Now, it should be obvious that an organisation that exists to promote atheism would have an ulterior motive for campaigning to promote science in schools. It is this: evolution has become the rock on which atheism is built, and all secularists and humanists fear that loss of faith in evolution would lead to loss of faith in atheism. I just hope Michael Gove can see that.
The BHA are really not concerned about science – but they are desperate to ensure that children are steeped in evolutionary thinking before they have developed the more critical faculties of a secondary school child. That way, they are less likely to reject it when they grow older.
Why are they desperate? Because survey after survey has shown that, despite decades of indoctrination of evolution through both education and the media, the British public are still resistant to its overblown claims.
Sadly for the standard of science in this country, the BHA’s letter to Michael Gove managed to gather the support not only of atheist scientists like their own Richard Dawkins (predictably), but Rev Professor Michael Reiss, An Anglican priest and science education expert. He has obviously been roped in to give the impression that it’s not just atheists who want evolution in primary schools, but mainstream churches as well.
Professor Reiss would do well to remember that it was only a couple of years ago that he was sacked from his job at the Royal Society after a concerted effort by leading atheists to silence his more common sense approach to teaching science. He was open to the discussion of creationism in science classrooms – if the aim was to explain why evolution was superior science. But even that was too much for Dawkins et al. Even a whiff of God in science classes was too much for them to stomach. Dawkins even suggested that Reiss should never have been given the post in the first place – simply because he was a clergyman. I think Reiss, whose scientific credentials are impeccable, would have had a case for religious discrimination.
But back to the letter. Liberal Christian news agency Ekklesia reported that “good teaching of evolutionary theory and biology is something that people of all beliefs and backgrounds can and should get behind – despite the well-funded attempts of some from fundamentalist religious backgrounds to inhibit evidence-based teaching or get their own ideology on the school agenda.”
There is so much wrong with this statement I hardly know where to start! First, people of all beliefs should get behind good teaching of evolution – because good teaching includes explaining the evidence for and against a theory. But this is the furthest thing from the mind of the BHA and pro-evolution Ekklesia. Their idea of good teaching would be if evolution was promoted as fact, and all criticism of it was excluded – tantamount to brainwashing.
Second, the creationist “ideology” they refer to is about as far from being “well-funded” as it is possible to get. There is only a handful of small creationist organisations in the UK, each struggling to exist on donations from supporters that add up to a few thousand pounds per year. In contrast, evolution has the full weight of government funding in schools, colleges and universities, plus millions spent by broadcasters on TV programmes, like David Attenborough’s documentaries, every year.
Third, scientists who believe in alternatives to evolution like creationism and Intelligent Design Theory do not “inhibit evidence-based teaching” at all. On the contrary, it is they who are constantly campaigning for educators to open up the evidence, to make students and the public aware that there is evidence against evolution as well as for it. They support evidence-based teaching. It is evolutionists who want to restrict teaching to just the evidence in favour of evolution.
And as for trying to get “their own ideology on the school agenda” – that’s exactly what the BHA is doing by writing to Michael Gove!
Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, says: "The teaching of science equips young people with the skills they need to understand the world around them in a critical way, and opens up the natural environment for inquiry.” If only that’s what the BHA wanted. Instead, they want no criticism of evolution and to restrict enquiry about the natural world so that alternatives cannot be considered.
Mr Gove has previously made it clear that he does not regard creationism as having any place in science teaching, a point also made under the previous Labour administration. But when I wrote to Mr Gove before the election, I made it clear that I was not campaigning for creationism to be included in science teaching, but for evolution to be taught in a truly scientific way – where all the evidence, and arguments for and against, are considered.
In an interview Michael Gove gave to the BBC, he referred to evolution as “scientific fact” and said: “The problem that we have in state education at the moment, and the problem which our reforms will directly address, is the fact that parents aren't getting what they want.”
I told him: “One of the things I, as a parent, want for my children is that they are taught how to think for themselves, how to critique theories and concepts, and how to decide logically what is a convincing argument and what is not.
