Thursday, 18 September 2008

First they came for the Creationists ...

I woke up this morning feeling vaguely depressed and wondering why. Then I half heard Angela Tilby talking on Thought for the Day about how Professor Michael Reiss seems to have been edged out of his post as director of education at the Royal Society, apparently for suggesting 'creationism' might be considered in school science classes, and I remembered.

If the Sea of Faith is receding, the tide of secularism is most certainly rising and is now swamping Christians (and let us be quite clear that they are the chief target) out of public life and the public domain. And we are doing very little about it.

Normally I find articles by George Pitcher, the religious correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, deeply irritating (sorry George, but there it is). But in his comments on this story, he is surely spot on. Specifically, as he points out, because "I'm a creationist ... should be the most natural thing for a person of Christian faith to say."

We are, indeed, all creationists, insofar as, in Pitcher's words, we "believe in a purpose to the human story, a meta-narrative to history ... or a journey to understand the mind of God", or, in more practical terms, if in some sense we mean what we say every time we recite the Apostles' or the Nicene Creeds.

In this respect it is bizarre to see the opprobrium being gleefully heaped on Professor Reiss's suggestion by some on the Thinking Anglicans forum. Surely the right response, if we don't believe in one understanding of Genesis (a physical six-day creation), should nevertheless be to think through what we can and should understand, both about Genesis and about the world in which we live. (That, I would hope, is what a thinking Anglican would always aim to do.)

But if every Christian should say, "I'm a creationist", then every Christian must now also stand up and say, "I am Reiss". Professor Richard Dawkins has now back-tracked on the scorn he originally directed towards Professor Reiss. Nevertheless, he stands by his view that Reiss's post is an unsuitable job for a clergyman:
Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.
But if that post is deemed inappropriate, to what other posts might the same rules begin to apply? As George Pitcher writes,
... if it is to be consistent, the Royal Society will immediately fire off a letter to this newspaper's editor, demanding my dismissal. Heavens above, a child might read this column and have its mind poisoned.
Worst of all, of course, is the problem of parenting. What if parents suggest to their children that creation was, well, created? Does that render them unsuitable for the post? The fact is that there are those, serious thinkers and their less thoughtful followers, who firmly believe it does. This is what Nicholas Humphrey, another convinced Darwinian, and by his own account, a social Liberal said in a speech to the Oxford branch of Amnesty International:
Freedom of speech is too precious a freedom to be meddled with. [...] And, since I am so sure of this in general, and since I’d expect most of you to be so too, I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture tonight to argue ... in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct. I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed – even expected – to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.
To think that such views could be expressed in Oxford, England, at a meeting of a body ostensibly dedicated to supporting liberty! Yet anyone who imagines that a society based on what it regards as 'rigorously enlightened' principles would not take people's children away from them simply because of what they, as parents, believe, has no understanding of either history or human nature.

Natural Science, properly understood andvigorously applied, is objective in its approach. Scientists are not. Scientists are human beings, and therefore capable of ignorance, bigotry, vindictiveness and error. (Indeed, the history of science shows that they are also capable of envy within their field and even cheating with their results.)

Moreover, our wider society is full of people who are not scientists, but who are happy to hear what scientists have to say when they are attacking religion (which is one thing) and religious people (which is quite another). Richard Dawkins wants the Royal Society Royal "to attack creationism with all fists flying". For him this is no doubt metaphor, but it is a metaphor undergirded by subjective emotion, not just objective, 'scientific', analysis.

Certainly this morning every intolerant 'scientist' will feel that bit more confident about putting in the boot (or the flying fist). After all, if your opponent's job is on the line, you do have a certain advantage in arguments at work. By contrast, every believer, and certainly every Christian believer, will be that bit less confident about speaking up.

The worry is that many of the intelligentsia in this country evidently feel that is a good thing.

You can read the Royal Society's statement here.
and you can e-mail them here.

John Richardson
18 September 2008

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  1. And there's another man of faith whose job is on the line today. Bob Duncan is likely to be deposed as Bishop of Pittsburgh for no other crime than believing the historic teachings of the church, and (heaven help us!) preaching them as well.

    The true face of the liberal intelligentsia is now being seen. It certainly isn't liberal, and it can't handle disagreement. Will ECUSA liberality come to Canterbury? It can only be a matter of time.

    Richard Brown
    Westcliff on Sea

  2. Spot on John. For me there are two issues running alongside each other.

    1. The deliberate or ignorant confusion in the media and amongst commentators between ‘creationism’, a belief that the world was literally created in six days and should be taught as a scientific explanation, and the ‘creationist’ belief in a creator God who purposed the creation of the world. The commentators use their ridicule of the former to attack the position of the latter and suggest that both are claiming the same thing. This is backed up by much selective and partial quoting, as in the case of Palin and Reiss. There is a clear dishonesty in much of this debate which betrays the prejudices and presuppositions of many so called liberal commentators.

    2. The second issue is the determination by some to remove people of faith, including Christians, from influence in public life arguing that we should not even be allowed a voice. This isn’t liberalism, it is fascism and needs to be named as such. (I am defining fascism here as a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control). Hence my dismay when Ekklesia signed up to Accord and its agenda to attack faith schools ( How ironic that some of those who are so quick to wrap themselves in the cloak of liberalism act in the most illiberal of ways i.e. denying a voice to those who do not agree with them.

    Lesley Newbigin flagged up these concerns some twenty years ago in his book ‘The Gospel In a Pluralist Society’ and it still speaks very powerfully to our present context

  3. I want to express agreement with Phil's first point. Whenever someone asks me whether I am (or accuses me of being) a "creationist" I'll generally ask them to clarify what they mean by the term. What usually ends up being the case is that thy don't really know they mean by it. Much like the word "fundamentalist" it's a term they've absorbed from general discourse and then use without ever thinking for themselves what it means. People don't stop and think what's actually behind the label -- what it means, let alone whether it's a good or bad thing etc.

    If being a "creationist" means I believe in a God who created everything then I am unapologetically "creationist" -- and quite clearly every Christian should be. If, however, being a "creationist" means that I adhere to some particular theory known as "creationism" or "creation science" etc then I would want to distance myself from that. I'm basically agnostic when it comes to the debates about theistic evolution, intelligent design, young earth 6-day creationism etc. I don't have a settled opinion because as of yet I've never really had to come to one. And maybe I never will. For the most part the process by which God created everything and the timescale according to which he did so are not particularly relevant to me. (But I can see how they may be to others.)

  4. John, many thanks for a succinct and well reasoned comment. It is not just the big guys who get nailed for daring to step out of the secular mind set.
    I have been an NSM in a rural area for over 25 years but owing to a change in perspective in our locality, I now realise, in retrospect, that my Licence to Officiate in my home village was withdrawn because of my "North American fundamentalism". My ministry was no longer welcome.
    I have had a scientific education and my perspective is that the Word of God is more reliable than the word of men. I have no problem in seeing that the early chapters of Genesis give as good an explanation of the world and environment we see all around us today. As a consequence I accept the Biblical record as the record of creation. These chapters also set out the meta-narrative that continues from Genesis to Revelation. It undergirds my understanding of substitutionary atonement. If Adam and Eve were not actual historic persons then the teaching of Christ and the apostles are based on myth. The creation account also governs my perspective on sexuality. It underlines the mystery of the church, of which Christ is the head of the body, as first born of a new creation.
    I have discovered that if you are prepared to declare or enquire after the whole counsel of God be prepared to be rejected by any establishment, religious or secular. I guess I am learning what it is to in a small way to carry a cross.