Richard Dawkins and Accelerated Christian Education

Richard DawkinsIn part 2 of Richard Dawkins’ 2006 documentary The Root of All Evil, Dawkins visits Phoenix Acadamy, an ACE school in London, and interviews its head teacher, Adrian Hawkes. It’s worth watching because you catch glimpses of PACEs and an ACE learning centre, as well as hearing the views of one of its exponents. In my view, Hawkes misrepresents the extent of ACE’s Creationism, presumably to avoid looking bad.

Here’s the video; the segment on Phoenix/ ACE starts at 10:33 and lasts just over four minutes.

If you don’t have time to watch it, here’s the crucial part of the interview:

Adrian Hawkes: ‘Do you think the Genesis story was true and God created the world in seven days?’ That’s what you would really like to ask me. My answer to that is, ‘I don’t know.’ However, did God use evolution to do that? I don’t know. Maybe he did. Having said that, do I think that if God wanted to do it seven days he could? Yeah I think he could.

Richard Dawkins: He could do anything.

Hawkes: Yeah, so it’s sort of an acadamic question which, actually, I don’t care about the answer very much really.

I was enormously frustrated watching this as it was broadcast in 2006, because I felt Hawkes was disingenuous. I’m not saying he was lying, but the viewer could be forgiven for assuming that the views Hawkes promoted were the views taught in his schools. That is absolutely not the case. Here’s what ACE says about evolution vs. the Bible:

“Remember the Bible is completely against any such theory. This theory leaves no room for man’s responsibility or man’s sin. If evolution were true, no man would be born a sinner because Adam would never have fallen and committed the original sin of disobedience to God. If evolution were true, Christ would not have needed to die for sin.”

Of course, outside of PACE time, teachers in his school may express views at variance with hard-line Creationism, but surely not much, or they’d create massive cognitive dissonance for the students. As the Alberta Department of Education’s review of ACE notes, PACEs say that people who accept evolution are “godless”, “anti-Biblical”, and “foolish”. ACE students spend a minimum of half their school hours working in carrels, in silence, from workbooks which constantly reinforce these ideas, and don’t permit discussion, let alone dissent. Realistically, how much balance could a teacher provide in the remaining school hours? Even if science were a priority in the rest of the schooling (and it usually isn’t) and the teachers wanted to challenge Creationism (which they usually don’t), you’d have a tough job to counter that level of propaganda.

I wrote to Adrian Hawkes and expressed my alarm at his claim that evolution does not matter:

“I was very saddened to hear you say this. As a Christian educator, I imagine you would agree that the pursuit of truth and excellence is a primary goal. And you are right, whether God made the world in seven days or 4.6 billion years may not make much difference to your faith, but it makes a crucial difference to science. That should matter to any science teacher.

“I don’t agree that evolution is incompatible with Christian faith, and I am extremely concerned by the fact that ACE misrepresents science in order to defend Creationism. There are many occasions in the PACEs when I was taught outright falsehoods. As a Christian, I know you will agree with me that there is no need to lie to children to make them believe. But this is what ACE does, intentionally or not.”

I then enumerated some of the falsehoods I’ve previously documented in this post and this post. I continued:

“When Richard Dawkins asked you about this, you mentioned that you had been taught things at school which are now known to be untrue. But surely you would not suggest that this is justification for teaching children misinformation today. It sounds to me as though your science teachers in school failed you. I know ACE science failed me, and that is why I care deeply about good science education for future generations.

“It is true that scientific ideas change in the light of new evidence, sometimes radically. This is why science education should not be about learning facts, but about learning the scientific method. This equips students to weigh evidence objectively, form hypotheses, and separate fact from fiction for themselves.

“The scientific method is not just useful for science. It is useful in life, for determining truth. It is the best method we have for using our (you might say God-given) faculties to make good decisions.

The problem with ACE is that it misrepresents how the scientific method works. It insists that it already knows what is true from its interpretation of the Bible, and the evidence must be made to fit that. They claim that evolutionists do the same thing, twisting the evidence to fit their presuppositions. This is simply untrue. It undermines the logic of the scientific method. And by undermining this, it exposes students to the risk of believing other falsehoods, through faulty reasoning. Students must be taught good quality reasoning. This skill will help them in life long after they’ve forgotten the facts they were taught in school.

“Creationism cannot do this, because it is based on faulty reasoning. It sets a false example of what a cogent argument is. That is why I care about this, and why I hope you will reconsider your view.

“I leave you with the thoughts of Michael Reiss, Professor for Science Education, University of London: ‘It is not the case that young people abandon their Christian faiths just because they are presented with good quality teaching about evolution and cosmology – if anything, quite the reverse.’”

