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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.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, he’s “up front” alright. Problem is he obtusely dismisses religious experience as “hallucinations.” That is of course very convenient for him, but it is not a the type of response that a serious person would make.

  • Anonymous

    “Why would anyone consider a Pope to be the source of scientific information?”

    I don’t know. Does anyone? Science is one way; it is not the only way. It is inherently limited by its requirements for falsifiability and mathematical measurement. It is certainly useful, but the human mind is capable of more.

  • Anonymous

    Science and reason are not identical. Science is a subset of reason. It is a way of limiting knowledge to only that which can be empirically verified and mathematically measured. It is very useful, particularly in engineering applications. But it is not the final word (logos). Jesus Christ is the logos made flesh, not Richard Dawkins.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think you quite understand what prayer is. Prayer is speaking to and listening to God. It is not a kind of magic that heals people. 

  • http://bit.ly/glUAR7 Calladus

    Bull pucky.  If he wants to claim any sort of knowledge in astrophysics, then he needs to study astrophysics.  Otherwise he’s talking out of the wrong orifice. 

    Philosophy is great, and it comes up with all sorts of rational explanations of how Nature works.  These explanations are often shot down by direct observation and experiment – so much so that it has become embarrassing for philosophers to say anything about the universe we live in.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’ll find, if you read, say Thomas Aquinas or some of the Jewish rabbis, that the Judeo-Christian conception of God is more sophisticated than “a really smart guy.” All you’ve shown there is that you do not understand monotheism at all.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t believe anyone was commenting on science. Science cannot prove God exists, because the scientific method is inherently limited to empirically verifiable results, and God cannot be contained within empirical categories. So in order to understand God, you have to use, not only science, but a fuller conception of reason: philosophy and theology.

    By the way, Stephen Barr, who did his PhD in physics at Princeton, has written a book about how physics strongly implies the existence of God. Have you read it?

  • Anonymous

    Wrong

  • Anonymous

    It’s not, hence faith. God cloaks his infinitude behind a veil, in much the same way a bride does on her wedding day. In the Bible itself you will read that no man can behold the face of God and live. God is not like a bacterial culture that you study under a microscope. He is your creator and is trying to help you self-actualize. 

  • Anonymous

    Philosophy concerns valid methods of proof and reasoning. I also studied philosophy at a prestigious university and I do not recall the interjection “bull plucky” as being among them. Perhaps I should have studied astrophysics — is it acceptable in that field?

    If you want to get into an academic pissing contest, then I would have to ask: do you have a degree in physics? (Physical cosmology would be the subfield more a propos here, not astrophysics.) Do you have a doctorate in anything? If not, then do you have any other weapons in your rhetorical arsenal aside from questioning academic credentials? Metaphysics and physics share much in common. Although Fr. Spitzer’s doctorate is in philosophy and not physics, that does not preclude him from making true statements about cosmology (which, again, is the appropriate subfield, not astrophysics). Furthermore, Stephen Barr does have a PhD in physics (from Princeton) and has written a book which advances arguments quite similar to Fr. Spitzer’s. You see, being a good scientist is more difficult than simply chanting a mantra of “Science! Evidence!” You might even go so far as to say that someone who blithely takes others to task for being unscientific without actually providing hard data themselves is thereby marking themselves out as a rube and a poseur.

    As for philosophy, your faith in “direct observation and experiment” is itself a philosophical position — materialism. It is simply one epistimological position among many that one might adopt. You make the philosophical assertion (implied) that human beings’ sensory apparatuses are perfectly calibrated to understand reality. Christians believe that our senses do not always mislead us, but we yet “see through a glass darkly” and sensory experience is only part of the whole picture. Thus, in the quest for knowledge, science is one thing in the Christian’s toolkit, but not the only one.

  • Honeybadger

    Yes, you do. And don’t dare invalidate me on this messageboard for a Roman Catholic faith paper.

    There are scientists down the years who possessed great faith in God. They were taught in faith schools and Universities set up by men of faith. Their patrons were the Church. They explored God’s creation in the sky and the earth.

    Ampere was one of them. Einstein is another.

    So there!

  • Honeybadger

    Leonardo da Vinci was a man of faith… and his inventions and anatomically correct artworks were innovative in understanding humanity.

    A man who painted The Last Supper.

  • Honeybadger

    How dare you, you arrogant airhead!

  • Honeybadger

    The same goes for you!

  • Anonymous

    What is the difference between being strongly anti-religion and being violently anti-religion (metaphorically)? I would have thought the latter implied an undisciplined or malicious streak, but that is precisely what Richard Dawkins does not have (and I am not saying that he is exactly anti-religion either). You’re welcome to try to demonstrate that his point of view is undisciplined or malicious, but if you did not mean that, and you did not mean literally violent, then what did you mean?

