October 2005 note

Given the latest developments is the US (the ‘Dover’ trial), this page merits a considerbale re-working. You will still find useful resources on ‘creationism’ and the science-theology interface below. But I have much more material to add. And the key focus at the moment is so-called ‘intelligent design’. This is not only poor maths and bad science, it is also dismal theology (the latest incarnation of god-of-the-gaps ideology) and a dangerous wedge for otherwise discredited creationist agendas to try to weedle their way back into the classroom. It is now gaining some attention in the UK. I’m shortly due to write a piece for Ekklesia about this. There’s a huge amount of confusion around, and otherwise thoughtful people of faith who don’t fully understand the issues are liable to be taken in. In some sections of the media (where ignorance of both science and religion abounds) the Dover trial is being presented as pretty much a science-v-faith struggle. This is nonsense, and while it may fit with Richard Dawkins’ prejudices, it is also music to the ears of creationist propagandists. . As a matter of fact, however, he chief anti-ID scientific witness is a Quaker, and the key contested evolutionary text is also written by a Christian. Reputable theologians are also lining up to expose ID fallacies. [Meanwhile, see: trial updates here]

Updated below to: June 2005

Back in 2002 Anglican bishops from England,  and  various eminent scientists, expressed to the British Prime Minister their shared concerns about science teaching at Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead, and called for strict monitoring of the curricula of proposed ‘faith schools’. The College, funded by fundamentalist -oriented Christians, has been promoting ‘creationism’ — a highly damging distortion of both theology and science. [Michael Roberts makes this point, and also highlights so-called ‘intelligent design’ theories.]

Signatories to a short letter [see below] to Tony Blair, made public by Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, include the Bishops of Oxford, St Albans, Hereford, Birmingham, Southwark and Portsmouth, along with the president, other eminent Fellows of the Royal Society, and Professor Dawkins — who is an atheist. [Professor Dawkins argues his case elsewhere, as does Bishop Harries on the BBC.]

Together they contend that the theory of evolution is not a “faith position”, as the school maintains, and call for the respective disciplines of science and religious studies to be properly respected.  [See here for the Emmanuel CTC article, courtesy of Andrew Brown, a science writer who also does a column for the Church Times. There is a rigorous rebuttal of anti-evolution propaganda in The Scientific American.

The Harries/Dawkins letter was sent on 22 March 2002; its arrival was acknowledged, but there has been little or no policy response so far.  The Department of Education is keeping its head down, and its coffers open, whatever the strings attached. Sadly, the government seems prepared to countenance further developments along the Gateshead lines, to the detriment of learning generally, and learning about science and religion in particular. Other comments.

This issue will not go away. Ekklesia reports (7 September 2003) that a new ‘Christian school’ in Middlesborough is  teaching ‘creationism’, too. The creationists are being allowed to challenge the basis of public education in Britain today. For the comparable (yet far, far worse) situation in the US, see the excellent National Center for Science Education. Developments in 2004 and 2005 in the US have not been encouraging. Academy schools are still (September 2005) trying to fudge the issue.

See also The Pandas Thumb evolution weblog, and Andrew Brown’s Darwin Wars site. In terms of rebuttals, note: Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (MIT Press, 1999) and  Michael Ruse, ed., But Is It Science? – The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Prometheus Books, NY, 1996).  A great hub is the Talk Origins  archive, including Chris Colby’s Introduction to Evolutionary Biology. Berkley’s Understanding Evolution home page is aimed more at the classroom. And here is a quick set of ripostes to creationists.

Visitors to this site are encouraged to back this concern by writing to their own Member of Parliament and to the PM.



This is a difficult area to summarise, the commitments and arguments being so entrenched. A good place to start is the fine piece in The Guardian (August 2003) by Karen Armstrong on “believers in the lost ark.” At least this explains how religious texts and traditions may not be construed. The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkley, CA, is an important hub of activity. Also Faith and Reason. Here is a theological critique of so-called ‘creation science’Van Huyssteen (below) provides a fine overview of the issues.  Ruth Page illustrates and internalises a modern theological approach to scientific discovery in God and the web of creation.  Professor Robert T Pennock, a Quaker philosopher and religious studies teacher,  has been a courageous opponent of the anti-evolutionists. This is a review of his book against the ‘new creationists’. See also the Zygon Center for Science and Religion. Fortress Press has a good series for use in schools. More Science and religion books here: a mixed bag, illustrative of the wild extremes of quality in this area.

