Funny, it doesn’t look like Kansas…

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.

9 thoughts on “Funny, it doesn’t look like Kansas…

  1. Interestingly, Wolff isn’t the only or even most prominent politician in Germany that is aiming to “broaden the spectrum” of what’s considered science. Thuringia’s state premier Dieter Althaus had to swallow some harsh criticism in late 2005, when he invited a creationist speaker to a panel discussion about the evolution. My blog entry from back then -

    http://almostadiary.de/germany/it-can-happen-everywhere/

    Interestingly, there is now also a German chapter of the Church of the Flying Spaghettimonster. I guess that means it can really happen everywhere…

    http://www.das-fsm.de/

  2. Just FYI: It’s correct that religious education has a slot in German curricula. However, at least in higher education, one may opt out of religion class and can take “Ethics” instead.

    Most students don’t but not always for religious reasons – religion class is far easier and often means good grades for cheap. Such is life.

  3. Claudia, that is interesting. I remember from my school days in Belgium that several students opted out of religion in favour of ethics because ethics was easier and cooler (you got real sex education).

    I do not know what the current situation in Belgium is though, since there have been some changes in the meantime. As far as I know religious education still has a slot in Belgian curricula as well.

    As far as creationism goes, there should be better ways to ensure the survival of religious teaching or the teaching of religion. Creationists have an agenda that goes way beyond saying dinosaurs walked with man 6.000 odd years ago. Check some of their websites and the issues they are worried about. Two examples:

    Young Americans leaning left:

    America is changing. One of the things we’ve warned the church about, is that the next generation are so secularized and evolutionized (including most of the young people from churches), that this will change the face of America.

    voting with their feet:

    People in the United States are also deserting ‘mainstream’ denominations that have become infected with liberal theology. The liberal churches are dying and conservative (Bible-believing) churches are growing.5

    Clearly the creation message, with its focus on upholding the authority of Scripture, is pivotal to this question of church growth or decline. If church leaders do not uphold the authority of the Bible from the very first verse and do not emphasize teaching that shows the truthfulness of Scripture, people will increasingly see the churches as irrelevant … and vote with their feet.

  4. In Germany, you can opt out of “confessional religious education” at the age of 14 and most do, because it means one less teacher to please and some more free time.

    As well, parents can avoid the whole mess by simply not baptising their babies. Saves the church tax too.

    The proposed “idiotizing” of biology education probably belongs more into the realm of Anglification/Americanization. Those countries more or less function by letting their population rot in medieval standards, bad state school education is a prerequisite for this type of society.

    A country like Germany with most of the population still educated by Enlightenment ideals does not bow so easily to the anglophone backwardness I think.

    Creationism is already a much greater problem in these very religious and backward countries like Poland and England.

  5. Jim, John and Jane,

    Actually, in England and Wales, the creationists and the IDiots have had a recent major set back in their attempts to sneak ID into the science class. They (Truth in Science (ironic name), the UK arm of the US Discovery Institute) sent a teaching pack including a DVD to all the secondary schools in England and Wales to be used as a science teaching aid. However, as soon as we became aware of it a campaign was started which resulted in numerous statements in parliament in both houses, from the relevant ministers, that it didn’t belong in the science curriculum and couldn’t be taught as part of the science curriculum. The science curriculum, which all English and Welsh schools have to follow, was up for its periodic review anyway, would have added an explicit statement that creationism and IDiotism had no place in the science curriculum and could not be taught in science classes.

    Scotland is slightly different and there are worries that ID and/or creationism might creep into Scottish science classes. But we will have to wait and see what the result of the Scottish review of their science curriculum brings.

    So a bit less with the ‘very religious and backward countries’ jibe if you don’t mind, at least until you actually know what you are talking about when it comes to England and Wales.

  6. Yes maybe, but it’s very telling how far the ideology of IDiotism has made it already. And you did not mention the lamentable state of things about Creationism outside of school curricula. Which is the highest percentage of ‘believers’ anywhere in Europe, like it or not.

    As a kid I used to believe all this propaganda about democracy and liberty in Britain until I went there on a ‘language holiday’ and saw the whole mess with my own eyes.

    I don’t think it would make a big difference if ID or something like that made it into the school curriculum because the entire education system for the non-paying classes is entirely designed to produce a 19th century kind of person anyway.

    It’s like this in the Anglosphere, only a very small elite is even educated by Enlightenment ideas because that ensures a society that submits willingly and swallows every well-packaged propaganda effort.

  7. The previous Dutch minister of science and education Van der Hoeven (christian-democratic party) tried to do it as well: suggesting on her weblog that “Intelligent Design” should be taken seriously as an alternative to evolution. IIRC she did not mention school curricula at the time, but that was clearly meant to be the next step. She was made to backtrack in time, thanks to the liberal forces in Parliament.

    Van der Hoeven, a roman-catholic, came back as economic affairs minister in the current social-christian government. Funnily enough, her successor as science and education minister is biology professor Plasterk, who was one of the fiercest critics of her flirt with ID.

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