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Origins of the specious

2010 June 11
by Paul Vallely

A school project has meant that our half-term holiday cottage was filled with junior biographies of Darwin, tales of the Voyage of the Beagle and kids’ guides to evolution. I was looking though them just as Ofsted announced that the teaching of religious education is “inadequate” in one in five secondary schools in England. Reading my son’s books on Darwin it was easy to see why.

The tolerance of ignorance is at an extraordinarily high level in our liberal elite, when it comes to religion, at any rate. Many of the statements made about Darwin in these children’s books are crudely simplistic. Many are plain wrong: “Most Christians in Darwin’s day believed that the world had been created in six days, probably in 4004 BC”. The theory of evolution “demolished these beliefs and removed a benevolent caring God from the picture”. “Survival of the fittest overturned the notion that Father-like He tends and spares us”. “Until then, Christians had believed what the bible told them. If the bible was proved wrong, their religion was a useless sham. Christian doctrines did not make sense.”

The truth is that many Christians embraced Darwin’s ideas, while many scientists did not, as Nick Spencer’s admirable God and Darwin chronicles. In the second edition of On the Origin of Species Darwin quotes Charles Kinsley as saying that natural selection offers “just as noble a conception of Deity”. Anglican theologians published a manifesto supporting Darwin and seeking to make modern textual criticism of the Bible available to the ordinary reader.

It is ironic that so many fans of Darwin, who pride themselves on dispelling myth, indulge in this kind of lazy or dishonest thinking by confusing creationism with Christianity. Were I as ignorant of science as they are of religion I’d have the good grace to keep my thoughts to myself.

Ignorance is one problem with the teaching of religion in our schools. There are clearly not enough qualified RE teachers with the sophisticated understanding of religion needed to convey accessible yet accurate versions of the subject to pupils. The lack of a national curriculum, with individual local authorities devising syllabuses of varying quality, is another. A government review is a good idea here.

But it should go beyond the obvious notion of religious education as a springboard for promoting community cohesion. RE does offers religious and cultural understanding in a pluralist society; Ofsted found that where RE was poor, pupils were more intolerant. But there is more to RE than promoting a more harmonious society.

Children should not just learn about religion, they should learn from it. This is not about evangelising so much as celebrating. It is not about concepts like atonement and salvation but those of self-sacrifice, social justice, forgiveness and compassion. Religions’ stories, and the lives of extraordinarily good men and women inspired by faith, offer children a way of thinking about the non-material dimensions to life.

Most schools are already very moral places. They have a strong vocabulary of learning about right and wrong and the impact of our actions on other people. But they also need to find ways to speak of the spiritual.

Children need to understand the importance of ritual and rites of passage. Baptism, bar mitzvah and the first cut of a Hindu baby’s hair are all vehicles for that. Religious understandings of marriage add a richness to discussions of relationship, not least in classes where almost none of the children’s parents are married. Death and bereavement tell us something about life and meaning.

Children need to know there are some questions to which Darwin had no answer.

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