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A rational approach to creationism

In case you missed it, the Department for Children, Schools and Families released its "Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design" a few weeks ago. After months of behind-the-scenes meetings and discussions it was finally approved by ministers (you can access it at www.teachernet.gov.uk docbankindex.cfm?id=11890).

As one of those who helped put the guidance together, I am relieved it seems, so far, to have been broadly welcomed. Even the discussions on the RichardDawkins.net forum have been pretty positive while The Freethinker, "the Voice of Atheism since 1881", describes it as "a welcome breath of fresh air" and "a model of clarity and reason". What remains to be seen is whether it will be of use to those at the front line of teaching.

Let me quote just one paragraph from the guidance: "Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. However, there is a real difference between teaching 'x' and teaching about 'x'. Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory."

As we look forward to 2009, the year that celebrates 200 years since Charles Darwin's birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, I hope that science teachers and others will find time to introduce more young people to Darwinian thinking. For myself, I find evolutionary biology a wonderful way of understanding the world and entirely compatible with a mainstream religious faith.

For many, though, especially in the USA but also in the UK and other countries, evolutionary biology is incompatible with religious faith. I think this is a great shame.

A USA colleague and I have edited a book titled Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism (Peter Lang, New York), which tries to help science teachers deal with this dilemma. It shows how to take seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it.

While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it and to learn more science.

* 'Teaching about Scientific Origins' is available from the Institute of Education, tel 020 7612 6050

Michael Reiss

is Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London and a priest in the Church of England

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