The Guardian and Prime Minister's Questions
On Saturday 9 March the Guardian newspaper, quite to my surprise, featured on page 3 a huge picture of our church notice board with the words "Jesmond Parish Church" in yellow on black, and with me in front of it. The page had the banner headline: "Top school's creationists preach value of biblical story over evolution;" and the whole of the page was given over to the issue. The school was Emmanuel College, Gateshead. The caption under the picture was, "the Revd David Holloway, traditionalist and a founding member of the fundamentalist Christian Institute, along with Emmanuel's former head John Burn." The article was attacking, it would seem, me, John Burn (our Lay Reader), the Christian Institute and by association, Reform. It clearly didn't like creationism. I was being identified, presumably, as a creationist.
On Wednesday 13 March - the following Wednesday - in Prime Minister's Questions, a Lib Dem MP, Dr Jenny Tonge, asked Tony Blair,
"Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in state schools?"
And the Prime Minister replied:
"I am very happy. Secondly, I know that the hon. Lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching are somewhat exaggerated. It would be very unfortunate if concerns about that issue were seen to remove the very strong incentive to ensure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can. In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children. If she looks at the school's results, I think she will find that they are very good."
Later that afternoon I was asked to take part in a debate with Jenny Tonge on the BBC Today programme the following morning. I agreed, only to find in the event that Richard Dawkins, the confessed atheist and zealot for macro-evolutionism from Oxford, had been substituted and it was to be two straight interviews with Dawkins having the last word. However, I was able to spell out in summary form what I believe about "creation" in reply to questions from James Naughtie who assumed creationists all wanted to "date" creation. I began by saying, "I totally disagree with that" and then went on to say:
"The bible speaks with brilliant simplicity in Genesis 1-3. In the same way as there's simplicity when I say the 'sun rose this morning'. To say the 'sun rose' is not scientific from a Copernican point of view, but it communicates a real happening. So what Genesis teaches, and mainstream Christians believe, is that God caused the world, the world didn't cause God. Mind gave rise to matter; not matter to mind. But Darwin and secular humanists teach not just micro-evolution, which we all believe in, namely the survival of the fittest which is common sense, but macro-evolution where matter does give rise to mind and where an impersonal world gives rise to a personal God."
I explained that creationism covers a wide range of views and underlined that what I and others oppose is not fact but philosophy: "I don't know how many people read Darwin. Darwin did not just believe what we consider to be science which is perfectly legitimate, but Darwin evolved a philosophy of the universe. Darwin believed, for example, through macro-evolution that the higher races would eliminate the lower races."
However, it was pointed out to me that in a lecture given at the College last year the vice-Principal said, "As Christian teachers it's essential we're able to counter the anti-creationist position". I responded by giving the "anti-creationist position". I quoted an American Position Statement for biology in schools that says: "The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution - an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent." And I added, "That is philosophy. That is not science."
Then it seemed right to mention the National Curriculum that requires the teaching of what it calls Scientific Enquiry. "I don't know how many people realize this but 'Pupils should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example, Darwin's theory of evolution)'."
So Emmanuel was simply keeping to the Law. "As I understand it from the headmaster, and I've discussed it with him, he believes that it's right that every position should be taught." I pointed out that the school is successful. So parents want their children to go there. "This school got 96 percent - 5 GCSE's A-C's [in 2001] whereas the national average is 50 percent and in Newcastle it is 36 percent." And I concluded by saying:
"I happen to disbelieve in macro-evolutionism, not because I'm a flat-earther. It's just I think it's wrong. And so do many serious scientists - palaeontologists and others - who do not agree with the current position on evolution as is propounded by a number of atheistic philosophers."
Since that Guardian article and that interview, the subject of "creationism" and what should be taught in our schools has regularly been in the news.
Fundamentalism, Evolution and Creation
Let me spell out a little more fully my own views. These can be found, in detail, in chapter 7 of my book, Church and State in the New Millennium which is entitled 'Fundamentalism, Evolution and Creation'. I argue that there are philosophical, theological and factual issues and all have to be addressed.
Among other things with regard to philosophy, I argue that ever since Wittgenstein it is wise to see "some scientific theories as models with built-in inferring techniques which help you to make deductions, rather than as 'descriptions' of reality." This was the view of Professor Stephen Toulmin, the philosopher of science. In an important long essay 'Contemporary Scientific Mythology' Toulmin wrote about evolution. He pursued the idea that while some scientific theories can be empirically helpful, they are not always the straightforward descriptions of reality they seem to be at first sight. Ordinary words and concepts can have their meanings subtly changed. This then disorientates the unwary.
