Uncle Albert's origins

17th February 1995 at 00:00
Science or faith? Lat Blaylock views a new video for secondary pupils which stirs up the debate

In America, the debate about science and religion and the inter-relationship of the two continues to rumble on; school boards and biology teachers are the object of lobbying by creationists and evolutionists, and the curriculum's way of addressing questions of origins, both human and astrophysical, is through controversy and dispute.

Many British observers of this galactic storm in a teacup are both amused and baffled by the strength of feeling that leads 47 per cent of Americans in a recent poll to affirm that "God created man, pretty much in his present form, at one time, within the last 10,000 years".

But our own science curriculum often makes a different kind of heavy weather of dealing with those aspects of the philosophy of science which most interest pupils, and are concerned with the "Where did we come from? Why are we here?" kind of questions. Reg Luhman, a teacher from Westcliff High School in Essex, has researched the place of philosophy of science in the curriculum, and found very little provision in the key stage 4 years.

There's no religious education in American schools, so the opportunity for a co-operative approach there does not exist. But some British schools are making links between the scientific and the religious curriculum in trying to help students to address the ultimate questions of the universe, from more than one perspective. Reg Luhman's work provides an example: his school hosted a debate for students in which the biology staff and the RE staff argued the issues from their own perspectives. He says: "There's a great danger of overspecialisation in the exam system, and students need to be given the chance to think broadly. So often scientists and people of faith never address each other's questions, but only their own."

Another attempt to link these curriculum areas is being made by Professor Russell Stannard, the leading physicist from the Open University, who has been producing his Uncle Albert books about Einstein and astrophysics for primary children for a number of years. Now he has ventured into secondary education, with the production of a video series which will enable teachers to address the "big questions" from a variety of perspectives in key stages 3 and 4.

The four programmes, called The Question is. . . , explore scientific verification as well as religious belief, and include interviews with religious sceptics as well as orthodox "believers" in both science and religion. A British version of the American controversy emerges: the Oxford evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins offers the view that religion is akin to a computer virus, continuously and disastrously replicating itself in consciousness from one generation to the next. He dismisses biblical miracle stories as analogous to Arthurian legend.

Such uncritical rejection of ideas of an "intelligence" behind the natural world's development are rejected by the Reverend Arthur Peacock, whose commitment to both evolution and some intelligence behind the universe leads him to comment "the dice are loaded, towards complexity and towards self awareness".

This video series has been produced with funding from the Templeton Trust, an American-based funding agency which seeks to promote rational approaches to religion and imaginative approaches to science. The programmes attempt to do both. Such innovative efforts to open the science curriculum to philosophical perspectives and the RE curriculum to ideas about verification adapted from scientific study, suggest that the debates around science and faith do have a British as well as an American form.

o The Question is . . . will be launched at the Science Museum on February 21. Available from: CEM, Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 lGW. Tel: 01332 296655 Price: Pounds 24.95 (special launch price, including booklet) Lat Blaylock is executive officer of the Professional Council for Religious Education

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