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Creation and Creationism: Advice for schools

Michael-PooleMichael Poole was Head of the Physics Department at a London Boys’ Comprehensive School. After undertaking some broadcasting work on Science & Religion he was appointed Lecturer in Science Education at King’s College London. He is currently Visiting Research Fellow in Science & Religion at King’s College and is the author of some ninety articles and several books on the subject.

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Creationism and Schools

Publicly-funded state schools are barred through government policy from teaching creationism as evidence-based theory.  So how might this stipulation impact on teachers when teaching children about origins?

Well, as a rule, although science education may make passing reference to historical ideas held in the past, such as phlogiston in chemistry, it is the current theories of mainstream science which will now be taught.  So the age of the universe will be taught as c. 13.7 x 109 years, with our Earth being c. 4.6 x 109 years old, in accordance with the current consensus in the fields of cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology and biology – and not by reference to attempts to date the Earth from incomplete Bible genealogies.

Of course the very word creationism has contributed to the confusion in the minds of some theists, atheists and secularists alike by adding to the theological concept of Creation widely differing estimates of how long ago they imagine the Universe began. The label ‘creationism’ compounds the confusion in that it leaves no word available to religious believers who wish both to identify themselves with belief in Creation and to distance themselves from belief in a geologically young Earth. But the rejection of the young Earth component of creationism does not warrant dismissing the traditional belief in Creation itself. That would be to commit a category mistake, in this case to confuse an act, Creation, with the mechanisms involved.

Although the word ‘Creation’ is widely borrowed to refer to original works of music, art and ideas, and even more confusingly to physical beginnings like the ‘Big Bang’, ‘Creation’ is essentially a theological concept. It is firmly embedded in Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions – the concept of a transcendent Agent, God, purposefully bringing-into-being-and-sustaining-in-being-everything-there-is. The ‘sustaining’ part is often referred to as creatio continua. So ‘Creation’, is God’s act(s) of making and maintaining the Universe, irrespective of the processes involved. And such processes and mechanisms have a ‘built-in’ nature for maintaining the ‘functional integrity’ of creation.

Rare acts such as miracles are not precluded, however, since they are not God acting where He does not normally act, but acting differently, for particular purposes. Failure to recognize the integrity of creation has led to the explanatory confusion of the ‘God-of-the-gaps’ – confining ‘God’ to current gaps in scientific knowledge instead of recognizing Him as underpinning the whole scientific enterprise, known or presently unknown.

The Bible and Creation

Galileo was remarkable for having a belief in and perception of God as underpinning and upholding all things, while at the same time understanding the holy texts of the Bible to be unintended and unsuitable as scientific pronouncements.  For example this is what he wrote in the context of planetary astronomy:

‘… since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still … nor whether the earth is located at its centre or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind … Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them? … I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic [Cardinal Baronius] of the most eminent degree: ‘That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.’[1]

… and again…

‘I should think it would be the part of prudence not to let anyone usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses … may show the contrary.[2]

God’s Two Books

The metaphor of ‘God’s Two Books’ is helpful in exemplifying how biblical writing about creation is not in essence contradicted by scientific knowledge.  This metaphor portrays God as the Author of Two Great Books; the Book of Scripture (the Bible and the Book of Nature (the world). Since each ‘Book’ has the same author, one doesn’t expect contradictions, when each is properly understood. Understanding involves appreciating that the Bible employs over forty different literary genres in getting its message across. It appears to encourage us to recognize this factor as early as the opening chapter of Genesis, in its use of the word ‘day’. Days can be measured with reference to our Sun (solar day) or the so-called ‘fixed’ stars (sidereal day). But the Sun, Moon and stars were not created until ‘Day 4’! So it cannot be using the word ‘day’ to mean our ’24 hours’ or ‘daylight’. This view is also supported by Genesis 2:4 (AV) ‘in the day [singular] that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens’.  We are not, however, strangers in employing the word ‘day’ to mean different things, such a period of time, such as in the phrase, ‘She was alive in Winston Churchill’s ‘day’. In the New Testament, Peter’s second letter also cautions us that ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ 2 Peter 3:8 (NIV)

Augustine, in the fourth century CE, perceptively commented, ‘creation is with time, not in time’ – that is, time is part of the created order. This idea of time and space coming into being with the universe is mirrored by modern physics. The concept of creation sits easily alongside scientific theories about the origins of our world.

