Creationism as a Worldview: Implications for Education

Michael. Reiss argues that when teaching evolution, teachers should allow students to raise any doubts they have, even though creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories.

The Rise of Creationism

To some people's surprise and consternation, and others' delight, creationism is growing in extent and influence, both in the UK and elsewhere. Definitions of creationism vary but about 40% of adults in the USA and perhaps 15% in the UK believe that the Earth came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur'an and that the most that evolution has done is to change species into closely related species. For a creationist it is possible that the various species of zebra had a common ancestor but this is not the case for zebras, bears and antelopes – still less for monkeys and humans, for birds and molluscs or for palm trees and flesh-eating bacteria.

At the same time, of course, the overwhelming majority of biologists consider evolution to be the central concept in biological sciences, providing a conceptual framework that unifies every disparate aspect of the life sciences into a single coherent discipline. Equally, the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the universe is of the order of about 13-14 billion years old. Even though evolution and cosmology are well established scientific theories, they are at the centre of a prolonged, possibly deepening, religious controversy.

This highly publicised schism between a number of religious worldviews, particularly Judaeo-Christian views based on Genesis and mainstream Islamic readings of the Qur'an, and modern scientific explanations derived from the theory of evolution, is exacerbated by the way people are often asked in surveys or interviews about their views on human origin. There is a tendency to polarise religion and science in questionnaires that focus on the notion that either God created everything or God had nothing at all to do with it. The choices used in many public polls erroneously imply that scientific evolution is necessarily atheistic, coupling complete acceptance of evolution with explicit exclusion of any religious premise. Most surveys contain only a small number of options that makes analysis easy, 'clean' and strictly numeric. The limited number of categories forces people to codify their views to fit into, at best, three or four predetermined categories and misses more nuanced information about what they are actually thinking. In fact, of course, people have personal beliefs about religion and science that cover a wide range of possibilities.

The Significance of Origins

If one asks whether dinosaurs and humans coexisted, that is manifestly a scientific question (to which I consider the correct and scientific answer to be 'no'), and any religious attempt to answer the question differently is bound to lead to conflict. If, though, one asks why the universe has precisely the values of the various physical constants that it does (values which, if only minutely different, would preclude the evolution of any life, let alone life sufficiently intelligent to be asking this question), then this is perhaps less of a scientific question, so that conflict is less likely to be seen as inevitable.

Most of the literature on creationism (and/or intelligent design) and evolutionary theory puts them in stark opposition. Evolution is consistently presented in creationist books and articles as illogical (eg, natural selection cannot, on account of the second law of thermodynamics, create order out of disorder; mutations are always deleterious and so cannot lead to improvements), contradicted by the scientific evidence (eg, the fossil record shows human footprints alongside animals supposed by evolutionists to be long extinct; the fossil record does not provide evidence for transitional forms), the product of non-scientific reasoning (eg, the early history of life would require life to arise from inorganic matter – a form of spontaneous generation rejected by science in the 19th Century; radioactive dating makes assumptions about the constancy of natural processes over aeons of time whereas we increasingly know of natural processes that affect the rate of radioactive decay), the product of those who ridicule the word of God, and a cause of a whole range of social evils (from eugenics, Marxism, Nazism and racism to juvenile delinquency).

By and large, creationism has received similarly short shrift from those who accept the theory of evolution. Many scientists have defended evolutionary biology from creationism. The main points that are frequently made are that evolutionary biology is good science, since not all science consists of controlled experiments where the results can be collected within a short period of time; that creationism (including 'scientific creationism') isn't really a science in that its ultimate authority is scriptural and theological rather than the evidence obtained from the natural world; and that an acceptance of evolution is fully compatible with a religious faith.

March of the Penguins

March of the Penguins is a stunning 2005 National Geographic feature film. It runs for approximately 85 minutes, has a 'U' (Universal) certificate (ie, is deemed to be 'suitable for all' though, according to the back of the DVD casing, it 'contains mild peril') and is accompanied by a beautiful coffee table book available in the original 2005 French and a 2006 translation into English. For a photo gallery, downloads, a trailer, desktops, a screensaver and buddy icons see the official website, which gives a good impression of the exceptional footage in the full length film. The website also starts with the words of Morgan Freeman that begin the English (USA) film: “In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way. This is the incredible true story of a family's journey to bring life into the world.”

The film has been an exceptional success. It won an Academy Award (an 'Oscar') in 2006 for Best Documentary Feature and was awarded Best Documentary at the 2005 National Board of Review. In terms of revenue it the most successful nature film in American motion picture history, taking over US$100m at the box office and in rentals. Its success gave a boost to the carton film Happy Feet with its rap-dancing Mumble and Christmas 2006 in the UK saw an explosion of penguin merchandise – I was even given a Happy Feet Advent Calendar from Marks & Spencer with five penguin finger puppets as well as the more traditional 25 pieces of chocolate.

The reasons for the success of March of the Penguins are no doubt several: the photography is phenomenal; the emperor penguin's story is extraordinary; the adults are elegant; the chicks are irredeemably cute as they look fluffy, feebly wave their little wings and learn to walk; the way in which the birds survive the Antarctic winter is awesome; the plaintive cries of mothers who lose their chicks in snow storms are heartrending. But one perhaps unexpected reason is that the film has been a great success among the Christian right.

