Good morning, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak to our petition.
Our petition has attracted international attention because of the issues that are involved. Scotland’s future depends on science, especially the life sciences—a topic that the convener has addressed in the chamber. Signatories who endorse the petition, including teachers, ministers of religion and three Nobel prize-winning scientists, have written messages of support.
Evolution and the unity of life are central concepts to modern biology, just as the existence of atoms is central to the concept of modern chemistry. The objections to a common ancestry, such as those that are put forward by the Centre for Intelligent Design, and objections to an old earth, such as those that are put forward by so-called creationist scientists, lack all intellectual merit.
If the committee disagrees with what I just said, you should dismiss our petition and give your reasons for doing so. However, if in your assessment you agree with us, with the overwhelming scientific evidence—a sample of which we have sent to the committee—with the science that is outlined in the curriculum for excellence and with the massive stated consensus among the world’s scientific communities, the only remaining question for us to answer is how we best protect our children from this campaign of misinformation.
The issue is not about religion; it is about science. Despite some reports, the Scottish Secular Society is neutral on matters of faith and has a faith-diverse membership. As the Scottish Parliament information centre briefing shows, we have no wish to restrict discussion of any religious or philosophical viewpoint; indeed, there is across the faith spectrum a strong tradition of welcoming evolution as a manifestation of divine creativity. In view of what we have seen recently—from the challenge from People With A Mission Ministries, to the plain declaration of intent by the Centre for Intelligent Design, to other evidence that we can present—it is no longer credible to ignore the fact that there are organisations that are attempting, with some success, to penetrate our schools in order to present creationism and young earth doctrines as valid alternatives to established science.
Why cannot we, as the Government suggests, just leave the matter to the good judgment of our teachers? First, some teachers—let us hope not many—may well be creationists. I have come across that through interactions with my child’s nursery nurse. Secondly, there are places where teachers, although they may not be creationists, might experience pressure from the community to introduce creationism and ignore teaching evolution.
Thirdly, teachers might feel unprepared to teach about evolution, especially if they expect a creationist challenge from the local chaplain. That will be especially true at primary school level, through religious, moral and philosophical education that is rarely taught by science graduates.
Finally, and most important, it is rarely the teachers who are the problem; it is volunteer visitors and externally funded chaplains whose offerings are often gratefully accepted by schools that are currently coping with many other pressures. That is why our petition refers to materials being “presented” rather than taught. In the absence of the guidance that we seek, any teacher who would want to object to any particular creationist activity might well find themselves in an impossible position.
I hope that you are all familiar with the scandal at Kirktonholme primary school. What was most alarming about that incident was that the chaplain who was responsible had been in post and assisted by volunteers from his church for eight years undetected. The material that was distributed there beggars belief, which is why we have prepared copies for the committee to peruse. Such material is typical of so-called creation science, which is a mid-20th century development, as my colleague Professor Paul Braterman will possibly explain later.
The Perth-based “Challenger” bus regularly visits many schools throughout Scotland. Visiting the bus is incorporated into the school day and children are strongly urged to take part. Parents who have given permission are not normally told that the bus is provided by People With A Mission Ministries, which is an organisation that features materials from Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, which is a notorious United States-based young earth creationist organisation that has attacked this petition twice now.
Other creationist organisations also distribute materials or offer speakers to schools. Numerous schools are known to have creationist chaplains and creationist denominations, including US-inspired extreme creationist sects. They are often represented on school chaplaincy boards; we can supply details for councils. Some local authorities’ education committees, for example in South Lanarkshire, Clackmannanshire and Falkirk have members from churches that hold extreme creationist young earth views and could make things difficult for teachers in their employ. The organisation Truth in Science, which is young earth creationist, has sent to every school copies of a creationist pseudo-text, which is misnamed “Explore Evolution”. That book is a production of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, with which the Centre for Intelligent Design is closely associated.
The Creation Research Institute, which promotes creation science among creationist groups, also offers speakers to schools. One school in the Highlands has seen the Genesis story being taught as literal truth and has, in the past, designated a corner of a classroom as the “creation corner”.
To our knowledge, at least three schools have hosted debates between creationists and defenders of mainstream science; in respect of two such cases, the councils denied, in responses to freedom of information requests, that such a thing had ever happened. In the words of one of the schools:
“Last session our Higher RMPS class attended a Q & A with a creationist and this was then followed up with a similar session with an evolutionist as part of their course, but this was part of their studies and not advocating one set of beliefs.”
That is absurd. It is almost like having a question-and-answer session with a flat earther and, for the sake of balance, a sphericalist. The fact that the debate was even staged implies an intellectual parity that does not exist.
Given those facts, it is no longer credible to deny that this is a problem that is in need of official attention. The first step in solving any problem is to recognise that Scotland has a problem.