Is teaching creationism in RE really controversial?

Despite being an atheist who reasons the world is over four billion years old, I enjoy teaching the opposite idea that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The idea of creation, and the myths and theories associated with creationism, offer a myriad of philosophical and critical thinking activities that act as an easily accessible introduction to basic theology and philosophy of religion. Moreover, the Biblical story of creation has also had a massive impact on morality, culture and the popular imagination.

I was therefore disappointed by a recent British Humanist Association (BHA) statement that said: “Teaching creationism in RE is no more acceptable than teaching it in science, as pupils who are taught one thing in one subject and then the opposite in another are going to end up confused.” The statement was a response to proposals allowing Christian groups to set up free schools, which people fear will lead to creationism seeping into lessons on the Big Bang Theory and evolution.

These fears are shared by many and even the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that creationism should not be taught in schools. However, despite the merits of these fears, I would argue that creationism should still be taught in schools, albeit in RE and not science.

There are three main reasons why I disagree with the BHA and think that creationism should be included in schools’ RE syllabuses.

The first is the central part creationism plays in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Approximately four billion of the world’s population follow these religions and most of them view God as the creator of the universe. Although most creationists accept the Big Bang Theory and evolution, the story of creation over six days is the starting point of their religious scriptures and also informs teachings on the environment, animal welfare and human rights. In addition, issues such as temptation, free will and sexuality often refer back to the creation story. If we are to teach students about the religions that an estimated 54% of humanity believes, then creationism should have a brief part in RE.

Moreover, for sceptics and atheists, the story of Genesis in Judaism and Christianity highlights the more awkward aspects of these faiths, such as sexual inequality owing to Eve’s original sin, which has arguably led to the subordination of women throughout Christian history. The use of creationism in RE, therefore, does not have to be seen as forcing literal creationist beliefs upon impressionable children, but rather as way of evaluating and criticising the role of religion throughout history and in modern society.

The second reason I feel creationism has a role in RE is that the Biblical story of creation, especially in its Christian guise, has had an immense impact on the cultural heritage of the English speaking world. Whether we use common phrases like “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) and “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) or listen to the music of Joseph Haydn and Stevie Wonder, the creation story has had an obvious influence on culture and the arts.

And lastly, the third reason for including creationism in RE is that it allows for some basic philosophical ideas to be introduced to students as a way of understanding how human thinking about our origins has changed throughout history. Furthermore, critics of the inclusion of creationism in schools ignore the role that creation myths and theories have played in the history of ideas, especially as Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas all considered the origins of the world as divine.

Additionally, evaluating creationist theories develops the fundamental skills of abstract reasoning and evaluation. From Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’ and the cosmological argument to intelligent design and the literalism of Young Earth Creationism, students can make easy comparisons and dismiss what they deem to be weak arguments, which should give them a sense of intellectual empowerment.

The BHA need not be alarmed that I am seriously suggesting that a literal interpretation of the creation story equals the Big Bang and evolution, but RE should allow for beliefs about creationism to be studied and debated.

Interestingly, I have yet to come across a student who believes in a literal interpretation of the creation story. Although some believe in God and others do not, the BHA’s concern that pupils are going to get confused between religion and science is not the case in my experience. Creationism in RE is an opportunity to learn about what creationism is, why people believe it and why people do not. It is a religious belief taught in a subject about religion and beliefs. It is not science and students know that. They should, therefore, be allowed to know what the BHA and others are so upset about.

 The link in the second paragraph of this article was amended on 10 September 2012 to reflect the BHA’s clarification of its statement about the teaching of creationism/creation narratives in RE lessons.

Picture credit: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (Creative Common C0)

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