For example, if one enters '“march of the penguins” Christian' into Google, at the time of writing (22 July 2009), one finds 70,000 hits [Update: 758,000 hits as of October 2009]. Second of these is a review of the film by Mari Helms on ChristianAnswers.Net, which describes itself as 'a mega-site providing biblical answers to contemporary questions for all ages and nationalities with 40-thousand files'. After a fairly detailed summary of the subject matter of the film, and reassurance that viewers won't find much in the film to be objectionable (noting, for instance, under the sub-heading 'Sex/Nudity' that: 'The penguins mate during the film, but it is understood, not shown'), the review goes on to discuss the lessons that the film has to teach about love, perseverance, the existence of God and friendship/camaraderie. An extended quote from the review illustrates the presuppositions of the author:

FRIENDSHIP/CAMARADERIE: All the penguins wait to start their journey until the last of them is out of the water, giving a sense of unity. As the penguins make their journey, they will all stop from time to time until one of them picks up the trail again, and then they all start moving. It is similar to what we are called to do in the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:27-28: 'Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

While the fathers are caring for their unhatched chicks and braving the harshest of weather, they all huddle together in a huge heap for warmth. The ones on the outside rotate, so they all have a turn in the middle. Philippians 2:2-4: 'then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.'

I was truly fascinated by the lives of these penguins, maybe because I felt we as humans could emulate much of it and be better followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They all worked together towards a common goal; there was no fighting, gossiping and disorder. There was apparent 'love', cooperation and order. 1 Corinthians 12:25: 'so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.'

This quote manifests an integrated relationship between science and religion. The worldview is one in which it is straightforward to read from penguin behaviour to human behaviour, though it is worth noting that the argument is neither entirely anthropomorphic (in which non-human behaviour is interpreted as if it was the behaviour of humans) nor one in which the natural world is seen as the source of instruction as to how humans should behave. Rather, it is scripture that has primacy; the natural world is then held up, not so much as a model for us to imitate, but as an illustration of how the natural world can manifest that which God wishes for humanity.

Such a reading of nature in March of the Penguins is facilitated by the wonderful photography which enables the viewer to read into the footage as much as (s)he reads from it. Indeed, Luc Jacquet has been quoted as saying that his intention was to tell the story in the most simple and profound way and to leave it open to any reading. So I, with a PhD and post-doctoral research in evolutionary biology (though also a priest in the Church of England with a conventional, albeit non-fundamentalist, Christian faith), can see it as a manifestation of the extraordinary ability of natural selection over millions of years to enable an organism to survive and reproduce in the most inhospitable of environments, while others see it as a clear manifestation of Intelligent Design.

This latter reading is despite the fact that the film begins by talking about how Antarctica used to be covered in tropical forest before it drifted South and then says of the emperor penguins: 'For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth.'

Classroom Specifics

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14-16 year-olds? The first thing to note is that there is scope for young people to discuss beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things in other subjects, notably religious education (RE). In England, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) have published a non-statutory national framework for RE and teaching units which include a unit asking: 'How can we answer questions about creation and origins?' The unit focuses on creation and the origins of the universe and human life, as well as the relationships between religion and science. It can be downloaded from

In the summer of 2007, after months of behind-the-scenes meetings and discussions, the DCSF Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design received Ministerial approval and was published. As one of those who helped put the Guidance together I am relieved it seems to have been broadly welcomed. Indeed, the discussions on the forum have been pretty positive and The Freethinker, 'The Voice of Atheism since 1881', described it as 'a welcome breath of fresh air' and 'a model of clarity and reason'.

The Guidance points out that the use of the word 'theory' in science (as in 'the theory of evolution') can mislead those not familiar with science as a subject discipline, because it is different from the everyday meaning (ie, of being little more than an idea). In science, the word indicates that there is a substantial amount of supporting evidence, underpinned by principles and explanations accepted by the international scientific community. The Guidance goes on to point out: 'Creationism and intelligent design are sometimes claimed to be scientific theories. This is not the case as they have no underpinning scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the science community as a whole. Creationism and intelligent design therefore do not form part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study.'

The Guidance then goes on to say: 'Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. However, there is a real difference between teaching 'x' and teaching about 'x'. Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory.'

This seems to me a key point. Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them. However, just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught science at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything, providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

In an interesting exception that proves the rule, I recall one of our advanced level chemistry teachers scoffing at a fellow student who sat with a spoon in front of her while Uri Geller maintained he could bend viewers' spoons. I was all for this approach. After all, I reasoned, surely the first thing was to establish if the spoon bent (it didn't for her) and if it did, then start working out how.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion. The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time. However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works such as 'how interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories'; 'that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address'; 'how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes' (all quotes from the National Curriculum for science).

Having said that, I don't believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said. The DCSF Guidance suggests: 'Some students do hold creationist beliefs or believe in the arguments of the intelligent design movement and/or have parents/carers who accept such views. If either is brought up in a science lesson it should be handled in a way that is respectful of students' views, religious and otherwise, whilst clearly giving the message that the theory of evolution and the notion of an old Earth / universe are supported by a mass of evidence and fully accepted by the scientific community.'

I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science. Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct, as careful science teaching might hope to persuade a student that an object continues at uniform velocity unless acted on by a net force, or that most of the mass of a plant comes from air. Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, that is a very different way of seeing the world. One very rarely changes one's worldview as a result of a 50 minute lesson, however well taught.

My hope, rather, is simply to enable students to understand the scientific worldview with respect to origins, not necessarily to accept it. We can help students to find their science lessons interesting and intellectually challenging without their being threatening. Effective teaching in this area can not only help students learn about the theory of evolution but better to appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.

Michael Reiss is Assistant Director and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He did his PhD on evolutionary biology and is a priest in the Church of England.