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Arguing against faith schools: do you Adam and Eve it?

Alex Callinicos explains why he has no faith in faith schools

Issue No. 1792

Tony Blair took time off from the Barcelona summit to attack TUC general secretary John Monks for criticising his alliance with Silvio Berlusconi. 'A large part of Europe's centre left take a more modern view of this,' he said. Blair had proved the modernity of his own outlook two days earlier. During question time in the House of Commons he defended the creationist gang who are imposing a medieval view of the world on their pupils at Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.

Creationists are right wing Christian fanatics who reject the findings of modern science and insist on the literal truth of the Bible. Their patron saint is Archbishop Ussher, a 17th century cleric who claimed to have proved that god created the world on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC. Blair didn't directly defend this nonsense.

Instead he babbled on about 'the very, very strong incentive to make sure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can'. Interestingly, the creationists use precisely the same language of 'diversity' to justify their using school lessons to attack Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. According to the Independent on Sunday, 'Headteacher Nigel McQuoid says that Emmanuel offers a variety of views, including the Biblical one, and his pupils are free to make up their own mind. He argues that committed Darwinism is as much a religious stand as a fundamentalist Christian position. Ultimately, he says, both creationism and evolution are faith positions.'

This is evangelical Christianity given a multicultural spin. Christian fundamentalists are too weak politically to do what they would really like, which is to use state power to impose their worldview in the schools. So they present creationism and the theory of evolution as two points of view, with each equally entitled to a hearing.

At the level of society at large, of course people should be allowed to profess their beliefs freely.

But this is not the same as allowing creationism to be taught as an alternative to evolutionary biology in schools. The theory of evolution by natural selection isn't a 'faith position'. Together with modern genetics (which was founded, ironically, by a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel), it forms the cornerstone of the scientific understanding of the nature, origins, and development of life. One has to be careful when spelling out what this means.

Listening to the Today programme recently I groaned aloud when a scientist said that evolution was 'absolute truth'. He had created an opening for his creationist opponent to leap in and claim that theories that were taken as 'absolute truth' have been refuted in the subsequent development of the sciences. They point to the physical system developed by Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the 17th century as an example of this process. There is no such thing as 'absolute truth' in science.

Even the best entrenched theories are provisional, and subject to revision and further elaboration, as research develops and our understanding of nature expands. But this doesn't mean that the revision leads simply to the disappearance of the old theory.

Modern physics developed thanks to the revolution it underwent at the beginning of the 20th century with the formulation of relativity and quantum theory. However, Newton's key insights were not abandoned. They have been reformulated and incorporated into modern physics.

Similarly creationists seize on controversies among evolutionary biologists to claim that evolution isn't 'proven fact', whatever that means. Certainly there are debates-for example, between orthodox Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and their critics such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

They disagree over such issues as whether evolution was gradual and continuous, as Darwin thought, or 'punctuated'-concentrated in comparatively short spaces of time. But these arguments do not put the basic theory of evolution by natural selection into question.

They are disagreements about how best this theory is to be interpreted and developed if the research programme it started is to be carried forward. The bizarre thing is that Blair has sometimes signed up to the very crude version of evolutionary biology embodied in the Human Genome Project. According to the Human Genome Project, a person's DNA contains the secret of all their social behaviour.

He swings from endorsing this kind of biological reductionism to defending the teaching of creationist gibberish. The net effect of this is that New Labour's policy of encouraging 'faith schools' isn't just, as critics warned from the start, going to promote social and racial segregation.

It will put children-like the unlucky pupils at Emmanuel College, who must carry two Bibles around with them at all times-in the hands of primitive religious zealots. Very modern, Tony.


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Sat 23 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1792
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