Secularism in crisis?

A year ago, my colleague, Michael Carroll, and I wrote to Alan Johnson MP, then Secretary of State for Education and Skills at the DfES, expressing our concern about the activities of the Christian organisation, ‘Truth in Science’, and its moves to undermine the teaching of evolution in our schools.

We received what we deemed at the time to be an encouraging reply from a member of the DfES Public Communications Unit, as follows:

’Thank you for your letter of 2 February to Alan Johnson about the action taken by the Truth in Science organisation to encourage the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the science curriculum. I have been asked to reply.

The Department’s position is that schools are under a duty to follow the science programme of study which sets out the legal requirements of the national curriculum. The programme of study for key stage 4 pupils includes a focus on the nature of science as a subject discipline including what constitutes scientific evidence and how this is established by experimentation. Pupils also learn that terminology used in science, such as theory, often have different meanings from their everyday usage. They learn that accepted scientific theories have extensive supporting evidence from established bodies of scientific knowledge. They also learn that evidence can form the basis for further experimentation. The role of the scientific community in evaluating and validating new work is also included, as is the nature of and evidence for evolution.

To meet the requirements of the national curriculum for science, teachers must teach about scientific theories. Intelligent design is not a recognised scientific theory and is therefore not included in the science curriculum. The Truth in Science information pack is not therefore an appropriate resource to support the science curriculum. The Department is working with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to clarify the position for schools.’

Last year, we also signed an e-petition on the Prime Minister’s website, calling on him to “Abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.”

The response from the Prime Minister’s Office can now be found here.

Anybody spot a problematic loophole?

13 responses to “Secularism in crisis?

  1. Loophole? Where, precisely? A couple of years ago my children went to a faith school, one of the few in the country to be run by progressive (as opposed to Orthodox) Jews. Why? Because their parents felt that they needed, at least at primary level, to learn, without fear or intimidation, the foundations of their own religion and culture – access to which I was denied by my parents, scared and scarred into atheism by the Holocaust. My children now have this grounding and they are proud and freethinking individuals. Jews were and are a minority in schools everywhere else – and in particular in a part of London where more than half the school intake are Muslim, so holding your head high as a Jew can be problematic. Would you, Lee Turnpenny, deny me and my children their right to uphold and defend their Jewish faith and culture? Hmmm?

  2. The loophole that allows (is allowing) a toe-in for the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, despite its contravention of the science curriculum. So, on message, do you, Henry Gee, advocate the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools?
    In response to your defensiveness… Do I deny your ‘right’…? Of course not. But don’t demand my respect for your beliefs. I’m sorry, but who decided your children’s religion? They weren’t born Jewish. Do you imply that children get a better education at faith schools, because they are faith schools? I’m sure this is often the case, judging by reports of parents, concerned more about grades, who embellish their own beliefs in order to get their children into them. Discrimination all round.

  3. Intelligent Design is a political movement that has no place in a science classroom, because it is not scientific (in that it seeks evidence to justify a prior position) nor in a religious studies classroom (because it seems empirical proof for articles of faith). I resent the fact that you seem to think that anyone who is religious must subscribe to ID. You clearly have no idea who I am, nor what I stand for, nor much idea about religion, for all that you like to pronounce on it.
    Lee, I was born Jewish just as Sammy Davis Jr was born black (he was Jewish, too, which makes matters more complicated). No matter how hard I might try to deny this, it wouldn’t deter any future Nazi from rounding me up and shooting me on that basis, just as they did to my grandparents. My children are Jewish too, so they should at least be proud of it and not be forcede to go around apologising for it to people like you. Nobody demands that of black people these days, and quite right too – so why do Jews get all the stick, hmmm?
    Yes, children do get a better education at faith schools, because the schools have a code in which they all believe, rather than to which they are forced to subscribe as part of some government program.
    No, I don’t require your respect (it doesn’t seem to be worth having) but I do demand the right to carry on my beliefs without the molestation of self-righteous, pampered, cloistered Oxbridge types such as Dawkins, and his liberal-intellectual fellow travelers, who scream that they are being discriminated against when they wouldn’t know discrimination if it came out and hit them. Being spat at in the street. Having bricks thrown at you. Being told by some Oxbridge woman, as I was, that the fact that most of my family burned in Auschwitz was “a good thing, too”.
    So, having established that you will not respect my beliefs, how low does your disrespect go? Just being fashionably rude about Jews at guardianista dinner-parties? Or would you extend to torching synagogues and desecrating cemeteries?