One or two further notable individual titles below…

Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell, 2005)
Charles P. Henderson,
God and Science: The death and rebirth of theism (J Knox Press, 1986 – now being revised on the web)
Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997. [review]
Langdon Gilkey, Nature, Reality, and the Sacred: The Nexus of Science and Religion, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993. (Gilkey was a key witness for the rational theological perspective in the 1968 Arkansas judgement, following Scopes** )
Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, Fortress Press, 1993 (rev’d 2001)
John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, Yale University Press, 1998
Nancey Murphy, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990.
J Wentzel van Huyssteen, Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World, Trinity Press International,1998
Keith Ward, God, Chance and Necessity (One World, 1997) — a polemical discussion with Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins.

A general problem with most of the current texts from theologians engaged in science and scientists interested in theology (such as Professor Paul Davies) is that they begin from (and presuppose) the perspective of onto-theology and the traditional schema of Western metaphysics. This constructs the arguments in a very particular way. But recent linguistic philosophy and phenomenology  questions this inheritance, matched by postmodern turns in theology from both radical and more traditional perspectives (e.g. J. L Marion and the Cambridge School).

A different way, and one which I believe will prove more fruitful for the longer term prospects of the theology/science interface, is that represented by the spacious dialogue gathered around (and by) John D. Caputo. See his On Religion (Routledge, 2001) and the essay ”The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible‘. I am also grateful for the work of Ruth Page, formerly of New College, Edinburgh. The basis of her approach is established in Ambiguity and the Presence of God (SCM Press, 1985). This offers a more elegant metaphysic than (for example) the confusions of process philosophy. However it may be in danger of underestimating the capacity of classical theological traditions to address some of the concerns she rightly highlights. We need to move beyond onto-theism and process philosophy towards a more apophatic, phenomenological approach –  with action and relationship as its primary characteristics.


March 22, 2002

The Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

Dear Prime Minister,

We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.

Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines. It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence.

It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a “faith position” in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.

The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college. There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools.

We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technical College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.

Yours sincerely

The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Sir David Attenborough FRS
The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans
Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society
Professor John Enderby FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society
The Rt Revd John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford
The Rt Revd Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham
Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum
The Rt Revd Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark
Sir Martin Rees FRS, Astronomer Royal
The Rt Revd Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
Professor Patrick Bateson FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society
The Rt Revd Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth
Sir Richard Southwood FRS, Past Biological Secretary, Royal Society
Sir Francis Graham-Smith FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society
Professor Richard Dawkins FRS

[Letter from Prof Niall Shanks, East Tennessee State University, USA, in The Guardian, 19/3/02]


I teach evolutionary biology in Tennessee – about 90 miles from Dayton, location of the infamous Scopes trial. I read with sadness of attempts to introduce British students to creationist buffoonery as an alternative to evidentially well-grounded evolutionary biology. The idea that school children (and teachers) are in a position to judge which theory is better biology is absurd – especially since evangelical creationists have elevated the art of lying for Jesus and Genesis into a science.

…. In the US we are used to undergraduates believing that Noah’s Ark was the source of post-flood biodiversity, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, that humans and dinosaurs lived together (creationism’s Fred Flinstone hypothesis) and that the Grand Canyon was scooped out by a tidal wave during the flood.    …

The US experience shows that good and sensible people frequently have their voices drowned out by well-funded purveyors of baloney.

[Niall’s letter is highly polemical, but the situation is indeed intellectually and politically charged. The leader of the Ohio Intelligent Design Movement advised an ID conference in Minneapolis in 2003 that “This is basically a political struggle. … Science will have very little to do with the arguments on what science standards will look like.  Education will have little to do with it.  It’s basically how the politics will work in a particular state.”]


I rarely get involved in debate with anti-evolutionists. Most reputable scientists eschew it too, because they recognise the political game being played and do not want to dignify opponents who show a wilful ignorance or neglect of the mass of data. It is in the laboratory that the scientific issues are best handled – and no advocate of ID or creationism has ever published in a reputable journal a single recognised, peer-reviewed piece of research based on their theories.

