Though creationism does rear its ugly head from time to time in Europe, it is largely a fringe phenomenon. Unlike in America, even most religious Europeans accept evolution as an obvious fact, viewing the biblical creation stories (yes, there’s more than one) as, at most, poetic metaphor. So it’s easy for us over here to indulge in a superior smile when we observe the antics of those primitive American bible-thumpers.
At least in Germany, we shouldn’t be so quick to smile.
As the FAZ (German; paywall) and Frankfurter Rundschau (German, but at least it’s free) report, Hessia’s education minister Karin Wolff (of the Christian Democratic Union)1 has suggested integrating the creation tale into the state school biology curriculum. (In Germany, as in the USA, education is very largely a matter for the individual states.) Interestingly, Wolff is a Lutheran theologian by training. That’s interesting, because the Lutheran church in Germany is generally rather liberal and, despite people like Wolff and Pastor Lerle, would ordinarily shy away from this sort of controversy. But Wolff is of sterner stuff. She wants ‘modern biology lessons’ that will create ‘new common ground between science and religion’.
It’s not about denying evolution. Oh no; far from it. According to Wolff, if only we bring religion into science lessons, schoolchildren will be better able to tell when creationist influence creeps in. I hope the minister will forgive me if my reaction is ‘pull the other one.’ Anyway, we shouldn’t worry, because (so Wolff) there is apparently ‘an astonishing number of things in common between the biblical creation account and the scientific theory of evolution.’ (‘Oh yeah?,’ asks Arno Widmann, commenting in the Rundschau, ‘Like what, exactly?!’)
The other parties have been quick to react. The Greens charge Wolff with violating the state’s obligation of neutrality in religious questions (actually, the original German — weltanschaulich — is even broader than ‘religious’, but hard to convey in English). The SPD remind her that the separation of religious faith and science is an integral element of the Enlightenment. Even the FDP (the liberal party, often allied with the CDU but untainted by the Union’s clericalism) insist that the Christian story of creation is completely out of place in the biology classroom.
As the Rundschau reminds us, Wolff initiated disciplinary proceedings last year against a state school teacher who tried to bring the bible into science lessons. That was highly commendable; Wolff herself obviously thinks this sort of thing should be permitted, but because she believed it was not under the rules in force at the time, she stepped in. But it is an odd solution to the problem altogether to change those rules to permit mixing religion with science! The Rundschau, incidentally, suggests that Wolff’s actions might have been spurred by the recent resolution, proposed before the Council of Europe, strongly condemning creationist inroads into science education.
American opponents of creationism will be fuming as they read this. I’m afraid I’m going to have to anger them even more. One sometimes suspects that, in America, the Christianists want to get ‘intelligent design’ — a sort of watered-down or disguised religion — into the schoolroom because they cannot otherwise teach religion in the state schools. If they were allowed to proselytise in formal religion lessons, in other words, perhaps they’d leave science alone. By contrast, in Germany (and many other European countries), religious instruction in state schools is legal and commonplace. There is already a slot in the curriculum in which the creation narrative may be taught. You can argue that state schools have no business teaching religion (I certainly do). But, as long as these schools do have religious education, it’s hard to argue that religious teachings don’t belong there! Well, let them stay there. We should no more have biblical stories in science lessons than we should have Samuel’s warnings against monarchy in civics or Hiram of Tyre’s rather rough estimate of Ï€ in maths.
‘Hard’ atheists like Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers, who think that science proves religion a nonsense, would of course be outraged at Karin Wolff’s plans. But even those disposed to eirenic views like Stephen Gould’s ‘NOMA‘ — which can be accepted by atheist and believer alike — must share their rage. The bible, if it belongs anywhere in a school, belongs in the religion classroom. Indeed, it could also belong in literary or cultural studies; and the biblical creation account might even have its place in a survey of the history of science (though these latter two examples are probably more appropriate to third-level education). What is quite certain is that Genesis has nothing to say in biology lessons.
1) I am no fan of the CDU. In fairness, though, I should point out that, while the Union does number some pious individuals amongst its politicians, its Christianist strain is much weaker than that of (say) the US Republicans. Indeed, some bishops have complained that the CDU ought to be honest and drop the ‘C’. I think the Union godawful for any number of reasons; but it would be unfair to tar the whole party with Wolff’s brush.