The Festival of Light and a
Alex Ritchie (the Skeptic Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 23)
Dr Alex Ritchie received his BSc. (Hons) in Geology and a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh. He worked as a Paleantologist at the Australian Museum from 1968 to 1995 where he is currently a Research Fellow.
As a working scientist with 37 years experience in geology and palaeontology I have long been concerned by the efforts of certain fundamentalist religious groups to insert religious dogma into school science classes in the guise of "creation science".
On 28th March 1992 I attended what was advertised as an "Education Seminar" on the topic "Should Creation be Taught in our Schools?" The three hour seminar, held in Parramatta, was sponsored by a group called "The Australian Federation of Parents for Quality Education". The letter accompanying the invitations was headed "Festival of Light. National Co-ordinator - Rev Fred Nile." The letter was signed by Mr Bruce Coleman, Chairman of the above Federation, a member of the personal staff of Rev Fred Nile at Parliament House and who also chaired the seminar. The Festival of Light letter lists, down one side, the names of 67 members of its "Advisory Committee" including such leading public figures as Sir Colin Hines, Mr Reuben Scarf, Dr Bruce Shepherd and Canon Lance Shilton. I do not question the right of these, or any other, individuals to serve on such a committee. I do question, however, whether members of the F.O.L.'s Advisory Committee are fully aware of the real nature and anti-educational implications of F.O.L. activities to which they lend their names.
I attended the Parramatta seminar accompanied by two colleagues, both Christians with wide experience in education. Mr Barry Price, a physicist formerly with the Catholic Education Office, is the author of "The Creation Science Controversy" (1990). Dr Frank Burrows, School of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University was co-editor of the symposium volume, "Confronting Creationism: Defending Darwin" (Univ. of NSW Press, 1987). The scheduled seminar listed three 45 minute talks and two 15 minute question sessions.
The first talk, "An Overview of the Creation/Evolution Debate", was by Mr Trevor Holt, described as a "former Science teacher". The second talk, by Mr Jeff Smith, "industrial chemist", was more honestly titled as "Communicating the Creation Message in the Heathen Country of Australia". Both speakers were evangelistic preachers. Their talks were preceded by, interspersed with and terminated by fervent prayers. The scientific content of both talks was nil.
The approach was unadulterated Young-Earth, Noah's Flood Creationism (ie. the world was created about 6000 years ago in six 24 hour days and Noah's Flood was an actual event around 4000 years ago that formed all of the Earth's geological and fossil record).
The seminar started 15 minutes late, causing the first two talks to overrun and conveniently using up the first question time. The third speaker, Mr John Heininger, Chairman of the Evangelical Apologetics Society, devoted most of his talk, entitled "A Science Education, Not Indoctrination", to demonstrating links between various active anti-creationist groups, singling out Australian Skeptics and CSICOP for special mention. The gist of Heininger's message appeared to be that most of those opposed to the teaching of Young-Earth Creationism and Flood Geology in Australian schools were humanists and/or atheists.
This may come as a shock to the overwhelming majority of Christians (Protestant and Catholic) who accept the irrefutable scientific evidence for the great age of the Cosmos and the Earth.
Mr Heininger, aware that I was in the audience, took the opportunity to quote (or more correctly, selectively misquote) me, citing my letters to the Sydney Morning Herald opposing creationism. Question time which followed was a travesty. This will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with creationist debating tactics and concepts of "free speech" or "equal time". When I asked the Chairman (Bruce Coleman) for right of reply to John Heininger this was denied.
The audience, mostly consisting of the faithful, clearly had no wish to hear a scientist explain why "creation science" has no place in Australian science classes. The meeting ended in uproar when the first speaker, Trevor Holt, asked to say a closing prayer, advanced from the lectern into the audience, directly confronted Barry Price and me, denounced us as agents of Satan and called on Jesus to intervene, with his hands over our heads, presumably trying to exorcise evolutionary devils. It was an educational, if not an edifying, experience. As a finale the second speaker, Jeff Smith, advertised a forthcoming public talk in Sydney in mid-May by a "Dr" Alan Roberts on the supposed discovery of Noah's Ark in Turkey.
The fact that a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians want to teach outdated religious dogma in Australian science classes is not news. The fact that this insidious, anti-intellectual, anti-educational campaign is being carried on under the banner of the Festival of Light is more serious.
Is it really the official policy of F.O.L. that all Australian schools should teach in science classes that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that we all came out of the Ark in 2345 BC? If so it is time the FOL came clean, stated its aims openly and let the public judge for themselves. The 67 members of FOL's Advisory Committee would be well advised to familiarise themselves with what is being promoted in their name and state publicly whether they wish to be associated with such views.
I wish to emphasise that, in raising these issues, I am not attacking religion. I am defending science. The so-called "debate" between Evolution and Creation is a diversionary tactic to distract attention from the real issues involved. The real "debate" is between advocates of Young Earth, Noah's Flood Creationism on one hand and all science (physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, palaeontology, anthropology, archaeology etc.) on the other. I call on those scientists, in all disciplines, especially those who are also Christians, to speak up on this matter to help keep Young-Earth creationism out of our science classes.
Most major religions today have come to terms with, and have incorporated in their beliefs, the scientific discoveries of the past few hundred years.
Young-Earth, Noah's Flood creationism is not just the science of 150 years ago; it is also the religion of 150 years ago. The "creation science" threat is as much an attack on modern theology as it is on science.