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Beware the smuggling of atheism into science lessons

Of course schools should teach evolution – but they should not present it as a substitute for God

By on Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Sir David Attenborough wants the Government to tackle the 'threat' of creationism in schools (Photo: PA)

Sir David Attenborough wants the Government to tackle the 'threat' of creationism in schools (Photo: PA)

I was alerted to an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week with the headline: “Attenborough: ban creationism in science class.” It seems that Sir David Attenborough has joined other scientists in calling for “creationism” (the idea that God literally built the world in six days, in line with the description in Genesis) to be removed from the curriculum and for evolution to be taught more widely in schools, including primary schools. According to the article: “The naturalist joined three other Nobel laureates, Professor Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, and other leading scientists in calling on the Government to tackle the ‘threat’ of creationism.”

I don’t know any Christians, apart from certain Evangelicals, who interpret the Book of Genesis literally. Certainly Catholics don’t do so. There is a long tradition in the Church of supporting scientific enquiry on the grounds that physics and metaphysics can easily flourish alongside each other. Militant atheism is a different matter. The problem in the proposed curriculum arises when atheists, such as Attenborough and Richard Dawkins, seek to replace God with science, particularly the theory of evolution.

They always like to give the impression that the scientific community agrees with them. But, not surprisingly, scientists are divided among themselves in the debate about the existence of God. According to the Telegraph report, the Rev Professor Michael Reiss, the Royal Society’s former director of education and a fellow signatory of Attenborough’s campaign, describes evolution as “God’s work”. Dr Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is on record for stating: “As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.”

Attenborough and Dawkins tend, as we know, to pontificate; strictly speaking, only popes can do this. Historian Michael Burleigh (a Catholic, incidentally), has put it succinctly, once commenting in an interview: “[Dawkins] writing about theology would be like asking me to write about nuclear physics.” Quite so. So what has Pope Benedict pontificated on this subject recently? Addressing agnostics in the prelude to his forthcoming trip to Germany, he says: “You ask me, but does God exist? And if He exists, does he really concern Himself with us? Can we reach Him? It is true… we cannot pick Him up like an ordinary object. We must discover our capacity to perceive God, a capacity that exists within us. We can get some idea of the greatness of God in the greatness of the cosmos.”

A friend, who is an Orthodox Christian, recently sent me a review he had written of Dawkins’s The God Delusion for the Dublin Review of Books. After carefully analysing the book and pointing out its merits, he concludes: “The theory of natural selection may help us to understand some aspects of the evolution of natural forms. With regard to more purely human concerns – morals, politics, aesthetics (those things in which we may be said to have been made in the image of God) – it has nothing of any value to contribute.”

To return to the school curriculum: by all means introduce evolution into science lessons, as part of pupils’ exploration of the natural world. But do not, alongside it, try to smuggle in atheism by the back door, as I suspect Dawkins and others would like to do. And in RE classes, show how, in the Bible, revelation employs the language of men in different ways – poetically, symbolically and so on. “Creationism” doesn’t need to be perceived as a “threat”; it should just be discussed as a form of theological language, not as science.

  • digdigby

      Macro-evolution is patently absurd. The idea of thousands, millions, billions of simultaneous accidents of pure chance leading to fantastically complex systems (mutually interdependent) without any ‘input’ of intelligence is quite mad.

  • Anonymous

    Faith does not mean believing without evidence.  Faith means to believe in something or someone based on what you know or have experienced.  Your analogy of the carpet-covered snakes makes no sense.  And, for your information, there is plenty of evidence of God.  Not just the beautiful creation of nature, but tangible evidence of the reality of God.  One more thing, as is part of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is something that is earthbound.  The farther one gets from the planet earth, (that is, at the speed of light), time has no meaning or effect.  Get educated.

  • Anonymous

    Digdigby:  Succinctly put. Thank you. 

  • Anonymous

    Digdigby:  Succinctly put.Thank you.

  • pfoster


    Part 1: DNA mutations (e.g. radiation and copy errors). “pure chance”
    Part 2: Those giving its host organism an advantage are inevitably favored (e.g. a pedal color that better attracts pollinating insects). “leading to fantastically complex systems”

    So your error was ascribing the results of Part 2 (“complex systems”) to Part 1 (“pure chance”).

    PS – Any conscious being (defined as having controlled thought and purposeful behavior) would have to be a more complex system than the brainless bags of chemicals from which we evolved (e.g. bacteria), so employing an unseen and unproven CONSCIOUS God to guide the evolution of life is insanely counterproductive (Who was the mother of God?).

  • Acleron

    Nobody who understands science is saying that all changes happen simultaneously. That is a well known strawman of creationists and is patently absurd. 

  • Anonymous

    If creationism were always “discussed as a form of theological language, not as science”, as Francis Phillips suggests, there would be no problem. But it is not. If he doubts it, he should pay a visit to one of the schools run by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. Or to any Muslim faith school.
    This has nothing to do with “smuggling atheism in by the back door”.  All that notorious “militant atheists” like Sir David Attenborough (LOL) are saying is: keep science classes scientific. Creation stories have no place there. There is a still fairly small, but growing, very vocal and well funded minority of religious people in the UK who believe quite literally, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that Adam and Eve were real people.
    Some of them are even scientists or doctors. Dawkins, Attenborough et al are concerned about that. All of us should be.

