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Education: God on the science curriculum

24 May 2024

The view that faith has no place outside RE lessons is now being challenged, reports Tola Ositelu

Joshua Dorfman 

Sarah Moring leading a workshop session

Sarah Moring leading a workshop session

THE perception that faith and science are at odds remains stubbornly prevalent in some circles. The prominence in the early 2000s of New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, strongly contributed to this misconception.

Historical awareness can be limited. The likes of James Clerk Maxwell, Johannes Kepler, and Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who proposed the Big Bang theory, are among many who felt that theism was not at odds with the pursuit of scientific knowledge. For Lemaître, his faith engendered the awe that inspired his research. Nevertheless, more recent debates — in the West, at least — have all but eclipsed this multilayered history.

It is in this sometimes fraught context that the UK-based “God and the Big Bang” education programme came to be. In 2010, the Anglican diocese of Manchester submitted a motion to the General Synod, affirming that science and faith were compatible. The motion passed with little opposition.

Two years later, the Director of Education for Manchester diocese, Maurice Smith, and the Bishop of Middleton, the Rt Revd Mark Davies, approached a social entrepreneur in the diocese, Michael Harvey, to begin a project that would demonstrate this compatibility. Despite having no science background himself, Mr Harvey was undaunted.

“I found a head teacher in Kent who, with a couple of scientists, arranged events for sixth-form students called ‘God and the Big Bang’. I thought it was something quite replicable, asked for permission to use the name, and brought it back to the diocese of Manchester. They commissioned me to go to ten secondary schools, and said: ‘You’re on your own, Michael.’ It’s always good to have the blessing of a bishop!” he says.

He is accustomed to surmounting hurdles. Raised by his grandmother, he would have been the first in his family to go to university, but didn’t get the required A levels. He was introduced to faith when, as a young adult, he was invited to church by his estranged mother. There, he met the man who helped to change the course of his life.

“I discovered, post-school, that I had a brain. It was my youth leader, Frank, who introduced me to reading for pleasure. For the next 15 years, I would read two books a week. That started to give me pictures, and I was able to imagine things. Through that imagination came business ideas, which had a few different iterations.”

Before turning to social entrepreneurship, Mr Harvey was the director of a global insurance broker.

From those beginnings, more than a decade ago, God and the Big Bang (GATBB) has become a nationwide project, involving dozens of scientists of Christian faith, who have spoken to tens of thousands of students since its inception. In 2023 alone, the team visited more than 100 schools, and interacted with more than 6500 nine- to 18-year-olds.


THE team offers schools a series of formats, depending on age. “Awesome Science” sessions, for five- to seven-year-olds, last between one and two hours; workshops for eight- to 11-year-olds can be offered as either a half or whole day; for 11- to 18-year-olds, workshops are offered over a whole day, divided into various interactive segments.

Workshops are designed to be flexible, to work around a school and its needs. Pupils are surveyed at the start, to help the team to adapt accordingly. Classes may reflect on meaty subjects such as evolution, ethics, science in action, whether medical treatment is a human right, or how to decide what the NHS offers patients. Another questionnaire is distributed at the end of the day.

Joshua Dorfman Students taking part in a “silent debate” activity as part of God and the Big Bang

Mr Harvey believes that the programme is redressing some important historical imbalances in the ways in which both science and faith have been approached in British education.

“I believe creationism has a hold through collective worship in Church of England primary schools, which sets up a false choice between science or faith. It’s unconscious,” Mr Harvey observes. “Whilst in science, we-knowism is being taught: ‘This is what science has found, and it will basically solve all the problems.’ We very rarely teach science as ‘This is what we don’t know.’ On one end of the spectrum, we have ‘Science is fact’; on the other, we have the Genesis story, which is true but poetically so. In both areas, we don’t appear to be equipped to look at the other side.”

This binary is also reflected in some schools’ and parents’ initial trepidation about GATBB.

“It’s really dependent on location and demographic,” the programme’s senior team member, Sarah Moring, says. “Often, there’s a sense from schools that parents are either worried we’re coming in with a very evangelistic agenda — which we don’t — or that we’re going to tell them that they must believe in evolution and the Big Bang.

“Those are usually the two topics there’s concern around. We’re trying to convince them science is not something that is necessarily going to take them away from faith.”

As well as the school presence, “God and the Big Bang” is accompanied by online resources — many of them free and suitable for audiences of diverse ages, disciplines, and beliefs. A highlight is the video Sparks Resourceswhich accompanies purchases of Sparks discussion cards — where the team discuss weighty matters such as “God and Creation”, “Truth and Proof”, “Time and Space”, and “Mystery and Wonder”.

“Questions are at the heart of both science and religion,” a biology and physics researcher, Gavin Merrifield, another member of the team, says. “If we stop asking questions, I think then we have a problem.”