  4. I am an atheist, but I am with Henry here (to a degree). I find Dawkins as offensive as many creationists. I grew up studying in missionary schools, singing hymns every morning. Never took it seriously, never considered changing religions (this was in India). Mom was religious, dad wasn’t, and in the end (by the time I was 13), I realized that God and religion did not compute. If you get a balanced point of view, i.e. no zealots, no dogmas, most people can come up with a sensible solution that works for them.
    It’s quite simple actually … don’t push your “religion” on others, whether you are religious or atheist and it’s all fine.
    Now teaching creationism is a different issue.

  5. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Henry here, whether he likes it or not ;)
    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.
    I find it difficult to believe that anyone with an ounce of intelligence is still conflating these clearly separate issues.

  6. I do not assume that anyone who is religious automatically subscribes to ID. On the contrary; were you to read my pieces on this issue, you would understand that. I am buoyed when I encounter religious people who, likewise, consider it nonsense. I merely asked the question. (Richard – before you interject with insults, you should perhaps realise that ID and creationism are being taught in some UK schools, because non-separation of church and state permits faith schools to so do. As such, they are not ‘clearly separate issues’.)
    Henry, you were born Jewish by ‘race’ (for want of a better term), not by religion. But I in no way hold that against you (or anybody) and would never suggest you try to deny, or ‘apologise’ for either. I resent emphatically your implication that I might align with Nazi’s. I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and was deeply moved. Incidentally, I am not Oxbridge-sympathetic. For the record, Pete Jordan and I have been exchanging info on our attendance at a course run by The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion a couple of years ago. I was outraged there by comments made by one Oxbridge speaker on The Holocaust and walked out… as I would readily do so, or protest – or ‘Hear hear’ your protestations – in response to comments such as those made by the Oxbridge woman you discuss. (So, Deepak, I am also with Henry on this – where on earth have I ever implied otherwise?)
    It is utter nonsense to suggest that I have given you, or Jews, any ‘stick’. You have no grounds whatsoever of accusing me of such a position. If you have issues with Dawkins, take them up with him – I am not his ‘bulldog’. I claim no expertise on religion (or familiarity with Jewishness, which, consequently, I’ve never discussed in my pieces). This is one of the reasons Why I Blog here – to practice and improve upon knowledge. However, I am a citizen, exposed, like everybody else, to religious pronouncements and assumptions virtually every day. As such, I am entitled to my say and don’t see why I should apathetically let what I consider rubbish slip by without comment, challenge or investigation (just because that’s ‘the way it is’). You, it seems, assume atheists are homogenised neanderthals.
    You also make the mistake of misinterpreting disrespect for beliefs, as disrespect for the believer. They are not the same. I work and enjoy interaction with religious people, some of whom I count as very good friends. We occasionally discuss, argue – and joke (why not?) – without detriment to our relationship; and I count myself honoured to receive invites to their weddings.
    You, sir, are way out of line. No, I don’t know you, and have made no personal attack on you or your family. You clearly have no idea who I am. I will not be censored just because my views happen to differ from yours and make you uncomfortable. I am baffled by the groundless and offensive personal attack you are making. Where does it say, in any of my pieces, that I conform to your unjustified, outrageous and preposterous suggestions? NOWHERE! In fact, damn it, I consider it appropriate that I receive an apology on this forum.
    I will no longer engage with your undignified vitriol. You have a good day now.

  7. I apologise to no-one. After years of finding my faith, my cuture and my race vilified, increasingly by liberal-leaning media and increasingly by scientists, I shall come out fighting.
    Why such fighting talk? I feel quite honestly that my position, as a religious person and as a Jew, are very much under attack. This is not a political pose, or a philosophical stance, but a feeling of siege.
    This is not helped by militant atheists who are fostering a degree of hostility towards religious people in general, often from a position of outrageous ignorance, and Jews are almost always the first to suffer because they are a small and easily identifiable minority.
    So, Lee, I don’t care what your views are, but I do care that if you adopt them from a position of science and reason, then they are scientific and reasonable. Atheism is a faith, like any other, based on unprovable and unfalsifiable conviction, and therefore not subject to reason. One cannot privilege atheism with any special gloss of science or reason, no more than can one attach such an attribute to any other religion.
    This is what irks me most about atheism – it’s the patronizing attitude with which atheists regard everyone else. This combination of unshakeable arrogance, a feeling of innate superiority and a conviction that they are right makes atheism as dangerous as any other proselytizing religion. Were they not atheists, I’d say that they were convinced that they had God on their side.