“Sadly, this ideal seems to conflict with your desire for only ‘scientific fact’ to be taught in schools, because for science to pursue the facts, it must be free to question the currently accepted understandings and theories. The philosophy of science shows that there are no absolute ‘scientific facts’. Science only progresses by questioning, by cultivating an enquiring mind. If no one questioned the idea that the earth was flat, we would not have discovered that the earth is round.
“In the interview, you said ‘you cannot have a school which teaches creationism’. I am not asking that you should, but I am asking that children should be allowed to question every reigning scientific paradigm, and that includes evolution. If you believe… that evolution is another one of those ‘scientific facts’, then you have swallowed the line that Richard Dawkins and his ‘new atheist’ friends want you to swallow. I don’t know what your personal views on religion are, but Dawkins has an obvious vested interest in claiming that evolution is a fact, because it is vital to his philosophy. As he says himself, evolution made it possible for him to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist. In short, he is completely biased on evolution.
“The true scientific position on the study of biological origins is to assert that evolution is a theory. As such, it deserves to be questioned. In fact, if it isn’t, it will never improve and never come closer to the truth. If protected from criticism, as Dawkins would have it, evolution will in fact move further and further from the truth.
“Coming back to education – children should be taught that most scientists believe in evolution, but there is a sizeable minority who do not. This is a fact. They should then be given the evidence for and against evolution, and be taught how to evaluate the evidence for themselves. Only then will they be educated to think for themselves, instead of being effectively ‘brainwashed’ – which is what happens in biology today, because only the evidence in favour of evolution is allowed in the classroom.
“Dawkins and his ilk claim that no real scientists doubt evolution. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over 700 PhD-level scientists and professors have signed a document expressing their doubts. The Scientific Dissent From Darwinism is a short public statement by scientists expressing their scepticism of neo-Darwinism.
“The full statement reads: ‘We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’ Prominent scientists who have signed the statement include evolutionary biologist and textbook author Dr. Stanley Salthe; quantum chemist Henry Schaefer at the University of Georgia; U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell; American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Lyle Jensen; Russian Academy of Natural Sciences embryologist Lev Beloussov.
“This is not a bunch of ‘fundamentalists’. Many of these are leading scientists in their fields. Dr. Russell Carlson, Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at University of Georgia, comments: ‘To limit teaching to only one idea is a disservice to students because it is unnecessarily restrictive, dishonest, and intellectually myopic.’ Dr. Vladimir L. Voeikov, Professor of Bioorganic, Moscow State University and member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences is even stronger: ‘The ideology and philosophy of neo-Darwinism which is sold by its adepts as a scientific theoretical foundation of biology seriously hampers the development of science and hides from students the field’s real problems.’
“I therefore appeal to you to make biological education an open-minded pursuit of the truth, like the rest of science, rather than the mind-closing myopia that Darwinian fanatics subscribe to.
“Again, I am not asking for the teaching of creationism, but for teachers and students alike to be able to assess the evidence both for and against evolution. But incidentally, I’d also be very interested to know why you think that teaching creationism is teaching ‘in a way which undermines our democratic values’, as you said in the interview, and could be ‘closed down’. How would banning creationism improve democracy? I can see no relation whatsoever. Surely democracy is about freedom of opinion, and science is about freedom of enquiry. Censorship in education and science sounds closer to totalitarianism than democracy.”
The response from Michael Gove’s office indicated he did not understand the point I was making – or was unwilling to follow its logic: “We very much agree that we want children to learn to think and reason, be presented with different arguments and be able to use critical reasoning to make their own judgements. However, we do not believe that in state schools, Religion should be taught as Science. That is the delineation we want to make.”
But the BHA and Ekklesia need to explain why they are promoting evolution as proven fact when it is not empirical science – it is not repeatable in the present, contradicts the laws of thermodynamics and is difficult to falsify. I suspect the reason is that they both have a vested interest in shoring up the creaking edifice of evolution – one to justify their atheism, and one to gain intellectual credibility and political influence.
Andrew Halloway An earlier draft of this article is posted here