Science and Religion in Schools in the UK

Science and Religion in Schools in the UK

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My personal interest in the “Science and Religion” debate at school level was awakened by the experience of teaching both science, in the form of chemistry, and later also religious studies at a London school.  It was more than forty years ago at a time when I had naively thought that the debate between the claims of science and those of religions was a thing of the past!  As a youthful enthusiast for evolution, who only at university began to wonder if there was more to life than molecules, my personal experience had led me to the position that there was no great problem in accepting the findings of modern science and being a Christian.  However this was clearly not the case for my thirteen year old pupils at that time.  On setting them essays to write in religious education [RE]  classes on the subject of ‘What I believe’ I found that there was considerable confusion.  Two quotations from these essays stay in my mind.  ‘I believe that Science and not God made the world’ wrote one boy.  Can you be more confused about the nature and purpose of science than that?  And ‘I feel a schizophrenia between my understanding of science and my religious beliefs’.  Schizophrenia is a condition which must be taken seriously.  What should be done?  Of course I discussed the matter regularly with the boys and girls I taught throughout my time as a school teacher and headmaster and this reinforced my concerns about the confusion to be found in young minds on this issue.  But it was only when I moved to Oxford as Director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies that I was able to start considering seriously what might be done about it. At Oxford I was fortunate enough to meet and get to know Professor John Hedley Brooke, a distinguished historian of science, expert on Darwin, and, at that time Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion in the Theology Department. Between us we were able to gather together an extremely able group of university experts and experienced school teachers to write the necessary materials for schools and, very importantly, to gain generous financial support from the John Templeton Foundation. Close cooperation between school teachers and university experts was essential, as only school teachers know what language needs to be used to enable their pupils to understand these sometimes complex issues and only university experts have the up to date knowledge, in both science and theology, which is required in such a rapidly developing subject.

It is worth considering why the “Science and Religion” debate should be of such interest to young people in schools today.  The situation is inevitably complex but some points are reasonably clear.  The first, of course, concerns what is happening in the world outside schools.  Here the debate has had an increasingly high profile in recent years.  There are many reasons for this but one must be the constantly increasing body of knowledge with which we are all faced.  It is a long time since any single human being could have a reasonable grasp of all subjects (it is said that Goethe was the last), and specialisation has become both inevitable and essential.  There is a sense in which different subjects speak different languages and this leads to isolation and misunderstanding.  It has been good to see that the Metanexus Institute, among others, has recognised the necessity for the encouragement of interdisciplinary studies, but this is a recent occurrence.  Meanwhile, particularly since Darwin published The Origin of Species, the debate between the claims of science and the major world faiths has been of constant concern both to scholars and to ordinary people.

The last decades have also seen increasing activity from fundamentalists.  Fundamentalism can be described as ‘the belief that part of the truth is the whole truth’.  It is understandably attractive, when faced with the complexity of modern science on the one hand and of modern theology on the other, to make an ‘either-or’ choice.  Thus fundamentalist scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who promote ‘Naive Scientism’, get a good hearing and fundamentalist religious groups like the Creationists are growing in membership and influence.  In these media driven times, extreme views make good headlines, and it is not surprising that the debate has achieved such a high profile.  The matters concerned are important.  It makes a great difference to the way we see the world and the way we live our lives if we believe, for instance, either that only science can provide us with valid knowledge or that only a literal interpretation of the Bible can be accepted.  Intuitively, many people feel that an understanding and accommodation between the two is not only desirable but essential and so it is not surprising that so much attention has been given to the debate.  


All this is familiar territory for those whose academic interest lies in the “Science and Religion” debate.  But the aim of our project, which is ‘to encourage open minded and informed debate on the claims of science and those of the major world religions’, is to bring the debate into schools.  The environment here is in some ways unique and there are factors which must be faced if useful materials are to be produced. The first of these concerns the nature of the curricula which determine what is taught in schools.

In UK schools both science and religious education are part of the school curriculum.  But the curriculum is not identical over the whole of the UK, and there is constant and relatively rapid change.  One strength of the curriculum is that it is far from rigid and that a great deal of choice is possible, especially in the 16-19 age group.  Despite all this choice, however, there is no single examination subject yet which is aimed specifically at the science and religion debate.  Instead there are topics within some of the RE syllabuses which include different aspects of the debate and, increasingly, areas in the science curricula where there are opportunities for the debate to appear.   Our solution to this problem has been to produce materials covering a large number of topics for different age groups, from which teachers can choose those which they would like to cover an which are most suitable for the courses they are teaching.  We therefore describe our publications as ‘a resource, not a course’.

Another issue is that these materials are designed to be used by both RE teachers and science teachers.  But RE teachers are not usually confident in teaching matters concerning science, nor science teachers with those concerning theology.  There are, of course, some notable exceptions amongst teachers but we have met this problem by including background materials and references in both subjects for those who need them.  To maximise the value of the materials for students, we have written them with the ‘average’ student in mind but have also produced ‘extension materials’ which are designed to test the more able.

Two further challenges are the sheer volume of material required to cover so much ground and the need to constantly up date such a fast moving subject.  Both have been solved by the use of modern technology as Paul Hopkins explains in his article ‘The Development of the Science and Religion in Schools Project and the Importance of IT’.  Briefly the solution lies in the use of ‘print-on-demand’ for printed materials and CD-Roms for all other materials including videos and Power Point presentations.  ‘Print-on-demand’, as is now widely known, is cheap and flexible.  It allows either very small or large numbers to be printed and it is extremely cheap to update, change or add to.  This is just what such an extensive and fast moving subject needs.  CD-Roms, as is also well known, can store a very large amount of material. It has been estimated that the CD-Rom which accompanies our Secondary School Guide (11-19) contains enough information to fill ten normal books.  Where schools are equipped with interactive white boards one CD-Rom can therefore support the whole school.

Experience shows that, however carefully materials for the classroom are written, it is essential to have them tried and tested in as wide a variety of schools as possible before final publication. Extensive trials of the lesson plans and other materials were therefore undertaken in a variety of schools round the country before rewriting and final publication.  The process of updating is so inexpensive that, as mentioned above, it will be possible to continue this process of constant improvement for years to come.  This will have the added advantage of linking teachers more closely with the course materials they are using in the classroom.

We have been greatly encouraged by the positive response there has been to the publication of the Science and Religion in Schools project.  We have also been pleased by the interest taken in the project in countries round the world.  We should not be surprised by this.  The debate reflects a fundamental aspect of human nature which is both rational and intuitive.   This is common to us all.  But what is not common is the cultural background in which we live.   This is particularly true of schools.  Even in the same country no two schools are the same—indeed, as every teacher knows, no two classes are the same.  But with countries the cultural and historical differences can be very marked.  In addition, the forms of education and curricula can differ considerably.  This means that teaching materials produced in one country cannot be simply translated and used in another.  We hope that the UK project can be the source of inspiration for the production of similar materials elsewhere and that others can benefit from our experience, but we believe that it is essential that every country which wants to follow this lead should have its own project and produce its own teaching materials.  The existence of ‘Metanexus Groups’, although not of course essential for such a process, could be very stimulating.  As interdisciplinary studies become increasingly important so does closer cooperation between universities and schools.