Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Saturday Night Science

Simon Underdown, a biological anthropologist from Cambridge University and lecturer at Oxford Brookes University is less than impressed that Intelligent design will be taught in Religious Education classes in Britain. He conducted a study in June 2006 comparing responses from sixth-form students, including those who had been educated in a Christian faith environment, to a series of questions concerning aspects of creationism and evolution that indicated confusion on the student's part about the nature of evolution.

[E]ven though the debate will take place in the RE classroom, the reverberations will be felt, not just in the science class but also across the educational sector as a whole. The decision to include ID in school curricula will give the impression that ID is a worthy alternative to evolution. ...

ID is not science and, despite the increasingly vocal objections of a small minority, has yet even to fire a shot across the bows of Darwinian evolution. As a human evolutionary biologist, the thought of having to spend time explaining the glaring errors of ID to undergraduates at the expense of more worthy material fills me with dread.
While I sympathize, at least he will be able to officially tell any student who wants to discuss ID that they should ask a theologian. Anyway, I rather thought it was in a teacher's job description to correct the glaring errors of students. ID is not all that different in that regard.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna often said: "It's always something! If it's not one thing, it's another!"

I have only passing knowledge of British education laws, so I don't know what is supposed to be taught in these so-called "RE" classes. Therefore, I really don't want to comment on Underdown's statements.

I think this demonstrates, however, that excessive entanglement of religion with public services does lead to problems that could be avoided. That's not an anti-religion statement - simply an observation. I think that religion serves a very important purpose. But if there is a way to avoid these problems, it would be good to try and find that way. So it would seem that our US Founding Fathers had the right idea.
It has been said, only semi-facetiously, that if you really want to promote atheism, just establish an official government religion ... preferably the Church of England. Bureaucrats will squeeze the life out of anything.

It's also been said that the separation of church and state isn't to protect secular government from religion but vice versa. I think that our church/state separation, especially since the Supreme Court became really serious about it in the 1940s, has greatly strengthened religion in this country compared to the rest of the developed nations.

Clashes at the interface between private morality and the public good will always be there ... it may just simmer below the surface for a time and in particular places but it will return in one form or another.
As a British sixth form student, I have a couple of problems with this sort of view. First of all it is rather condescending to assume that students won't have come across ID outside of the classroom, and that they will not already have their own opinions on the matter.

Secondly, I strongly disagree with the statement that "even though the debate will take place in the RE classroom... [it] will give the impression that ID is a worthy alternative to evolution." This is frankly ridiculous. ID is fundamentally a religious concept, and it SHOULD be taught in religious education classes so that pupils have exposure to the kinds of viewpoints and arguments they are likely to come across in later life.

Having their beliefs taught in such a way is no victory for the ID crowd, and if anything sharpens the distinction between creationism and empirical science.
I think you are right about students already knowing about ID and having opinions about it. At least here in America, it is no accident that the ID "scientists" spend most of their time speaking in churches rather than at scientific symposiums. They've targeted young people right from the start.

I'm not as sure that it really sharpens the distinction between creationism and empirical science at school levels below university.

In what we call "high school," science is nothing but a "hit the tree tops" orientation course and the IDers are busily telling their church audiences that the present state of science is not "true science." In short, they are telling those kids that science is a materialistic philosophy that belongs in the RE classes too but doesn't show up there because the schools are run by atheists who keep creationism out of science classes where it belongs (okay, so consistency isn't their strong suit).

Anyway, in the U.S., with our peculiar institution of church/state separation, it is probably the IDers' right to have ID taught in religion classes, if they wanted to, no matter how counterintuitive that may seem.
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