In 1857, two years before Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species,’ the Victorian naturalist and creator of the Aquarium Philip Henry Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, arguing that in order for the earth to be ‘functional’, God must have created it with mountains and canyons, trees with growth rings, Adam and Eve with hair, fingernails, and navels (omphalos is Greek for ‘navel’), and that therefore no evidence that we can see of the presumed age of the earth and universe can be assumed to be reliable. Contemporary scientific and theological reception to the book’s publication is best summed up by clergyman novelist Charles Kingsley’s comment that he couldn’t accept a hypothesis based on the premise that God had ‘written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind.’ The book sold poorly and was seen as an intellectual as well as a financial failure. However, it gave birth to the Omphalos hypothesis, which still informs young earth creationist theory that remains proof against all empirical argument.
While we are familiar with American creationism, here in the UK we tend to dismiss it as part and parcel of gun-toting extremism in the Land of the Free and regard the existence of institutions such as the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas with amused disdain, not something that is relevant to us. Nearer to home Northern Ireland, where religion still exerts a stranglehold on education and individual rights, is seen as a uniquely benighted case entangled in intractable historical hatreds and nothing to do with life and education in the wider UK. However, as the recent Twitter storm raised by Tom Sherrington‘s blog post, My Evolution Assembly. And the Young Creationists shows, religious fundamentalism is flexing its muscles in English schools too. This is an educational issue, and not just for Science or RE teachers. It’s not going away and teachers need to consider how they will face it in their classrooms, because in case you haven’t been watching the news lately make no mistake: the forces of religious fundamentalism are entirely inimical to education.
I have a confession to make: I was raised religious. Not the kindly dotty aunt CofE type religious that characterises the British establishment at prayer, but the wild-eyed you must be born again religious so brilliantly satirised by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Although it is a novel, it is closely autobiographical, and when I first read it twenty years ago I recognised the unholy alliance of Biblical authoritarianism, intellectual vacuity and social inadequacy she relates from the ‘Fellowship’ of my own childhood. Winterson’s book gives some idea how being exposed to doctrinaire absolutism fosters in a child a mind set diametrically opposed to that of people who’ve been raised in secular or nominally religious households . Fundamentalism separates humanity into ‘brothers and sisters’ and ‘the World’, encouraging the child to be both disdainful and suspicious of everything outside the circle of belief; it privileges the religious authority over intellectual enquiry and simultaneously encourages individuals to indulge their emotional responses and, as long as those responses align with the accepted doctrines, validate them with as revealed truths pointing to the Will of God. Religious fundamentalism is as effective a form of brainwashing as any that has been devised; it’s on the rise and ignoring it, or backing away from it out of fear of giving offence, is not going to make it go away.
Conversely, although it is infuriating to deal with religious people (they are so self-righteous, so apparently wilful in their blindness to self evident realities and scientific facts!) mocking them as stupid or condemning their beliefs as bad only confirms what they have been told that everyone outside their belief system is hostile, and defensive anger easily justifies violence. Rather, as Tom Sherrington suggests, we need to respectfully engage with assertions of religious belief, however ridiculous we find them, as educational opportunities, and use our privilege as teachers to allow children raised in those belief systems a chance to hear alternative views.
I first came across Philip Henry Gosse in ‘Father and Son’, the writer Edmund Gosse’s account of his relationship with his father . I commend it to you. Reading Father and Son helped me to understand my own experience of rejecting childhood religion – my parents thankfully never banned the reading of fiction as Gosse’s did, and while he glimpsed other possibilities than passively accepting faith assertions through his reading of dictionaries and scientific publications, I glimpsed them through Literature. At school the adults I knew modelled a way of life that showed disinterested curiosity about facts and what was going on in the world around me to be a more interesting, secure and constructive foundation for living than the Book of Revelation. I was lucky in my teachers; I was also lucky that when I rejected our ‘fellowship’ at 15, I was largely left to my own devices, my only punishment being the loss of people I had known as family.
The religious fundamentalisms of the early 21st century are more aggressive than those of the last; they frighten us all, but they are not to be dismissed as mere distant horrors. The people on whom they exact the worst toll are the children born into them. We need more teachers to actively engage with the debate about religion in schools, to put forward their considered expert views on enlightenment through learning rather than revelation. Grateful as I am to my teachers for modelling an alternative way to be, that may no longer be enough.
Update: Since I posted this, Tom Sherrington has written a further blog post on the ‘hoopla’ surrounding his Evolution Assemblies. It illustrates some of my points above about both the difficulties and the necessity of keeping the conversation going.
Also, if you haven’t seen the film ‘Spotlight’ yet, go and see it. It portrays compellingly how the Catholic Church, seemingly far removed in power and social reach from the extremities of isolationist sects, subscribes to the same distorted world view of the primacy of authority and tradition over evidence.