Good news: British government withholds funding from religious schools that don’t teach evolution as a fact

Some really good news on the evolution-education front: according to the BBC News, the British government will, starting next year, withhold funds from “free schools” (schools run by charities, parents, or religious groups) that don’t teach evolution as a “comprehensive and coherent scientific theory,” which I take to mean “as a fact.” The BBC report:

Any attempt to present as fact the view that God made the world could lead to new free schools losing their funding under government changes.

The new rules state that from 2013, all free schools in England must teach evolution as a “comprehensive and coherent scientific theory”.

The move follows scientists’ concerns that free schools run by creationists might avoid teaching evolution.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said it was “delighted”.

Sir Paul told BBC News the previous rules on free schools and the teaching of evolution versus creationism had been “not tight enough”.

He said that although the previous rules had confined creationism to religious education lessons, “the Royal Society identified a potential issue that schools could have avoided teaching evolution by natural selection in science lessons or dealt with it in a such a perfunctory way, that the main experience for students was the creationist myth”.

So far 79 free schools have opened in England with 118 more due to open in 2013 and beyond. They are funded directly by central government but unlike other state-funded schools are run by groups of parents, teachers, charities and religious groups and do not have to abide by the national curriculum.

The new rules mean if a free school is found to be acting in breach of its funding agreement – for example, teaching creationism as a scientific fact or not teaching evolution – the Department for Education will take “swift action which could result in the termination of that funding agreement”.

In a letter to the Royal Society, the Schools Minister, Lord Hill, said: “While we have always been clear that we expect to see evolution included in schools’ science curricula, this new clause will provide more explicit reassurance that free schools will have to meet that expectation.”

My one worry here is that teaching evolution as specified leaves room for other theories, like creationism, to be also taught as “comprehensive and coherent scientific theories.”  As I’ve pointed out before, Islamic faith schools tend to teach evolution in one class and undercut it in another.  I’m not sure how the new rules will deal with that.

At any rate, the faithful weigh in as well, and although some favor this change, they can’t help putting in a plug for God. As the BBC reports:

Dr Berry Billingsley who leads a Reading University project on how secondary schools handle questions that bridge science and religion cautioned against an oversimplified debate.

“Evolution is a fantastic theory and explains so much about how humans come to be here. It is backed up by evidence and supported by the vast majority of scientists in the biological sciences. Many of those scientists also believe that the Universe is here because of God.

“The importance of studying evolution is indeed the first thing to be said but children also need opportunities somewhere in the timetable to explore the ‘Big Questions’, which our research shows they want to consider and it is often the science lesson that stirs up those questions.”

“Big Questions,” is, of course, the euphemism that Templeton and other accommodationists use for “what religion does.”  If the students want those questions answered, let them go to their parents or their pastors, but not to their teachers.  Why do they need “opportunities in the timetable” to ask about God, meaning, purpose, and values?  Finally, this:

Paul Bate, of the European Educators Christian Association, agreed schools should teach a broad and balanced curriculum: “Science and religion need each other in this debate. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of all time said, ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.'”

That statement from Einstein, which as far as I know is genuine, has always puzzled me. Einstein had no truck with a personal God, and didn’t say many nice things about religion.  I’m not sure what he meant by “Science without religion is lame,” but it doesn’t sound good.  Perhaps he meant “religion” as “that sense of wonder that motivates scientists,” for remember that Einstein also said this:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.”

h/t: Graham


  1. Posted November 30, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Let me be the first to note that I alerted Jerry to this story…about three seconds before he posted it….


    • Graham
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Obviously I got in well ahead of that.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 1, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      I’m just closing the tab with the story in it, which I’d seen and thought “Jerry’d be interested in that!” Obviouslyly not necessary now.

  2. Griff
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    You can usually gauge the weakness of an argument, as it’s strength is in inverse proportion to the number of times Einstein is quoted as an authority.

    • thh1859
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Well observed.

  3. david middle
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Best news for free schools education in UK. These schools will need to be watched!!! British Humanist Org doing a good job 🙂

  4. Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Here is the context.

    Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.


