Turkey’s plans, announced in June 2017, to banish the teaching of evolution in schools have been met with disquiet and cries of outrage. It is important that Christians respond in a rational and gracious way.
Turkey’s head of curriculum for the ministry of education said that Darwin’s theory of evolution was ‘controversial’ and schools would no longer be covering the subject. This policy aligns Turkey with Saudi Arabia, which also forbids the teaching of evolution in schools.
Commentators have pointed out that evolutionary theory is not widely accepted among religious Muslims in Turkey, and suggest that the new policy is part of President Erdogan’s provision of state support for Islam.
After presenting my own view of the matter in one forum, I received the response: ‘Superstition is not worthy of being elevated to the science class in the UK, but clearly it is in Turkey’. Very quickly, people have interpreted the banning of evolution as a skirmish in the science vs. religion battle, with science represented as the guardian of truth and religion portrayed as the promoter of superstition.
In the exchange of ideas, my contribution was to say that Turkey is making the same essential mistake as the UK. In the UK, instead of teaching the observational data and how interpretations are made, theory has taken precedence over evidence and students are assured that Darwin successfully explained the origin of species. This leads to a real danger of brainwashing.
In the UK, the Department for Education and many science organisations refuse to acknowledge that creationism has anything to offer as an alternative interpretation of scientific data. A past Secretary of State for Education said he wanted to make it ‘crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact’. Consequently, concepts of ‘creation’ and ‘design’ are introduced only to reject them as anti-science.
The issues are not about contesting facts, but relate to the interpretations of those facts. It is these alternative interpretations of data that are prohibited. We need to consider whether a ban on creation and design in the UK is just as obscurantist as the banning of evolution in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia.
Why not let students consider alternative explanations of origins? Educationalists are doing their work best when they help students evaluate alternative interpretations and reach informed conclusions. Dictating to students that certain approaches are prohibited is counter-productive.
However, origins issues go much further than the interpretation of evidences. Everything feeds into the ‘big picture’ about origins that enters the culture of communities and affects the way people think about purpose and meaning in the world around us. An influential ‘big picture’ in Europe and the US is materialism, where there is no place for a Creator God and humans must look within themselves to find purpose and meaning.
Prior to the rise of materialism, Christianity provided the cultural ‘big picture’. The context for human existence is expressed through the themes of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption.
Darwinism was born when materialist thinking was emerging as a significant influence on western culture. It grew out of the Deism favoured by Enlightenment scholars, where God was thought to have created the cosmos as a machine, and then left it to run without any further divine input. Consequently, God became a distant figure, with effectively no influence on our lives. Deism has no meaningful doctrine of providence. It was not a big gulf to move from this to the agnosticism or atheism of materialists.
Students of Darwin’s life routinely discuss his transition from nominal Christianity (as a theology student) to agnosticism, but it is important to trace the impact of ‘big picture’ thinking on his scientific work.
Wearing the hat of a Deist allowed him to consider processes and mechanisms operating without any direct link to God’s design or purpose. He proposed a theory of origins that was completely compatible with a materialist ‘big picture’.
By giving priority to chance mechanisms, blind processes and death, Darwin challenged the biblical message that creation was planned, purposeful, wise and good. Ever since Darwin, the Christian ‘big picture’ has been on the defensive.
Where the leaven of Christianity is muted or absent in any culture, totalitarianism takes over. We should not be surprised that militant Islamists want to banish evolution from schools. Nor should we be surprised that militant materialists want to airbrush out all references to creation and design from science.
Our response should be to promote a healthy appreciation of ‘big picture’ thinking, to argue the case for better teaching, and to promote scientific enquiry that is open to recognising God’s handiwork.
Dr David Tyler is a trustee of the Biblical Creation Trust