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Saturday, October 18, 2008

A secularist witchhunt

[Being a post begun exactly a month ago. This is a slow-motion blog at present.]

Having given the Torygraph's God correspondent George Pitcher something of a roasting not long ago, it's only fair to commend something of his of which I agree with just about every word: his reaction to the secularist witchhunt against Professor Michael Reiss.

This was my effort in the same direction, submitted unsuccessfully to the Times:-


'It is hard to recall a more shameful recent instance of intellectual scapegoating than the one which has brought about Professor Michael Reiss's resignation from his post at the Royal Society, following his call for biology teachers to be prepared to discuss creationism. A moderate and rational Christian has been branded an apologist for know-nothing fundamentalism by a campaign of misrepresentation which has shown that secularist zealots can be just as intolerant as the religious variety.

'That large numbers of children now arrive at secondary school already committed to a pre-scientific view of the origins of life is a predictable outcome of political decisions taken over several decades. It is manifestly not Professor Reiss's fault. His 'crime' is simply to have pointed out that we have to deal with classroom reality as it is and not as we would like it to be, and to have argued that we will not succeed in changing these children's minds if we refuse to engage with their existing beliefs.

'Those who genuinely disagree on the latter point should calm down now that they have his head on a plate and tell us what constructive alternatives they have to offer.'

From the unbelieving camp approval of the Royal Society's stance was far from unanimous. Norman Geras was commendably unimpressed, as was Brownie of Harry's Place (Brett of the same address please note).

On the other hand, a disgraceful post from Oliver Kamm, now of the Times, reeks of an implacable religiophobia which will let nothing stand in the way of the satisfaction of claiming a believing scalp. Kamm quotes at length from all and sundry (not least from the obiter dicta of O. Kamm) but Professor Reiss is permitted only the eight-word soundbite which, wrenched from its context, could at a stretch be interpreted as evidence that he is soft on Creationism. It's hard to resist the conclusion that Kamm knows very well that if the words were restored to their context the case for sacking Reiss would vanish into thin air. Is this not precisely the kind of economy with the truth for which Kamm has so often savaged the likes of Noam Chomsky?

And no, Kamm has not a word to say about the very concrete pedagogical issues facing biology teachers. Except, implicitly, that they should inform young fundamentalists that their views are worthy of nothing but contempt. That should work a treat.

You, dear reader, will of course wish to see the full context in order to reach an informed judgement: it's here.

Can you spot the one significant difference between my take on the affair and Mr Pitcher's? It doesn't come as a great surprise: despite having several times more words to play with than a mere letter writer, he's managed to avoid even an indirect allusion to the fact that most of the little Creationists in the biology classroom have not got their ideas from a literalist reading of the Book of Genesis. Yes, it's the Religion With No Name again. And when liberal Anglicans like Mr Pitcher engage in this kind of denial it's no wonder if the Oliver Kamms of this world feel confirmed in their religiophobic prejudices.

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