The Church of England expressed deep concerns last night about the spread of creationist views as it prepared to unveil a website promoting the evolutionary views of Charles Darwin.
Anglican leaders fear that “noisy” advocates of a literal interpretation of the Bible – especially in the United States, where even the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is a vocal supporter – are infecting the perception of Christianity worldwide.
The Church will launch the website on Monday, a few weeks after the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s first public proposal of natural selection and amid growing controversy over the teaching of creationism in schools.
The Rev Professor Michael Reiss, a biologist and director of education at the Royal Society, provoked a furore this week when he called for creationism to be treated in science lessons as a legitimate “world-view”.
The Church of England weighed into the debate yesterday when a Church House spokesman admitted that the treatment of Darwin’s theory of evolution by Victorian clerics was wrong.
He said that science and religions were “perfectly compatible” and attacked creationism as a strand of Christianity that created a false impression of the Church as a whole.
The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, one of the inspirations for the website, said: “We felt there would be public interest, particularly because of the rise of creationism in the US.
“Christian attitudes don’t have to be either a complete swallowing of Darwin and everything that has been done in his name, on the one hand, and, on the other, the complete rejection of scientific method with a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“A culture that doesn’t have a great deal of historic understanding of the Christian faith can easily characterise all Christians as being like the most noisy ones.”
A church spokesman added: “Creationism should not be taught as a scientifically based theory but could be included in discussion of the development of scientific ideas down the ages or in RE.”
Rasmandala Das, of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, said that the Hindu approach was to teach all different views of the creation across the curriculum.
Members of the humanist movement dismissed creationism as “simply wrong” but agreed that religious believers must be engaged by science teachers rather than ignored.
Andrew Copson, director of education for the British Humanist Association, said that Professor Reiss was right to think it was better to take the opportunity to debate the issue than to belittle children by telling them: “Shut up, that’s for RE. Should a teacher say, ‘Shut up, that’s for RE’? Obviously not,” he said. “If a child raises it in a classroom you don’t say, ‘Shut up’. You say, ‘That’s not a scientific perspective.’ It can be an opportunity to demonstrate what a scientific perspective is.”
Tahir Alam, of the Muslim Council of Britain, expressed concern that there was a rising trend of intolerance towards religious beliefs and said: “Secular atheism is getting very dogmatic.” Mr Alam said of creationism in science lessons: “In any educational context, if children raise questions and have beliefs which are different to the teachers, people should not be dogmatic about not discussing it.”
However, Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, expressed doubts: “It would be as unacceptable for Judaism for schools to teach creationism in science lessons as it would be for them to teach the Dawkins secular fundamentalist view that Darwin and God are incompatible.”