A couple of comments on the resignation of Prof Michael Reiss from the Royal Society (he was forced to step down after saying in a speech that creationism needs to be discussed in schools rather than being simply dismissed).

Paul Helm notes on the the response of one professor – ‘Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes’:

“No doubt he would have wished to add ‘and the denial of creationism is also based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes.’ If matters of faith cannot be a matter for science but for something else, religion classes perhaps, then matters of unfaith should also remove to the religion part of the curriculum. But who has ever heard a member of the Royal Society say that atheism ought never to be taught in science classes?”

He continues: “Two things are dispiriting about exchanges such as this. One is (what seems) the wilful ignorance of many scientists about religion, and particularly about the Christian religion. ‘Creation’, ‘creationism’, ‘7 days creation’, ’literal’, ‘4004 BC’, are used in a way that reveals disinterest and contempt; extreme discourtesy, in fact. If one dissents form a view one should, morally should, take the trouble to understand it in a sympathetic way. That seems to be a basic element of disinterested enquiry. The second concerns the ethical standards expressed in dismissing creation. …”

I’m not endorsing every point he makes, but the full article is here and worth reading.

Same for Cranmer:

“If the theory of evolution is so self-evident, it ought to have no problem standing up to a classroom discussion. Science is about enquring, the prerequisite of which is an open mind. The Royal Society has manifest the antithesis; indeed, it has displayed intolerance and the enforcement of personal prejudice.

No wonder science is dying in Britain.”


23 thoughts on “intolerance

  1. A touchy subject, but let’s be clear here.

    Science is neither about supporting nor refuting religious beliefs. It is about science – about objective collection and interpretation of facts. Creationism – either the extreme young-earth kind or the broader sort that Helm says scientists are ignoring – is not science.

    Teaching evolution – a scientific theory and fact – in schools is neither a religious nor an anti-religious act. It is an act of educating pupils about science. Avoiding teaching creationism is not an act of rejecting religion. It is an act of keeping religious views (and anti-religious views) out of science education.

    As for the incident over Reiss and the Royal Society, I don’t know. I haven’t looked into the incident in detail, but it could be that everyone over-reacted to Reiss’s comments. Incidents of inappropriate religious incursion into science and science education are close enough that people are a bit sensitive on the subject.

    However, we must keep in mind that science classes are not infinitely capable of including discussion of every idea out there. Should science teachers stand ready to discuss astrology, homeopathy, psychics, faith healers, and any other claim that they may come across?

    Perhaps they should, at that. But given the state of the system at the moment, is it reasonable to expect that they could include all those discussions without sacrificing some of the core, important ideas basic to science education? Evolution is core to the understanding of biology. Creationism, while an interesting and possibly true philosophical and theological idea, gives no insight into the science of biology. For beleaguered teachers, it is clear which must have priority in the science classroom.


  2. Hi Tim

    You say evolution is a scientific theory and fact. I’m afraid no one has ever proved the evolution theory to be fact, it is just that, a theory. It is also a massively flawed theory, but as long as its taught as fact from the classroom and from every mass media outlet then most people will accept it to be true and subsequently form their own theories around the it to suit their own subject area. And so it goes on self-perpetuating-ly.


  3. Besides which “evolution” covers a great number of theories, some more respectable than others. (This is something I planned to get into four summers ago, but never got beyond this point). From what I remember of standard grade physics, everything is so simplified that I don’t believe many pupils will ever get to the stage of understanding why any one of them might be considered a plausible theory. Most will just swot up and regurgitate whatever approximation they are taught.

    What will also, I bet you a lot of money, be almost never brought up, are two things: the different objects of the particular and philosophical sciences- heck, the debates and different answers given to the question of what are the objects of the particular and philosophical sciences – and the difference between creation per se and creation in time. And another generation of kids will be ripped off and sent into the world to opine on things they have been taught to think they know about. Hoo-ray. Not.


  4. I’m afraid I’m not clever and I am also prone to making awkward and silly remarks which I may not be able to justify. However, I’m going to give this a go, and if no-one responds to it, then I’ll know I’m off the mark.

