Parents Against Creationism – Two Big Victories in One Scottish Town

Parents Against Creationism – Two Big Victories in One Scottish Town September 26, 2013

This is a guest post by Paul Braterman, Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry, University of Glasgow. Paul is a leading member of the British Centre for Science Education and enemy of creationism wherever it arises, and the author of From Stars to Stalagmites. He was the one who sent me the photos for my recent discussion of creationism in a Scottish primary school. Here, he expands on that information to reveal the extent of creationist influence in Scottish education. He begins with an appeal for assistance:

Please help. British Centre for Science Education are collecting evidence of creationist activity in UK education, and Scottish Secular Society of this and other abuses of religious privilege in education in Scotland. Please let me know, in confidence, of any recent specific examples you know of personally. Email psbraterman [at] yahoo [dot] com.

The past few weeks have seen two victories against creationism in the Scottish town of East Kilbride. Both are to be celebrated, but neither should have been necessary, and both represent battles that will need to be fought again and again, until there are major structural changes in how education is administered in Scotland. One has attracted attention at both local (BBC and tabloid and broadsheet newspapers) and UK national (Telegraph) level. The other one has taken place unannounced and almost unnoticed. But both are real, and both the result of publicity.

The creationist textbook distributed to children in East Kilbride
The creationist textbook distributed to children in East Kilbride

There is much that the defenders of reason can accomplish when we make our voices heard. That is why I am appealing to readers, especially parents, to find out what is happening in the name of religion in their local schools, and, if they learn of any teaching of creationism or other improprieties, to share that information.

Many readers, even here in the UK, will be astonished at the privileges granted to religion in our schools. In Scotland, in particular, there are things called denominational (mainly Catholic) schools, where the hierarchy has direct input into the curriculum. But even in non-denominational schools, it is normal for there to be a chaplaincy committee representing local churches, and for ministers from these churches (and in some schools, very occasionally, Humanists and other non-Christians) to address school assemblies, conduct religious Observance (RO), and have input into Religious and Moral Education (RME), which is part of the academic curriculum. RO must by law take place at least six times a year and is generally conducted in school assemblies. It is meant to represent the “shared spiritual values” of the school, an impossible task in a country where close to half the population are non-believers and the others fragmented in their affiliations, so in practice it tends to degenerate into acts of Christian worship. RME is meant to be a curricular subject, taught without advocacy. We know of areas where it accepts input from an organisation that sells a magazine called Answers, as in Answers in Genesis, but when directly questioned they claim that their actual school materials keep to the curriculum guidelines.

There’s more. By law, the Education Committee of every local authority in Scotland has to include three representatives of religion. One Church of Scotland, one Catholic, and one other, chosen by ill-defined processes to represent religious views in the area. Non-believers need not apply; you have to have a position within a religious organisation in order to be considered. And these are not just observers (which would be bad enough) but full members, with voting rights. According to the Church of Scotland’s data, these unelected persons hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

This background may help explain what happened recently in the Scottish township of East Kilbride, which is home to some 75,000 people and to two separate biblical literalist fringe churches. One of these, West Mains Church of Christ, supplied a chaplain to a primary school, and this chaplain was allowed to bring in assistants from an organisation called Adventures in Mission, based in the US. The chaplain discussed the RE as well as RO curriculum with the school, and on September 2 addressed a school assembly at which hymns were sung, and handed out to all the children there two books describing Young Earth creationism as the scientific truth, saying that atheists murder children, explaining geological strata as the result of how sediments settled out after Noah’s Flood, claiming that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and showing these dinosaurs being used to pull carts. He also told the children, ages 5 – 11, to study these books as they were very important. (I have given a fuller description of the scientific and logical errors in these books elsewhere, and Jonny has also reported on some of their more bizarre claims, but a complete listing of errors would run to many thousands of words, and life is too short.)

Dinosaurs drown beneath Noah's Ark.
Dinosaurs drown beneath Noah’s Ark.

As it happened, on September 3 the Scottish Secular Society was discussing with the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee its petition to change the procedure for enrolment in Religious Observance from “opt-out” to “opt-in”, aimed among other things to end the abuses that stem from  assuming assent to RO. The timing could not have been more appropriate.