    • BilBy
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink


    • Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      You’re right to put the quote in context. The answer to Jerry’s puzzlement is that Einstein was using “religion” in a very non-standard way. Essentially he was trying to communicate with religious people by using their language; an attempt at soft persuasion.

      When you read it in context it’s explicit that by “religion” Einstein means: “faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason”.

      Thus the quote actually means: “science without {faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason} is lame”.

      Pretty innocuous, huh?

      • guilherme21msa
        Posted November 30, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Anyone who reads “Mein Weltbild” (“How I see the World”, in German) will realise that when Einstein was talkign about a religious feeling, he meant “the unlimited admiration for the structure of the Universe that our poor science can reveal”.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted November 30, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        So let’s all quote-mine big E.

        “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labours they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. That is, to be sure, a more difficult but incomparable more worthy task. After religious leaders accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.”

        From Science and Religion, 1939.

        Shame to see a great mind reduced to rambling about “true religion”.

    • steve oberski
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Religion has “learned” from science in the sense that as we come to understand more about the nature of reality through the tool of science, more and more of the claims of religion are shown to be false.

      This has progressed to the point where religious claims are now taking shelter in the Planck length scale where quantum effects begin to dominate and just like it is not possible to determine the difference between two locations less than one Planck length apart, so it goes with religious claims.

      This aspiration to truth and beauty is an innate human quality, and is something we share in common with all human beings irregardless of their religious (or lack of) orientation.

      While we do not, and possibly may never, have a complete understanding of how the universe operates, so far there has never been a case where the universe has been observed to operate in an irrational manner. It is this evidence that allows scientists to make the assumption that the universe is indeed explainable by the mechanisms of science, and any scientist that made this assumption based on faith would not be a “genuine scientist”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Nonsense, and terrible at that.

      If science aspire to “truth and understanding” as theologians and philosophers, it will be lost in the labyrinth of relative truth that natural philosophy was. It was precisely by ditching truth and accepting absolute facts that got empirical science going.

      And how it is going! Anyone that takes as a dictum of faith that rationality is behind the success of science is deluded. It is the observation that science works that tests the fact that rational reasoning is a practical means towards knowledge.

      As for understanding… We don’t know how to define that as opposed to, say, knowledge (testable facts and theories). This is illustrative:

      Historically, but especially under the influence of computer science empirism, mathematics have gone from proofs as demonstrating constructions (e.g. Euclid) to verify mutually agreeable steps. Proof methods can be _zero knowledge_, statistical, computerized, … you name it.

      Computer scientist Scott Aaronsson notes that we now construe mathematical proofs as verifying (testing) assertions. But we lack a similar knowledge of “understanding” assertions. If it isn’t demonstrating specific solutions (in science: pathways), what is it?*

      [Ref: Computer scientist Scott Aaronsson, his recent blog post on a meeting in proof theory.]

      * My personal guess is that understanding is the ability to put up a tested and useful theory, and full understanding is to have a unique theory that works for all its applications.

      But note that testability rejects any notion of “faith”, profound or not. We can easily test testing recursively, so there is 0 ambiguity to push gods-of-the-gaps into.

      “Science. It works, bitches.”

  5. Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Deluded Students and commented:

  6. Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget there is another clause in the funding agreement for Free Schools that prohibits the teaching of non scientifically valid nonsense as science.

    On paper the Creationists are tied up in a neat bow – in practice we wait to see. We are yet to see what inspection regimes will be capable of spotting and I have doubts if FOI will be accepted.

    We plan to ask for teaching materials for schools where there are doubts about them.


  7. Posted November 30, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I keep hearing about ‘science’ teachers either not teaching evolution (properly?) or being pressured by admin/community (in religious states) to avoid/minimalize it.

    It almost seems like we need a federally-funded pool of trained and experienced science teachers that are assigned to every school, and whose jobs are not tied to the local school board (so Principals, PAC’s, etc. have limited disciplinary power). They would teach science properly, without creationist input or viewpoints, regardless of the local community.

    So in the case of free schools, a science teacher would be assigned to the school to teach the required science curriculum.

    • Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      That’s half the battle. The other half is actually firing all the other teachers (phys ed, humanities, math, etc.) that undermine the science curriculum. It’s a tall order in the USA though, as teachers are paid so poorly to begin with; the talent pool is only so big. There are a lot of knuckleheads in the profession. (when I was certifying in Colorado, half the class of about 200 wannabes were creationist, incl. nearly everyone teaching phys ed.)

      If I was king, you couldn’t even get a job as a school janitor if you were a creationist.

  8. eric
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    The importance of studying evolution is indeed the first thing to be said but children also need opportunities somewhere in the timetable to explore the ‘Big Questions’

    Well, speaking as a secular Yank, feel free to create a comparative religion elective. Just don’t use “in the timetable” to mean “in science classes so we can bogart some of the credibility of science.”

    If comparative religion electives don’t meet your needs and you want to teach religion X is The One True Faith, I suggest Sunday mornings is a good part of the timetable for that.

  9. Paco Mota
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic news‼

    we are nearer to the day when the right NOT TO BE INDOCTRINATED will be universally recognized and granted for all children on the planet.
    Please, visit, read and, if you agree, endorse the petition in:
    We need a world of support.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Religious special pleading is especially dangerous, because it is both boring (frequent, trivial) and atrocious (arrogant, demeaning). The first trait makes it easy to overlook, the second make it easy to try to overlook.

    For example this:

    Many of those scientists also believe that the Universe is here because of God.

    You can always find a few dissenters to make “many” out of. As it happens, religion is still so immersed in society that such scientists remain at a large frequency.

    But the process shows that science and so nature is opposed to religion.

    During education and practice students, teachers and scientists moves towards atheism. Religious becomes agnostics and agnostic atheists. And it is based on observation, since the stratification makes the more practiced scientists more atheist. (Say, frequency of atheists in NAS.)

    “Big Questions,” is, of course, the euphemism that Templeton and other accommodationists use for “what religion does.”

    Nice observation! To adapt Peter Atkins’s response to precisely the Temple Funding organization the other day [HT Itunmer]:

    “I regard the existence of this extraordinary universe as having a wonderful, awesome grandeur. It hangs there in all its glory, wholly and completely useless. To project onto it our human-inspired notion of [what religion does (“Big Questions”)] would, to my mind, sully and diminish it.

    Ergo, it takes a small mind to make those questions “Big”.

  11. MadScientist
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately this only appears to hold for new schools – why do the already established schools not have to comply?

    • Nick Evans
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      It only applies to the new schools because they are free from the requirement to teach the national curriculum. Existing schools are bound by that curriculum, which already includes evolution as part of science.

  12. jose
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Ah yes, time for The Big Questions. What actually happens once you grant time for The Big Questions is religious people teaching the kids that gays are wrong and that they’ll go blind for jerking off.

    The big questions Billingsley supposedly wants addressed belong in philosophy class, not religion.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Einstein had no truck with a personal God, and didn’t say many nice things about religion. I’m not sure what he meant by “Science without religion is lame,” but it doesn’t sound good.

    As someone recently noted, Einstein had the uncommon experience to stumble onto a field where, uniquely, a unique theory works. There is only one parameter set that makes the effective theory of general relativity working. And I think something similar can be said about special relativity.

    As we now know, general relativity is an indelible part of standard cosmology. While special relativity is an indelible part of spacetime physics. Maybe that is why they are thusly constrained.

    Don’t get me wrong.

    Einstein was a proficient experimental scientist (brownian motion, photoelectric effect, diffusion) and engineer (refrigerators), with a profound understanding of science at least in the beginning.

    But it is easy to think that his special experiences deluded him into thinking that was how fundamental science works. He was later very stubborn in barking up the wrong tree, as in that quantum mechanics couldn’t be genuinely stochastic or that “a theory of everything” had to be a field theory.

    In the first case it is quantum mechanics that is genuinely constrained, but only in a specific part. (It minimizes number of parameters, which forces it to be genuinely stochastic. But it has currently many overlapping theories, many “interpretations”.)

    In the second case Einstein could never find a uniquely constrained theory.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      “that was how fundamental science works.” As in, you could have faith in that it worked and worked out from first principles and a few gedanken experiments.

      In reality, we need extensive testing to choose between theories.

    • Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      Remember that Einstein was alive at a time when the prevailing philosophical view was logical positivism and it’s instrumentalist implications (following Mach). Einstein & others such as Schrodinger were arguing that science is a creative endeavour, not just bean counting observations and that scientific explanations actually explain something about reality.

      Some scientists are returning to these kind of ideas and it’s interesting to read Lee Smolin (The Trouble with Physics) and David Deutsch on why progress in fundamental physics might have stalled somewhat in recent years.

  14. Kevin
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    ‘Why do they need “opportunities in the timetable” to ask about God, meaning, purpose, and values?’

    Oh, you know, just in case there are a couple of ten-year-olds in the class who have come thus far without learning that it is wrong to abduct, torture and murder a two year old boy.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 2, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Is there a god in any mythology that wouldn’t go along with that?

  15. eric
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Another potential solution: I am willing to dedicate any amount of the school timetable to questions about God. Any amount. And I’m serious about that. If God is willing to come teach the class.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    whenever I hear stories about the clash of education/evolution/religion/science, I personally have never heard what the students have to say or think about the matter.

    however, I never had a problem finding things everyone else has to say.

  17. Posted November 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    In theory it sounds good, but in practice the idea of a creationist biology teacher, teaching evolution probably isn’t feasible. For one, many of them probably don’t really even understand the theory themselves. And even if they did what are the chances they will teach it fairly?

    Really, the whole idea of faith schools is an abomination, and we should be trying to phase them out – It’s simply absurd to carry forward childhood brainwashing into the education system.

  18. raven
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    One of the states briefly had a teach the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” rule. Which is code for teach creationism anyway.

    One creationist teacher was asked what she taught about the strengths of evolution.

    “Well there aren’t any, so I don’t bother.”

    It’s fair to say creationists don’t understand evolution and the mountains of data that support it. If they did, they wouldn’t be creationists.

    Scientists have no such problem understanding the strengths and weaknesses of creationism though. Creationists just repeat lies and fallacies, some of which predate the existence of xianity.

  19. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    What Einstein meant by “religion” was on the whole generic moral and spiritual reflection which historically had been the domain of religion, but really could also be taken to extend to philosophy. Socrates, Confucius, and Aristotle in addition to Buddha and Krishna would fall under Einstein’s definition of “religion”.

    In the same essay as the quote “Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame”, he urges abandonment of any idea of an anthropomorphic God, and seems to lean towards a generic pantheism revering the sacredness of nature.

  20. Griff
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    The standard of science teaching in UK schools is sometimes poor anyway. A work colleague recently told me that a friends daughter was told by a biology teacher that “Evolution could not explain the human eye”. My colleague asked me about this (knowing I had an interest in the subject), and I found myself becoming angry (primarily that a teacher in a UK school was actively misinforming a class of children)

    • Christopher
      Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      A big conclusion from such a tiny, minuscule, essentially worthless anecdote. I don’t mean to provoke, but is that all you base your grandiose conclusion of the “standard of science teaching in UK schools is sometimes poor anyway” on? You are aware that personal anecdote should never be used to make any generalisations, ever. Because they tell you nothing.

      What do you even mean, anyway? Sometimes teaching can be poor in any subject, in any school, in any country on the planet. In my old school the art class wasn’t particular good.

      • Griff
        Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

        Teacher are we?

        • Jeremy Pereira
          Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          Ad hominem lover are we?

          Whether or not Christopher is a teacher, his point stands. Your anecdote only tells us at least one science teacher in a UK school is poor.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted December 2, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

            Or that there was a poor link in communication (or a lie) somewhere between teacher training, a student, the student’s parent, and the parent’s colleague Griff.

            That’s not even an anecdote.

  21. Christopher
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Andrew Copson (British Humanist Association) wrote a piece in the Guardian about some other problems too, like schools exploiting loopholes.

  22. agathoszoe
    Posted December 2, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    The more I read the comments here, the more I hear that from the atheist perspective, error has no rights. Thus, many that follow Jerry Coyne are convinced that I am in error. You see, I am a theist of the ilk where my world view begins with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. If there were no prohibitions, would you then begin to burn at the stake folks like me? Will you ensure that I can’t teach my children, that I can’t get a job as a teacher? So then, such evil practices have “evolved” from the religious community of the middle ages to the secular community of today? Think about such a world – I for one, would not want to live in such a world where error has no rights.

