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International attention for Scotland’s refusal to ban teaching of creationism

Our petitionScottish Parliament: Return to homepage continues to gather international attention., appearing here on Why Evolution is True, a mass audience blog run by Jerry Coyne, author of the book of that name, one of my favourites on the topic. This in the wake of  attention from the Sensuous Curmudgeon, whose skewering of creationism has earned him over 3 million hits.
The Scottish Government statement is not the end of the matter. The Committee will be discussing it again in January, and the fact that a civil servant, not a Minister, signed the statement may make it easier for the Government to think again.
So, especially if you are a parent, educator, or pupil/recent pupil in Scotland, and above all if you have witnessed the damaging effects of creationist teaching in any context, please send a short (one or two paragraph) submission the Petitions Committee at petitions@scottish.parliament.uk citing Petition PE01530

Why Evolution Is True

Schools in England and Wales aren’t permitted to teach creationism, but for reasons that I can’t fathom, the Scots refuse to join them. This came to light when, as reported by Scotland’s Sunday Herald, the Scottish Secular Society (SSS) discovered that a group of American creationists “had been working as classroom assistants at a primary school in East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire.” (Note: it’s not clear whether this group actually taught creationism as science.)

The SSS petitioned the Scottish Parliament requesting explicit guidance on this issue (i.e., banning creationism the same way it’s done in the rest of the UK), but were turned back with this disappointing statement by a government official:

Tim Simons, Head of Curriculum Unit at the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate, has written to the parliament’s petitions committee that there are no plans to introduce ban guidance called for by the SSS.

Mr Simmons [sic] said: “I can…

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Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics – a personal account

Monday night, November 26, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics on the subject of  Why Evolution is True (And Why Most People Don’t Believe It), and had a short enjoyable chat with him in the interval. This report reflects his views, and on occasion mine. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasise that it does not represent BCSE as an organisation, which is neutral on matters of faith.

He was aware of and approved of the broad coalition, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Canons of the Church of England, that forced the UK Government to clarify its position against creationism. I had to tell him that Gove had nonetheless ignored his own guidelines by allowing creationist groups to set up publicly funded schools. We had some discussion about whether different religions had different degrees of tolerance towards evolution; I suggested that the reason I was much more accommodationist than him, is that for me religion suggested positions like C of E, whereas for him it suggested anti-intellectual fundamentalism. He seemed to take kindly to this idea, and also to my suggestion that different varieties of religion may differ greatly in their willingness to accept evolution.

Most of his talk covered much the same ground as his book, Why Evolution is True (a must read if you haven’t already), though I certainly benefited from seeing the argument laid out in such concentrated form, and am posting my notes on this part of the talk separately.

Jerry quoted depressing statistics, mainly from the US, about how few people accepted evolution and how many preferred creationism. According to a 2005 Harris poll, only 12% of Americans thought that only evolution should be taught in schools, while 23% thought that only creationism should be taught, and most wanted both.

Why does this matter? Because evolution is a matter of self-knowledge, basic knowledge about what kind of place the Universe is, and our place in it. It is a wonderful example of science in action, and besides, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

After discussing the science, he made some very interesting observations about how societies react to it. Given that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, why do so many people continue to deny it, and why are the numbers so slow to change? In the US, since 1982, the proportion of creationists has held steady at 44%, those believing in theistic evolution has changed from 38% to 36%, and the only notable change has been an increase in acceptance of materialistic evolution from 9% to 14%, no doubt reflecting the growing number of unbelievers. (I think that the preference for theistic over naturalistic evolution may be less worrying than it sounds, since I doubt if many people distinguish between overall divine control of nature, which would be perfectly compatible with naturalistic evolution, and specific supernatural intervention in the process, which would not).

Clearly, a situation where more Americans believe in the reality of angels than accept evolution is deeply worrying.

So why is evolution so maligned by religion? Because it undermines religious views of human specialness, and of the purpose and meaning of individual life, and (a common and deeply felt objection) is seen as undermining morality. If we compare different countries, religious belief has a powerful negative correlation with acceptance of evolution. It would follow that if we want people to accept evolution, what we need to do is weaken the influence of religion. In support, Jerry quoted a survey according to which, if faced with a scientific finding that contradicted the tenets of their faith, 64% of Americans said that they would reject the finding.

What I found most interesting was Jerry’s quoting from recent (2009 and 2011) studies, showing that religion correlates with social dysfunction (see http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP073984414.pdf ) and economic inequality (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00777.x/abstract ; cut and paste links if necessary). If so, the way to improve public acceptance of science may be to tackle inequality and social dysfunction. This would point in the direction of very broad alliances indeed, and I can see how recent political campaigns in the US may have made this prospect more attractive.

We are left with a final paradox. People fear evolution, seeing it as subversive of morality. And yet, the more moral (in the matters that seem to me most important), the more equitable, and the more effectively functioning a society, the more accepting it is of evolution.

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