Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Viewpoint: The world, according to Lisburn folk

The eyes of the world will surely be focused on Lisburn, now that the city council has voted to write to post-primary schools encouraging them to teach "intelligent design" and "creationism" as alternatives to the theory of evolution, explaining the origins of life. If the schools were to obey, they would be reopening an old debate, pitting religious fundamentalists against the scientific establishment.

It may be no coincidence that the council's move, proposed by two Free Presbyterian DUP councillors and backed by the UUP, coincided with a government publication giving guidance on creationism for teachers. It makes clear that "creationism and intelligent design are not part of the National Curriculum for science", adding that there were no scientific principles or explanations supporting it. There was scope for schools to discuss creationism "as part of religious education".

The view of the Northern Ireland Department of Education is that teaching alternatives to evolution is a matter for schools, as the revised curriculum offered scope for exploration of other theories. It does not attempt to limit the discussion to religious education classes, as in Britain, so there is a possibility that some schools may follow Lisburn's recommendation, turning back the clock on the whole subject of how life began, and when.

Even the Assembly has been dragged into the argument, again by a Free Presbyterian MLA, who asked about the availability of teaching materials and wanted an assurance that pupils who supported creationism would not be marked down. There is certainly no shortage of materials, as the Government's guidance statement was inspired by what has been described as a "propaganda blitz" by a creationist organisation, Truth in Science.

All discussion is educational, but in the school context the question is whether the creationism versus evolution debate should be conducted in classes devoted to religion or should be included in science. Since education should distinguish between fact and belief, and since the theory of evolution is accepted by scientists as fact, alternative theories should only be regarded as matters of faith.

There are enough divisions in Northern Ireland society without more being invented - and given official credence. Religious fundamentalists have every right to state their beliefs, and argue their case for greater recognition, but when they try to impose them on the wider community, which clearly does not share their views and regards them as unfounded, they must be resisted at all costs.

Attempts to introduce teaching creationism in public schools - not private - have consistently been rejected as contravening the separation of church and state. Most people, not just humanists, would agree.

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