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The creation of a new Giant's Causeway row

Every year thousands of tourists visit Northern Ireland's most treasured geological site, the Giant's Causeway.

The distinctive hexagonal causeway stones are widely considered to be among the most impressive examples of the wonders of the natural world.

Science tells us that the Giant's Causeway was created 60 million years ago during a long period of volcanic activity.

The unusual rock patterns forming as a result of rock crystallisation under conditions of accelerated cooling, which occurs when molten lava comes into immediate contact with water.

Those who prefer a more colourful yarn will be familiar with the legend of Finn MacCool, the Irish giant who, children are told, created the causeway as a footbridge to fight the Scottish giant Finn Gall but who then foxed his rival by pretending to be a baby.

However, momentum is growing in Ulster for an alternative theory of the origin of the causeway; one which echoes a wider and deepening dispute between conventional evolutionary science and fundamental Christianity.

The Causeway Creation Committee was set up in Co Antrim as a body which advocates literal biblical creationism.

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This means its members believe that the answers to the scientific origins of the world can be found in The Bible; specifically in the book of Genesis.

The words of The Bible are not just for Christian conduct but represent a complete and infallible account of the geological and historical development of earth, they argue.

Therefore the theory dictates that the Earth is only 5,000 years old, it was created by God in six days and the dinosaurs existed alongside humans. It is a complete rejection of Darwinian evolutionary science.

Their belief is that the causeway was created by a huge watery catastrophe - Noah's flood. As dictated in the Book of Genesis, Noah selected two of every species and loaded them onto his ark until the flood, which God sent to punish man's wickedness, subsided.

The committee has been set up to lobby for information on their theories to be included in any future visitors' centre at the causeway. They say more than 1,000 people have so far signed the petition.

Founding member Stephen Moore (30) is a Christian evangelist who runs outreach programmes for young people in Portrush.

He explained: "We don't believe God created it the way it is, it was definitely a result of volcanic activity. Where we differ from the official theory is that we believe the cause of that activity was the flood we read about in The Bible. It says the fountains of the great deep opened up and because of that there was volcanic activity.

"The other main difference in our view is the date. They say the causeway was created 60 million years ago but we believe that's a fairy tale. When you follow The Bible timetable it is about 4,500 years ago and due to volcanic activity that surrounds the events of a global flood.

"I take issue when people talk about the scientific view because our view is scientific as well. We use the same evidence and observations, we just interpret it differently.

"It just comes down to what glasses you are wearing."

Stephen admits that he does not come from a scientific background but insists there are many Christian scientists who back his beliefs.

He is able to produce a range of published leaflets which forward his claims on the causeway and a series of other world-famous natural sites including the Grand Canyon, Ayers Rock, the White Cliffs of Dover and Niagara Falls. The creation of all of these famous sites, the literature argues, complements rather than contradicts the word of God.

These are the sort of publications Stephen would like to see in the causeway visitors' centre and other tourist sites in Ulster. He would also like to see exhibits in the Ulster Museum altered to reflect the belief that dinosaurs existed at the same time as humans.

The committee has already written to local ministers and intends to present its petition at Stormont.

But a longer term goal for the committee is to have intelligent design theories taught as science as part of the curriculum in our schools. Intelligent design is the assertion that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Its website states: "We also desire to see the fact of Intelligent Design being taught alongside the Theory of Evolution in our local schools."

Stephen adds: "I want to stress that we are not looking for exclusion of the evolutionary message. We just want inclusion because we believe people should have all the information. We are not a threat to anyone. We think children should be taught both opinions and then given the freedom to choose."

Despite the placatory message there seems little doubt that the God versus science debate is heating up in Ulster.

The potential outcomes of this have been evident for decades in many conservative states in the US, through a series of court battles centred around whether it is ungodly to teach Darwinism. A supreme court decision in 1987 banned the teaching of creationism in US schools on the grounds that it would violate the separation of church and state. However, the creationist theory has since gained a foothold in the American state school system, sparking legal challenges from secular groups seeking to oust it from science teaching.

While the arguments between secularists and the religious right in America might seem remote from anything that is happening in Ulster, the comparisons are becoming ever more clear.

The creationist issue has been raised repeatedly in written questions to the Education Minister Catriona Ruane by DUP members, many of whom are members of the Free Presbyterian Church.

They have asked her on several occasions about resources and materials being made available to schools teaching "alternative scientific theories" .

They have also asked for assurances that exam pupils who answer science questions with creationist answers will not be marked down.

The Department of Education has so far not adopted a position against creationist teachings, instead insisting that it is up to the individual schools.

A spokeswoman recently told this paper: "The revised curriculum offers scope for schools to explore alternative theories to evolution, which could include creationism, if they so wish."

Alliance member Trevor Lunn mischievously asked Environment Minister Arlene Foster this week for her assessment on the age of the Giant's Causeway.

Her answer was a classic piece of political ambiguity. She said: " Geologists generally agree that the Giant's Causeway is some 60 million years old. As you will be aware, however, there are alternative views in relation to the age of the Giant's Causeway."

The issue has also reached the level of local government. Lisburn council recently voted to write to all its grammar and secondary schools encouraging them to teach alternative theories such as intelligent design.

The DUP hegemony in Northern Ireland politics and the party's links with fundamental Christianity mean that the creationism argument is likely to become even more prominent, both at Stormont and in local councils. So far there has been no evidence of any genuine political will to oppose it.

To date only the Belfast Humanist Society has spoken out publicly against Biblically-based theories being taught in science classrooms here. Its chairman, Les Reid, recently told the Belfast Telegraph that it was " totally inappropriate".

He added: "There is already scope in the curriculum for religious instruction. RE teachers have the classes to teach about supernatural beings and the creation of the universe as they see it. That's where creationism belongs.

"Our education system is liberal and accommodating as it stands."

But Stephen Moore from the Causeway Creation Committee says he is used to dealing with sceptics.

"Why can children not have all the interpretations? People often blame Christians for brainwashing children but we believe children are currently being brainwashed every day by the evolutionary message."

However, for now, the committee's immediate focus remains raising awareness of its message about the origins of the Giant's Causeway.

While controversy has raged for months about who should build a visitors' centre at the Causeway, it seems that a deeper argument about what should be in it and what our children should be taught about it, may be just beginning.

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