On Jan 26th, 2007 the Council of Europe will discuss creationism

According to the information provided by several newspapers, the Council of Europe wil discuss on June 26th a document prepared by its “Committee on Culture, Science and Education”, entitled: The Dangers of Creationism in Education. The document itself is available on the website of the European Council. The summary of the text runs as follows:

The theory of evolution is being attacked by religious fundamentalists who call for creationist theories to be taught in European schools alongside or even in place of it. From a scientific view point there is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a central theory for our understanding of the Universe and of life on Earth.

Creationism in any of its forms, such as “intelligent design”, is not based on facts, does not use any scientific reasoning and its contents are pathetically inadequate for science classes.

The Assembly calls on education authorities in member States to promote scientific knowledge and the teaching of evolution and to oppose firmly any attempts at teaching creationism as a scientific discipline.

The tone of this summary is already very passionate: clearly, emotions run high and there is some fear that the debates that are raging in the USA, opposing creationists and supporters of “intelligent design” to staunch advocates of evolution theory, would move to Europe. This debate is complex, as religious convictions enter into it and as it entails a discussion on what science is as well as its impact on our lives. The document itself is divided in various parts:

A. Draft resolution.

In its #18.4 it suggests to “firmly oppose the teaching of creationism as a scientific discipline on an equal footing with the theory of evolution by natural selection and in general resist presentation of creationist theories in any discipline other than religion”. Such sentence seems confusing to me, as I am wondering what kind of view on religion is implied here. Moreover, does creation as taught within the framework of, say, RCC theology or religious studies, imply the consequences and positions to be found in creationism as it seems to be meant in the document? I personally share the opinion that creationism and “intelligent design” should not be taught as scientific subjects; but I would also like to claim that they do not reflect a sound theological interpretation of the meaning of “creation”, even if I can understand the fact that creationists react against views in which science claims to set aside religion (this is another issue that is worth being discussed, independently of the creationist reaction). Not only the relation between creationism and evolution (science) is at stake, also the tension between creationism and theology.

B. Explanatory memorandum by Mr Guy Lengagne, rapporteur.

This is the largest part of the document. I regret that in the first subheader, “Evolution: a genuine scientific theory”, a lot of attention is paid to the claim that the works of Darwin “mark the end of the agreement between natural history and the Christian tradition, as well as the birth of anti-evolutionist movements” (#6). Such claim seems to deny the possibility for Christianity to connect with evolution theories in a constructive way. This seems to equate all Christian theology and “religious obscurantism” (#7). There is a tone here that aggressively goes beyond what can be said about the relations and tensions between the science of evolution and the Christian religion and theologies. The second subheader is a presentation of the theory of “Evolution”, as it is corroborated by many facts. In the third subheader “Creationism” is analysed, with references to the situation in the USA. Follows a fourth subheader on “Creationism in Europe”, in which “The Atlas of Creation” by the Islam creationist Harun Yahya is severely criticised. In the fifth subheader “Creationism and Education: The main creationist initiatives in Europe, overviews and reactions of the scientific and religious communities”, the situation in various European countries is analyzed. In a following, sixth, subheader a look is taken at the “Positions adopted by the religious authorities”: the Vatican (is this an adequate representation of RCC?) and the Christian religious movements, as well as the Muslim organisations. The confusion surrounding the word “creationism” remains, as far as I can see, but at the same time it is made clear that both in the RCC and the Muslim traditions there is a much more refined and nuanced debate going on. (I will quote #76 at the end of this post, to illustrate how the authors of the document perceive the RCC position today.) The conclusion of the document points to the core concern of its authors: “the denial of evolution is particularly harmful to children’s education”, as it hinders them to become active players in the transformation of our societies. However, creationist theories “like any other theological position, could possibly be described in the context of giving more space to cultural and religious education” (#99).

For RCC theologians, the ##75-77 of the second part of the document are particularly important. There is awareness of the debates and discussions that are ongoing within the RCC and that concern the reasons for approaching science with a certain degree of suspicion, particularly when science itself risks to turn into an ideology and assume quasi-religious prerogatives. I quote the interesting #76:

In the tradition of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI now welcomes the role of the sciences in the evolution of humanity: Science has opened up large dimensions of reason that have been closed up to now and thus brought us new insights. In early September 2006, he brought together a group of former students and colleagues at Castel Gandolfo for a seminar on the evolutionism versus creationism debate. He published the conclusions of this seminar in mid-April 2007 in German under the title “Schöpfung und Evolution” (Creation and Evolution). He does not support the theory of creationism: the creationist position is based on an interpretation of the Bible that the Catholic Church does not share. The Pope rejects both a creationism that categorically excludes science and the theory of evolution, which hides its own weaknesses and does not want to see the questions that arise beyond the methodological capacities of science. The theory of evolution is considered too pervasive by the Catholic Church, which seems above all to be woried about the influence of social Darwinism and the evolutionist theories concerning economic matters and medical ethics.

What do we keep from this? That, for theologians, there is at least also the issue of clarifying the concept of creation in general, and of analysing its understanding by creationists. Moreover, one should also pay close attention to the deep reasons creationists have to take on the combattive attitudes that are theirs. What is at stake for them? Another element to look at for theologians is the link of creationism – and of some theological understandings of creation and other theological concepts – to aggressive fundamentalisms. There should be a great concern here to deal with these theological issues on the public forum: theological approaches to creation may very well help to clarify the debates that are going on between creationists and scientists of evolution, at least as far as “in depth” concerns are concerned. These discussions are not without consequences for our societies as Lord May of Oxford has very well pointed out in his 2005 anniversary address to the British Royal Society, an address that remains one of the most worthwhile to read on the relationships between religion and science, the understanding of what science is, and todays environmental challenges.

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