Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Taking a Line I - Some Remarks on 'Creationism'

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth

Discussion in newspapers about ‘creationism’ ebbs and flows, at least in the UK. Recently there has been a flurry of interest sparked by remarks from the Education Director of the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, who is also a clergyman of the Church of England, to the effect that creationism ought to be discussed in school science classes. He was not arguing for ‘creationist’ views, but that since creationism is held by 10% of the population, teachers should be ready to discuss it. As Professor Reiss reportedly put it, ‘Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson’. These somewhat surprising remarks have been predictably slapped down by Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College, London, with the words ‘Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes’. Professor Reiss has subsequently been forced to resign his position. (For more on this, see remarks from the political and social commentator Melanie Phillips, 'Secular Inquisition at the Royal Society').

In this Analysis Extra I should like to try get behind this (and similar) exchanges, and to make a number of elementary remarks about matters which seem to get lost in the defensiveness exhibited in the soundbites.

So I make the following points:

All Christians are believers in the doctrine of creation. Indeed, most of them believe in creation of a rather radical kind. One of the achievements of Christian theology was to free the Christian mindset from the unquestioned conviction that (as the ancients held) matter is eternal. No, the theologians came to teach, the Bible teaches a doctrine of creation, of a rather radical kind. This is not ‘creation’ of the sort that Plato taught in the Timaeus, in which it is understood on analogy with human modelling, the potter working on the clay, that sort of thing. The clay is eternal matter, the Demiurge its modeller, displaying wisdom and intelligence. The Christian view of creation is much more radical than that. This is creation out of nothing, a radically non-scientific event. Even though (perhaps) Genesis 1-3 does not teach such a doctrine, the theologians may appeal to such verses as ‘All things were created by him…….’

But are those Christians (and others) who believe in creation, ‘creationists’? Is belief in creation, ‘creationism’? In fairness, all such Christians, indeed all Christians, should be labelled as such, and be happy to wear the label. What else could they be? How could someone who believes in divine creation, whether ex nihilo or Greek-style, not be a creationist? And how could the particular account of the doctrine of creation that they avow not be an instance of ‘creationism’? Even if some Christians were to hold on to a Greek view of the eternity of matter, still God is the creator. I imagine that Professor Reiss must from time to time lead congregations in reciting together the words of the Apostles’ Creed, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth’. If so, and if he expresses these words ex animo, then Professor Reiss is a creationist; he believes in ‘creationism’. After all, there are variants of the doctrine of evolution by natural selection, but it would be surprising if those who held any variant of that doctrine would not be prepared to wear with pride the badge of ‘evolutionist’. And an evolutionist presumably believes in evolutionism

Nevertheless it is a fact that the terms ‘creation’ and ‘creationism’ are currently exclusively reserved for particular variants of the Christian doctrine of creation. But there is extreme confusion over which variants deserve the label ‘creationism’ and those who believe in them ‘creationist’. According to The Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle, commenting on this latest flurry of intellectual activity, a creationist is one who believes ‘that the world was conjured into existence in 4004 BC’. Someone else who put together a short briefing article in the same edition of that newspaper, a few pages away, asserts that creationism is ’the view that life and the universe were created by God rather than natural evolution’, a view which was taken further by ‘young Earth’ Christian fundamentalists and some of these have now reformulated their beliefs as ‘intelligent design’. This itself is something of a gross re-writing of history along evolutionary grounds, and one is tempted to leave it to one side, except for the ludicrous implication that belief in divine creation of any kind is a recent development, and the restriction of the idea of creation to either young earth or intelligent design hypotheses.

Earlier we noted the remarks of Professor Wolpert. No doubt he would have wished to add ‘and the denial of creationism is also based on faith and has nothing to do with science , and it should not be taught in science classes.’ If matters of faith cannot be a matter for science but for something else, religion classes perhaps, then matters of unfaith should also remove to the religion part of the curriculum. But who has ever heard a member of the Royal Society say that atheism ought never to be taught in science classes?

Two things are dispiriting about exchanges such as this. One is (what seems) the willful ignorance of many scientists about religion, and particularly about the Christian religion. ‘Creation’, ‘creationism’, ‘7 days creation’, ’literal’, ‘4004 BC’, are used in a way that reveals disinterest and contempt; extreme discourtesy, in fact. If one dissents from a view one should, morally should, take the trouble to understand it in a sympathetic way. That seems to be a basic element of disinterested inquiry.

The second concerns the ethical standards expressed in dismissing creation. Personally, like Professor Reiss, I have no brief for creationism. But could it not be discussed in a science class as illustrative of what is not (if it is not) a case of science? Is dowsing scientific? Is acupuncture? Is the view that the creation displays undeniable signs of intelligence scientific? (The reader may care to add to the list of such questions.) In a class about scientific method, aren’t these reasonable questions to raise? What are Professor Wolpert and the establishment of the Royal Society afraid of? Are they afraid of discussion about what science is?

(The pieces referred to are Rod Liddle, ‘Don’t get creative with facts when it comes to evolution’ , and ‘Briefing” Religion in Schools – Creating Problems’, both in The Sunday Times, 14th September 08.)