National Center for Science Education, reporting on Herald 24 May story: http://ncse.com/news/2015/05/update-from-scotland-0016382 Also reported on by IFLScience, http://www.iflscience.com/environment/creationism-banned-science-classes-scottish-government and Russian RT agency http://rt.com/uk/262377-scotland-snp-creationism-classrooms/ May 27
Herald 24 May 2015 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scottish-government-creationism-banned-from-science-class.126976076 Quotes the crucial new language (emphasis added) “Guidance provided by Education Scotland, set out in the ‘Principles and Practice’ papers and the ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ documentation for each of the eight curriculum areas does not identify Creationism as a scientific principle. It should therefore not be taught as part of science lessons.”
Herald 15 May 2015: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/creationist-teaching-just-around-the-corner-in-scottish-schools.126123235 Denholm, still spinning (see also his November 21 article, below), reports the Education and Culture Committee as agreeing that no new guidance was necessary (not noticing that new guidance had just been issued).
Evening Express 2 May 2015: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/creationism-science-ban-bid-slammed/ Channelling David Andrew Robertson
Free Church News 18 March: http://freechurch.org/news/scotlands-science-minister-no-need-for-ban-on-creationism-in-schools Scotland’s Science minister: No need for ban on creationism in schools
Forbes Magazine 30 Dec 2014: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2014/12/30/creationism-in-europe-you-bet/ Reviewing Creationism in Europe (Johns Hopkins Press) writes:
As scientist blogger Paul Braterman reports on events in Scotland (https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/ok-to-teach-creationism-in-context-says-scottish-government/), this [introducing ID in schools]could prove to be a successful strategy.
Scotsman 27 Dec 2014: http://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/letters/test-the-word-1-3644430  Richard Lucas of SOLAS advocates debates about the truth of creationism: ”Or are aggressive atheists afraid that evolution, an indispensable foundation of their belief system, might not stand up to open debate in our educational institutions?”
Herald [Glasgow] 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081 A hostile commentary.
Herald 26 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/inside-track-reporting-with-dinosaurs.115054081Herald 1 December: Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Scotsman 26 Dec: http://www.scotsman.com/news/biology-teachers-need-more-guidance-1-3643988 To my surprise, the statement I gave them was printed intact as an article. I referred to the strongly supportive statement at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_DD_Society_of_Biology_10.11.14.pdf from the Society of Biology, the UK’s largest professional association of biologists, which states:
We encourage the Scottish Government to follow the strategy taken in other nations of the United Kingdom to provide clear guidance to schools and the teaching community stating explicitly that creationism and intelligent design are not considered to be scientific theories based on tested hypotheses, and therefore should not be taught in science lessons. Furthermore we 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.
I mentioned that this had not been available as it should have been to the Committee and to the Government when considering the responses to our petition, and invited the Government to think again. I also drew attention to the need to provide appropriate training, especially to non-science teachers, as it is within a religious rather than a scientific context that problems are likely to arise.
Answers in Genesis 23 Dec: http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/12/23/scottish-government-rejects-creation-ban/. Ken Ham writes:
[T]eachers in Scotland still have the freedom to present the problems with evolution and millions of years as well as possibly present other alternatives, such as biblical creation, to their students. This is a victory for academic freedom in that country. Sadly, the secularists were trying to protect the teaching of their atheistic religion as the only worldview imposed on the current and future generations of kids.
Ham’s good friend, Dr Nagy Iskander of South Lanarkshire’s education Committee, is, we know, very keen on teaching alternatives:
Herald 21 Dec: Teaching with dinsoaurs http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teaching-with-dinosaurs.26133681
When it comes to Scotland’s culture wars, many would view this last week as a catastrophe for the Scottish Secular Society (SSS), and a success for the country’s religious fundamentalists
but facing it on the next page http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/call-for-debate-on-religious-privilege.26133800 has SNP Councillor Sandy Howat questioning, on behalf of many SNP members, creationist teaching, opt-out rather than opt-in Religious Observance, and the presence of unelected representatives of religion on Council Education Committees.
