The Michael Reiss saga should not be quickly forgotten. His enforced resignation as the Royal Society's Director of Education in September 2008 was a blot on the history of the Royal Society (see here and here). Yet, after two years, few changes are apparent: Reiss continues to publish his "worldview" perspective on handling creationism in science education (see here) and Royal Society Fellows have continued to talk about irresolvable conflicts at the science/religion interface. It is encouraging, therefore, to find Sylvia Baker formulating a coherent analysis of the conflict and proposing a research agenda to inform future discussion of the issues.
"The controversy, resulting as it did in such serious consequences, raises many issues and concerns. This article will seek to address three of them. First will be considered the subject of the controversy, the teaching of creationism in science classes, second, the status and influence of such bodies as the Royal Society within the science community of the United Kingdom, and third, the question of to what extent the end result was obtained, not by impartial considerations, but rather by an atheistic agenda."
The Purported "NOMA Model" of Science and Religion (Source here)
Fundamental to the controversy is the question: "Is creationism science?" Both the Royal Society and Professor Reiss have declared that evolution is about science and creationism is about religion. They advocate a sphere sovereignty position, also known as NOMA (Stephen Jay Gould's Non-Overlapping MAgisteria). But Reiss recognises that creationism does not accept this position. Creationists have a different worldview, where it makes perfect sense to invoke intelligent design and to say that God's miraculous activity is a necessary part of any explanation of origins. This clash of worldviews is described by Baker in this way:
"The modern creationist movement itself takes a particular approach to the philosophy of science and the influence of world views on the question of origins, as exemplified by publications such as Nancy Pearcey's major work Total Truth: liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity. Schoolchildren who have been influenced by this approach may well have been taught in their homes and churches or mosques that both creation and evolution are essentially philosophical world-view frameworks that operate at the intersection of religion and science."
NOMA has not fared well under the scrutiny of philosophers. The main advocates today are scientists: mostly, but not exclusively, of an atheist persuasion. Baker quotes Professor Steve Fuller sympathetically:
"All theories with the grand explanatory aspirations of creationism or evolutionism are based on worldviews that people have believed for reasons other than their scientific payoff. [. . .] The problem here is one of practice, not principle. In particular, there is nothing intrinsically un- or anti-scientific about creationist ideas. On the contrary, creationist assumptions, especially when God is understood as an intelligent designer, have deeply informed the history of the science that both theists and atheists continue to promote today."
One of the worst aspects of this controversy is that the critics of Reiss failed to base their arguments on any empirical evidence. Their hostility was philosophical and dogmatic. Reiss, however, was responding to evidence drawn from the classroom. Baker refers to three surveys: one of students being taught in independent and state-maintained schools and two others in Christian schools.
"The three studies, taken together, suggest that creationist beliefs among pupils lead to 'an easing of the human spirit', exactly as Astley first predicted (2005, p. 49) when the educational setting is coherent with the religious basis of the pupil's life but that the opposite is true when the setting is hostile and debate is not permitted. In both settings the pupils had been made aware that a theory of origins exists which eliminates the need for a Creator and which is held by the majority of modern scientists. It seems to be the educational setting, not the creationist beliefs themselves, which is leading to an anguished mental state for thousands of young people."
Returning to the issue of philosophical opposition to Reiss, a survey of members of the US National Academy of Sciences shows that 85% are atheists. One of Reiss's atheist critics said that 90% of Fellows of the Royal Society would agree with the criticisms. This suggests a further research agenda to Baker:
"What exactly do [the nation's scientists] believe on this issue and are their views accurately reflected in the pronouncements of such major bodies as the Royal Society? What are their religious beliefs and how do those beliefs relate to their view of what science is?"
Happily, others are saying similar things whilst coming from a different perspective. A current example is an article by Matthew Reisz with the title The dogma delusion (The Times Higher, 23 September 2010). Based on these considerations, Baker writes:
"it is possible that Michael Reiss was sacrificed on the altar of the god of scientific atheism. Journalist Melanie Phillips has no doubt about the matter:
'Totalitarian atheism has taken another scalp. Michael Reiss has been forced out - for daring to suggest that children should be taught to discuss alternative views and subject them to the scrutiny of empirical reasoning.' "
Though regrettable, the forced resignation of Michael Reiss may yet focus attention on matters of great public concern. What is science? Do the beliefs of scientists influence the way they define science? Is NOMA a tool contrived by people with vested interests to manage the interface between science and religion? Baker summarises the issues thus:
"The controversy has been seen to depend on definitions of science and creationism. At the same time, the question of who has the power to define what science is has been raised, as has the possibility that at root the problem is a clash of ideologies, a battle between atheism and religion carried out in the context of science."
Creationism in the classroom: a controversy with serious consequences
Research in Education, Volume 83, Number 1, May 2010, pp. 78-88
First para: On 16 September 2008 the Revd Professor Michael Reiss resigned from his position as Director of Education at the Royal Society. The immediate context of his resignation was the furore created by the media in the wake of an address that he had given on Thursday 11 September 2008 in Liverpool, at the annual Festival of Science organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The story seemed to be of universal interest, with several papers next day devoting full-page spreads to it, under large, eye-catching headings. For example, the Times (12 September 2008) headlined with 'Royal Society and the case for creationism: leading scientists at odds with Government over religious education', claiming that the Royal Society was supporting Professor Reiss in his 'heretical' views, while the Guardian's banner headline on the same day was 'Teach creationism, says top scientist'.
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