THE programme has evolved significantly over the years. Most notably, it has moved from a more didactic model to a dialogic framework.

The old style “felt quite disjointed”, Miss Moring recalls. “Only a handful of students would really engage in every workshop. For the rest of the class, the information went totally over their heads. And so we redesigned all of the content, to take on this dialogic model. We give students a little information, but each session will be completely different, since the main content is based on their thoughts and ideas.

“It felt pretty scary to start with, but it’s now like second nature to us. It’s about having a conversation and meeting the students where their ideas are.”

Miss Moring’s exposure to faith came much earlier than Mr Harvey’s. “I grew up in a home where my mum was a vicar, and my dad had a science background; so there wasn’t any obvious conflict around that at all.

“It’s only when I came to do my Master’s in science communication that people started to be interested in the fact I have a faith and was studying in this area. There were a lot of questions around the philosophy of science. Being questioned for the first time — not at all in an aggressive way — about how I reconciled the two challenged me to do more of that thinking myself.”

Miss Moring is part of a team of GATBB scientists, including teachers, researchers, and someone who describes himself as a magician and “lapsed” atomic physicist. How does GATBB scout for talent?

“The key word is scouting”, Mr Harvey says. “We’re blessed if people come to us. In the meantime, we have somebody at the moment — already studying for a Master’s degree — who really is a scout. One day a week, he is on social media, going to Christian Unions, and networking in order to find potential recruits. That’s the number-one way we do it.”


RETURNING to the evolution of the GATBB programme, Mr Harvey speaks of a significant shift in topical focus over the years: “The latest generation is not as bothered about Dawkins as Baby Boomers were. It’s as if we’re trained to combat the Dawkins way of thinking — but are those really the issues of the day?’

Michael Harvey

An undeniably pertinent issue is climate change. There is a particular urgency for the GATBB team, as scientists, to keep it at the forefront of young minds. This comes with challenges, however.

“Sometimes the children will ask: ‘What does this have to do with faith and God?’ whilst for me it’s blindingly obvious,” Ms Moring says. “For some pupils, climate change isn’t something that really bothers them. There are other problems in the world that are more directly relevant to their lives.

“About 18 months ago, at a school in the Midlands, we noticed the kids weren’t really engaging. It was only at the end that the teacher informed me three children in the class had lost close family members to knife crime in the past year. . .

“We don’t want the programme to feel too jarring with the children’s experience; so we’ve tweaked it a bit. We’re using climate change as a case study. At the end of the session, we explain that it might not be their priority issue, but there will be something else that they do care about and can choose to act upon.”


GATBB is thus about far more than shattering the dichotomy of faith v. science. It is about equipping young people with important skills, such as discernment and critical analysis, useful for academia and beyond. Students are learning to apply knowledge constructively, to engage in, and with, the wider world better.

This is all the more vital in a “post-truth society”, Ms Moring says. “In the last couple of years, we’ve noticed a greater distrust of science amongst secondary-school students, perhaps related to the pandemic. Issues around evidence, opinion, and truth have been a really big topic. All the time, we hear children say: ‘Well, my theory is this. . .” — an idea based sometimes purely on what they think.

“Compare that with what scientists would call a theory. It is still an idea, and we don’t know for definite that it is true, but there’s a good collection of evidence that has been reviewed and certified by many people.

“Lots of younger children, particularly ten- and 11-year-olds, have this idea that ‘I can’t tell you your theory isn’t true, because that’s your belief.’

“It’s as if it’s completely unacceptable to tell somebody that they’re wrong, even if what they believe to be true is based on rubbish. That’s quite interesting ground to be working on.”


WHILE it might seem to be an uphill struggle at times, there are plenty of enriching moments, Ms Moring says. “One of my favourite responses to a survey was from a student who said that they were an atheist. They were still an atheist at the end of the day, but [after experiencing the GATBB session] they could see how science and faith are compatible.

“Obviously, we love the days when students mention that they didn’t think God was real at the start of the session, but now they do. I hope that’s not the end of the conversation for them. But even for a student who didn’t have a faith at all, it’s rewarding to demonstrate that it’s not unreasonable.”

Now that the programme has been going for more than a decade, there is a generation of students who are reaping its fruit as they enter adulthood.

For Mr Harvey, this is exemplified by a recent encounter. “There was a young man, who was in his first term at Oxford, studying biology. A senior scholar said to him: ‘You’re a Christian doing biology? Then you won’t be a Christian after the first year.’ The young man said it shocked him a bit. However, he remembered, just a few months before, a group of GATBB scientists came to his school showing that science and faith were compatible.’”

These are the kind of bright young minds that Mr Harvey hopes to bring on board in future. “We’re going from recruiting ten to 30 science communicators in one year. We’ll have to find, train, and deploy them, and that’s going to really test us.”


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