    I know that science is quite clever, it helps us to explain a lot of things and helps us to make some useful things as well. But I feel that there are scientific folk who are regarding their abilities a bit too highly. I think there exists a scientific force which we are not taught about in Physics. This force is made up of highly paid professionals who like their nice high positions and greetings in the market places, their influence in society and having conferences where between the business, they can sneakily talk to each other about Star Trek and the next big plan about going to Mars.

    Science is a tool, some people excel with it and produce things which are very useful to the world, other folk build massively expensive and enormous tunnels in the ground and enthuse about how much their advancing something.

    But I suppose I’m not far enough evolved to be a reasonable critic of today’s scientific community.

    These silly questions about ‘evolution’ go on and on. What does it matter though, when we’re faced with the 1st Commandment?


  5. I greatly respect Cath’s tradition, and I enjoy reading and participating in this blog. Please keep that in mind as you read my responses to the above comments.

    First, I strongly disagree that “no one has ever proved the evolution theory to be fact”. There are multiple strong lines of evidence (a) demonstrating the fact of evolution (that organisms have changed over time, becoming new species) and (b) supporting the theory of evolution (ie, the theory of mutation and natural selection that explains the fact of evolution).

    I recommend reading an introduction such as this Wikipedia article for a taste of the multiple independent lines of evidence supporting the fact and theory of evolution.

    Evolution has never been shown to be “a massively flawed theory”. Every time I see that claim, it seems to be made by someone with an ideological predisposition against evolution, and it lacks any credible evidence to support it. Claims asserting evolution, on the other hand, are based on the work of scientists bound by strict practices – practices which are designed to weed out human biases, and which require large amounts of evidence for every detail being claimed.

    There is a resource dedicated to specifically addressing the many claimed flaws of evolution here.

    Berenike is right that the common term “evolution” covers a number of theories – it simply means “change over time”. The most common one (and the most hotly-debated one among people with an ideological axe to grind) is biological evolution – the development of modern organisms from their primordial ancestors. It is this sense that I mean when I use the term “evolution” without modifiers. Other evolutionary theories include stellar evolution (the formation and life cycle of stars), cosmic evolution (the development of the entire universe since the moment of the Big Bang), and even cultural and linguistic evolution. Though separate, they all enjoy support from the experimental evidence that has been used to test and refine them.

    I agree with Jbell’s implication that people get into science with a wide variety of motives – some more noble than others. But as an institution, science is designed to weed out individuals’ biases and leave us with something that progressively approaches the way the world actually works. Both our highest honours (such as the Nobel prizes) and our day-to-day funding reward people who come up with new ideas and who correct existing errors. Nobody gets a job as a scientist simply for toeing an ideological line.

    Scientific knowledge is not something one can dismiss by calling scientists biased or privileged. It is not simply a matter of opinion. If one does not like a scientific conclusion, one has the freedom to propose another hypothesis, test it, and present the evidence. Nobody has done that for the suggested alternatives to evolution. Therefore, I think it is fair to call it a fact (as in an observed reality) and a theory (as in a well-supported explanation for the fact, with testable predictions that have been verified).

    As a nearly-finished PhD student, I know how much work goes into even the slightest assertion of a scientist. Most of that work is designed specifically to weed out the biases that our colleagues are often accused of. And, almost invariably, the accusers have done no such work – they have let their own biases colour their perceptions of reality.

    Please let me know if I’m missing something important here. We are all seekers after truth, I think, and all passionate in our own ways. I hope that my passion (and our occasional disagreement) will not interfere with us sharing our pursuit of truth together.

    (And Cath, I’m sorry that this thread has strayed from the initial point – which was the political climate surrounding Reiss’s resignation.)


  6. Thanks Berenike!

    I like reading your blog page, it is very interesting and well written!

    I’m not very sure what you mean but that won’t stop me from posting a poorly thought out and badly written reply.

    We can certainly learn a fair amount from the ‘book’ of creation about God, but surely it is easier and much more profitable for everybody to accept the Biblical account, rather than to randomly gaze around, speculating about things which are clearly impossible in light of what our Maker has already revealed to us in actual writing?


  7. Okay, further “precising” – “biological evolution” covers many things and variations on a theme, not to mention (un)intentional association of ideas.

    I read a very amusing account by Michał Heller despairing of the methodological madness reigning at some philosophy/science conference, wish I could find it.