He made the observation that "as the subject matter of physics provides the imagery of despair, so that of biology provides the imagery of hope." He was referring to the Second Law of Thermodynamics that obliges us to think of the universe as running down, while the popular understanding of evolution is that the universe is getting better and better. It is, therefore, difficult to see how both of these pictures, if they are real predictions, can be true at the same time. Toulmin's suggestion is that such theories are one half science and one half 'metaphysics'. Metaphysics are background beliefs or assumptions about ultimate things. So Toulmin's view is that "the Running-Down Universe [and] Evolution with a capital E ... are two examples which ... are not so much scientific discoveries as scientific myths." I then wrote: "This is not, in itself, to argue that the scientific theories on which these views are based must be immediately rejected as 'scientific' theories. They may be the best we can do to make sense of the data at the moment. They may be good theories. But we have to ask questions about precisely what they are saying. Are they descriptions or are they models?"
Then with regard to theology and the biblical material I argue that the elemental Christian view of origins is expressed neatly and profoundly in Hebrews 11.3: "By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." This is known as creatio ex nihilo - creation out of nothing - as opposed to the idea that there was an ever-existent 'material' universe out of which God formed the world. There was, Hebrews teaches, no eternal dualism of God and matter. God was responsible for creating the material universe. There was, therefore, a 'beginning', and history is to be thought of as linear, not cyclical. And I quoted the following on Genesis 1.1:
"Natural scientists and philosophers have attempted to explain nature or the world; but not one of their theories or suggestions has remained firm or unshaken; each has been overthrown by its successor ... Those for whom the concept of 'God' is meaningless are unwilling to admit that a rational being was in control at the inception of the Universe ... Take the 'materialists' - those who say matter is all there is, matter is ultimate, or put more technically, atoms, molecules etc. (invisible entities) coalescing make up the visible world. It is because they don't know how to say, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth' (Gen 1.1). An atheistic philosophy of the world has misled them; and it appears then that nothing governs or rules the universe, but all is given up to mere chance. To guard us from such an error the writer of the creation narrative in Genesis, with his very first words, flashes into our minds the name of God."
That was not someone arguing against Darwin in the nineteenth century. It was from the pen of Basil of Cappadocia in the fourth century. We are in great danger of thinking that the issues of science and religion belong exclusively to modern times. Christians down the centuries have realized that the language of Genesis must be respected for what it is. The records of Genesis 1-3 are clearly not like the records of the Acts of the Apostles. Writing in the 16th century, Calvin said in his commentary on Genesis: "Moses wrote in the popular style, which, without instruction, all ordinary persons endowed with common sense are able to understand." And more recently in 1950 Pope Pius XII spoke of the early chapters of Genesis in Humani Generis:
"Although it is not right to judge them by the modern standards, such as would be applied to the great classical authors, or to the learned of our own day, they do nevertheless come under the heading of history ... These chapters have a naive, symbolical way of talking, well suited to the understanding of a primitive people."
With regard to empirical or factual issues, I deal with a range of problems. However, I conclude as follows:
"Chapters 1-3 of Genesis still raise certain questions. But after nearly 150 years of detailed argument and analysis, many thoughtful people at the beginning of the 21st century are coming to the conclusion that Darwin does not provide the answers. Is it not wrong, therefore, to give the ideology of evolution a privileged place in our education today? As a 'myth' or 'model' it may have value if it secures results. But it should not then be taught, with all the secular prejudices we are now so used to, as reflecting what really happened in history. T.H.Huxley invented the word 'agnostic' with regard to belief in God. Surely agnosticism with regard to the theory of evolution is what is now called for in our schools. This is not an unreasonable demand for Christians to make in respect of twenty-first-century education."
The new Thought Police
The issues at stake are huge. First, there is the matter of intellectual freedom. We have new, self-appointed, Thought Police. They are wanting to stop schools like Emmanuel teaching young people about Intelligent Design (a more informative term than "creationism"). But Intelligent Design, for a Christian, is clearly demanded by the Bible and the whole weight of Christian tradition. Intelligent Design, of course, leaves open for discussion the proper way to exegete the Genesis narratives. It also leaves open for discussion the age of the universe and what are the best scientific "myths" or models for accounting for biological and geological data. That is why there are a range of creationist views, not just one. Nor is there only one view at Emmanuel College. But all are united in saying "No!" to atheistic doctrinaire macro-evolutionism which is the standard fare in many schools. Many of the new Thought Police are wanting to impose this view virtually by law. They are lobbying the Government, the Chief Inspector of Schools and the Quality and Curriculum Authority. This is quite sinister. Nor is this exaggerating. On 27 March on the BBC Today programme it was reported that "Thirty six scientists and philosophers have sent a letter to the government, the Chief Scientific Officer and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority expressing alarm that creationism theory is being taught in schools". They want to prevent this.
