I want to make something very clear: This blog does not exist to criticise Christianity at large. It is only fundamentalism and extremism I want to stop.
The New Atheists, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, frequently criticise moderate Christians for providing cover to extremists. I think moderate believers are more inclined to do this because the tone used by Dawkins et al makes them feel attacked. It is true, though, that moderates frequently perceive criticism of fundamentalism as criticism of all Christianity, and leap to its defence. When the Times Education Supplement published my article criticising Accelerated Christian Education, Christian friends of mine spoke up in ACE’s defence without knowing anything about it.
The problem is that beliefs exist on a continuum, and the views of moderates have varying degrees of overlap with Christian extremists. Although a minority of Christians support a literal reading of the Bible, almost all see it as the supreme authority in their life. Although there aren’t many staunch Young Earth Creationists, six out of ten evangelicals think evolution is to some extent incompatible with their faith. When you take a sledgehammer to fundamentalism, moderates get hit by the shards.
Moderates are, by and large, unaware of the extreme nature of fundamentalist views. For most Christians, religion entails a positive morality, trying to do good in the world, and a belief in an afterlife. There were parents with just this type of faith who sent their children to ACE schools. The nature of Accelerated Christian Education means that parents and even teachers do not know what the children are studying unless they make a conscious effort to find out; children work individually, in silence, from workbooks. I’m confident these parents would not have supported ACE if they were shown the extent of its extremism, particularly politically, where students are taught that God’s views are right wing, and the further left you move on the political spectrum, the further you move from His will.
Moderates and Creationism
Creationism in itself is not hugely odious. Believing the world is 6,000 years old doesn’t hurt anyone (except perhaps children with a talent for science). But if you accept that all scientific evidence supports a literal understanding of Genesis, you will believe that the entire Bible is literally true. That can lead to some rather unpleasant attitudes towards women and gays (for starters). Worse, it leads to believing you know all the answers to everything. And that can lead to an education system which excludes all critical thinking, because children just have to learn those right answers. That, my friends, is exactly what Accelerated Christian Education is. I don’t expect you to take my word for that, by the way; I’ll be demonstrating it in the coming blog posts.
Better public understanding of science is needed. Although only a minority of Christians are rampant Creationists, 42% of those polled by the Evangelical Alliance were in some way uncertain about the relationship between faith and evolution. There is no need for this. When I wanted to find out what I’d missed, I read Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. Coyne is, I think, an atheist, but while he criticises Creationists with vigour, I don’t remember him having a go at religion more widely. Not everyone agrees, but I found it fascinating. I also enjoyed Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. In the main Dawkins doesn’t rant about religion here, and gets on with explaining (amazing) facts from science. Neither book is going to persuade a committed Creationist, but I recommend them to people in the “don’t know” camp.
Professor Michael Reiss (also an Anglican priest), discussing ACE on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme, April 11th 2010, said that a proper understanding of science can lead to a deepening of faith. Millions of Christians reconcile evolution with their beliefs. Understanding the workings of nature – God’s creation, if you like – is infinitely fascinating, and surely preferable to spending life denying facts to defend faith. Christians shouldn’t have to choose between God and science. If God made the brain, we can be fairly sure He intended for us to use it.
Postscript: I wrote this article before I started following “Help Me In My Unbelief” blog, but I see the author has written an excellent series on just the same point I am making, of which the most relevant part is here: http://inmyunbelief.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/dispelling-myths-part-2-moderates-enable-the-radicals/