  8. Well this all exploded much faster than i expected.

    Folks, be nice to Tim. He’s nice and he’s at the stage of writing up his thesis where (if he’s anything like me) he’ll be in a very fragile state :)

    further thoughts may follow once i get something written for my supervisor…


  9. Tim

    I’m not an accomplished writer so my heart sinks at the thought of responding to one of these essay-like posts, so bear with me if it sounds abrupt, its not my intention. Then again i may manage to waffle on at great length so bear with me on that account too, or ignore me completely.

    I agree it may have been a throw-away term to say Evolution is a “massively flawed theory” but i don’t say it with no backup; there’s many a real life credible scientist out there who is creationist, the vast majority of them never get into high positions, however outstanding they may be, just because of the kind of intolerance Cath has been pointing out. And there are among them those who came from an evolutionary starting point – interestingly. But they do research like others, you can see some of their work in the ‘Journal of Creation’ here. So to claim that the disputation of evolution comes from those who “lack any credible evidence” while in my case may be true, in that i dont have any of my own research, is not true overall.

    But my main point was, the whole education system is geared towards making people believe in evolution (and connected theories) as our origin. A person who has no opinion on the matter, a person who may have a nominal creationist view, as well as those who have already been taught to believe that it is fact, will absorb the theory as fact, there’s nothing to refute it in our school system, well not the school i went to… Though there were a few fellow sceptics in my biology class who managed to get the teacher all flustered and hot under the collar about the flimsy nonsense they had to teach us before he abruptly ended the discussion =) But now the bias most will have, when leaving school, will be towards evolution. As no doubt you’ve heard, its the same results creationists use but the interpretation is where the differences come in. And that lies in the scientist’s bias.

    No doubt you think I’m brainwashed, a simpleton or lunatic, or all three, but i like to think i have a reasonably logical mind and have seen both sides of the argument.

    i could throw more into the fray but ive gone on there longer than intended with my waffling, it takes a long time for a mere MechEng, and i’m sure there’s holes to pick, but that’ll do for now.



  10. Dear JBell

    “surely it is easier and much more profitable for everybody to accept the Biblical account”

    But what does the Biblical account say?

    When it says “And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament, and it was so. ” – what does that mean? Is there a great big ceiling and the rain is the water leaking through it?

    Being a physicist or biologist holding to some form of evolutionary theory proper to one’s discipline does mean one does not accept the Biblical account of anything.

    The Bible is not a Big Book of Rules, nor is it Everything You Want to Know About Everything But Were Afraid To Ask. Both the Scripture and the world are “telling the glory of God”. You could in a similar way ask what’s the point of studying Scripture, once you’ve got the general idea.

    St Augustine, “On the Literal Reading of Genesis”

    It’s great, asks just about every question you can think of and lots you would never have thought of. He doesn’t answer many of them, as I recall. Obviously some of it is a bit dated, because he’s not wondering how string theory fits into the Genesis account, for exampe, but it’s massively instructive.

    A useful quote:


  11. I apologise for my lengthy posts. Unfortunately, when I get excited, I get wordy. I’ll try to keep this post shorter.

    Cath, thanks for the support. I feel that everyone is treating me with a great deal of respect, for which I’m grateful and which I hope I am returning in kind, despite our deep disagreements.

    James, thank you for pointing me to the Journal of Creation. (I think you express yourself very well indeed. You are clearly neither simpleton nor lunatic. I just think you are wrong on this point.) I’ve had a quick look around the site, and read a couple of their highlighted articles. What seems clear to me is that they are operating under the assumption that the Bible is literally true, and are trying to make all of their empirical observations fit that hypothesis. A scientist is obliged to find ways to remove any bias that could unduly sway their conclusions. So I cannot take that Journal as a credible scientific alternative to the dominant view. My position stands, awaiting more persuasive counter-evidence.

    That the education system is weighted in favour of evolution I cannot deny. But I would say it is more a weighting analogous to the weighting in favour of, say, a periodic table of elements instead of the ancients’ “earth, air, fire, and water”. That is, the weighting is proportional to the evidence. It’s science education; evolution is science and creationism is not.

    Berenike, I confess I do not penetrate your full meaning. It feels like you are agreeing with me (or at least allowing that I might not be contradicting the Biblical account), but that could just be my hopeful nature deceiving me. At any rate, and whatever your intent, I find your final Augustine quote very apt.