Herald, 16 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/schools-creationism-ban-rejected-by-scottish-government.114739893 The Government response to our petition, http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_BB_Scottish_Government_15.12.14.pdf stated
…there are no plans to issue guidance to schools or education authorities to prevent the presentation of Creationism, Intelligent Design or similar doctrines by teachers or school visitors. The evidence available suggests that guidance on these matters is unnecessary. However, Education Scotland will continue to monitor, through the school inspection process and by other means, any instances where schools are not ensuring the teaching of science is based on well-established science and scientific principles.
Spencer Fildes comments
The fear is that creationists will now use the government’s position to further validate the cause of creationism, young earth doctrines and the pseudo-science of intelligent design.
as happened very promptly; see notes on Dec 23, above, and I comment:
This [the Government’s] language blurs the crucial distinction, built into the wording of our own petition, between learning about creationist worldviews, and being taught that such worldviews are tenable. The SSS fear this will bring Scottish education into disrepute.
I note that the Government response was over the signature of a civil servant,not a Minister, and wonder if they are already aware that they may be asked to thinkagain. Of course, the Government’s view is not binding on the Committee, which can make, although it cannot enforce, its own recommendations.
Herald 1 Dec: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/adopt-the-american-model-for-our-schools.25879090 Letters; Bob Downie reiterates support for keeping religion, science separated. Garry Otton repeats scope of petition.
Herald 28 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/respect-of-parents-rights-in-respect-of-education.25989631 Letter, Hugh McLoughlin, says we don’t explain what we mean by creationism, invokes European Convention on Human Rights
Herald 27 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/should-creationism-and-evolution-be-taught-side-by-side-in-the-school-classroom.25979445 letters. Among other things, corrects Rev David Fraser, states “The EIS position is that teachers can be trusted to conduct themselves professionally without the need for legislation.”
Herald 26 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-only-want-to-keep-religious-teaching-in-churches.25966308 Letter attacking Dvd Fraser’s defence of creationist teaching.
Herald 25 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/secularists-need-science-lessons.25959745 Rev David Fraser
I think most of us have had enough of the aggressive and perverse campaign against free speech by the Scottish Secular Society … Our leaders need follow the robust example of the EIS and defend the rights of the majority for the expression of their faith across the spectrum of school subjects.
Herald 24 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/teachers-reject-creationism-ban.25940642 Unnamed EIS spokesperson(s) condemn our petition. Herald reporter once again confuses the teaching of separate creation (the subject of our petition) with the idea of God as Creator, discussion of which we explicitly defend.
Herald 23 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/scotlands-culture-war-secularists-and-church-head-to-head.25941169 Scotland’s culture war: secularists and church head-to-head. A wide-ranging review by Judith Duffy.
Herald 22 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-mccarthyite-campaign.25937147 : In response to Spencer’s remarks to the Herald on November 21, the Reverend David Robertson accuses us of a McCarthyite campaign and anti-religious paranoia
Record, 21 Nov: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/alasdair-allan-says-complete-confidence-2826128 Alasdair Allan says he has complete confidence in Scottish teachers following creationism debate
21 Nov, The Centre for Intelligent Design warns those on its mailing list: Government to impose Scientism on our children http://www.c4id.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=262:government-to-impose-scientism-on-our-children&catid=52:frontpage&Itemid=1 So now you know. The Centre regards evolution science and the study of the age of the Earth as forms of Scientism, whatever that may be.
Herald, 21 Nov, reports on submission made to the Petitions Committee by Ken Cunningham is Secretary of School Leaders Scotland: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/banning-creationism-lessons-is-dangerous-warn-headteachers.25925821 My comment:
Not Head Teachers; one ex-Head [in consultation, he later claimed, with the Association’s presidential team, whoever they may be] speaking for all his members with no further apparent mandate from his Association’s membership. And Cunningham and Noble [Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, whose plans to promulgate creationism are a major matter of concern to us] are not as reported both members of the Free Church of Scotland; they are Elders (Cunningham also Secretary) of the same small independent Church, Cartsbridge in Busby, with a total membership of around 250; a much closer association. As usual this reporter, Andrew Denholm, misdescribes what we plainly said we meant by creationism.