I made an exception recently, in a weblog exchange of which this is an edited excerpt, because of the evident good will of the person involved.

> For the atheist there is no option but to
> accept the evolution theory, because creation
> is dismissed by their presupposition that
> there is no God.

And their conviction that there is no God is unfortunately reinforced by Christians who start off by mistakenly taking creation and evolution to be alternative hypotheses about the origins of life – whereas in Christian theology creation is the term used to describe not the mechanics of ‘beginnings’ or life-processes but *all there is understood as a gift of God*… including the complex inter-play of chance and necessity by which freedom and purpose can co-exist. By the same logic, as Aquinas and the other great interpreters of historic faith have pointed out, God is not an explanatory theory – or any kind of ‘thing’ at all. God is the source and destiny of all that is. So the first and most tragic mistake of ‘creationism’ is not scientific (though it is a veritable industry of those!), it is theological. (See Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the question of God, Ashgate 2004, for a superbly economical and creative exposition of what is required in speaking of God faithfully and reliably as a Christian).

> There are serious scientific holes in Darwin’s theory
> that should be pointed out.

Evolution is fundamental to all modern biology. The aim of evolutionary theory is to explain the origins of biological diversity. If there were such obvious scientific holes in the theory, one would imagine that senior scientists might have noticed! Of course evolutionary theory (being evidence-based and analytical) leaves much scope for rigorous disagreement, refinement and development. But the central moorings are sound, as highly qualified Christian biologists like Sam Berry have patiently explained and re-explained in the face of anti-evolutionist confusion (and worse).

As in this case, what are presented as major holes in evolutionary theory turn out to be misapprehensions – some partial, some complete:

> It is in contradiction to Genetics. An organism with n
> chromosomes cannot evolve into an organism with n+1
> chromosomes, because any change in chromosome number
> prevents it from passing on its mutation to offspring
> by reproduction.

Firstly, many organisms are asexual (they do not reproduce sexually) or can reproduce either sexually or asexually. Therefore, this is not a problem for them. We see changes in chromosomal number most often in species lineages that can reproduce asexually, just as evolutionary theory predicts.

In sexual species, while most mutations resulting in a change in chromosomal number either render the individual infertile or are fatal, this is not always the case.

> It is in contradiction to biochemistry. Enzymes are
> complicated organic chemicals that work on a
> lock-and-key basis to bind certain chemicals needed
> for the body. You cannot evolve a key; it either works
> or it doesn’t, there are no steps of mutation that
> provide a gradual advantage.

Most mutations do wreck the ‘key’ (or ‘lock’) and are harmful to the organism. However, not all of them are. The ‘lock and key’ metaphor should not be taken too far: enzymes can work to a better or worse degree. There are huge numbers of examples of enzymes where you can apply biochemistry to show that a particular change could provide a gradual advantage.

The vast majority of biochemists accept evolution. Every biochemistry professor in this country does, including the Christian ones.

> And it is in contradiction to the number-one rule of
> the Universe: The second Law of Thermodynamics. In any
> closed system (one without an external influence) the
> amount of entropy (disorder) must always increase.
> This is an “uncheatable” law; it is so strong that
> some scientists believe it defines the “arrow of time”
> itself. Thus the order in the species (and indeed the
> rest of the universe) cannot be the result of the
> passage of time, but they must be the result of an
> external influence.

Evolution applies to the organisms on our planet, the Earth. The Earth is *not* a closed system (primarily because we receive energy from the Sun), therefore the second Law of Thermodynamics should not be applied to the Earth alone.

Anyway, the second Law of Thermodynamics says that the *overall* amount of entropy must always increase. It does not prevent *local* decreases of entropy (i.e. increases in order). The order inherent in life is a local process that exists as part of an overall increasing entropy.

Going back to the subtle but corrosive shift in the first assertion (from ‘evolutionary theory’ to ‘the evolution theory’): to talk of evolution in this way is fundamentally to misunderstand the specific use of ‘theory’ in scientific discourse – theory is about working hypotheses based on evidence and analytical frameworks, it is not a synonym for ‘guess-work’ or for something only tangentially factual.