Hawkes’ reply came some time later, and when it did, I struggled to make sense of it. He began by saying “I am not a scientist,” (to which the obviously reply is: then listen to the people who are!). He wrote:

“On a theological point, I see what you are saying in terms of ‘Remember what the Bible says’ I am of course familiar with that argument / point of view, but it is not one that I would take.  And no I do not think that this negates the argument concerning Sin or Adam and Eve.  However neither would I presume to affirm that my perspective / view is the correct one.  I was not there.”

I think he is saying, “I disagree with ACE; I think it’s possible to believe in evolution as well as being a Christian.” Which is good. That’s exactly what I hoped he would say. What he does not explain is how he feels about children using a system which continuously indoctrinates the idea that the two are mutually exclusive. But I suppose we know – he told Richard Dawkins, “I don’t care.” Which is exactly the attitude to science you want from a headmaster.

Then he says, “I was not there.” I often hear this Creationist argument, “None of us was present at the Creation of the Earth, so none of us can know.” I wonder if they would also wish for a criminal justice system where no one can ever be convicted without eyewitness testimony, regardless of what other evidence is available.

But then Hawkes goes on to argue against evolution. Which surprised me. He carries on:

“Which leads me to the next point which I have heard Richard expound lots of times, but still  I don’t get it;  I.E. that the science of first things is the same as the science that looks at a current situation, does controlled experiments to come to a hypothesis and either discards or moves on.  It is very hard to do that with things that are at the beginning of things.”

I scratched my head for a while to work out what he meant by this. I thought he was arguing against the idea that we can reliably know that scientific laws operated the same way in the distant past as we observe them doing today. I showed it to Adam (of the excellent EvoAnth blog) who thought it was an extension of the “how can you know if you weren’t there” argument.

Either way, these are questions with credible scientific answers, which makes me feel that Hawkes was not arguing in good faith. If he genuinely feels that evolution is compatible with his faith, why is he allowing students to be indoctrinated into a false version of science? Why, when presented with the evidence, does he not accept the scientific consensus, supported by prominent Christian scientists like John Polkinghorne and Francis S. Collins?

He went on to explain how, in 30 years of education, he has seen many success stories. Working with inner city children, he says he has seen many cases where students who “might not have made it” go on to successful careers.

Hawkes ended his letter by criticising Dawkins for asserting strongly that there is no God. Which is fine. My letter was not about the existence or otherwise of God. It was, very clearly, about how evolution is important, regardless of your belief in God. The fact that he bothered to bring this up makes me think he had not understood my letter. He must still think there is some conflict between the Bible and science, or he would teach proper science in his school. Since he does not, I do not feel he was being entirely transparent in his interview with Richard Dawkins.


The full, uncut interview is available on Dawkins’ DVD Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviewsand some cheeky so-and-so with a casual attitude towards intellectual property has posted it on YouTube.

My favourite moment is when Dawkins presses Hawkes on the fact that the PACEs continuously present the Christian viewpoint as though it were objective fact. Hawkes protests:

“It’s probably more likely to say Hindus think this way and Buddhists think this way, and somebody who believes in science would think in this particular way.”

That is just flat-out not true. I can think of one page – one, in the entire curriculum – where the views of different religions are presented reasonably objectively, and even that is followed by a paragraph explaining why Christianity is the best. The rest of the time, Dawkins is correct – the fundamentalist Christian line is taught as fact. Then there’s this exchange:

Dawkins:  All I ever saw [in the PACEs] was a statement of what is true, which was Christian.

Hawkes: Well, what is truth? [laughter]

Really? Really? “What is truth”? The battle cry of the relativist? To hear that from an evangelical is… surprising.

He goes on to add that Jesus says “I am Truth,” and says that this is “the weirdest thing in the Bible” (which is itself a weird claim). And, since Jesus was entirely mute on the subject of Creationism, it leaves us no closer to settling the debate at hand.

Related posts

See also: Adrian Hawkes’ blog.

Jerry Coyne says I am wrong about creationism, misogyny and homophobia
I am 30. This was not supposed to happen.
UKIP selects and then deselects Christian fundamentalist candidate who ran ACE school
The Power Team, or how evangelicals accidentally lie to kids
About Jonny Scaramanga
  • Katherine

    It’s possible that when Hawkes said that it is difficult to do science about beginnings, he meant that if an event is the first of its kind, it is unique for a while, and so the scientific method can be difficult to apply, since it prefers cases where there are lots of similar cases. This is an argument I think Richard Swinburne has discussed (can’t remember which side he was on), and doesn’t work when applied to the Big Bang or evolution, where we have vast swathes of evidence, but anyway, that’s another way of interpreting his complaint.

