Rebecca Duffett reports on the campaign

Rebecca Duffett
Rebecca Duffett

The issue of how Creationism is taught in schools is worrying many people, and has been in the news increasingly over the past few months. Christian think-tank Ekklesia has recently come alongside not only clergy and theologians, but also the Secular Society and the British Centre for Science Education, to call on Secretary for Education, Michael Gove to bring some clarity on how this subject is taught in schools.

In April this year Philip Bell from Creation Ministries International was invited to speak to year 11 pupils in an RE lesson at a school in Exeter and this incident raised the profile of this debate. It was argued he was trying to sell his views on the world being created just 6000 years ago and that mainstream science is against his views because they are against Christianity as a whole. This concerned some parents who wrote letters to the school and drew a lot of media attention to the teaching of creationism as a wider issue.

Ekklesia may be calling for clarity on what should and shouldn't be taught, but what would this clarity involve? Dr Terry Mortonson from Answers in Genesis thinks that the Biblical creation story, taken literally and defined by many as creationism could be taught in more than one place, 'It could be taught at a religion class as it was at the school in Exeter, and it can be taught as an understanding of origins in a science class.' Simon Barrow from Ekklesia doesn't agree, 'Clearly in a religious education lesson it's necessary to look at different beliefs and talk about them. What we're saying is that people should not come into schools and be allowed to present creationism as a scientific alternative to science, because it simply isn't that.'

Simon believes the idea of teaching biblical ideas that aren't widely accepted as science could be dangerous if applied to other areas beyond creationism, 'One would probably not have a Jehovah's Witness in a medical class saying we must reject all forms of medicine which rely on blood transfusions, because they read certain biblical texts as forbidding blood transfusions even though the great majority of people who read those texts read them in a very different way. Those ideas can be discussed, but one wouldn't have them in a medical lesson actually suggesting that we should reject huge chunks of medical science because of them.'

Alastair Noble from the Centre for Intelligent Design believes that science points to a creator of some sort and doesn't believe this idea can be eradicated from the science classroom, 'The job of science is to look at empirical evidence and draw a conclusion from it, and you can't bring to science a presumption that there can be no intelligence in the universe. If you do that you're outdoing science; you're outdoing philosophy. You've made up your mind what the answer's going to be before you start.'

Dr Berry Billingsley is currently doing some research on young people's thinking about science and religion. She points out that a clear distinction between science and other beliefs can easily become blurred, 'The science classroom although it is obviously there to talk about science, it's also a gathering of pupils and teachers who are sharing ideas. So children will bring up other things other than what is specifically on the curriculum. What often happens is that a science teacher is confronted with the question or has to think quickly how to deal with this question and to say something that is useful and helpful to the children; are you going to speak to them from the perspective of here's what the curriculum says you need to know about science and here's how I can help you understand that science; or are you going to step outside that role to understand how the science fits into the bigger picture. However students don't often ask about God in science lessons because they don't think it's on topic. So it may or may not be that they are interested in the relationship between God and science but it wouldn't necessarily be the case that even if they were interested the science teacher would get to know about it.'

Despite his clear beliefs about creation Dr Mortonson thinks that a range of views being offered to children, if done in the right way, can only be a good thing, 'If they're really being educated properly they should be taught to think critically and carefully about the different views and the scientific evidence that is marshalled in support of those views; and if the children are being taught correctly they should have the mental skills to say, that argument isn't logically valid, or that evidence does not support the conclusion drawn. That's what education should be doing.'

When trying to bring clarity to what's being taught, practical issues also need to be considered when thinking about teaching topics that may fit into different subjects as Berry is already aware, 'It's really difficult in a school situation because you've got a teacher who's working in RE and a teacher who's working in science, and they don't generally work closely together.'

Another idea in searching for clarity is to restrict the teaching of creationism to the RE class. Simon Barrow from Ekklesia thinks this is the place it should be taught, but perhaps under a different title, 'It seems to me that it would be helpful to re-label what we now call religious education, to beliefs and values education so that children get to hear the different and sometimes contradictory but sometimes complimentary beliefs that are around; religious beliefs and other beliefs. I think that's extremely important.'

The relevance of the Creationism In Schools Isn't Science campaign coming into the limelight at this time is that the government is planning to increase the number of free schools. Simon believes that clarity on this issue needs to be made before too many more schools take on this status, 'With the development of free schools, different kinds of groups including minority religious groups may end up running the schools and we need some assurance that in publicly funded schools science is taught properly and that particular ideas from particular groups don't end up totally dominating the education that children will receive. I think that free schools present a number of challenges. I think the basic idea of the involvement of parents, communities, voluntary groups and businesses in schools is a good thing. But I don't know whether it's a good thing that there are going to be schools where effectively there are far fewer regulations about what is taught and how it's taught. It may end up throwing up some real problems for the future.'

Those setting the curriculum, delivering education and those outside the system observing our school system will always disagree with some aspect of how things are taught; but the ones who are really affected are the children in the classrooms. Dr Billingsley says this doesn't make things any easier, 'Sometimes I think these issues are actually quite difficult ones in the classroom because the arguments are often about things that are above the level of the children and that makes it very hard.'

We can now only wait and see what sort of clarity will come from the campaign and the increase in media attention on the issue. It's unlikely that any clarity will please everyone, especially while there are divides in opinion about what creationism is and whether it should be restricted to only RE lessons or whether it should be taken off the curriculum completely. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.