(There are analogous confusions about the use of the term ‘faith’ in Christian discourse, and these are compounded when anti-evolutionists describe acceptance of evolution as a ‘faith position’. For reasons I mentioned at the top, this is the theological equivalent of machine-gunning your foot, not merely shooting it!)


(further responses)

<<It is a myth that everyone but misguided creationists accept evolution.
Senior scientists have noticed the problems – it is the scientific laity that have not.>>

Science is all about noticing and sorting out problems. Evolutionary biology is subject to intense and continual research, which has led to significant revision and modification of Darwinian understandings. But noticing and responding to a problem isn’t the same as a wholesale rejection of a fundamental theory. Senior scientists don’t do the latter, because serious science would come to an end if they did.

<<For evolution to be true it must work for complex organisms that
reproduce sexually, not just single-celled asexual organisms
(which for all their mutations – forever remain – single-celled asexual organisms).>>

Indeed. My argument encompassed that point. The fact that most mutations in sexual species ‘fail’ is not the issue. The fact that a significant number don’t is. There are millions of sexually dimorphic species on the planet and the forms of sexual selection vary among them. Evolution can also get stuck in a positive feedback loop (which is why, for instance, models such as ‘runaway sexual selection’ are required to explain secondary sexual characteristics in some instances.)

<<Whilst it is true that regional decreases in entropy can and do
occur, it is naive to assume this explains away the problem the
Second Law of Thermodynamic poses to evolution. Even the
evolutionary biologists accept it is one of the biggest challenges to the theory.>>

You haven’t grasped the fundamental point here. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to closed systems. A closed system is one in which there is no energy transfer into or out of the system. The Earth is not such a system, since it receives energy from the Sun. Evolutionary biologists who understand this have no problem. See further: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/thermo.html

<<The evolutionist states that given enough time a group of
monkeys with typewriters will eventually produce the complete
works of Shakespeare. The Second Law of Thermodynamics
states all you will get is ripped paper and broken typewriters!
Which rings more true?>>

Neither – the first is a basic anthropomorphic category mistake in behavioural science, the second an amusing non sequitur. I’ll spare your blushes further!

<<What Darwin observed was Natural Selection – this is the
good science behind the hokum. Natural Selection *reduces*
biodiversity it does not increase it. (Just think of all the species
that have become extinct in the last 100 years – and how many
new species have evolved in that time? – That should tell you
what direction biodiversity is going) What evolution needs in
order to work is a series of small mutations that changes one
stable organism ideally suited to its environment into another
– this is pure science fiction. Evolutionists poke fun at creationist
theory by calling it the “Fred Flintstone” theory (because of the
claim that Dinosaurs and Men shared the earth) In retort
Evolutionary theory is the “X-Men” theory – as that is the only
place such advantageous mutations in advanced species
are to be found.>>

This is a massive tangle of confusions, I’m afraid. Evolution requires both mechanisms to increase or generate genetic variation and mechanisms to decrease it. The span of those mechanisms involves mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, recombination and gene flow. Mutations are random, non-directed changes in DNA that provide species populations with genetic variation. Natural selection is a non-random process that subsequently “acts” on this variation. Over considerable periods of time the process of natural selection can lead to divergence between populations and allow individuals within populations to become better adapted to their environment. In other words, life arises from the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.

XM2, by the way, implies a seriously misleading account of evolution (though, sadly, of a kind that many American kids are taught by propagandists in classrooms these days), the notion that spontaneous mutations can create organisms significantly more advanced than their predecessors. The whole point of evolutionary theory is of course to explain the development of complex organisms from simpler ones through a gradual process of change over great intervals of time through natural selection. Macromutation saltationists don’t exist amongst contemporary evolutionists, however – Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters” (1940) being a thing of the past in all but the wishful creationist’s imagination.

A final observation…

As the distinguished scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne points out, from a theistic perspective the interplay of chance and necessity which we see through science (in evolutionary biology, quantum physics and elsewhere) suggests that the universe has come into being in such a way that God can be revealed personally within it; that human beings may exercise their free will within it; and that the universe can explore its own freedom and potential through an evolving process.

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