    Historically, mankind has primarily been religious, spiritual, and accepting of metaphysical ideas. Although Evolution does not properly deal with biopoiesis, I am confident that if you are an atheist this branch of science is also fully accepted as fact – it had to occur if there is no supernatural realm. Granted – pure naturalism is the framework by which you start your analysis of reality. However, how did you get here? As a theist I admit, easily enough, that major tragedy and evil has occurred in the name of God. Yet, the principles of freedom, by which the political and scientific trajectory that that entire western world has jetted from, started from good, creative, and investigative aspects of theist. Theistic scientist of the past may not have been Christians or Jews or Muslims (some were), but they practiced their craft and performed their investigation based on the belief that God gave the universe order and structure that can be discovered. If there is no God, they were wrong, BUT this is the perspective they had and this has given us the foundation of our modern society.

    So, as you enjoy this supposed victory of mandating that evolution be taught as a “comprehensive and coherent scientific theory” and as Jerry as stated, you take this to mean “fact” (which I don’t – it’s strictly a comprehensive and coherent theory – valid science with valid questions, corollaries, and guidelines, but nonetheless, it is a theory), I ask you – take the high road. Don’t become that which many atheists have despised in our shared history about religious oppressors. I don’t want a new dark-age where all of human life is forced to fit into some scientific, deterministic, calculated, complex set of scientific canons, creeds, and maxims. Love, relationship, care, compassion, empathy, grace, forgiveness and the like need the freedom to exist without being codified as some complex psychological outgrowth of evolutionary necessity.

    • Griff
      Posted December 2, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      In scientific terms “The theory of evolution by natural selection” is a theory, but in day-to-day use of English “Evolution” (i.e., that change has happened over time) is a fact.

      You may argue over the driving forces behind evolution and relative importance of each of them, but evolution IS a fact. (if you doubt that change has happened and has been OBSERVED to happen, then you can only be woefully ignorant of the facts. If we only had the fossil record (and we have so much more) it would be hard to deny change over time.

      Or are you doubting the driving forces? If you think some supernatural being drove evolution, then feel free to provide evidence.

      You won’t, because you can’t.

      Natural selection happens. It happens, because it is INEVITABLE. If you can’t see that I can only assume you haven’t actually examined the evidence.

      Regardless, this discussion is not about science triumphing over religion – it is about religion not being taught as science, and that should never happen.

    • articulett
      Posted December 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Scientific theories are the best explanations for a certain body of evidence… they allow us to predict new evidence.

      You may believe demons cause disease. However,that belief is not scientific and it would be inappropriate to teach it to children as an “alternative” to germ theory. The same goes for the myriad of creations stories various religions teach.

      Believing that demons cause disease, is not a method for finding cures to illnesses… germ theory is. Creation stories, like Greek myths, may be useful for understanding human psychology (we make stories up when we don’t know answers), but it is not a method for understanding what is true about our world.

      You are free to believe in magic but your magical beliefs are no more scientific than a reincarnationists supernatural beliefs or a Scientologists. You need to be as private with your supernatural beliefs as you want those others to be. Should any supernaturalist ever have a testable falsifiable explanation that explains the evidence better than science does and/or leads to more evidence, that explanation will be seized upon, refined, and honed, just like all other real and useful information about the world. But “god did it” stories don’t do that. There is not even a good explanation for what a “god” is, much less how science can distinguish a real god from an imaginary god (or a demon… or and advanced alien… or a fairy…)

  23. Posted December 2, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    «I’m not sure what he meant by “Science without religion is lame,” but it doesn’t sound good.»

    I’m inclined to think he meant something more alike to “morality”. Some time ago I read the scan of a document written by him where he commented on the notion of religion, noting that is has two distinct components: what he called the „animistic” part (mythology, superstition, spirits etc.), and the moral part. (I found it, I think, on the site of Jerusalem University’ Einstein archives, but I’m not sure and I’d have to look for it again.)

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