Reiss resigns after ‘damaging’ Clash over creationism

by
18 September 2008

by Bill Bowder

THE Royal Society’s director of education, the Revd Professor Michael Reiss, resigned from his post this week after a row over his view that creationism should be examined in science classes.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Royal Society said that Professor Reiss’s remarks had been open to misinterpretation.

“While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society’s reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as director of education — a part-time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.”

Professor Reiss was contacted on Wednesday, but declined to com­ment further.

The row began last week over a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in which Professor Reiss made it clear that he did not view creationism as a science, nor did he believe it should be taught as such. Nevertheless, he believed that science teachers needed to gain the interest of the ten per cent of their students who held such views by discussing them.

“My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is, if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about science,” he said.

“I realise that simply banging on about evolution and natural science didn’t lead some pupils to change their minds at all. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to be a sufficient reason to omit it from the science lesson.”

He said that he realised that many scientists and some educators feared that to consider creationism or intelligent design in the classroom would legitimise them. In a follow-up statement, Professor Reiss said that science teachers discussing creation­ism as a world-view was “not the same as lending it any scientific credibility”. Teachers needed to take time “to explain how science works and why creationism has no scien­tific basis”.

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His remarks were nevertheless seized upon as fresh evidence of the expansion of creationist thinking in the education system. Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, said creationism should be discussed in religious education classes. But a government spokes­man said that science teachers should answer questions about crea­tionism if asked.

After Professor Reiss resigned, a number of commentators said that he had been treated unfairly.

The Revd Michael Roberts, Vicar of Cockerham, Blackburn, and an avowed opponent of creationism, said on Wednesday: “The way Professor Reiss has been been treated is a disgrace. What he is saying is very, very wise. It is the policy you have to adopt, otherwise you have a disaster.”

Mr Roberts said he had taught geology in the United States where half his class were young-earthers, he said. “You have to answer them, point by point, as they bring them up.”

The debate coincided with the launch of a section on the Church of England’s website to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin next year. Darwin, who initially trained to be a clergyman, later lost his faith as he could not find objective facts to support it, the site states. The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, director of Mission and Public Affairs, who compiled the site, writes that nothing in scientific method contradicted Christian think­ing.

“Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunder­standing you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunder­stand you still. . . Good religion needs to work constructively with good science.”

Paul Vallely, page 15

Should creationism be taught as an alternative scientific theory? Vote here www.churchtimes.co.uk.

Church welcomed Darwin’s views

THIS WEEK the Church of England’s website has owned up to errors with regard to The Origin of Species, claiming that its initial response was too hostile, writes Simon Jones. But historians of Darwin’s life, even those commended by Richard Dawkins, are less critical. James Moore, author of The Darwin Legend, writes that: “With but few exceptions, the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution.”

It is true that the then Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Samuel Wilberforce, dissuaded Queen Victoria from awarding Darwin a knight­hood; but this was only after he had been goaded by Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”. Huxley and other early reviewers of The Origin of Species suggested a conflict with religion that neither Darwin nor the Church had evidenced, largely because the group wanted to create a scientific environment independent of clerical control. Responding to one such review, Darwin wrote: “The manner in which [it] . . . sets the Priests at me . . .

Darwin's former tutor, the Revd John Stevens Henslow, who the Church this week suggested was also hostile to him, in fact said that the book was "a stumble in the right direction".

Even in the United States, the reaction was broadly positive in religious circles. The historian George Marsden suggests that "virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s", and the book itself was published by the botanist Asa Gray, who reiterated the view that evolution and orthodox Protestant Christianity were entirely reconcilable.

Simon Jones is editor of Third Way. For more on the debate see www.thirdwaymagazine.com 

It is true that the then Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Samuel Wilberforce, dissuaded Queen Victoria from awarding Darwin a knight­hood; but this was only after he had been goaded by Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”. Huxley and other early reviewers of The Origin of Species suggested a conflict with religion that neither Darwin nor the Church had evidenced, largely because the group wanted to create a scientific environment independent of clerical control. Responding to one such review, Darwin wrote: “The manner in which [it] . . . sets the Priests at me . . .

Darwin's former tutor, the Revd John Stevens Henslow, who the Church this week suggested was also hostile to him, in fact said that the book was "a stumble in the right direction".

Even in the United States, the reaction was broadly positive in religious circles. The historian George Marsden suggests that "virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s", and the book itself was published by the botanist Asa Gray, who reiterated the view that evolution and orthodox Protestant Christianity were entirely reconcilable.

Simon Jones is editor of Third Way. For more on the debate see www.thirdwaymagazine.com 

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