New RE Guidelines on Creation and Atheism

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The UK Government has recently released a new document on the teaching of Religious Education (RE) in state schools.1 The document is titled “How can we answer questions about creation and origins?” and has been released by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).2 If schools follow the guidelines in this document, it will be the first time that both creationism and atheism have been specifically recommended for teaching in any subject in England. While welcoming some aspects of the guidelines, others cause us concern. Among our concerns are that:

  • The unit is for teaching within the RE subject area, rather than science.
  • The suggested resources include works by atheist Richard Dawkins, but do not include any creationist works or websites.

It is also a concern that the exact legal implications of studies within the different curriculum areas of science and RE are not understood, even among UK parents. Too many parents assume that schools and lessons work in the same way as they did when they were at school. The truth is that schools, and the laws covering them, have changed radically in the last twenty years, so that many parents would not recognise what is now being taught.

Current controversy on creationism in schools

Much controversy has been generated in recent months, by arguments as to whether creationism should or should not be taught in schools, and, if it should, then where it should be taught. This has been compounded by deliberate misrepresentation in the media. For example, the Guardian newspaper continues to allege that certain faith-based schools within the state sector have banned the teaching of evolution and are teaching creationism only. This allegation is untrue. There are some schools where fair-minded science teachers, whether Christian or not, are prepared to allow pupils to discuss and learn that there are different interpretations of the scientific evidences, but Answers in Genesis knows of no schools where the teaching of evolution has been banned. Indeed, AiG would not support such a move. We want pupils to be taught about evolution. How else will they be able to analyse it critically?

In some discussions, certain commentators have suggested that it could be permitted for creationism to be taught in schools, but not in science lessons. The rationale for this is that creationism and intelligent design are supposedly not scientific positions, but religious positions, and are therefore appropriate only for RE lessons. However, the illogicality of this position is seen by the fact that those RE syllabuses tackling creationism do so, rightly, only in comparison to evolution. If evolution were a wholly science-based position, then why is it discussed in RE?

Good science teaching should include controversies

There is no reason for controversial issues to be ducked in science lessons.

Having been a schoolteacher of many years’ standing in the state comprehensive system, I know that, if there is one educational buzz-word likely to win one plaudits, it is the concept of cross-curricular themes. It surely follows that any study of the comparisons of creation and evolution belongs not just to RE, but also to science. Indeed, the Science National Curriculum (NC) document in England requires that “Pupils should be taught ... ways in which scientific work may be affected by the contexts in which it takes place [for example, social, historical, moral and spiritual].”3 A reasonable person reading the Science NC document would suppose that pupils are being invited to discuss issues where faith impinges upon science. Moreover, the Science NC also requires that “Pupils should be taught ... how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence [for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution].”4 There is no reason for controversial issues to be ducked in science lessons. As the teaching of NC statements is not limited to any particular point on the timetable, it can be seen that these statements could be combined with the new RE suggested unit and taught simultaneously, either in RE or science lessons.

Analyzing the QCA document

The evolution / creation controversy has been addressed in RE lessons for some time, with varying degrees of effectiveness. My own son was recently taught about evolution in RE lessons in the Church of England comprehensive school, which he attends, although no attempt was made to mention either creationism or intelligent design. On one level, the new QCA guidelines are to be welcomed as a formalization of good practice, because the units require creationist thought to be addressed.

Indeed, there are some very positive elements in the QCA document. One of the stated aims of the document is to enable pupils to develop the attitude of “being prepared to recognize and acknowledge their own bias.”5 This seems to be closely related to the presuppositional idea, of which Answers in Genesis is keen to remind people. Another attitude that the document wishes to encourage is that of “distinguishing between opinions, viewpoints and beliefs in connection with issues of conviction and faith.”6 The wording of that statement could be interpreted in differing ways. Correctly interpreted, it should lead pupils to understand the presuppositional nature of advocating evolutionism. Incorrectly interpreted, evolution could be presented as if it were “fact,” and therefore “faith,” in the form of creationism could be placed in opposition to “fact.”

