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The religion-science debate has been in full swing this week in the UK, with Professor Michael Reiss – Church of England minister, and Director of Education for that bastion of science, the Royal Society – resigning his position with the Royal Society in the wake of supposedly controversial statements he made about Creationism in the classroom. Atheists/secular humanists/materialists of all descriptions got themselves in a tizzy over the weekend when Professor Reiss suggested that teachers should be equipped to discuss Creationism if students bring it up in class. The automatic assumption by many seems to have been that Reiss was saying that Creationism deserves to be part of the curriculum. However, that was obviously not his intention:

Teachers should take the time to explain why creationism had no scientific basis, Prof Reiss said. He stressed that the topic should not be taught as science. This was more valuable than simply “banging on” about evolution, he said.

Prof Reiss, a biologist and Church of England minister, said he now believed it was more effective to engage with pupils’ ideas about creationism, rather than to obstruct discussion with those who do not accept the scientific version of the evolution of species.

Yes, that’s right – he dared to suggest that we *talk* to kids about different worldviews, if the topic comes up. So top-level scientists, such as Sir Richard Roberts, showed their skill at reasoned thinking by saying things like:

I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates – which would be sent to the Royal Society – to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.’

Richard Dawkins, for his part, commented: “A clergyman in charge of education for the country’s leading scientific organisation – it’s a Monty Python sketch.” Seemingly ignoring the fact that there are lots of very good scientists out there capable of doing, teaching, and discussing good science (Reiss himself is a biologist).

Dawkins has since backed away slightly from his original comments:

Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take.

Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who ‘respect’ creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity.

…Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.

…Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society’s Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows…

Nevertheless, even his qualified comments have been taken to task by some, such as this critique. Also, scientist and British media darling Lord Robert Winston has also gone out of his way to take a shot at Dawkins and other ‘militant atheists’, agreeing with Reiss’s suggestions about engaging people in discussion, rather than belittling their worldview:

I would argue that the ‘God Delusion’ approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views… Religious people can say, ‘look these guys just don’t understand us’.”

We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don’t think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they’ve limited it – that worries me.

Remember that Lord Winston has previously given qualified support for other heretical topics being discussed – although I think still unfairly singling them out as needing special attention: two years ago he commented on the inclusion of a parapsychology session at the BAAS forum: “It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists.” While I think he was riding an intellectual high horse during that particular controversy, he was at least open to discussion – something that could not be said for numerous other ‘scientists’ in attendance…