British teenagers may soon be debating creationism and intelligent design in religion classes that give equal time to the Darwinists and atheists who reject these views of the world’s origins.
Newly published school guidelines reflect the growing influence of a bitter battle over evolution being waged on the other side of the Atlantic, by conservative American Christians who want to put God back into the secular state school system.
The guidelines, issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, place the issue firmly in religious education class, rather than the science classes where American intelligent-design proponents want it to be handled.
By placing creationist views with those of their critics in religion classes, the curriculum authority could head off the divisive debates that have pitted religion against science in the United States.
“This is a clever way of defusing the issue,” Clifford Longley, a religious affairs commentator, told Reuters.
While endorsing neither side of the science and religion debate, the authority made clear it sees creationism and intelligent design as part of a wider public debate that pupils should be able to understand.
Role-playing in religion class
Among the guidelines, applying to children up to the age of 14, is a suggestion that pupils act out the debate by playing the roles of Galileo, Charles Darwin and the current best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins.
A spokesman for the authority described the guidelines as “a flexible tool to help teachers.”
“None of this is compulsory,” the spokesman said. “It is entirely optional and offered as guidance. Our position is that it should be discussed in religious education and not in science.”
Americans who want public schools to address intelligent design say the Darwinian view of evolution should not be taught as the only explanation for life’s origins.
The most conservative view is creationism, the Bible-based account saying God made the world in six days. U.S. courts banned this theory from state schools decades ago as a violation of the constitutional ban on the state establishment of religion.
A more recent argument is intelligent design, which says nature is so complex that it must have been the work of a creator — rather than the result of random mutation and natural selection, as outlined in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Supporters say intelligent design is a scientifically supported viewpoint, but its critics say it is pseudo-science that aims to bring God back into schools.
State schools in Britain teach religion because Britain has an established Christian church, Anglicanism. Prime Minister Tony Blair has joined religious and scientific leaders in resisting calls for creationism to be taught by itself.
Anglican views on the world’s origins cover the spectrum, from “theistic evolution,” which reads the biblical story allegorically, to a literal belief in the words of the Bible.
Longley welcomed the way the guidelines included the faith-based approach in the wider debate. “I have no philosophical objection. It is not being taught as truth, but as an idea that is out there,” he said.
John Wilkins, former editor of the Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet, agreed it was a good compromise solution. Over the years, the Catholic Church has said the theory of evolution was not in conflict with Christian belief — but maintains that the emergence of the human species was an "event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation."
“I can see no reason why we have to regard Darwinism as a holy text that cannot be questioned,” he said. “It is a very good idea to challenge that in religious education. Just teaching children Darwinism doesn’t stretch their minds and give them intellectual hurdles to jump over. There should be lively debate.”
This report was supplemented by information from MSNBC.com.