Atheist headteacher Tom Sherrington, above, earned praise from Richard Dawkins and others after he went on the offensive recently against the teaching of creationism in UK schools.
The head of Highbury Grove School in London revealed in piece on his Headguruteacher blog that he had been addressing the issue of evolution at assemblies in order to:
Give prominence to the idea of evolution by (non-random natural selection) and to present the range of areas of science that support our understanding of it …
For me, the story of evolution – the amazing, wonderful, fascinating story – is far, far more awe-inspiring than the religious stories …
Knowing the journey to our current situation as the race of humans we’ve become is essential to understanding the depth of our shared humanity. One Earth; One Family; Our Common Ancestry. It’s a message worth repeating loud and clear.
Sherrington’s article prompted a mainly positive response on social media with Richard Dawkins, biologist and writer, saying:
Any school would be fortunate to have a head like this. He deals, sensitively but firmly, with brainwashed students.
In his article, Mr Sherrington wrote:
Discussion of evolution – or any brush with Richard Dawkins – will present a massive challenge to students who hold creationist views.
In the past I’ve met highly intelligent students who were so heavily indoctrinated that the clash between their irrational young-Earth creationism and their rational understanding of the evidence from science actually caused mental health issues.
In a postscript to his article, Sherrington wrote:
I could tell that I had stirred up some animosity from some Muslim boys during my assemblies. This was confirmed by other students …
There may be teachers who fear that this has every chance of strengthening a sense of alienation or of rejecting certain Western values – two elements often associated with radicalisation.
Assemblies are important arenas for communicating ideas. I don’t think it’s tenable to treat some ideas as too sensitive to be aired in a high status public arena simply because ill-informed irrational views are widely held.
If anything we probably need to do it more often and address the faith-science conflict some students experience more openly and explicitly. The worst thing would be to be patronise them or humour them. It shouldn’t be remotely controversial to tell students that you are an atheist or that creationism is untenable given our knowledge of science.
Sherrington grabbed the attention of the media too because his article suggested that Government’s Prevent strategy, introduced to tackle radicalisation in schools, is creating a “hypersensitivity” among teachers when teaching evolution and challenging elements of the Muslim faith.
Interviewed by The Telegraph after he published the article, Sherrington said there was a risk that schools could shy away from teaching evolution for fear of “provoking a reaction” in pupils with creationist views. And he warned that the Prevent programme has:
Added to the sense that you treat Muslim students as different.
The tone of the strategy, he claimed:
Makes any engagement directly questioning the faith position of Muslim students more challenging.
He added that schools should create inclusive communities, but that:
Science should be promoted as science. The antagonism that creationist students feel when their faith is challenged by science is quite extreme; it’s a big deal to tell them that they are wrong. It provokes a response that in the current climate could be misconstrued.
And he insisted:
It would be a big mistake for science teachers to teach evolution any differently, just because of this fear of alienating Muslim students through Prevent approaches.
But some critics suggested that teaching evolution as “fact” was as bad as dismissing religious teaching outright.
In a 2013 blog post, “Reflections of an Atheist Headteacher”, Sherrington wrote:
As a life-long atheist, growing up in a family where all religious people were lumped together dismissively as the ‘God Squad’, my world view has always been clear. As far as I am concerned science does a good job explaining the natural world including the emergence of a species of self-aware mammals capable of exploiting the resources of the lonely planet they inhabit in space.
The evolved complexity of the human brain and of human social interactions account for everything we experience: our consciousness, our sense of morality, our hopes, dreams and anxieties, our sense of purpose and our emotions. And when we die, we die, shutting our biological computer down, living on only in the memories of those still living.
We are capable of having spiritual experiences but these are just a form of emotional response created chemically and electrically in our brain cells.
Not only is there no God in my world, there isn’t a need for one to explain nature or to add any meaning. It may be terrifying to contemplate our lonely, precarious and unlikely existence in the vast enormity of space and time, but that’s the reality.
Actually I find it quite inspiring. It’s also inspiring to consider the human capacity for love, compassion, ingenuity, curiosity and learning..and the evolutionary process by which these characteristics have developed to support our existence and survival.
Hat tip: Peter Sykes