Teach Evolution, Not Creationism

The British Humanist Association is behind a new campaign called “Teach Evolution, Not Creationism“.

Of course any reasonable person is going to support the campaign. No-one wants creationism taught to children as fact in science lessons. But there are a couple of subtleties that should probably be explained in detail.

Firstly, I’ve seen this as described as an attack on faith schools. Whilst I’m sure that the BHA is no fan of faith schools, it’s important to note that this current campaign has nothing to say at all on this subject. The evolution vs creationism debate is a completely separate one. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of faith schools in the UK are run by religions that don’t subscribe to creationism and won’t be teaching this nonsense to schools. Creationists are good at making their movement seem more important than it is, but most British christians are Catholics or Anglicans and neither of these churches subscribe to these ideas.

This campaign says nothing about the status as faith schools. It just says that creationism should not be presented as scientific fact in state-funded schools.

Secondly, people say that creationism should be taught at school as long as it isn’t presented as fact. And I agree with that completely. I’m very happy for creationism to be discussed in religious studies classes or even as part of a course in the history of ideas. There’s even an argument for covering it in science courses where it could serve as a case study of applying the scientific method to a problem and examining the evidence to come up with the best theory. I don’t want schools to produce children who have never who heard of creationism. I want them to produce children who know about creationism and who know enough about evolution to be able to counter the obvious nonsense that the creationists come up with (“There are no transitional fossils.” “What about this almost complete sequence demonstrating the evolution of the whale?”)

Finally, a friend pointed out that he doesn’t want facts taught in science lessons. He wants science lessons to teach “how science works”. By which he means critical thinking and the scientific method. And I can’t argue with that. That’s exactly what I’d like to see too. My experience of the school science curriculum is over thirty years out of date, but I’d hope that it isn’t just “here’s a fact learn it”. It wasn’t like that when I was at school.

Please read the campaign’s position statement and the progress that has been made so far.

And if you’re in a petition-signing mood, please sign their petition.


Please Don’t Label Me

Last night I was discussing my opinions of religion with some friends. I made it clear that, contrary to what it might appear from what I write, I don’t actually want religion banned. I believe that people should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like. There are, however, three conditions that need to be met. You can belief whatever you like as long as you do it a) in private, b) amongst consenting adults and c) never in front of the children.

I think that these are three very important conditions. The first would curtail the effect that religious groups have on public life, the second would prevent anyone from forcing their religious beliefs on anyone else and the third would stop parents from forcing religion onto children while the children are still gullible enough to believe anything their parents tell them.

And completely coincidently, I see today that the people behind the Atheist Bus Campaign (was that really a year ago?) have launched a new campaign and that the subject of this campaign is faith schools – which neatly addresses my third point.

The “please don’t label me” slogan of the campaign comes from a theme that Richard Dawkins covered in The God Delusion. Speaking at the launch of this campaign, he said:

We urgently need to raise consciousnesses on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a ‘Marxist child’ or an ‘Anarchist child’ or a ‘Post-modernist child’. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.

This campaign is initially being funded from money left over from the Atheist Bus Campaign, but there’s a page where you can donate more money if you like.

I firmly believe that the majority of religious people only have those beliefs because they were indoctrinated as children. If people decide to follow a religion when they are old enough to make up their own mind then of course I have no objections to that. But forcing children to believe the same fairy stories as their parents is clearly wrong and should be stopped.


Creationist Idiocy in the UK

To “celebrate” the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, Theos (the religious think-tank) commissioned a survey into the public perceptions of Darwin’s theories. The results were published yesterday and do not make comforting reading.

It seems that about half of the UK don’t accept Darwin’s findings and only about a quarter of us say that evolution is definitely true. One in ten people believed in nonsense similar to that spouted by young Earth creationists.

Of course, science isn’t a democracy. Even if half of the population demand that creationism or “intelligent design” should be considered a science, that doesn’t suddenly make it a science. But the worrying thing here is the number or people who don’t seem to understand evolution or natural selection and who haven’t seen (or who have chosen to ignore) the overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of evolution.

And the blame for that has to be laid firmly at the feet of the people who bend over backwards to give religious beliefs a level of respect that they don’t deserve. For far too long, ridiculous religious beliefs have thrived in an environment where it is seen as rude to question them. It’s astonishing that children can emerge from the education system at sixteen without knowing about evolution and without being given the intellectual tools that they could use to see through the nonsense that their family and religious community are constantly telling them.

Picture it this way. Imagine how you would feel if there was a group who wanted schools to teach “alternative maths”. A group campaigning that pupils should be told that it was okay to believe that two plus two is five. It makes no sense at all, of course. And that’s about how sensible it is to allow children to believe that evolution isn’t true.