  • Guest

    Could you PLEASE try to avoid slander? It adds nothing to this disuccision.

  • Graham

    So by speciation you mean micro-evolution: each multiplying within kind.

    Ah yes it says that in another book too doesn’t it.

    Darwin’s theory does not explain macro-evolution: creation of species, so where did that come from?

    Let’s examine the science in that.

    Is it a bird or a reptile? 

    Do you know that and other fraud is still being taught in science classes?

    But no, that’s not indoctrination because it’s not a religious subject.

  • Graham

    ” Facts are not opinion”.

    OK, let’s do “fact”:

    Fact 1: We are here.
    Fact 2: We know how this happened.
    Fact 3: We have empirical evidence
    Fact 4: We teach these to our children.

    Some of these facts are not like the others.

    The point is there is a difference between saying “The prevailing theory is…” and  “The truth is…”.

    A child does not make the same distinction as adults do and this is what the “creationists” are complaining about.

    This is going down the route of indoctrinating children into believing atheism is the truth  when it is not.

    So unless Dawkins actually has evidence that we all came from primordial soup, which itself came from an eternal dimensionless timeless void then it’s his opinion not a fact.

    Dawkins actually believes that his version of how we came to exist should be taught as science.

    This is wrong and and it is THIS which should not be taught as science because it is not.

    Incidentally Dawkins life-from-non-life theory is so far from any real science that it is a minority opinion now.

  • Graham

    So we should abolish religious studies too?

    Is not religion part of the real world?

    the fact that Dawkins and Hitchens don’t like this and want’s it abolished is entirely the problem.

    They may as well join Stalin.

  • Graham

    So you are just going to sit around and wait for others to tell you what to think.

    OK, fine.

    Yes knowledge is infinite, so what we know is infinitesimal.

    So where, in this infinity, is the truth?

    You and I can ponder and speculate, but can a child?

    No, because their brains do not process information like ours.

    To a child everything is black or white

    So if they are taught in school that science has alot of theories about our existence, in absence of anything else they get a complete atheistic picture.

    “Creationists” are saying they should be taught that this is far from complete and there are other theories.

    People like Dawkins would have this last part removed completely and that science is the only truth, which is wrong.

  • Graham

    Many Christian’s (if not the vast majority) are not CERTAIN that God exists.

    This is a common mistake atheists make.

    They assume that religion implies that the members believe without question.

    This is the lie atheists like Dawkins would have us believe to promote their own brand of atheism.

    If you do not believe in God, it does not make you an atheist.

    Athiests reject god.
    It is a positive statement about their position about the question of whether any god exists.
    To the atheist the answer is quite definitely “no”.

    If you are saying you may or may not believe this does not make you an atheist since then you would have non-sense terms like “atheist Christian”.

    Dawkins actually states this too, that you can be an atheist Christian or an atheist Muslim.

    This is stupid and highlights what is nothing more than tricking people into believing they are atheists when they are not.

    I would not say that someone who is not a Muslim must be an atheist.
    I wouldn’t say that the non-Muslim is a Christian either.

    If someone is undecided then they are just that.

    So how does this affect schools and children?

    It is revealing Dawkins bigotry and why he should not have an influence on schools curriculum.

    Also the any religion (including atheism) has a myriad of members so why should any single or few self appointed have any influence anyway simply because they attract media attention.

  • Graham

    Oh really!

    Copenhagen interpretation anyone?

  • Graham

    You want evidence of God.

    Try the fact the you are conscious and capable of formulating the question.

    Now, move on from that to prove that you actually are conscious, with empirical evidence.

    Also argue, if you like, that consciousness arose from increasingly complex systems.

    Then move on to argue why the universe itself (which contains you and me and all the other complex conscious lifeforms) is NOT a conscious being in it’s own right.

    OK, let’s start again: The idea of a complex omnipotent conscious being is stupid because…


  • Acleron

    No I don’t mean micro-evolution..

    But contrary to your knowledge, the theory of evolution adequately explains the variety we see around us, the fossil record and allows predictions. All attempts to falsify the theory have failed. 

    If by ‘creation of species’ you mean abiogenesis, then yes, the ToE doesn’t explain it, just as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity doesn’t explain Quantum Electrodynamics. Only creationists are confused over that.

    Is what a bird or a reptile? Is it that you don’t know the difference between birds and reptiles?

    Where is the indoctrination? Any decent teacher will explain the mechanisms of the ToE as far as a student can understand them. It makes sense and all parts of the theory and observation agree.

  • gregqq

    That’s not evidence Graham.

  • TreenonPoet

     My comment was about (a) evolution, and (b) the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was not about abiogenesis.

    Evolution is a fact, both in its prolific observance, and as an inevitable consequence of mutation. The theory of evolution by natural selection has been substantiated so many times that it could be considered to be a factual description of the evolutionary mechanism. Even if it cannot be proven 100%, that is no reason to relegate it to just an opinion, and certainly should not be given equal weight to fiction.

    I do not know what you mean by ”Dawkins['] life-from-non-life theory”. If you mean the notion that life did not arise from a supernatural cause, then that is a fact because nature is, by definition, natural.