An assembly on evolution? Choosing our models of religion 30 January 2016

So I came across this insightful blog post recently by Headteacher Tom Sherrington – My Evolution Assembly. And the Young Creationists. He describes a school assembly he delivered on evolution. It wasn’t a science lesson however, but a chance to reflect on some of the big ideas involved.

A few choice quotes from his blog post, which I’d encourage all to read in full…

“I think we might do too many preachy moral message orientated assemblies; sometimes it’s good just to tell students something really very interesting and complicated, without patronising them.”

The idea to get across is that of common ancestors.  In the assemblies I was promoting reading Richard Dawkins’ brilliant book The Ancestor’s Tale.

Another favourite is the hypothesis that all living humans have common human ancestors that could have lived as recently as 10,000 years ago – and probably no longer than 100,000 years ago.  We’re all cousins; we are family! That’s a powerful message to give; it’s literally true – not just a metaphor.

The assembly however has reactions from students who held religious views, which Sherrington describes: –

I offer them the easy-fit model that many religious scientists adopt; that God can be found in creating or governing the laws of physics – perhaps in igniting the spark that kicked the primordial molecular soup into action; that God can be found in the emerging beauty and wonder of nature as it evolved.

In the past I’ve met highly intelligent students who were so heavily indoctrinated (what else to call it?), that the clash between their irrational young-Earth creationism and their rational understanding of the evidence from science actually caused mental health issues.

I’m not an educator, so I offer my thoughts with the proviso that I have no experience of delivering school assemblies (bar one terrible experience when was I asked to do one to primary school children, never again). I do think however that Tom Sherrington got a few things wrong in delivering his assembly – the core of which was that he is unreflexively using a very particular concept of religion – which is inherently going to stir up controversy.

Without getting too academic, Europe and the US have, as a product of Enlightenment and also the Protestant reformation, conceived of religion as essentially belief. ‘Religions are about belief’ many will say, except religion is much more than too, and there many other models and conceptions out there – an area of rich debate amongst religious studies scholars, sociologists and anthropologists.

But for several reasons, built into many Western conceptions, and entrenched especially in New Atheism, is that religion is at its core, claims (beliefs) about the nature of the world (rather than practice, or ritual, or purpose etc…). And that old Science versus Religion debate is one that is very European in context (whether Galileo or the works of EB Tylor). This concept of ‘Religion as Belief’ puts it at odds with Science. One must be subservient to the other. So Sherrington provides his ‘easy fit’ solution, to read religion in the light of science. And presented with an equation on these terms, its no suprise religious students reject science and opt for religion. In their view, religion has provided them with much more visceral and relevant truths than science, and so if one must win, then they choose religion.

The alternative to this combative presentation of religion and science is to note that there are other models out there, other ways of conceiving religion, and its relationship with science. So religion as purpose and meaning, for example, allows a much healthier interaction between science (‘the how’) and religion (‘the why’). As a Headteacher, and thus a person with authority, my view is that Tom Sherrington’s mistake isn’t introducing evolution into the assembly, but an inherently controversial model of religion. Linda Woodhead has argued academics need to be reflexive in how they use and utilise concepts of religion in their studies, and so I think perhaps the same could be said of educators.

There is one other criticism I have of the assembly – the introduction of Richard Dawkins. He is fantastic science writer, no doubt, but he is also a vocal and controversial campaigner whose New Atheism overshadows his scientific contributions. Part of the reason for the strong reaction against evolution by religious students is the way in which evolution has been married to disbelief (unecessarily so, in my opinion). This isn’t healthy to the teaching of evolution in classrooms (or assemblies), and educators need to do more to divorce evolution and atheism. The law of the conversation of energy as well as entropy present so many more problems to Christian and Muslim theology than the theory of evolution. The reason the latter is more controversial is due to the way it has been entwined with anti-religious viewpoints, partly due to the theory’s particular history in Europe, but also the work of New Atheists such as Dawkins.

Offer a religious person the choice between religion and science, and very rarely will science come out on top. The shame however is that choice is absolutely arbitary, they need not choose in the first place. Much of that comes down to religious leaders, in ensuring they don’t present their religion as opposed to science, but educators can play a role too, in ensuring they don’t fall foul of the same fallacy.


About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.