It was soon discovered that the chaplain from West Mains had been active in the school for eight years, had contributed not only to RO, but to the supposedly non-doctrinal Religious Education syllabus, and without informing anyone had photographed school events staged by his church, and that this material had been used by Adventures in Mission in publicity material in the US.

Parents were furious. Over 150 attended a meeting at the school the following week, a fantastic turnout given a total enrolment of 400, and the probability, because of child minding concerns, that only one parent could attend per family. South Lanarkshire’s Education Director was there, and had already received (I sent him) a detailed description of the books in question. Within days, the head teachers responsible for the fiasco had been reassigned, West Mains Church had been barred from the school, and an enquiry started into the role, and degree of collective responsibility, the chaplaincy team.

It is that last seemingly minor technical detail that I find most encouraging. Given the furore, the rest was inevitable, but the Education Director was going beyond the immediate crisis to ask more fundamental questions. What was the rest of the chaplaincy team doing? How come they had allowed this outrage, and what else might they have allowed to happen during the eight years that they had allowed one extreme benighted sect to speak for all of them?

The other victory took place very quietly; an unannounced resignation from an obscure committee. Again, a little bit of background.

Dr Nagy Iskander is a surgeon, pillar of the local Westwoodhill Church, and runs a charity called JAM (Jesus And Me), which gives out free Advent calendars to schools. One of my colleagues at British Centre for Science Education looked closely at last year’s calendar, and found that it said Christmas was meaningful because of Easter, Easter was meaningful because of Original Sin, and Original Sin was something we all inherited from what Adam and Eve had done in the Garden of Eden.

Now, many people think that this expresses a profound truth about humankind’s complex nature. But it looked as if Dr. Iskander was saying something rather different; that Genesis was describing a specific event in history. So we did a web search. Here is what we found:

Dr. Iskander is a close friend of Kenneth Ham, of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, and has spoken in praise of the literal truth of Genesis, which he regards as foundational to Christianity. That’s right. He says you can’t really be a consistent believing Christian unless you believe the world is 6000 years old, and created in six days, birds and whales before land animals.

Ken Ham, on his website, boasted that Dr. Iskander was on his local authority education committee. At first we thought this was an incredible claim from an unreliable source, but when we checked we found out that it was true. Remember that every LA education committee in Scotland has to include, as full voting members, three representatives of religion; one nominated by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one other to represent local religions. For South Lanarkshire, which includes East Kilbride, that third person was, indeed, Dr. Iskander.

This old creationist canard gets an airing in Truth Be Told
This old creationist canard gets an airing in Truth Be Told

We also discovered that Dr. Iskander was on the chaplaincy team of Calderglen High, another non-denominational school in East Kilbride. I blogged about this, and the story was picked up and discussed by the Sunday Herald, one of Scotland’s most respected newspapers. Shortly before the beginning of the new school year, Dr. Iskander disappeared from the chaplaincy team.

So two victories, in both of which I may have had some role, which is what makes this kind of thing worthwhile.

Am I happy? No! One of the Churches on the reconstituted chaplaincy committee is Westwoodhill Evangelical, Dr. Iskander’s Church, which believes in the word-for-word infallibility of the Bible. (Or at least they used to; their site has mysteriously gone dead and we had to dig in the archives.)  Dr. Iskander still sits on the South Lanarkshire Education Committee. If he steps down he will be replaced using the same process that led to his appointment. Meantime, we know that Prayer Spaces in Schools, which claims miracle cures, are being allowed to tell little children that they are sinners until washed clean by Jesus, and PWAMM (People With A Mission Ministries), which promotes Answers magazine (as in Answers in Genesis), provides materials for Religious Education courses, and has just sent its Challenger buses on tours of the Hebrides and Orkney.

It seems there is no end to this nonsense, nor will there be, as long as schools are compelled to provide Religious Observance, the supervision of Religious Observance and Religious Education is in the hands of chaplaincy teams on which non-faith positions have no representation,  representatives of religion continued to enjoy unelected positions of power that they have done nothing to earn, and the mainstream churches themselves fail to recognise creationism for what it is, a cancerous growth.

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