Evolution

The word ‘evolution’ still raises hackles in some people’s minds. Darwin himself rarely used the word, preferring the phrase ‘descent with modification’ with which few would take exception. Proud parents readily use phrases like, ‘he’s got his mother’s eyes but his father’s nose’. The involvement of ‘chance’ processes is not of itself atheistic. In science, chance is a technical term, implying ‘unpredictable from prior data’, not accidental. ‘Chance’ within the stars of the early universe actually resulted in an orderly array of some ninety naturally occurring elements classified in The Periodic Table.

Scientists working on different aspects of the development of humankind take different features such as brain capacity, tool-making and language as working demarcations that distinguish humankind from other primates, with ever-increasing recognition of overlaps. The key religious distinction is that humankind is made ‘in the image of God’ – not in physical appearance but in spiritual (another metaphor) nature – and able to relate to its Creator.  Science, however, has nothing to say about the concept of Creation, since it only deals with physical entities such as space and time. Science itself can neither confirm nor deny acts of Creation — ‘bringing-into-being-and-sustaining-in-being-of-everything by God’.

So, what is appropriate to teach in science lessons?

The nature of, and evidence for, evolution must be taught at key stage 4 as these are part of the programme of study for science.  Key stages 1, 2 and 3 include topics such as variation, classification and inheritance which lay the foundations for developing an understanding of evolution at key stage 4 and post-16.  From September 2015, evolution will become a statutory part of the primary curriculum,

Because some people with religious beliefs feel threatened by science – especially when it is presented falsely, as atheistic, a number of colleagues in science education believe it helpful, if the matter of creationism gets raised in a science lesson, to be able, briefly to explain the difference between ‘creationism’ and ‘Creation’. The word ‘creationism’ is a hybrid, one which includes both the theological concept of Creation – which lies outside the domain of science – and speculations, usually emanating from religious sources, about time-scales and processes.

Science offers no threat to belief in God: Creation is not a scientific concept. Unfortunately, there are some science teachers who do not understand the limitations as well as the strengths of their subject and unjustifiably try to present science as leading to atheism. It is important for every science teacher to understand the epistemological basis of their subject. Science can answer questions about how the Universe may have come into being and continue in being, but can say nothing about whether it is of God’s doing or not. Put briefly, science is the study of the natural world, whereas religious enquiry includes questions about whether there is anything other than the natural world (God?), to which the natural world owes its existence. Clearly, it is odd to go to science – the study of the natural world – to try to answer the question ‘is there anything other than the natural world?’

Scientific theories

Some people who wish to remove evolution from the curriculum, describe it as ‘only a theory’ Such a use of the word ‘theory’ can mislead those unfamiliar with science as a subject discipline because it differs from an everyday meaning of a ‘theory’ as being little more than a ‘hunch’.  In science the meaning is less tentative and indicates a substantial amount of supporting evidence, underpinned by principles and explanations accepted by the international scientific community.  However, it does serve as a reminder that all scientific knowledge is considered to be provisional as it can be overturned by new evidence, validated and accepted by the scientific community.

Another strategy for dismissing evolution and an ancient Earth has been to claim that a young Earth is a valid alternative theory that should be taught in the interests of fairness, that it should be given equal time, or introduced as a matter of controversy. This, on present scientific understanding, would be unwise. There is, at present, no controversy in informed scientific circles about whether the Earth is geologically young or old.

M.W.Poole

[1] Seeger, R. J. (1966) Galileo Galilei, his life and works, p. 271, Oxford, Pergamon
[2] Seeger, op. cit., p. 274

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