How to teach science and religion in schools

Michael Reiss, clergyman and director of education at the Royal Society, a leading science organisation, has been misquoted as saying creationism should be taught in schools. This is what he actually said .

Audio of Prof Michael Reiss

His main point seems to be that creationism is not really a simple error that can be corrected in a 50 minute science lesson. Rather, it’s part of a bigger worldview that can only really be challenged by being engaged with.

The closest Reiss comes to suggesting creationism should be taught is the following:
‘If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.’

In other words, he’s really not advocating the teaching of creationism, but discussing it rather than ignoring it.

But this hasn’t stopped some people calling for his resignation.

As a media story this has been whipped up by the Guardian/Observer, and by it’s science editor, Robin McKie in particular.
To be specific, it is disingenuous to headline Prof Reiss’s remarks as ‘teach creationism says top scientist’   Interestingly the newspaper’s website appears to have changed the original headline to respond to Prof Reiss’s complaint about it.
It is also disingenuous to claim that a ‘Creationism call divides Royal Society’.
It may be that Robin McKie has no control over the headlines of his own articles, which in this context are more inflammatory than the articles themselves, but one would have thought that the job title ‘editor’ would suggest that he does.

I was taught high school chemistry by a fundamentalist Christian who believed the world was created literally in six days and who seriously expected the literal end of the world before the year 2000. We knew this because when asked directly he (reluctantly) told us. He left teaching to become a full-time pastor of a charismatic sect, but not before he had fairly comprehensively put me off chemistry.

Portrait of DF Strauss. Source: Wikipedia

These views were incompatible with the mainstream Christian community I had grown up in, let alone with the modern history of chemistry. Indeed a historical survey of the Christian reception of evolution in the United Kingdom shows quite clearly that Darwin’s views were fairly unproblematic for the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and the Baptist Church. It was only later, and at the margins, that a few sects and pressure groups began to challenge it. Much more challenging were the views of German theologians and Biblical scholars – for instance George Eliot’s translation of DF Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, which was published in English in 1860 and labelled by Lord Shaftesbury as ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’ (Clark, 1973, p. 94). Interestingly the Church of England website fails to mention the widespread and early acceptance of Darwin’s ideas by church bodies, focussing instead on the admittedly vociferous opposition by the Bishop of Oxford, William Wilberforce.

The difficulty we have in working out how to teach children about science and religion is that we have a problem at the level of society with the concept of ‘facts’. It would be simple if we could just teach that facts are facts, that science is made up of facts and religion is not. In broad survey such a statement may be approximately correct, but when we drill down to the level of the individual facts we see a long and dirty trail of argument, conflict, false starts, misrepresentations and dissent. In fact (see: even our language conspires against us!) the scientific method itself proposes just the opposite: that what we call ‘facts’ are really only the current state of provisional theories. Even the most assured results of scientific enquiry, according to the scientific method, should only ever be treated as provisional. To deny this, and claim that there are some theories that no-one denies (or should deny) and that these constitute ‘the truth’ is highly dangerous. On this attractive but mistaken view facts are unproblematically the theories everyone has stopped arguing about. This is dangerous because it is often precisely our comfortable assumptions that need to be challenged. It isn’t comfortable to be constantly uncomfortable, but this is what the scientific method requires. It’s a problem when it comes to matters such as evolution or the age of the universe or the speed of light, because we don’t like the idea that these things could be provisional. We, and especially children, are supposed to believe in these, not merely hold them as provisional  and therefore changeable theories.

In this sense, belief and the need for belief is rampant in science and science teaching. We just don’t like to admit it.

Wouldn’t it confuse children if we expected them to accept that all facts are provisional? Well, I don’t think our society should worry too much about this. It is really a non-problem. For example, we universally teach small children to believe in the existence of Father Christmas as a ‘fact’, then expect them to have grown out of this falsehood by the time they are about eight or ten years old. Schools go along with this deception as much as anyone else. If we actually cared about the truth we wouldn’t do this to children. But we don’t so we do.

Imagine the headline: Royal Society claims Santa is imaginary! Now that really would cause resignations.

In spite of what we teach them about Santa, children work out his reality for themselves one way or another. In the same way, even when we teach children that facts are not provisional, they are still capable of working out for themselves what is actually going on. My point is that rather than hiding it from them till they are ‘old enough to understand’ we should be discussing provisionality fairly early on, making the truth of the matter easier rather than harder to deal with.

2 thoughts on “How to teach science and religion in schools

  1. Education should be broad enough to start the reasoning process. If we get this part of the teaching resources right it would lead to a more informed debate in the future. At the moment children should be given the ground work to understand the debate,

  2. Science and religion – Friends or Foes?
    There may be a way to build a bridge between them.

    Many religions have something in common: They see nothing between god and the human species. Some people tried to fill this gap and told us about Cherubims and Seraphims.

    Could human thinking be used to fill that gap?
    This is what I started to investigate:

    I welcome any comment.

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