The idea that the earth is 6000 years old and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs in times past is not something that I ever heard about in my younger days. Indeed the vast majority of Christians in this country, even the most conservative, would not subscribe to such notions. But it does appear from recent press stories that the so called ‘young creation’ theory is alive and well in certain churches and some Christian schools which operate outside the State system.
For most people in our society and indeed among Christians, the calculations of Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century that date the moment of Creation to October 4004 BC are fanciful nonsense. And yet such nonsense never entirely goes away. The existence of Creationist schools in Britain has been once again brought to our attention by Professor Alice Roberts, the television presenter and president of the Association for Science Education. She would claim that the teaching of a theory that the science of creation is set out the first chapters of Genesis is ‘indoctrination’ and has absolutely nothing to do with scientific education.
Chris reminds me that there are many individuals in the churches who have been exposed to such theories. For them the idea that God created the world in six days is all part of the package they have bought into when they became Christians. They are either people of relatively poor education or else they have succeeded in sealing off their Christian beliefs from everything else they have learnt at school and elsewhere. In a recent conversation Chris also mentioned how difficult it is to debate with individuals who have bought into this body of ideas. They follow such speakers as the Australian Ken Hamm, an individual linked to Creationist groups in the States. Because these ideas are so counter-cultural, the defences that are erected to defend them are massive and hard to dislodge.
As part of my scrutiny of some Internet material on this topic last night, I found mention of an encounter between the eminent sceptic Richard Dawkins and a group of Australian Creationists in his Oxford home. They filmed an interview which was then edited to suggest that the Creationists had outwitted Dawkins in a particular question about evolution. This, what can only be called manipulation of the debate, is perhaps a clue to the way we should respond to the Creationists. The detail of whether Professor Dawkins did or did not answer the technical question put to him can be laid aside for the moment. The important thing is that we name and challenge illegitimate forms of argument in the so-called debate between Creationists and those who oppose their ideas from whatever perspective.
The essence of any productive discussion is that two people agree to share their different views on a given topic. There also has to be an implicit agreement about the rules of discussion and these are going to vary according to the subject. To discuss politics we must be agreed that we are talking about the same thing, whether it is theoretical politics or the political arrangements that apply to a particular country. We would not think an argument of much value if for example one side was talking about politics in China and the other side was disagreeing with them by giving examples of politics in the NHS for example. Over the years certain conventions have grown to determine how political and historical debates take place, what counts as evidence and how rumour or propaganda, for example, are not valid tools of argument. Both sides will know these rules and any deviation from them will be quickly challenged. Within science as well there is a long tradition of agreement as to how we establish what is true and what is false. Truth obviously is not only to be sought in science but science can rightly claim to make truth statements within its areas of competence. The competence of science is found in the area of detailed measurement and in experiments that can be repeated over and over again. Occasionally science discovers that it needs new theories to account for new phenomena. The old mechanical physics outlined by Newton was inadequate to describe new phenomena thrown up by quantum physics. The old theories were not shown to be wrong, merely incomplete.
The trick used by Creationists to claim a certain plausibility for their arguments is very clever but it remains a deceitful ruse. When the creationists invaded the home of Richard Dawkins to ask him certain questions, they were able to give the impression in their video that two rival scientific theories of truth were being articulated and expressed alongside one another. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether there is anything of value in the Creationist arguments, it has to be said that the two sides are starting from such different places that there is no possibility of real contact or communication. Creationism is not a scientific theory, whatever else it might be. It fails to follow contemporary scientific convention on any score. It is not based on evidence, experiment or rigorous observation. To say that it is based on faith also does not make it a scientific claim. It is as though we are describing a debate between a child who believes in Father Christmas and an astronaut. The points of contact simply do exist. No one would argue that the child’s understanding of reality should be placed alongside the training of the astronaut as though somehow they have equal status in the debate. Nor do we want to crush the child’s beliefs as of no value. They do have value within certain limited parameters. The so-called debate between Dawkins and the Creationists was in fact a non debate because it simply did not fulfil any of the unwritten rules governing proper debate or discussion.
To summarise, the issue over Creationism is to recognise that it is not grounded in a theory of knowledge or fact that is part of conventional modern understanding. It thus logically has to be placed in a category of unproveable statements because it does not touch any other area of knowledge or discourse. Few would even describe it as theology. Thus it cannot form part of a modern education which has as its aims the disciplined understanding and interpretation of various recognised bodies of knowledge, including art, science and history. If a group of individuals choose to believe in the ideas of Creationism, we may want to allow them to do so but a modern society should resist allowing these ideas to be part of a normal education. Normal education is to expose a child to the canon of agreed knowledge. Alice Roberts is right. The teaching of Creationism in any school is ‘indoctrination’. It may also seriously harm the child in his or her intellectual formation and their ability to absorb the values and understandings needed to make normal citizens who participate in their society. Absorbing totally extraordinary ideas may also drive individuals into despair when they discover how little currency these ideas actually possess beyond the small group that holds on to them. The Creationist is thus destined for ever to be cut off from various aspects of ordinary public discourse and culture, unable to understand or fully participate in wider society. Is this really what we expect from Christians? Does this resonate with the kind of life that Jesus wanted for his followers?