It’s a hundred and fifty years since Darwin published his ideas. And in that time pretty much every advance in biology has been predicted by evolution or has helped to prove and strengthen Darwin’s theory. No sane scientist doubts that Darwin’s theories were correct. And if scientists agree that the theory is correct then the fact that it contradicts some old legends really shouldn’t matter in the slightest.

These poll results should be a big red flag to the people running Britain’s schools. Twenty years ago it looked like creationism was effectively dead in the UK. Now it’s growing again, and if it isn’t quashed soon we’ll end up with cases like the US where religious nutters take schools to court for the right to infect children with their poison. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that stage.


Michael Reiss Steps Down

Michael Reiss has stepped down from his post as director of education at the Royal Society. This follows the controversy over his remarks about creationism in science lessons last week. I think he’s right to go as having an ordained minister in such an important role in the Royal Society is pretty silly. I agree completely with Richard Dawkins, who described it as “a Monty Python sketch“.

I’m slightly worried, however, that some of Reiss’s real message has been lost in the furore over what he said. Nowhere did he actually call for creationism to be taught in science classes – and that’s what many of his critics seem to be claiming. What he actually said was that teachers should be ready to discuss creationism when students bring it up in the classroom. He goes a bit wobbly here, saying that creationism should be seen “not as a misconception but as a world view”. This is obviously nonsense. A science teacher should be willing and able to show up creationism as the nonsense that it is whenever it is mentioned in the classroom.

And here’s where the current situation is letting children down. As in so many other areas of life, religion is given too much respect. Teachers are wary of discussing it as it is seen as disrepectful to question the children’s beliefs. Well, of course it’s disrespectful. But creationism doesn’t deserve any respect. Creationism is nonsense. Letting these ridiculous ideas go unquestioned is ultimately more harmful to society than confronting them and showing children exactly why they are nonsense.

To paraphrase a comment I saw on Comment is Free last week[1] – “intelligent, honest, creationist; pick any two”.

[1] And can’t now find, or I’d credit the author.

education religion

Faith Schools Petition

I mentioned this when I signed it a year ago, but I’ve just noticed that today is the closing date for the petition to abolish faith schools.

There are currently 19,063 on the petition. It would be great if it could get to 20,000 by the end of the day.

So if you’re the kind of sensible person who doesn’t believe that children should be taught fairy stories as fact and you haven’t already signed the petition, then please get over there and sign it today.



The BBC has a worrying report on levels of literacy in the UK

Bedtime stories are proving a struggle for many parents who are not confident readers, says a survey from adult learning agency Learndirect.

More than 10% of the 1,000 parents asked had struggled to understand some words in the stories they had read to their five to 10-year-old children.

One in ten parents if having trouble reading stories aimed at five to ten-year-olds. Not reading a broadsheet newspaper or government forms (both of which would be worrying but not entirely surprising) but reading children’s stories.

The survey comes from Learn Direct who obviously have an agenda here as they sell adult literacy courses. But if you think about the people who you come into contact with in your day to day life then you’ll know that they’re really aren’t exaggerating the problem.

Depressingly they also say

Even more parents – a third – struggled with their children’s maths homework.

The last two paragraphs in the BBC report sum up the report’s findings and, handily, demonstrate the problem

The report said that five million adults lacked functional literacy and more than 17 million had difficulties with numbers.

More than one in six youngsters left school unable to read, write or add up properly, said the report.

It’s not exactly illiterate, but it could have been phrased a lot more elegantly.


Rise of Creationism in UK Schools

From the front page of today’s Guardian:

Dozens of schools are using creationist teaching materials condemned by the government as “not appropriate to support the science curriculum”, the Guardian has learned.

The packs promote the creationist alternative to Darwinian evolution called intelligent design and the group behind them said 59 schools are using the information as “a useful classroom resource”.

The group behind this are called Truth in Science – which must be a joke as they seem determined to lie about science whenever possible. It’s also worrying that that they are a completely different group to the one that has been lobbying MPs recently.

The story goes on to say:

A teacher at one of the schools said it intended to use the DVDs to present intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinism. Nick Cowan, head of chemistry at Bluecoat school, in Liverpool, said: “Just because it takes a negative look at Darwinism doesn’t mean it is not science. I think to critique Darwinism is quite appropriate.”

This man is head of chemistry. A post that is traditionally held by a scientist.

Now let’s be clear on this (as I’ve been misunderstood when writing about this before). I’m all for pupils being taught the history of belief and comparative religion. But the only way that creationism (or “intelligent design”) should be covered in a science lesson is to illustrate how far our understanding of the world has increased in a relatively short time.

And, yes, I’m all in favour of questioning Darwin’s theories. That’s how science works. Theories are tested and questioned. But any questions need to come from scientific research, not from idiots who are upset because science disagrees with their favourite fairy story.