See also commentary “Creationist Manoeuvres in the Dark” http://secularspen.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/creationist-manoeuvres-in-the-dark/ by Spencer Fildes, who has done more than any one to unmask the concealed connections.
Premier News (a Creationist Christian radio channel), 20 Nov: http://www.premier.org.uk/News/UK/Scotland-s-teachers-oppose-secularist-attempt-to-ban-creationism Again, the reference is to Ken Cunningham’s submission to the Public Petitions Committee, but here he is said to speak for “Scotland’s teachers”.
Scotsman 18 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/beware-the-trojan-horses-of-intolerance-1-3609240 The Reverend David Andrew Robertson, at that time Moderator-Intellect of the Free Church of Scotland, says Scottish Secular Society wants legislation against “teachers who might actually believe that God the Creator might have had something to do with creation.”
Christian News 17 Nov objects to banning the teaching of biblical creationism as fact: http://christiannews.net/2014/11/17/secular-group-seeks-to-ban-biblical-creation-from-public-schools-in-scotland/ (I continue to be amazed at the arrogance of those, like the authors of this article, who claim a monopoly of Christianity on the basis of their boneheadedly ignorant interpretation of its foundational documents.)
Herald 14 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/a-danger-of-state-atheism.25869067 Correspondence arising from Andrew Denholm’s misrepresentation on 12 Nov.; see below
Times Educational Supplement Scotland 14 Nov: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6450346 Schools are being infiltrated by cults, say secularists
12 Nov NCSE ([US] National Centre for Science Education] News Update from Scotland http://ncse.com/news/2014/11/update-from-scotland-0015982
‘Religious extremists infiltrating schools’ This otherwise excellent article includes the statement “Creationism is the belief that the universe and living beings originate from acts of divine creation.” Not in this context. Our petition specifically refers to separate creationism is opposed to the established science of evolution. Although our opponents pretend otherwise, it has nothing to do with religious or philosophical positions regarding creation as a whole.
Aberdeen Evening Express 11 Nov: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/msps-warned-on-schools-creationism-1.677358
[Glasgow] Evening Times 11 Nov: http://www.eveningtimes.co.uk/news/u/msps-warn-on-school-creationism.1415707018 [“warn” for “warned” is a typo]
STV News 11 Nov http://m.stv.tv/news/scotland/299236-scottish-secular-societys-petition-discusses-creationism-teaching/ Teaching of creationism in schools ‘cannot be ignored’, MSPs told
Good Morning Scotland 11 Nov https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyo89F5CGTQ Spencer Fildes interviewed
Sunday Times 9 Nov: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Education/article1481607.ece MSPs to rule on creationism row
Press and Journal 9 Nov: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/politics/holyrood/395263/row-over-religious-education-in-schools/ echoing Scotsman of 7 Nov
Freethinker 8 Nov: http://freethinker.co.uk/2014/11/08/scottish-secularists-branded-as-bigots/ Reporting DAR
Scotsman 7 Nov: http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/bid-to-ban-creationism-is-militant-atheism-1-3597863 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…
(Interestingly, when preaching to Ken Cunningham, mentioned above, and Alastair Noble at Cartsbridge Evangelical Church, the Reverend shows full awareness that many of us are religious believers. Maybe he takes the Ninth Commandment more seriously when he is actually in church.)
Premier Christian Radio 7 Nov: http://www.premierchristianradio.com/News/UK/Scottish-church-leader-condemns-petition-to-axe-creationism-teaching
Herald 4 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/topic-of-the-week-intelligent-design.25812362 A selection of letters
Herald 2 Nov: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/anger-over-move-to-teach-intelligent-design-in-schools.25756300 Introduces the topic
Answers in Genesis Sept 12 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/in-schools/academic-freedom-under-fire-scotland/
SecEd September 11 2014: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/news/nobel-winners-fight-the-teaching-of-creationism
Answers in Genesis Sept 7 2014: https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/09/07/nobel-winning-scientists-push-for-ban-of-creation-in-scottish-schools/
My own most relevant blog posts
Nov 10: https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/the-battle-for-evolution-in-scottish-schools/ (reblogged from Jonny Scaramanga’s Leaving fundamentalism)
 Most recent first. Links made explicit, for ease of reference and copying. We would welcome notification of any coverage we have missed. NB this post refers only to coverage directly relevant to our petition PE01530
Post featured in this Sunday’s Herald, here
If you thought (like the books handed out to the children in Kirktonholme Primary) that dinosaurs were almost wiped out in the Flood and then used as beasts of burden until finished off by Nimrod the Mighty Hunter, I have news for you. We have a real live dinosaur sitting in the Scottish Parliament.