  • Honeybadger

    Yes, they are like brick walls… not a solid rock.

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, you thicko!

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, throwing away books…. now, who did that? Ah, the Nazis! They burned books…

    A dangerous parallel here, squinteyes!

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, pur-lease!

  • Honeybadger

    Yes. Atheists have selective memories.

  • Honeybadger

    It isn’t satire. You can’t stomach the truth.

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, for sake of all things holy!

    Dawkins and Hitchens are extremely open to … absolutely nothing.

  • Anonymous

    The post that I was responding to was appealing to authority (“it was good enough for Pope John Paul II and Benedict”) regarding a scientific phenomenon.

  • http://bit.ly/glUAR7 Calladus

    “Philosophy concerns valid methods of proof and reasoning”
    Agreed.  And proofs and reasoning can be shown to be false through evidence, as has been demonstrated to past philosophers.

    “I also studied philosophy at a prestigious university”
    That explains a lot, doesn’t it?  If all you have is a hammer…

    “then I would have to ask: do you have a degree in physics?”

    No.  I have 4 semesters in physics, plus various physics and math based courses that an electrical engineer is required to take to receive a BSEE.

    Which is more than Spitzer has had, ever.

    Do I have a doctorate in anything?  No.
    Am I an astrophysicist?  No.
    Am I a cosmologist?  No.

    I have absolutely no qualification to say what (if anything) happened before the Big Bang, and I know just enough physics to realize that even asking “what came before the Big Bang” might be a nonsense question.  Heck, I study quantum mechanics for fun, and on my best days I almost understand the possibility of a “zero sum universe”.

    I say “Bull Pucky” because this seems like a polite forum, and I don’t think I should say what I really feel about an incompetent boob like Spitzer passing himself off as having ANY sort of understanding of physics when you and I both know that he couldn’t derive Ohms Law from Maxwell’s equations with an entire physics library and a year to do it in.  Heck, I’m not even sure he would understand basic calculus – after all, his highest math is in accounting!

    I am 100% more knowledgeable about physics than that boob is, so when he says he understands the universe, I know he is either delusional, or lying.

  • Anonymous

    “proofs and reasoning can be shown to be false through evidence”

    Well, sure, but that’s not saying much. Obviously, particular proofs have been falsified by evidence. However, it seems to me that the process, in which you seem to believe, of “showing to be false” is, first, logically prior to evidence, and, second, a necessary tool in sifting through evidence. Therefore, to assert “evidence” as a kind of “trump card” is an exercise in philosophy. Sensory experience is not immediately cognizable, as you seem to believe, except in a very basic and uninteresting way. Humans do not have total knowledge of reality, so any particular piece of evidence must be considered in the context of a larger rational schema (that is to say, in the context of philosophy). I do not believe you can escape philosophy.

    “Which is more than Spitzer has had, ever.”

    Is it? You don’t know what exact courses Fr. Spitzer has taken. Even if you did, that does not preclude him from making true statements regarding physics. Again, your attempt to defame Fr. Spitzer only marks you out as a scientific poseur who does not back up his assertions with evidence.

    “what I really feel about an incompetent boob like Spitzer passing himself off as having ANY sort of understanding of physics when you and I both know that he couldn’t derive Ohms Law from Maxwell’s equations with an entire physics library and a year to do it in.  ”

    Check and double-check your conclusions, my friend. Think about what you’re saying. Is it because Fr. Spitzer is a Catholic priest? Recognize your own blind spots, that’s the way to enlightenment. Cheers.

    “I am 100% more knowledgeable about physics”

    Exactly 100%?

  • James

    This article seemed confused, creationism should not be taught in science classes because it does not use scientific methods. Science by it’s very definition is atheistic as the empirical study of nature. God is a supernatural concept that is above and outside of nature. Feel free to teach such airyfairy nonsense in history lessons and re classes, but keep all that fluff away from the beakers for god’s sake!

  • Anonymous

    “Of course.”

    Well, Cal, you know I thought I was onto something until you said “of course” I am wrong. I suppose what has sustained the Jewish people for thousands upon thousands of years could easily be exchanged for a “flying spghetti monster.” That is clearly a sensible thing to say. Thank you for showing me “the way” by your use of the phrase “of course.” You are clearly an intellectual of the first rank.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, thanks, gregqq. “Just open your eyes,” you say? Amazing. Here I was, you know, studying philosophy, history, mathematics, and various foreign languages, but I guess all I needed to do was to OPEN MY EYES.