It’s not all bad news though. The government has said that this material should not be used in the classrrom.

The government has made it clear the Truth in Science materials should not be used in science lessons. In a response to the Labour MP Graham Stringer on November 1, Jim Knight, a minister in the Department for Education and Skills, wrote: “Neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognised scientific theories and they are not included in the science curriculum.”

So, I wonder what will happen to the teachers who have used it already? In my opinion people who teach this nonsense to children should be banned from teaching. But I’ll be very surprised if that happens.

Update: The same story on the BBC.


Creationism in Schools

I’ve just spotted this article from Tuesday’s Education Guardian which talks about the teaching of creationism in schools and concentrates on the visit to the UK of mad Australian creationist John Mackay. Of course, Richard Dawkins can always be relied on for a good quote:

“The spread of Peter Vardy’s creationist beliefs into the academies run by the Emmanuel schools foundations is extremely worrying,” says Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene. “In March 2002, Stephen Layfield – Emmanuel’s head of science – delivered a lecture in which he openly listed ways creationist teachers should provide alternative biblical explanations for evolutionary data. This is a man charged with the responsibility of teaching our children and whose department received a star rating from Ofsted. “We cannot afford to take creationism lightly. It is not an amusing diversion, but a serious threat to scientific reason. People like Mackay thrive by drip-feeding misinformation. We need a much more open public debate, both in schools and elsewhere, so that his ideas can be seen for the rubbish they are.”

And then today we have AC Grayling writing about religion and atheism. He includes a call to complately ban the teaching of religion from schools.

Let us challenge religion to leave children alone until they are adults, whereupon they can be presented with the essentials of religion for mature consideration. For example: tell an averagely intelligent adult hitherto free of religious brainwashing that somewhere, invisibly, there is a being somewhat like us, with desires, interests, purposes, memories, and emotions of anger, love, vengefulness and jealousy, yet with the negation of such other of our failings as mortality, weakness, corporeality, visibility, limited knowledge and insight; and that this god magically impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a special being who performs various prodigious feats before departing for heaven. Take your pick of which version of this story to tell: let a King of Heaven impregnate – let’s see – Danae or Io or Leda or the Virgin Mary (etc, etc) and let there be resulting heaven-destined progeny (Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Jesus, etc, etc) – or any of the other forms of exactly such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian and other mythologies – then ask which of them he wishes to believe. One can guarantee that such a person would say: none of them.

It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately it doesn’t stand a chance whilst the PM is a believer in an invisible sky pixie.

I’ll just add that to the list of reasons why Blair must go.


Academics Fight Rise of Creationism at Universities

After what I wrote yesterday about the christian influence on education, there’s a good article in today’s Guardian about how creationism is on the rise in British universities.

In the United States there is growing pressure to teach creationism or “intelligent design” in science classes, despite legal rulings against it. Now similar trends in this country have prompted the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific academy, to confront the issue head on with a talk entitled Why Creationism is Wrong. The award-winning geneticist and author Steve Jones will deliver the lecture and challenge creationists, Christian and Islamic, to argue their case rationally at the society’s event in April.

“There is an insidious and growing problem,” said Professor Jones, of University College London. “It’s a step back from rationality. They (the creationists) don’t have a problem with science, they have a problem with argument. And irrationality is a very infectious disease as we see from the United States.”

Yesterday, I focussed particularly on what the christians are doing. But it seems that the muslims are at it too.

Leaflets questioning Darwinism were circulated among students at the Guys Hospital site of King’s College London this month as part of the Islam Awareness Week, organised by the college’s Islamic Society. One member of staff at Guys said that he found it deeply worrying that Darwin was being dismissed by people who would soon be practising as doctors.

Well, yeah. I don’t want to be treated by a doctor who disagrees with the fundemental scientific principles of human biology!

A 21-year-old medical student and member of the Islamic Society, who did not want to be named, said that the Qur’an was clear that man had been created and had not evolved as Darwin suggests. “There is no scientific evidence for it [Darwin’s Origin of Species]. It’s only a theory. Man is the wonder of God’s creation.”

He did not feel that a belief in evolution was necessary to study medicine although he added that, if writing about it was necessary for passing an exam, he would do so. “We want to become doctors and dentists, we want to pass our exams.” He added that God had not created mankind literally in six days. “It’s not six earth days,” he said, it could refer to several thousands of years but it had been an act of creation and not evolution.

Someone with views like that should not be allowed anywhere near patients.

And finally, there’s this

Most of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists, according to a biology teacher at a leading London sixth-form college. “The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism,” she said, “and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole … it’s a bit like the southern states of America.” Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists.

It’s time that rational people stood up and said “enough is enough!” Where do I sign up to fight the forces of medievalism?