John Mason, MSP for Shettleston and a member of the governing Scottish National Party, has just tabled Motion S4M-12149, asking the Scottish Parliament to resolve that
… some people believe that God created the world in six days, some people believe that God created the world over a longer period of time and some people believe that the world came about without anyone creating it; considers that none of these positions can be proved or disproved by science and all are valid beliefs for people to hold, and further considers that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of all of these different belief systems.
John Mason’s challenge to me and pretty well every other scientist on the planet: prove the world was not created in six days. Now here’s my challenge to Mr Mason: prove you are not a dinosaur.
What is the evidence that you are not a dinosaur? Why is it not a valid belief for people to hold that you really are a dinosaur? How does the evidence compare with the evidence against a 6-day creation from geology, physics, astronomy and cosmology, geography, and I haven’t even started on the fossil record or molecular biology. I have decided that I believe, as a matter of faith, that you really are a dinosaur, and I maintain that this is a valid belief for people to hold, and further consider that children in Scotland’s schools should be aware of this different belief system.
Off the top of my head, the evidence from geology presented by the geologist (later Bishop) Nicholas Steno in 1669, who established the science of stratigraphy. The evidence of Siccar Point, one of the most famous locations in Scotland, where rocks have been laid down, tilted, eroded, and covered by more rocks, as described over 200 years ago by the geologist (and theist) James Hutton. The evidence of the geological column, established during the 19th century by clergyman-geologists like William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick. Other evidence for lengthy processes between geological events, like the weathering at the Giants’ Causeway.
Physics: radiometric dating, first used by Rutherford and colleagues over 100 years ago, and checked and cross-checked many thousands of times since, using different isotope pairs. (And how do we know the clock runs true? Because, since the work of George Gamow in 1928, we have known that decay rates depend on fundamental physical constants, and if they had been different, so would the laws of physics and chemistry and we wouldn’t have the rocks anyway.)
Astronomy and cosmology: around 1920, the Jesuit priest Georges Lemaitre had worked out (although Edwin Hubble gets most of the public credit) that the further away galaxies are from us, the faster they are receding. So running the film backwards, we infer an initial Big Bang (or, as Lemaitre called it, “Primal atom”) where all the matter in our Universe was aggregated at a single point. And according to the best curreent estimate, that took place 13.8 billion years ago, with a further 9 billion years needed to get from there to the processes forming our own Solar System. Making 6 days wrong by a factor of around half a trillion.
How about helioseismology? We can observe vibrations spreading throughout the Sun, use the data to infer how much of the Sun’s original hydrogen has been converted to helium, and calculate how long this would have taken. The answer comes out at 4.5 billion years, which is also the age of the Solar System as inferred from radiometric dating.
As to how far we know the galaxies to be, we can work that out by looking for supernova explosions. Simplifying slightly [I have to say that, because if they find any detail out of place the Creationist shout “Gotcha!”] all supernova explosions of a certain type release the same amount of energy. And apparent energy depends on distance. And we know that the speed of light hasn’t changed, because we can make sense of the patterns of light emitted by the most distant stars, so the laws of physics that dictate the speed of light haven’t changed since the light left these galaxies.
So we know that we have seen galaxies 12 billion light-years away. Which means that they’ve been receding from us for 12 billion years. Not 6 days.
Geography: we have the facts of plate tectonics, as shown by the movement of continents (which we can now follow directly by satellite), and confirmed by palaeomagnetism, showing how the earth’s plates have moved relative to its magnetic field. The reasoning is so simple that a child can follow it, and in fact I’ve reviewed a children’s book that explains it.
