‘Big bang’ in Britain over creationism

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LONDON | One of the world´s leading biologists, who is also an ordained Anglican priest, has sparked uproar in both religious and scientific circles by campaigning to teach creationism, along with evolution and the “Big Bang” theory in science classrooms.

Creationism, an issue that has triggered furious debates in churches, schools and even courts in the United States, rejects Charles Darwin´s theory of evolution and holds that God created the universe and all that goes with it — most of all, man — in six days.

Darwin was one of the early leading lights in Britain´s august Royal Society of science, among whose most eminent present-day members is the Rev. Michael Reiss, its director of education — and now himself one of its most controversial.

Mr. Reiss has truly stirred the pot — and the fury of his fellow scientists — by proposing that creationism has the right to a place in school lessons along with the conventional theories of the evolutionary origins of man and the theory that the universe exploded from a single point billions of years ago — the Big Bang.

“My central argument,” the professor said simply in what turned out to be a stunner of an address at the British Association Festival of Science at England´s University of Liverpool, “is that creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a world view.”

Anyway, the professor insisted in his speech earlier this month that his days as a biology tutor had taught him that “simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn´t lead some pupils to change their minds at all.”

Anti-evolutionism has a long history in the United States, including the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, centered on the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of Darwin´s theory in the schools of Tennessee. That ban was not repealed until 1967.

In its most popular latter-day form, creationism, retains a strong hold in deeply religious communities. In the United States, Mr. Reiss estimates, the proportion of creationist children is as much as 40 percent.

In Britain, perhaps 10 percent of students come from families with sincere creationist beliefs.

Its adherents include Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin, whose stance on evolution versus creationism reflects that of Mr. Reiss: “Teach both,” she said in a gubernatorial address in Alaska two years ago.

“You know, don´t be afraid of information,” Mrs. Palin said at the time. “Healthy debate is so important, and it´s so valuable in our schools.”

As recently as June 2007, a Gallup Poll published in the United States showed that 66 percent of those interviewed believed that creationism´s idea that human beings were created by God “pretty much in their present form” in the last 10,000 years was “definitely” or “probably” true.

Despite his own significant clout in the world of science, when it comes to support for teaching creationism in any form, Mr. Reiss is almost on his own.

The Royal Society greeted his remarks in Liverpool with scarcely concealed disdain: “The Royal Society,” it said in a tersely worded statement, “is opposed to creationism being taught as science.

“The society remains committed to the teaching of evolution as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth.”

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