On last night’s Q&A, two viewers, Dr Karey Harrison from Harristown (via Toowoomba) and Dr Cathy Byrne from NSW raised the question of students being taught creationism ‘as fact’ in schools. How strange that we keep bringing up this subject but politicians keep sticking their heads in the sand and denying it’s happening!
Addressing the panel by video, Dr Harrison said:
I expected my children to be taught science in science classes at the local state school. So I was a bit angry when my son was taught a creation story about the origin of the universe in his Year 11 physics class at the local high school. My son didn’t want me to do anything because he was concerned about possible repercussions for his grades which in Queensland, count towards university entrance. So I want to know from the panel what is your attitude towards teaching religion in science classes and to Tanya [Plibersek, ALP] and Greg [Hunt, LNP], in particular, what you and your parties will do to stop religion being taught in our science classes?
Labor Minister, Tanya Plibersek’s response was to fob off the question, noting:
“… but it’s one state school. You might have run into one teacher with particular views in one school. I don’t know that we can say that that is a characterisation of what’s being taught in science in all of our state schools. I’d be very surprised and very disturbed if that was the case.”
Soon after, a video question from education researcher, Dr Cathy Byrne, confirmed that the problem was far more widespread than ‘just one school’.
“My question is for Laurence Krauss,” said Dr Byrne.
“You may know that some evangelical religious groups have direct access to children in state schools in Australia. My research has shown that some of these organisations teach that man and dinosaurs lived together, that the earth is only 6000 years old and that children will burn in hell if they don’t read the Bible every day. How might teaching children such things in our state system effect Australia’s future?”
It is clear that Dr Byrne has found sufficient evidence of creationism in enough schools to feel it is an issue worth raising. Her concern clearly suggests that the problem transcends ‘just one school’.
And Drs Harrison and Byrne are not the only ones concerned about the infiltration of creationism into Australian schools. On February 13, Dr Paul Willis, director of the prestigious Royal Institution of Australia – a national organisation for the promotion of science – wrote an article revealing his growing concern about creationism in the classroom. Is it likely that Willis would raise the issue if he believed the problem was confined to a rogue teacher or two?
“My concern is not simply for the specifics of demonstrating through science that evolution has occurred, that the palaeontologists are right and that the creationists are laughably wrong on each and every count”, wrote Willis.
“The burden on a science education of having to deal with this rubbish effects the fundamentals of understanding what science is and how it’s conducted. It challenges and erodes an education in logic and reason.”
In the Australian Book of Atheism (Warren Bonett, ed, 2010), Professor Graham Oppy, Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, affirms that:
“Groups like CSF (Christian Science Foundation), Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries, and Creation Research … work hard to get their materials into schools …”
And they’re succeeding. According to Professor Oppy, since 2000, the teaching of creationism in science classes has become “more prevalent”.
How is it, one might ask, that creationism in the classroom is widely acknowledged by teachers and academics, but, when politicians are asked about it, their inevitable reaction is to feign surprise!
Late last year, I wrote about a Queensland state school where creationism is being taught ‘as science’ in the science classroom. The information came directly from a science teacher who was so appalled at what was going on at her school, she risked her job to speak out. She later told her story on Radio National’s Life Matters program. That teacher has said, plainly, this is not the only school where this is happening. Science teachers speak to each other and while many know creationism is a problem, particularly in Queensland schools , many fear for their jobs if they speak out – especially under the current conservative regime of happy clappers. I’m reliably informed that Education Queensland’s reaction to the news that creationism is being taught ‘as science’ in a state high school science class has been to ‘deny, deny, deny’.
So, perhaps we should not be surprised that when creationism in schools was raised last night, Ms Plibersek’s reacted as if she had never heard of such a thing; as if the problem of creationism in Australian classrooms was a completely new issue. It’s not. We’ve been carping about it for years and politicians from both sides of the political fence have been sticking their fingers in their ears for approximately the same amount of time.
In August 2011, for example, there was a public uproar after a chaplain from a state school in Gympie arranged for creationist, John Mackay, to deliver a ‘scientific’ lecture to students. Yet, chaplains still infest our schools and creationists are still being invited to speak to students.