  • Anonymous

    Hello Trevor Cowan. Nice hat, how’s the weather in Texas? Could you explain how Catholicism would be applicable to a science lesson? Or your reason to fear smuggling of Catholicism into a science lesson? Could you perhaps point out one Catholic who wants to teach his religion in a science class?

    “Catholicism” is, by the way, capitalized in the Oxford English Dictionary. By not properly capitalizing it, you are not bringing shame upon the Catholic Church, but are only exposing your own prejudice.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll try :D

  • Anonymous

    Excellent satire.

  • Anonymous

    So you essentially follow Christian morals, but pretend that they are based on “science and evolution.”

  • Anonymous

    Oh, thank you, O high priest of science, for explaining to us rubes what science is. I had absolutely no idea.

    “And children should be taught how to work out how things really work. We call this “science lessons”.”

    Oh, is that what you call it? How fascinating. Although I too seek to worship at the altar of your “science,” I have one small misgiving, which I sure you, O Wise Leader, can correct. Please forgive my ignorance, but I can’t quite grasp (yet!) how we can be sure that “how things really work” is identical to the findings of science. Would you perhaps condescend to explain this simple matter to me, a simple Kerryman?

  • Acleron

    aearon43 wrote “Humans do not have total knowledge of reality, so any particular piece of evidence must be considered in the context of a larger rational schema (that is to say, in the context of philosophy). I do not believe you can escape philosophy.”

    Biology, chemistry and physics have progressed in the last 2 centuries by a reduction of evidence so that we may understand them more completely. I’m not aware of anything that pure philosophers have contributed to this process except perhaps to help scientists to clarify in their own minds the concepts of a scientific theory. This has allowed them to formulate the rules of scientific method. But that is an empirical method, it’s used because it works, philosophers were not absolutely required to formulate it.

  • Anonymous

    Science is not atheistic, it does not say anything about God. Atheism is the belief that God does not exist and is therefore unscientific. “God does not exist” (the fundamental tenet of atheism) is not a scientific proposition.

    That was the point of this article, it was not attempting to promote creationism, and in fact explicitly distanced itself from creationism. So I’m not sure why you feel the need to bring up creationism, except to congratulate yourself for not believing in it.

    Your ritualistic incantation of such phrases as “airyfairy nonsense” seems to be a defense mechanism against actually reasoning through Judeo-Christian beliefs.

  • Jonathan West

    Does that mean that God doesn’t answer prayers? If so, why are there prayers for the sick in church?

  • Acleron

    Agreed, the article was not about promoting creationism but was about wrongly and ignorantly accusing atheists of the very tactics that the creationists use, so creationism is a valid topic of conversation.

    Another point, why does anyone want to reason through a belief? They may or may not be internally self-consistent but usually are not. The reasons why people have beliefs which cannot be verified from evidence is a much more interesting topic. And scientists are discovering more about this process all the time.

  • Anonymous

    Science is a very exciting area of study.  It changes frequently.  What has been established by scientific scholars as law quickly disintegrates before our very eyes.  Case in point:  I just read a very interesting article on the speed at which neutronia (I think that is the correct term) move–faster than the speed of light–which was, previous to this, thought to be impossible.  Now the very fact that this has been empirically observed and is now under close study and scrutiny could mean the implosion of Einstein’s theory of relativity in addition to many heretofore well-established laws of physics.  What does that tell us?  That we are finite beings with finite knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the physical world.  Does this not also include the non-physical world?  Of course it does.  So, that being a given, why are scientists (and others) so absolute in their view that there cannot possibly be an infinite being beyond our imagination?    

  • Anonymous

    Science is a very exciting area of study.  It changes frequently.  What has been established by scientific scholars as law quickly disintegrates before our very eyes.  Case in point:  I just read a very interesting article on the speed at which neutronia (I think that is the correct term) move–faster than the speed of light–which was, previous to this, thought to be impossible.  Now the very fact that this has been empirically observed and is now under close study and scrutiny could mean the implosion of Einstein’s theory of relativity in addition to many heretofore well-established laws of physics.  What does that tell us?  That we are finite beings with finite knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the physical world.  Does this not also include the non-physical world?  Of course it does.  So, that being a given, why are scientists (and others) so absolute in their view that there cannot possibly be an infinite being beyond our imagination?    

  • Teacher

    If gregqq’s eyes were truly open, he would see reality…get my gist, Aearon43?  “Let those who have eyes, see,…let those who have ears, hear…” (I’m paraphrasing, of course!)  Love your comments, by the way!  Keep ‘em comin’! 

  • Teacher

    JLowen:  That’s not “all I got”.  There are many, many scientific scholars who also have found that human scientific discovery is not the litmus test for whether or not God exists.  He is beyond science, as one other commentor said. 

