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From the December, 2008 issue of Touchstone


Creating a Stir by Phillip E. Johnson

Creating a Stir

On September 12, 2008, The London TimesOnline published a story headlined “Leading Scientist Urges Teaching of Creationism in Schools.” The article summarized the alarming situation thus: “Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.” This, the article declared, was because

national curriculum guidelines state that creationism has no place in science lessons. The Government says that if it is raised by students, teachers should discuss how creationism differs from evolution, say that it is not scientific theory and that further discussion should be saved for religious classes.

What had actually happened was this: Michael Reiss, the Royal Society’s Director of Education, as well as a biologist and an ordained clergyman in the Church of England, gave a speech at a science festival in which he commented on what he thought should be done when objections to the theory of evolution are made by pupils who believe in the literal account of God creating the universe and all living things as related in the Bible or the Koran. It would be self-defeating, Reiss opined, to dismiss these pupils’ views as wrong or misguided. It would be better, he said, to treat creationism as a worldview.

Reiss did not advocate including creationism in the curriculum, as the TimesOnline story claimed. Rather, he was trying to explain how to gain the confidence of students who object to the officially mandated doctrine, so that they wouldn’t tune out of science classes altogether.

Worthy of Farce

That Reiss did not speak for the Royal Society was made crystal clear by the many fellows of the society who leaped at the opportunity to denounce what he was reported to have said, and to express their opinion that it was inappropriate for a clergyman to hold the position of Director of Education for the Royal Society. Richard Dawkins was quoted as saying that the situation was worthy of a Monty Python skit.

I agree with Dawkins that the saga of Michael Reiss invites treatment as farce, and Britain’s Nature News continued in that vein by reporting on the inevitable firing of Reiss under the frivolous headline “Creationism Stir Fries Reiss.” This “stir-fry” article reported that Professor Reiss was staunchly defended by many of his professional colleagues, but none of them were among the Royal Society’s scientific luminaries. These all seem to have been united in outrage.

The total picture conveyed by the Reiss incident was of a scientific elite that is solidly in control of the scientific and educational environment in Britain, but that is, at the same time, seriously worried and prone to panic under even mild stress.

No Peace for Darwinists

The cause for this worry was explained in a BBC broadcast of September 15, which observed that creationism is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in Britain. This is attested to by both its supporters and its critics.

Until very recently, British journalists had portrayed creationism as strictly an American phenomenon, like baseball or handguns. But now there is a creationism museum in the naval town of Portsmouth in southern England, the equivalent of the famous American creationism museum in northern Kentucky.

Also, some of England’s most effective non-elite secondary schools are suspected of teaching creationism. These schools have the Darwinist establishment every bit as furious as the thought that an official of the Royal Society might have advocated the teaching of creationism, making Darwinist peace of mind a thing of the past.

It amazes me that scientific luminaries think that the way to deal with an explosion of dissent is to refuse to discuss the subject in science classes, and instead to exile the dispute to religious education classes (common in British schools), where teachers who know little science will have to answer the questions. It seems as if they have despaired of ever persuading the doubters, and so now can do no better than to tell them to go away from science.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

“Creating a Stir” first appeared in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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