Recently, one of the Young Australian Skeptics confirmed that, at his ‘semi-private’ Christian school, students were told by an invited guest that the evolutionary theory they were being taught in science class was ‘not true’. As the student says:
“I don’t mind having people come and speak to us in chapel if they are talking about how God wants to help you, loves you, etc; but I cannot stand it when someone comes into the school and tells us the curriculum set for us is wrong. “You learn about evolution in the classroom, but this is the real truth. All of that stuff isn’t based on anything provable.” Arguments ranging from irreducible complexity to the point that Noah’s flood is the reason for the Grand Canyon being around. He even managed to mess up natural selection by almost reversing how it works. What a spectacular man!”
“What actually happened in the past?” is the rhetorical question posed by creationist, Dr Mark Harwood, the above-mentioned speaker, in his set speech to school students. Here is what Harwood and his mates from Creation Ministries International are telling Australian school students:
While still wildly inaccurate, Harwood’s approach is slightly more sophisticated than the misguided religious instruction teachers who have told students that “Noah collected dinosaur eggs to bring on the Ark” and that “Adam and Eve were not eaten by dinosaurs because they were under a protective spell.”
On the Atheist Foundation of Australian forum, I found a post from the chief scientist at a reptile sanctuary in Canberra. With considerable frustration, he reports that when he attempted to answer questions about the reptiles from a visiting school group, a teacher interrupted his explanation and asked him to answer the questions without mentioning evolution.
“Yeah mate, look we don’t buy into that evolution stuff, there are too many holes in it, its just a theory”
With a stunned gaze I managed to get out some words “what do you mean”
“Well we teach creation at our school, evolution is just one world view, that’s your world view, and our world view is as it is stated in the Bible”
In 2010, the Australian reported that school students in NSW had been presented with ‘creationist showbags” by a group of scripture volunteers. These “Creation For Kids” give-aways contained “colouring books, calendars and DVDs deriding evolution and claiming that the universe was only 6000 years old.”
And, if the practice of bringing creationism into the classroom is not widespread as so many teachers, researchers and academics claim, why did the chief executive of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O’Doherty, howl (in early 2010) that the SA government was withdrawing “the right to teach ”biblical perspectives” as part of science”?
We know that creationism is entering Australian state schools’ science classrooms by stealth. We know that it is still taught, quite openly, in Christian schools. In schools where the science classroom has been successfully ‘roped off’ from creationist myths, the fundamentalists find other ways to undermine the science curriculum. This will continue as long as government ministers, like Plibersek, adopt denial as the most convenient way to deal with the rising problem of religion in schools.
We know that, throughout Australia, in both public and private schools, inside and outside of science classes, evolution is being undermined while a fundamentalist, literalist view of creation is being touted to students by whatever means and in whatever pedagogical venue the creationists can manage to infiltrate.
Indeed, a 2010 report notes that:
“Kings Christian Church youth worker Dustin Bell said he taught ‘about creation’ in Sunshine Coast schools.”
“Set Free Christian Church’s Tim McKenzie said when students questioned him why dinosaur fossils carbon dated as earlier than man, he replied that the great flood must have skewed the data.”
And, in a shocking but amusing anecdote (which I can confirm, because I know the parent involved):
“A parent of a Year 5 student on the Sunshine Coast said his daughter was ostracised to the library after arguing with her scripture teacher about DNA.
“The scripture teacher told the class that all people were descended from Adam and Eve,” he said.
“My daughter rightly pointed out, as I had been teaching her about DNA and science, that ‘wouldn’t they all be inbred’?
“But the teacher replied that DNA wasn’t invented then.”
Another parent, Graeme, from the Sunshine Coast complained to Queensland Labor Premier, Anna Bligh, that, after his daughter’s science teacher explained the theory of evolution by natural selection to the class, he screened a video on intelligent design. In reply, Premier Bligh assured Graeme that it was perfectly acceptable for science teachers to ask their students to ‘look at a range of opinions – a range of views’.
