Can science and religion be friends?
Pupils at Lady Hawkins School, a small, rural comprehensive in Kington, Herefordshire, do not generally encounter The Origin of Species until studying for GCSE science. However, today Charles Darwin is making an unexpected appearance in a Year 8 RE lesson, in a discussion about the impact of his discoveries on Christianity, which forms part of challenging new work devised by the Science and Religion in Schools (SRS) project.
Alex Draper, head of RE at Lady Hawkins, gets the lesson off to a rousing start with some big questions for the class about whether they think science and religion are friends or foes. The children warm to the theme, prompting one girl to ask perceptively: "Does science prove things against religion?"
Enter Charles Darwin and a whistle-stop tour, PowerPoint-aided, of the Galapagos islands, giant tortoises and the theory of natural selection.
"Does this go against a religion that says the world was created in seven days?" ventures Alex. He touches on the current controversy in Kansas about "intelligent design", and the class moves on to consider, with the help of worksheets, possible Christian responses to Darwin's theory. This is work that will occupy them for several more lessons at least, but the tone of the discussion is always open and questioning; as their teacher is at pains to point out, he does not have all the answers.
Sam Winter, 12, thinks it is "surprising" to be talking about science in an RE lesson, but the general consensus is that today's lesson has been "quite fun".
"You learn more about the two things mixed together," says Fay Griffiths, 13.
"I don't think you can talk about religion without talking about science,"
adds Charlotte Birch, 13, "because they are so much part of each other."
This is very much the view of Martin Rogers, "originator" of the SRS project and now its co-director, with Professor John Hedley Brooke. A former head of chemistry at Westminster School, as well as a practising Christian, Martin also taught RE at the school and was struck by what he felt was the boys' "confusion" in matters of faith - their belief "that science is true, that science has got it right and so, therefore, the Bible must be wrong".
"I always thought I would like to do something about this," he says. After nine years as chief master of King Edward's School, Birmingham, and 10 years as director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, in 2001 Martin took his second retirement and decided to apply himself to the question of science and religion. "I wanted to produce material which would encourage RE and science teachers to have an open-minded and informed debate with their pupils on the claims of science and religion," he explains. "I would like to help people to balance the two things in their lives."
He gained the support of John Hedley Brooke, appointed to the country's first chair in science and religion at Oxford University, and secured four years' funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Teachers and former teachers of science and RE, were commissioned to write materials on topics such as ecology, creation and evolution, medical ethics and biotechnology, neuroscience and human spirituality, and these were then subjected to the scrutiny of specialist academic advisers before being trialled in a range of primary and secondary schools.
The academic side is critical to the project, explains Martin. "This is a fast-moving subject with no right answers, and you've got to be bang up-to-date."
The project will be published in April 2006, in the form of a guide for primary schools and for secondary schools, each with a CD-Rom containing background information for teachers, lesson plans and classroom resources.
Printed on demand, the pack will cost schools no more than pound;15 and will be constantly updated to take account of scientific developments.
Alex, who first met Martin while on a term's fellowship at the Farmington Institute and later agreed to help trial the SRS project, says he would not previously have thought of including aspects of Darwinism in an RE lesson.
"The project is moving RE on - by exploring other avenues and creating more opportunities for me as a teacher and for my pupils," he says. "I don't have a science background and it's very exciting to be working with materials written by scientists for RE teachers. Science is a major element in the human quest, and this project offers pupils a fuller, wider education, backed up by people who are experts in their field."
Julia Harle, a former geo-physicist, now headteacher and RE and science co-ordinator at Christian Malford C of E Primary School in Wiltshire, helped to trial some of the project's primary material. She and a group of seven and eight-year-olds had particular success with the unit on Darwin and earthworms.
"We looked at the habits of worms and we thought about the different stories about creation, how they are all valid, how they can work alongside each other. We talked about how humans have a responsibility towards creation, however we believe it was created, and they really understood that," she says. "Young children, particularly in a C of E school, sometimes feel they have to say they believe in the creation story in the Bible, they almost feel it's slightly naughty if they don't. But religion and science are so interlinked, they need to be able to discuss both. For me the value of this project is the way it helps to open up the discussion."