  8. Lee, thinking all this over, you seem to have responded with much sound and fury to my legitimate questions, your reaction being in itself instructive, as it suggests that you have not gauged the reactions of religious people – for whom religion means something – to your austere, scholastic, atheist approach. Moreover, in your fury, you have not answered my specific points which were, I’ll admit, deliberately provocative (but then again, if you go around putting your fingers into other peoples’ furnaces, well…).
    One thing in your response worries me in particular:
    You also make the mistake of misinterpreting disrespect for beliefs, as disrespect for the believer. They are not the same.
    Oh, but Lee, they are. Peoples’ beliefs are, or should be, an integral part of their being, their outlook, their reason for existence. People do not change their beliefs like they change their socks. So to have disrespect for peoples’ beliefs is to cast aspersions on the believer. I you have religious friends who let you get away with this, then they really are good friends (and you should ask yourself why they persist in activities you consider irrational) and/or they think you’re stupid and are just humoring you. But as for me, because of your failure tio understand the conflation of belief and believer, I regard your attitude as insulting to me, personally, despite the fact that you have not made any specific personal attack – and this explains your bafflement.
    And if you “count myself honoured to receive invites to their weddings”, I ask again, what form does your disrespect take? If you make a point of ‘disrespecting’ the sincerely held beliefs of others, you should be able to supply concrete actions that substantiate this. Otherwise you’re just talking waffle.
    But of course you have taken umbrage and have decided not to engage with me any more on this point. The questions, then, will remain unanswered, and people will feel free to draw whatever conclusions they want from this, or none.

  9. Having read this exchange, it seems entirely clear to me that Henry Gee over-reacted long ago in this interaction, setting the tone for the bizarre exchanges that followed. Most of what Henry said I find to be a bit off-topic and un-provoked, given where the conversation started. Let’s try to stay on topic here instead of accusing Lee of utterly ridiculous offenses. It is obvious that you are passionate about this, but you are reaching a bit when you start suggesting grave and synagogue desecration. Your tone and approach are exactly the wrong way to defend your views on this issue.
    Going back to the original discussion, there is no place for religion in public, government-funded schools. Private schools can do what they want, and people can choose whatever education they want for their children. But I will never accept that religious teachings of any kind belong in the publicly funded domain of education. This is not disrespect, but a conviction. So I disagree with Lee that all faith schools should be banned, if that is indeed his position.

  10. Noah,
    My position on faith schools is driven primarily by the fact that they allow for the teaching, often as fact, of what are faith positions, even though there exist more appropriate forums (church/synagogue/mosque) for these. Private schools can, of course, do what they like; but this is open to exploitation by opportunists (such as creationists). Moreover, whilst many faith schools may well provide a ‘better’ education, I do not accept that this is necessarily because they are faith schools, or that a ‘fully-rounded’ education is attained when such schools are biased towards the beliefs and practices of a particular faith (because they’re faith schools). (I will add, although my fingers are fine, to counter any perverse misrepresentation of my words, that this constitutes neither an opinion that faith schools churn out programmed morons, nor that I disrespect, or am prejudiced against, individuals who are so schooled.)
    This is as much a political issue. Call me a naïve idealist (which I would not take as an insult, by the way), but, to my mind, all children, of whatever background – and whatever faith (in other words, faith should not be a criterium) – should have the right to a good, fully-rounded education, providing fair opportunities for all. The Government’s response to the petition reads all nicely ideal. However, it permits religious ‘teachings’ (not the same as teaching about religion), potentially counter to its position on the Intelligent Design question; moreover, it does not read as making distinction between state and private; so it applies, either to both; or, as is more likely, only to state, in which case, private schools can presumably do what they like (selection?). The Government’s commitment to ‘choice’ is noble; but it’s often the state comprehensives – hence, state pupils, whose parents often have little or no option – that fall behind in terms of academic standard. This is divisive in itself. But when we then use faith to further partition children, then we increase divisiveness further, undesirable in a multi-cultural society.
    We can only play the cards we’re dealt.

  11. I do not deny, Lee that Creationism/ID is taught in faith schools. I understand it’s taught in some public schools, too. Should we close them?
    Anyone who can not see the difference between the issue of faith schools and the issue of C/ID is either uninformed or stupid. That petition was idiotic for conflating the two.
    But to demonstrate my utter fairness, I’ll go on record as saying that whoever sets the curricula of schools (faith or otherwise) that teach C/ID in a science class is an idiot (I’d go as far as saying that literal 7 day creationism is probably theologically dubious, and that ID certainly is).
    I have more to say, but it doesn’t belong in this thread.

  12. I’m with Richard. The issue of teaching creationism is distinct from whether there should be ‘faith’ schools or not. The fact is that creationism considered as a scientific discipline is logical nonsense, and this is true irrespective of the context in which it is found.

  13. Just to say that Lee and I have buried the hatchet – I’d like to apologise to him and anyone else without reservation for any offence my remarks this blog or any others might have caused. There must be a way to discuss religion without getting all heated up. It would be good if all of us on NN tried to do so. I shall now go away and make lunch.

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