SCMP(2/21/09):Religion and science are not enemies, so let’s honour both

(Is HKSAR is the one down on the slippery slope of ignorance and bigot? Creating an environment which allow Pastor So felt no shame in arguing that extend the legal protection of domestic violence to Gay would increase the rate of AIDS, making more University graduate to become sex slave.

Kent Ewing
Feb 21, 2009

When I was growing up in the United States, putting up a Christmas tree in a school yard could start a religious war.
Even mythical Santa Claus, because of his origins as Saint Nicholas of Myra, could be a dangerously controversial figure — another conspirator in the Christian plot to charm and coddle non-Christian American children away from their religious heritage.

More recently, schools in France have banned Muslim girls from wearing head scarves, deemed a religious symbol. But these girls are told not to feel bad because non-Muslim students are also forbidden from wearing any religious symbols – from a cross to the Star of David.

The dress of female Muslim students has also fallen foul of British fashion police.

In Hong Kong, thank God – any god – we do not have problems such as these. So far, anyway.

But we could be on the proverbial slippery slope if we take up arguments over whether creationism and/or its discredited pseudoscientific offshoot, intelligent design, should be presented as an alternative to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In the US, the historic Scopes trial – popularly known as the “monkey trial" – should have ended the debate between evolutionists and biblical literalists in 1925. In that trial John Scopes, a biology teacher in the state of Tennessee, was charged with teaching a theory that, against state law, contradicted “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible".

The theory was Darwin’s and the courtroom battle that followed was hailed as the “trial of the century".

In the end, Scopes was convicted and fined US$100 – a verdict held up by fundamentalists as a victory for Christianity. But that victory was regarded as a Pyrrhic one by the forces of science and reason after the era’s most famous proponent of biblical literalism, populist politician and golden-tongued orator William Jennings Bryan, wilted under the incisive questioning of defence lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Bryan’s lame defence of a literal Adam and Eve was broadcast live on radio and published verbatim in the nation’s leading daily newspapers. Despite the verdict, fundamentalism had suffered a major blow in the eyes of many analysts.

That was 84 years ago but the evolution debate continues today on school boards and in state legislatures across the US, which is unique among western nations for its inability to resolve this unnecessary and sometimes downright ridiculous argument.

There are many aspects of American life worthy of admiration and emulation, but this is not one of them.

In Hong Kong, religion should not be presented as science or as an alternative to science. But it should be presented – even, if the context is right, in a science class.

God should not be banned from the classroom, any classroom.

This is what has happened in some public schools in the US, where the debate over the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state has reached such an absurdly contentious point that teachers and students are afraid to say anything about their most fundamental beliefs lest they offend someone who believes otherwise.

Thus political correctness rules and the spiritual lives of students are ignored. But what kind of a school deliberately avoids making connections with a student’s personal life – spiritual or otherwise? This is a form of anti-education.

As a Christian, an American and a teacher who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, I hope this city will be able to find the right balance between science and religion in education. On this point, the Education Bureau, whose guidelines on teaching science recently drew the ire of leading scientists at the University of Hong Kong, has badly missed the mark. Indeed, those guidelines are worthy of a small-town school board in America’s Bible Belt, not an international city such as Hong Kong.

The bureau allows schools great leeway in deciding how to teach evolution, and the result is that at least 30 government-aided schools are teaching creationism as an alternative to Darwin’s theory. Chan Yau-chi, principal of the United Christian College in Shek Kip Mei, put it this way: “When we teach Darwin, we treat it as one part of the subject. We teach students creationism as a counterbalance."

There’s the slippery slope – one that HKU, which six years ago rebuffed the attempts of an assistant professor of physics to establish a course based on intelligent design, has been careful to guard against. That the physicist admits to holding “secret meetings" outside the classroom to show his students anti-evolution documentaries poses unsettling questions that the university also needs to confront.

Intelligent design is not science, and the creation story does not qualify as theory. It is an educational travesty to pretend otherwise.

Christian fundamentalism is as wrong-headed and potentially dangerous as any other kind of fundamentalism let loose in our world. Educational authorities should not act as its facilitator, turning a blind eye to schools that push students to make a false choice between God and science.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

It is a good time to remind ourselves that we want schools where both God and science, real science, can be freely discussed in an atmosphere of accommodation rather than conflict. Religion and science are not enemies and need not be presented as such. Neither are they competing theories.

Science produces theories; religion is a matter of faith.

Let’s honour both but not make the educational mistake of confusing the two.

Kent Ewing is a Hong-based teacher and writer.



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