It must also be said that some of the teaching suggestions are very good. For example, in the section on how people account for their views on origins, the teaching strategy is suggested as follows:

What accounts of the origins of the universe do atheists hold? Ask the pupils to create a mind-map of what they already know about evolution and big bang theory as individuals, in pairs or as a whole class. Why is it that not all atheists believe in the ‘big bang’ and not all theists believe in the biblical or Qur’anic accounts of God’s creation of the world?7

It can only be positive for pupils critically to examine atheistic opinions, so that they can see that atheism is not the rational choice that its proselytizers, such as Dawkins, suggest.

Where the unit fails is in its choice of suggested resources. The list of resources is clearly going to influence how a teacher teaches this subject. Evolutionary and atheistic resources and websites are listed, such as Dawkins’ “A Devil’s Chaplain” and his website “World of Dawkins”. Although Genesis 1 to 3 from the Bible is rightly suggested as a resource, no creationist or ID sources are recommended. The unit does not suggest pupils look at the Answers in Genesis website—a predictable but unfortunate omission. The list of suggested resources clearly suggests a presuppositional bias in the document, which could easily be addressed by the inclusion of, for example, the New Answers Book, or my own new book, Truth, Lies and Science Education.

Moreover, while I have no objection to the teaching of this unit in RE lessons, it still does not address the important issue of teaching the controversy in science lessons, as suggested by the quotes from the NC above.

As a former schoolteacher, I think I will grade the QCA effort as C+: could try harder!

RE in the school curriculum

It should be noted that the QCA recommendations only have authority in England. The other three constituent parts of the UK—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—have devolved government. The teaching of RE in these other three countries is the responsibility of the devolved government—or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly is currently not functioning.

The position of RE in the school curriculum is not always understood by parents. RE was made a compulsory subject by the 1944 Education Act. It was the only compulsory subject for many years. The 1987 Education Reform Act (ERA) introduced the concept of the National Curriculum (NC) to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish Education remained separate, administered by the Scottish Office, until the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, when responsibility for education passed to the new parliament. The 1987 ERA established three core subjects, which were to be compulsory at all ages in England and Northern Ireland—English, Maths, and Science. In Wales, a fourth subject—Welsh—was added to the core. Subsequent revisions of the NC have added Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Citizenship to the core curriculum. However, these core subjects remain part of the NC. RE, on the other hand, remains outside the administration of the NC.

In England and Wales, each local education authority (LEA) is responsible for the RE syllabus that is taught in its schools. The exception to this is the voluntary aided religious schools, run by Church of England (or Anglican Church in Wales), Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh sponsoring bodies, where the sponsoring body is responsible for the RE syllabus. In “normal” LEA schools, the RE syllabus is written by a committee, known as a SACRE—Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education. In theory, this body should contain representatives from the LEA and from local religious groups. In practice, the “Christian” on the group is nearly always a local Anglican minister, whose adherence to scriptural values and truth may or may not be forthcoming.

Into this maelstrom of competing influences over RE comes the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The QCA is delegated the task of overseeing the NC in England. In Northern Ireland and Wales, this oversight is provided directly by the relevant assembly education department. The QCA does not have authority to determine RE syllabuses, therefore. However, it has a strong influence, because of its oversight of the other subjects. In view of this, the release of a suggested unit of work by the QCA is clearly of importance, especially when the title of the document is “How can we answer questions about creation and origins?”


  1. These schools would be referred to as “Public Schools” in the US and elsewhere. Religious Education is a compulsory subject in all parts of the UK. Originally, it was intended to be a subject of a broadly Christian nature. For the last two or three decades, it has developed into a broad and liberal study of comparative religions.
  3. Science: The National Curriculum in England, 1999, p46, Sc1.1c (emphasis mine).
  4. Science: The National Curriculum in England, 1999, p46, Sc1.1b
  5. How can we answer questions about origins?, QCA, 2006, p. 2.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p. 13.


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