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.