News & Star, 21 September 2011

It is a war that has been waged for more than 150 years now. In one corner are the followers of Charles Darwin, who first developed the theory of evolution – that the world and its different species emerged gradually over millions of years by natural selection.

In the other are fundamentalist Christians who insist that the description in the Book of Genesis, of God creating the world and each distinct species within six days, is literally true.

Now the latest battle in the evolution-versus-Genesis war has broken out.

Two organisations, Truth in Science and Creation Ministries International, are arguing for creationism to be included in school science classes.

And according to a 2009 survey, most adults agree. The survey found that 54 per cent of adults believe creationism and intelligent design – the idea that evolution was guided by God – should be included in school science. That’s a higher proportion than in the USA.

So this week a counter-attack began, with a letter signed by 30 prominent scientists – including broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and outspoken atheist Professor Richard Dawkins. It urges the Government to take a tough line against schools that present creationism as if it is science.

They say there is no scientific basis for creationism or intelligent design – so they have no place in science lessons.

So should the Book of Genesis be expelled?

The evolution versus creationism war tends to be seen as a conflict between religion and science, but Alan Meyer embodies both.

He is senor minister at Elim Community Church in Carlisle and also a former pharmacist – so has a scientific background himself.

Christians themselves hold differing views about creation but Rev Meyer’s personal view is that the message in the Book of Genesis of a world created in six days is not meant to be scientific fact.

"You can’t use Genesis as a science textbook,” he says.

He supports the idea of intelligent design and says that since intelligent design and creationism are widely held views, they ought to be mentioned in school science as ideas for consideration.

"Evolution is sometimes presented as an argument against God, but evolution doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no God,” Rev Meyer says.

"The weight of scientific evidence supports evolution, but there is still a strong base of people who would argue for both intelligent design in general, and God creating humanity in particular.”

Besides, he adds, bringing up questions of creationism or intelligent design is inevitable: "In the current climate it would be naive not to.

"The danger in not mentioning them is to assume that they’re unimportant or don’t matter.

"If I was teaching chemistry I would have to talk about its application in the modern world, and if discussing biology it is inevitable that we discuss the implications for people across the world, the vast majority of whom believe and recognise the existence of God, or a spiritual realm.”

To Dr Christine Allen, former secretary of Cumbria Humanist Group, the idea that creationism should come up in science is ridiculous.

She regards the Genesis account of creation as a myth, just as all religions and cultures have their own creation myths and myths cannot be presented as scientific fact.

She also argues that religion is largely obsolete. To her, it once had three functions – to explain what can’t be explained, to give us rules over how to behave towards one another, and to exercise political power.

The Genesis description of creation once fulfilled the first of these functions – explaining the unknown – but now science had taken over the job instead.

"The Bible is not science so there’s no way it should be taught in science lessons,” Dr Allen says.

"It’s like asking whether Father Christmas should be taught in science classes. Of course not. All religions have creation myths – the Greek and Hindu gods are examples – to explain the unknown, just as they have morality fables to define social mores.

"Now we have science to explain what couldn’t be explained. We should have grown out of it by now.”

Religion is already promoted in schools – and that too is controversial. It is the law of the land that state-funded schools include a collective act of worship every day, but opponents say it amounts to religious indoctrination, and forcing anyone to perform any act of worship is wrong.

But religion in science classes is different, as Alan Mottershead, head teacher of Trinity School in Carlisle, agrees.

"I wouldn’t expect our science teachers to teach creationism as a possible explanation of life, the universe and everything,” the head teacher says. "In religious studies the big questions are raised, and there are different descriptions of the beginning of everything in Christianity and in other religions. But science teachers couldn’t be required to teach them.”

Yet it would be impossible to eliminate any mention of creationism or intelligent design from science classes – just as it would be impossible to ban pupils from asking questions.

"I’m sure science teachers get asked: ‘What do you think, sir?’ We don’t want to ban ideas – but we need to know that they are ideas.”

Like Mr Mottershead, the Archdeacon of West Cumberland, the Venerable Richard Pratt, believes both evolution and Genesis belong in schools – one in science lessons, the other in religious studies.

But he does point out that it is wrong to be dogmatic about evolution: "Evolution is the best description we have at the moment.

"But it is a scientific theory and all scientific theories are provisional.”

Just as Isaac Newton’s view of the universe was improved upon by Einstein, so future scientists could improve on evolution.

Teaching the Book of Genesis matters too, the archdeacon adds, even if it isn’t factual – because it teaches us other lessons.

"It asks questions about free will, and about where good and evil come from, and the part of human beings in the created order.

"That’s something that’s really important when we consider the role human beings have in destroying elements of the natural world or damaging the climate.”

And though they belong in separate subject areas, evolution and the Bible can be seen as different perspectives on the same thing.

"A police description of a wanted person, and a description of that person in a job reference, are going to be very different because they are doing different jobs. But they go together. Evolution and the Genesis story can complement each other in the same way.”

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