And remember, we haven’t even started on the fossil record, or the life sciences.
Now the evidence that John Mason is not a dinosaur. Pretty thin by comparison. Comparative anatomy? If you accept that, you will also have to accept that comparative anatomy shows we’re chimps, with some twenty or so known extinct species more or less intermediate between us and our last common ancestor with the other two surviving chimp species. Physiology and molecular biology? Tush! Go with that, the same kind of evidence as we use in our law courts to establish family relationships, and you end up second cousin to a monkey and fourth cousin to a mushroom. Not what you have in mind.
Intelligent behaviour? On present showing, pit you against a velociraptor and my money’s on the ‘raptor, every time.
And so I think all Scottish schoolchildren, or at a very minimum all schoolchildren in Mr Mason’s constituency, be made aware of the theory that Mr Mason is an Intelligently Designed dinosaur. Otherwise we risk bringing them up with closed minds; minds closed against what we know from overwhelming evidence to be utter absurdities. And that would never do.
The Finnie bill seeks to abolish the unelected Church representatives on school education committees. It seems that the Labour response, and perhaps others, will be influenced by public reaction; and YOU are the public. The attached letter from Drew Smith, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, shows how important it is right now to respond to the consultation document, at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/69470.aspx, and to write to your MSPs, Constituency and Regional, making your views known. My own response, which may give you a useful starting point, is here.
We have the chance to get rid of the unelected mixture of hellfire fundamentalists, bishops’ puppets, and well-meaning ecclesiastical placemen who now hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland‘s 32 education Committees. As to why this matters, see here and here and here. This change will not happen without pressure, since no one, least of all those who think they know the way to Heaven, gives up power without a fight; see here for my take on the Churches’ counter-arguments.
Here is Drew Smith’s letter. Note his carefully chosen words: “Whilst I strongly support the principle of local government transparency and accountability, the Bill is currently out for consultation, and I think it would be unfair to prejudge the outcome of this process. I would therefore encourage you to respond to the consultation”. My interpretation; he is sympathetic but needs to convince his colleagues of the balance of electoral advantage. They, after all, unlike the Church representatives, serve only at the pleasure of the voters:-
Dear Professor Braterman,
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the proposed Local Government Accountability and Transparency (Scotland) Bill, put forward by John Finnie MSP. Please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in responding to you.
I understand that the Bill seeks to remove the obligation on local authorities to appoint religious representatives to Education Committees. Whilst I strongly support the principle of local government transparency and accountability, the Bill is currently out for consultation, and I think it would be unfair to prejudge the outcome of this process.
I would therefore encourage you to respond to the consultation, which closes on 27 January 2013, to make your views known. I have attached the consultation for your information, and further information regarding the proposed Bill and consultation process can be accessed on the Scottish Parliament website: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/69470.aspx.
Please be assured that I will look to the consultation and give careful consideration to all views expressed on this matter before reaching a decision on whether or not to support a bill, if it is brought forward by Mr Finnie.
Thank you for taking the time to contact me about this important issue, and I hope you will accept my apologies, once again, for the delay in responding to you.
Drew Smith MSP
Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution
Scottish Labour Party
Glasgow Region Parliamentary Office │ Scottish Trades Union Centre │ 333 Woodlands Road │ Glasgow G3 6NG
telephone: 0141 218 46 46 │ facebook: Drew Smith for Glasgow │ twitter: @DrewSm1th
I write as your constituent to ask your support for Petition 1487, Religious Observance in Schools, which seeks to replace the present “opt-out” system for Religious Observance (RO) with “opt-in”. The petition and responses are at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/religiousobservance, and the Petitions Committee will be holding its second hearing on November 12. We believe that the proposed change will end serious problems with the present system, lead to improvements in communication between home and school about the nature of RO, and help RO fulfil its aim of celebrating shared values.
The present system presumes agreement with the school’s practice of RO. Not all school handbooks even fulfil the legal requirement to state that opt-out from RO is available. Children who opt out are not properly catered for, and are made to feel exceptional, while there are examples of schools putting pressure on parents to reverse their decision, or even on occasion denying that the right to opt out exists in their school. The proposed change to opt-in would prevent such wrongs.