One of these new Thought Police, interviewed on the programme, was a Professor of Biology at University College London. He supports the ban and, typically, caricatures "creationists" as being people like those who teach "the sun goes round the earth". That is quite unacceptable. The former Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, himself a distinguished academic as well as a churchman, not so long ago reviewed Philip E. Johnson's Darwin on Trial for the Church Times. This was in the form of a C.S.Lewis' Screwtape Letter with Screwtape (the senior devil) saying:
"Fortunately, we have been so successful that anyone who tries to debunk neo-Darwinism is generally regarded by society as a crank. You must keep on preventing those scientists who are adherents of the Enemy from criticising evolution through natural selection. You must try to spread abroad the idea that the only alternative to Darwinism is the belief that the world was created by the Enemy in six days. Don't try to persuade people that Darwinism is true – we know it isn't – but that there is no alternative explanation that is credible today."
Either the Professor knows of the significant work that is going on in the United States by Intelligent Design theorists - and this should be referred to by any responsible biology teacher in the classroom, whether they agree with it or disagree. There is the work, for example, of Michael Behe, William A. Dembski and, the philosopher, Stephen Meyer (and not all Intelligent Design theorists are Christian). If he knows of this work, the Professor seemed only to identify "creationism" with one set of views which is quite unacceptable. Or the Professor doesn't know of this work. Should he then be holding a chair at UCL? Other Darwinian Thought Police include Nicholas Humphrey, the psychologist, who in an Amnesty Lecture in Oxford said: "Children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe in the literal truth of the Bible ... than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon."
With regard to the "young earth" issue I myself have no competence to judge on dating. I have been impressed, however, by the work of Steve Austin, the geologist, following the relatively recent eruption of Mount St Helen's in the US on 18 May 1980 and his attempt to reintroduce catastrophe theory. The volcano's eruption and the succeeding years have provided a real-time laboratory for testing theories of geological formation. What he has discovered is that canyons and rock layers, far from taking millions of years to develop, can form in a few years if natural volcanic forces are great enough. This also has major implications for coal theory. Even the most committed Darwinist ought to discuss this in the science class.
But I take a more cautious approach to the reading of Genesis than some "young earth" theorists. With two accounts of creation in Genesis presented consecutively, it does not seem a straightforward historical narrative. And it seems figurative and symbolic in places, for example, the "tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" - the Tree of Life reappears in the Book of Revelation. This, of course, does not mean that Genesis is not referring to what happened in the past. It simply means we have to be sensitive to the way the language refers to what happened. Jesus, we must remember, used figurative language to summarize centuries of history in the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21.33-41. And, of course, Revelation refers to "what must soon take place" (Rev. 1.1) but then uses symbolism throughout.
There is another account of Creation - namely in Job. That certainly uses figurative language. The first question of God to Job is very important: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand" (Job 38.4). And the answer expected is "No!". The point of Job's vision is that the creator God is too immense and awesome for Job fully to fathom. It is obvious he cannot grasp the greatness of creation, including the beginning of creation (so he should not be too surprised that he doesn't fully understand the mystery of suffering - the issue in the Book of Job). The conclusion comes in the words of Job addressed to God in 42.2: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." I am sure that is the right attitude for all of us in response to Genesis in particular, and as we think about all these issues in general. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, "Now I know in part; then (referring to Christ's Second Coming and the future in Heaven) I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (v 12). Then we shall all be able to know about the origins of the universe.
But in the meantime we must realise that there is an atheistic philosophy parading as "science" among proponents of doctrinaire neo-Darwinism. And this is claiming exclusive rights to the science timetable. "This starts with the definition of science itself," writes Nancey Pearcey. "Science is typically defined as objective investigation (discovering and testing facts) - the means for making faster aeroplanes and better medicines. But there's another definition held implicitly in the scientific establishment, and it is tantamount to the philosophy of materialism or naturalism. This is the idea that science may legitimately employ only natural causes in explaining everything we observe. The way this definition of science operates is to outlaw any questioning of naturalistic evolution. Darwinists don't ask whether life evolved from a sea of chemicals; they only ask how it evolved. They don't ask whether complex life forms evolved from simpler forms; they only ask how it happened. The presupposition is that natural forces alone must (and therefore can) account for the development of all life on earth; the only task left is to work out the details."
The Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin is typical of this approach. While admitting huge disagreements among evolutionists, he says: "we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism ... we are [then] forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations ... materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door." As Paul Nelson comments, "Design is ruled out not because it has been shown to be false but because science itself has been defined as applied materialistic philosophy."
We cannot allow this in the interests of true science. The Intelligent Design biochemist, Michael Behe, has challenged the old Darwinian orthodoxy over cells when he introduced the concept of irreducible complexity. He argues that Darwinian natural selection and random mutation can account for cumulative complexity (something like a city) but not irreducible complexity (something like a mousetrap) where "design" is a better model. And a cell is more like a mousetrap. You can remove people and services from a city until it is a tiny village - all without losing the sense of community, the city's "function". But remove any one of the components of a mousetrap and it cannot "function". Yet the new Thought Police want to prevent even discussion of such ideas in the science lesson. A neutral observer, surely, would judge that all this defensiveness and hysteria indicate an inherent vulnerability in Darwinism.