So, when teaching geography, do we also show students DVDs from flat earth theorists?
When teaching astronomy, do we bring in an astrologer to explain how the stars guide our lives and personalities?
When teaching kids how the brain works, do we ask teachers to screen a video of John Edwards so they will understand ‘there is a view’ that a living, functioning brain is not a necessary prerequisite to communication. (A necessary clarification – I’m speaking here of the spirits with whom Edwards allegedly communes, not Edwards himself!) After all, we wouldn’t want the children of parents who believe in TV psychics to feel their parents’ views are not being respected in the science class, would we?
Teaching creationism alongside evolution cannot be justified as ‘teaching the controversy’. As Professor Lawrence Krauss confirmed on Q & A last night, there is no ‘controversy’ about evolutionary theory. It’s supported by over 200 years of irrefutable evidence from a wide range of scientific and medical disciplines. While a huge collection of fossil evidence (complete with ‘missing’ links) has helped to establish evolution by natural selection ‘as fact’, evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins assures us the evidence from other fields is so voluminous that evolution can now be proven even without reference to fossils:
“Fossils are not necessary to prove evolution nowadays, as we can do that with comparative evidence, especially via chemical molecular evidence. But fossils are very nice for showing the direct course evolution took – fossils are the only evidence we have which show what animals were like in the distant past.
We are very lucky to have fossils, [but] if we didn’t have fossils at all, we’d still know evolution was true. There are some gaps in the fossil record too, of course, which those sceptical about evolution think is important, but of course it’s not. The whole fossil record could be one big gap and we would still know evolution was true. But although there are gaps there are still substantial parts of evolution where we have a pretty good record of what exactly happened.”
It is simply unacceptable that the laxity of our state and federal governments has allowed an ideological belief to infiltrate schools and undermine the teaching of a vitally important scientific theory which undergirds so many of this nation’s scientific, agricultural and medical endeavours. We need our children to be well informed about science because they are the scientists, researchers, inventors and innovators of the future.
Dr John Dickson from the Centre for Public Christianity confirmed on Q&A last night, that a literal interpretation of Genesis is neither scientifically nor theologically sound. Further, he noted that not even early Christians would have read Genesis literally – this is a far later affectation.
Even the Catholic Church, which can’t seem to get its head around the fact that condoms reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, has been forced to acknowledge the truth of evolutionary theory. There is simply no reason for our government to cave in to extremist fundamentalist fringe views at the expense of our children’s education.
Indeed, it is unfair to allow children to be confused by well-meaning, but misinformed religious evangelists – whether these be teachers, principals, guest speakers, or volunteers invited into the school for the purpose of teaching religion.
Let me try an analogy. Would anyone find it acceptable for children to be told by an RI teacher or guest speaker that their maths teacher is lying when they say 1+1=2 and that, in fact, 1+1 actually equals 3? How would we feel if some maths teachers who, despite all evidence to the contrary, subscribed to the belief that 1+1=3 were allowed to teach that in the maths classroom while the government looked the other way, denied it was happening and responded to evidence by downplaying it as an ‘isolated incident’? Teaching that there is some scientific controversy about the fact of evolution by natural selection, or suggesting to students that creationism is somehow supported by science is every bit as unsound as telling them that 1+1=3.
Ms Plibersek and her party (state and federal) have to stop ignoring the problem of religion in government funded schools – both state and private – and implement policies which promote science, reason and critical thinking and which confine religious mythology to the home and the church.
If you know of an incident or incidents of creationism being taught or touted within Australian schools, please contact Ms Plibersek’s office at: Minister.Plibersek@health.gov.au. Perhaps we can convince her that it’s not happening in ‘just one school’.
Creationism in Schools – Radio National, Life Matters
Faith in Schools: the dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system - ABC Religion & Ethics, Chrys Stevenson
Keeping ignorance and extremism out of public schools: The role of teachers and their unions - ABC Religion & Ethics, Dr Cathy Byrne
Creationists hijack lessons and teach schoolkids man and dinosaurs walked together, Carly Hennessy and Kathleen Donaghey, the Courier-Mail.