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.

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