    And again, I have gone longer than I hoped. As Cath says, I have a tumultuous few weeks remaining in my PhD. So I will bow out here. I will return to see what else is said, but I don’t think I’ll have anything further constructive to add. Thankyou all for a challenging and vigorous exchange!


  12. Dear Berenike,

    “Being a physicist or biologist holding to some form of evolutionary theory proper to one’s discipline does mean one does not accept the Biblical account of anything.”

    I agree.

    I think though that this is a great pity. Perhaps if the physicist and the biologist ditched the rotten theories and conducted their investigations within the clearly set Biblical parameters, they would undoubtably find their science being more succesful than at current.

    It would also be interesting if the scientific establishment put a bit more scientific endeavour into looking at this great big bit of water that was above the earth at the beginning. If it ever happens I’ll happily watch the TV programme about it, though I doubt that David Attenborough would want to narrate it.

    Your paragraph about the Bible; I don’t understand you, sorry, but I think I completely disagree. So there.

    Thanks for the link to the Augustine book. I may well add it to the large pile of books I haven’t read yet. However I don’t really want more questions, as I much prefer answers.

    I am still reading the Augustine quote. Thank you.



    “Professor Antony Garrard Newton Flew (born February 11, 1923) is a British philosopher. Known for several decades as a prominent atheist, Flew first publicly expressed deist views in 2004”

    A number of scientists contend that their consideration of evidence points to some ‘designer’ or ‘God’, usually adding not a ‘Christian’ or other religion’s God.



    “Christianity is “radically creationist,” Father George V. Coyne said, but it is not best described by the “crude creationism” of the fundamental, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis or by the Newtonian dictatorial God who makes the universe tick along like a watch. Rather, he stresses, God acts as a parent toward the universe, nurturing, encouraging and working with it.”

    “He points to the “marvelous intuition” of Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman who said in 1868, “the theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.”

    I am not putting much in the way of my own input here, I’m no expert and would prefer to leave the quotes to the experts!


  15. Just been listening to ‘Sunday’ on Radio 4 which, if you go to 37.35 in on the listen again option, (avaliable for a week from today) has an English Bishop (Anglican) I think, and an Oxford professor discussing creationism and the resignation of Prof Reiss.

    Unfortunately Radio 4 got a secular atheist fundamentalist academic on, he used the program to indulge in polemics more often than discuss the issue at hand and openly admitted, “I’m interested in dialogue to stamp out religion.” He also chuckled in contempt on a couple of occasions. He’s entitled to his views but shows a fundamental lack of respect for anyone with differing views from his own.


  16. Thanks for these links, Cellarer.

    Actually thanks to everyone for a very interesting discussion. Some of you lurkers should come and comment more often.

    Tim especially, thanks for your patience and courtesy – there are plenty things I’d like to add, but maybe we should pick it up again a few weeks from now …


  17. No new arguments here, just a comment.

    Cellarer, I listened to that piece and couldn’t agree with you more. Peter Atkins has no place in a respectful dialogue. Even Richard Dawkins, who many see as “fundamentalist”, is vastly more polite and respectful than Atkins.

    Cath, I would love to pick this up again in a few weeks. Thanks for triggering such a delightful exchange with your thoughtful blog post.


  18. 16. Woops. that should have read “does not mean one does not accept …”

    What I meant about the Scripture is that, as Cardinal FamousName (but I can’t remember which one) said in the C16, “the Scripture was written to tell us how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go”. When it says “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, do you think the sacred text binds you to believe that the sun goes up in the morning and down in the evening?

    Tim: I don’t know if I agree with you or not, because a) I never did get round to that reading project on eevolooshun, but I know (or rather, believe, as I imagine most of us do in these questions, taking – after due weighing of what we can see of their credentials and what we understand and see in their arguments – the word of other people we accept as authoritative in the field) that some theories of evolution are not necessary incompatible with revelation.

    Revelation is a factor. Of course, a physicist can’t force his equations to act other than they do, but if a theory really does appear to contradict revelation, then either the theory or revelation has not been properly understood, or the theory is wrong. Again obviously, you can’t write a paper in physics saying “this theory is wrong because revelation says something else”. But you would know it’s time to look at it again.

    (don’t know if that’s clear, but must go and rescue niece from bath)


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