At present, while RO is intended to be a celebration of universal community values, it is often in practice dominated by one particular worldview, generally, in so-called non-denominational schools, Protestantism. This at a time when the number of Scots having no religious affiliation exceeds a third, and is greater than that of the Church of Scotland, the most numerous denomination.
The practice of RO varies enormously from school to school, and recent events at Kirktonholme Primary, where to parents’ dismay, creationist and anti-scientific books were distributed during RO, show how far it is at times from achieving its ideals. Such abuses would be most unlikely under the improved school-home communication that would result from opt-in.
Finally, we believe that the proposed change will reinvigorate RO by leading to general discussion of its nature and purpose, discussion that in our present diverse society is essential for its long-term survival.
By pre-devolution law, three unelected church representatives sit as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland. Edinburgh Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to change this. I strongly urge my friends, especially my Scottish friends, to support this petition (link here; if you live in Scotland, take care to say so). This petition is supported by the Scottish Secular Society, the Humanist Society of Scotland, and the National Secular Society.
According to AnswersInGenesis. Dr Nagy iskander, shown here with his wife Nashwa who shares his mission, “teaches the books of the Bible in government schools as part of the official religious education curriculum,” and is “One of Europe’s most active creationists.” Dr Iskander is an unelected religious representative on South Lanarkshire Council Education Committee.
A pre-devolution law forces every local authority in Scotland Education Committee to co-opt three representatives of religion, whether they want to or no. One of these must be nominated by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. This third representative is typically chosen from respondents to newspaper advertisements, making it very easy for Councillors who support a particular religious viewpoint to tip off their favourite denominations. The representatives of religion, although completely unelected and (apart from their parent Church) unmandated, have the vote on what is always the largest and most important of all council committees, and, according to the Church of Scotland itself, hold 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. That last number almost certainly under-represents the proportion of the non-religious among parents of school children, to say nothing of the children themselves when old enough to form their own opinions, since 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.
These religious representatives bring more to council meetings than the benefit of their wisdom. They will, by definition, bring a certain view of what kind of place the world is. They will, by profession, regard religion itself as a highly important aspect of life, otherwise they would not have chosen to devote their own lives to it. So when it comes to deciding how much importance to give Religious Observance, or how much time and effort the school should put into maintaining its chaplaincy team, they will have their own biased point of view. They will also have their own special interests, based on those of their Church, affecting such issues as the locating of schools, and whether or not new schools should be denominational.
Edinburgh Secular Society has published data (full details here) on the identities of the religious representatives in every Scottish council. In some cases, the identities of the religious representatives give particular reason for anxiety. My own specific concern is with the teaching of science, and the brute fact that some versions of religion flatly reject the facts of the antiquity of the Earth, and of evolution of living things from a common ancestor. Scientifically, this means rejecting the whole of earth science, astronomy and cosmology, and large areas of physics, chemistry, and even ancient history. Philosophically, it means elevating one particular highly questionable interpretation of one particular, also highly questionable, text above all other kinds of evidence.
So what does the membership of the education committees tell us? On this score, at least, the Catholic Church representatives should give little cause for concern, since the Vatican accepts the historic fact of evolution. Concerning the Church of Scotland representatives, there would until recently have been little to worry about, but this may be changing. The Church of Scotland now sends seminarists to the interdenominational Highland Theological College, which has a biblical infalibilist requirement for teaching staff and two six-day biblical literalist theologians on its Board of Governors. To an outsider, this looks like an unsavoury political deal, where the liberal wing of the deeply divided Church has agreed to this creationist infiltration, in the (probably vain) hope of being allowed, in return, to pursue more gay-tolerant policies.
Of the third (and occasionally fourth) representatives of religion, two are Church of Scotland, two Moslem, one Jewish, one Salvation Army, four Baptist, and five (from four local authorities) represent smaller evangelical Protestant groups who embrace biblical literalism. So, if you are a parent in 8 out of Scotland’s 32 council districts you might have worries about who is deciding what your children will hear at school.
As I shall show in my next posting, these worries will be more than justified.
[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland) have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]
Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.
I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.
My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.
For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.