  • jonnyscaramanga

    Brilliant. So far, there are as many interpretations of Hawkes’ point as there are readers. You can tell he gets his inspiration from the Bible.

  • poiemapoetry

    Aargh! I can’t believe the ACE so completely writes off the question about what evolution means for original sin. Let’s shove it under the table because that one’s just too much of a challenge for us.

    As for Hawkes, from what I’ve read here (I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the interview yet) he sounds more like a party politician than anything else – he seems to be going out of his way to make sure no particular theology is attributed to him. The ability to address questions is at the heart of liberal theology, whether answers are immediately available or not, so despite the fact that he comes across as more liberal on the surface, he doesn’t even seem to be asking the questions – rather brushing them aside as though they’re not important.

  • EMH

    Does anyone else read Hawkes’ voice as Dumbledore?

  • JTS

    I am a scientist (and a Christian) and I’ve come across Hawkes’s line of reasoning before. I think. It’s hard to parse out what exactly he means because he isn’t very articulate about it, either becuase he’s trying to obfuscate, or because he’s not very smart, or a combination of both. However, if he is following the established pattern here, he seems to be using the old argument that since science must be testable or falsifiable. Creationists then go on to fallaciously link testability with the ability to conduct an active experiment. Since you can’t put evolution in a test tube and measure it, they say, it isn’t really science.

    This is wrong on 2 counts. First, I can dump bacteria in a test tube, throw in some bactericide, and watch the positive mutations survive. Natural selection in action! Just because I can’t do this with more complex organisms (in most cases!) doesn’t mean I’m not observing evolution, but they use special pleading to claim that bacterial evolution is different from that of more complex organisms. Second, it is not only paleontology and other historical sciences that use nature as the experiment without active human setup. If a theory predicts a result that can’t be measured with current technology, then we say that we should be able to see X phenomenon given the right conditions and wait for those conditions to arise.

    At the time Einstein proposed relativity, there was no way to test the beding of light due to gravity that he predicted. However, in 1919, pictures of the stars behind the sun during a solar eclipse showed the stars to be out of position from what they are when the sun isn’t in front of them, and the idea of gravity lensing was proven. Similarly, time dilation was not provable in the early 20th century, but with the advent of jets and atomic clocks, the miniscule time dilation effects at Earth speeds were indeed measured, almost 70 years after Eisntein predicted them. These examples are exactly analagous to the way biologists test evoloutionary theories with “if X is true then we ought to eventually find Y in the fossil record” type reasoning.

    The funny thing is Creationists talk out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. They scream about non-testability of paleontology. But they fail to grasp what the test is there for in the first place. What, exactly are we supposed to do when we don’t find any ether wind? We discard the theory of ether, of course. Science changes with the data. But when the debate of Darwinist continuous change versus punctuated equilibrium comes up, the Creationists scream about inconsistency, and that claim that scientists can’t make up their minds. Change is a feature, not a bug in science.

  • JTS

    Oh, here is a link from a US anti-Creationist site with some detialed arguments about testability and Evolution.

  • jonnyscaramanga

    Thanks for such an excellent response JTS. Not only do you have the same initials as me, you are a badass commenter. Please try to make any future comments a bit less good, so you don’t overshadow my posts.

  • JTS

    Thanks Jonny, I really appreciate what you’re doing here. It’s a yeoman’s job in debunking. Nothing I write is going to do anything but make some small contributions supporting you (not to mention the half dozen typos that sprang up after I hit “sumbit”).

    My internet initials are actually a pseudonym: John the Scientst, which plays on the fact I’m a Baptist named for another famous John. Aside from the Pentecostals, my sect seems to be the biggest culprit when it comes to this stuff in the USA. (I’m also from South of that Mason Dixon line, at the fringe of the whackaloon epicenter BTW). I ran across your site because I’m teaching my daughter to build a bozo filter, which is the most necessary mental tool in the 21st Century kit, isn’t it?

    We have been reading about $cientology and Young Earth Creationists, and a little Michael Shermer thrown in the mix. Because I don’t think 9 years old is too young to figure out that if you keep your mind open enough, people will throw all sorts of garbage in it. We’ll be back to visit your site often, I think.

  • Pingback: Fundamentally Flawed Podcast » Season 2 Ep. 2 – The latest scoop from Jonny on Christian Accelerated Education()

  • Kevin Long

    I’m not a fan of Dawkins, but I’m thinking they chose Hawkes *because* he was able to dissemble a bit. In extremely rigid ideological circles, this is often considered a way to present a pleasing face and avoid having the organization look stony and stupid. In other words, my hunch is they chose him to speak on their behalf ‘cuz everyone else was likely worse.

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