My colleague Damian Thompson, while happily acknowledging that Creationism and its evasive twin Intelligent Design are idiotic nonsense, thinks the anxiety over Creationist-led free schools is led by a British Humanist Society eager to see God-heads under the bed. I’m not so sure.
He’s right to say that whatever these schools are, they’re not full-strength, high-caffeine, double-fat Creationists such as an American Bible-Belter would recognise. “[We do] not share the rigid creationist’s insistence on a literalistic interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis,” says one. “We are therefore very happy to believe that God could have created the world in six days. But we do not feel that it is helpful to affirm it as an unarguable fact.” It sounds like you probably won’t find any talk about how Noah actually saved two of every species of dinosaur as well but they fell overboard, or whatever.
But they do issue some deeply concerning statements about what they will teach. “We vigorously challenge the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called ‘Big Bang’ and origins generally,” say Grindon Hall, bafflingly. What is this certainty they claim? Uncertainty is built into the very fabric of science, but it’s not just “We can’t be sure of anything”. The current best guess for the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years, plus or minus up to 0.11 billion years. A variety of interlocking channels of evidence, including microwave radiation measurements and the red-shift of distant galaxies, give these figures. Will the schools in question “vigorously challenge” the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisoptropy Prove? Are they disputing the Hubble constant?
“We will teach evolution as an established scientific principle, as far as it goes,” they say, which is gracious of them. But again, what does this mean? Are they acknowledging that, yes, bacteria can evolve resistance to new antibiotics? Because denying that would require an ironclad ignorance of the modern world that is surely beyond anyone with a teaching degree. Or are they acknowledging that all humans are literally Nth cousins with lobsters? (And whales, and geckos, and in a rather more complicated but still true way E. coli and oak trees.) Because that is easier to make convincing-sounding but utterly specious arguments against. X-ray crystallography of proteins, DNA analysis, geographical spread of species, the homology of body architecture within phyla: as with the age of the universe, all of these strands of evidence combine to demonstrate very, very clearly that all known organisms share a common ancestor. But will “evolution, as far as it goes” constantly mutter about “transitional fossils” and “gaps in the fossil record”, as though the former aren’t known in abundance and the latter aren’t logically inevitable?
Finally, the schools promise – are legally required, in fact – not to teach Creationism in science lessons. (Although one says that they will “teach creation as a scientific theory”, to which I’m sort of tempted to reply “Good luck with that”.) Jolly good. But one says: “Christians believe that God made the world, loves the world and is pleased with his creation. In RE we plan to teach about this”.
What I want to know is: what form will this take? Imagine it were a different religion, one that had as its key teaching that the Romans never existed. “The law does not allow us to teach our beliefs in history lessons, and that’s okay, we’ll go along with the historical consensus,” says their press release. “But in RE, we will teach that the Colosseum was designed in 1972 by Frank Gehry.” Essentially, if the RE lessons teach that humans don’t share a great-great-[n]-great grandmother with Komodo dragons, then they’re being as ignorant, and as misleading to children, as the No Romans Faith I’ve just made up.
• And yes, before some genius pipes up: if it’s a Muslim faith school that’s teaching Creationist bafflegab, then it’s just as awful and stupid as the Christian ones.