    The more important point here is, I think, (at least for me) is that it doesn’t matter to me whether there are 2 or 10,000 scientific scholars who agree that God is real and can be known…if I were the only one on this planet who believed, I would continue believing.  It is my will and my reason that tells me that I cannot possibly be the greatest being in the universe.  That is simply pompous egotism.  I once heard a story by Bishop Sheen.  It goes something like this:  There was a huge group of people who were walking along the crumbling edge of a dark abyss.  As they continued walking, the edges of the abyss were crumbling and falling into the abyss.  On the outside of this huge circle of moving people, was one person walking in the opposite direction.  When the large group of people saw him/her, they waved their hands wilding exclaiming, “STOP!!  You’re going the wrong way!!!  Come with us!!”  The person continued on his way in the opposite direction of the huge crowd.  Now…can you guess what the “moral” of Sheen’s story is?

    I live and breathe by my convictions.  I don’t care who is going in the opposite direction.  If I were to change directions simply because someone else told me I was wrong, then I have NO convictions or principles.  I can be swayed this way or that simply by a change of direction in the wind…sort of like prairie grass.

  • Teacher

    Oops..last sentence should have read: “I CANNOT be swayed this way or that…”  My fingers don’t always cooperate with my brain…

  • Teacher

    Einstein struggled with math most of his young life and even failed algebra (I think that is the math discipline he failed, but I’m not positive–it could have been another discipline in mathematics.). 

  • Anonymous

    Ignoring the fallacies in your argument, just suppose there is an infinite being beyond our imagination. How many such infinite beings are there and what properties do they have that are not implied by their infinitude? Having pretended that they exist, one can pretend an infinite variety of properties. Which of these made-up infinite possibilities is the one that it is so vital to lie to schoolchildren about, and why?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_34QBWB3GI6L7KFK42V6RLS4PWY Big Jess

    I bet you I can find a few tarot card readers and astrologists that say the stars are aligned for us to read what the future holds. That doesnt mean some cosmologists debate whether that is true or not. Creation doesnt belong in the Science class just like astrology doesnt belong in and Astronomy class. The problem is when Scientologists, Hindus, etc want their creation myth in the science class. I am pretty sure Christians would not be ok with that. I am sure a christian parent would not want their kid’s muslim teacher talking to them about the Koran. That is why no religion should be allowed in school. 

  • Pluto Animus

    “I don’t know any Christians, apart from certain Evangelicals, who interpret the Book of Genesis literally.”

    Do they also interpret the Gospels as merely symbolic?  If not, why hold them to a different standard?

    Explain.  (Not that I expect you to even try….)

  • Self-morality

    The idea that a sizable portion of the scientific community supports not only the idea of creationism, but the teaching of it in schools (or lack of subject matter on evolution) is a great farce. While there are of course exceptions, like you pointed out in the article with the inclusion of one Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the vast majority of the scientific community would refute your argument, if not consider you a fool for even suggesting such a fallacy. In fact, a growing number of scientists are subscribing to the theory that none of what we witness during life is even real, at least in the context that we understand things to be real, that is. 

    Also, the quote from your pope does very little to support any of your, or any creationists’ arguments. To say that to perceive god, we must discover the capacity to believe within us, is one of the weaker arguments that Christians have ever made, and spits in the face of the scientific method itself. In short, your argument in this paper is not only entirely underwhelming, but also laughable in terms of validity. 

  • pfoster

    If evolution wasn’t supported by  a single piece of evidence would theists allow it to be taught to their kids in science class? -Of course not.  It’s the complete  lack of supporting evidence for creationism which is the motive behind its exclusion from science class.  It has nothing to do AT ALL with “sneaking evolution in the  back door”.

    Yes, since God was used to explain our existence the recent discovery that both man and the universe evolved naturally STRONGLY suggests that he doesn’t exist, but this is purely circumstantial.  Evolution wasn’t made-up by Darwin to convert our kids to atheism no more than math was made-up to make our kids bored.

  • Anonymous

    Obviously, you have very little scientific background.  If anything, it takes a greater act of Faith to believe in evolution than it does in belief in God.  If evolution wasn’t made up by Darwin, then by whom? Your analogies are nonsensical…

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    Your knowledge is faulty. Darwin didn’t invent evolution, that happened all on its own. Didn’t need a god either. FYI, Darwin developed a theory to explain speciation. And you don’t need beliefs in science, you need to understand and accept evidence. I suppose you spelled Darwin’s name correctly so you get a mark of 1 out of 10, and the accompanying comment. ‘Try harder next time’