Prof George Claassen makes a number of important points in his September 18, 2009 blog post “State schools contravene law on religious instruction“: (http://web.archive.org/web/20090926081603/http://prometheusongebonde.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/state-schools-contravene-law-on-religious-instruction/#comments ).  South Africa has yet to publicly debate the proper line to be drawn between religious freedom on the one hand, and abuse of state institutions to promote religion, on the other hand.  In mature democracies like the USA and France, this delicate issue was settled shortly after the founding of these democracies some centuries ago.  So perhaps the time is now ripe to put this subject on the agenda of South African public discourse, as George has done.

The subject of my post is however not the (illegal) promotion of religion in state schools, but rather the teaching of Creationism in Natural Science classes in South African schools – a very clear case of the abuse of institutions of state to promote the personal religion of the teacher.

Creationism can be defined as the doctrine that the universe, (presumably including the Milky Way galaxy and our solar system – items strangely enough omitted from the prosaic descriptions in holy books), the earth and all life were created in their present forms by a personal, omnipotent, deity.  All as described in a specific holy book, the title and date of compilation depending on which flavour of Middle Eastern monotheism the believer happens to subscribe to.

The Christian “Young Earth Creationists” believe this Creation event occurred approximately 6000 years ago.  Historically, many attempts at calculating the date of Creation were made, amongst others by Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and Joseph Scaliger.  In one of the best known of these calculations, Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) figured out that Creation must have occurred in the third week of October 4004 BCE.  Ussher’s specific choice of starting year may have been influenced by the then-widely-held belief that the earth’s design life was 6,000 years, 4,000 before the birth of Christ and 2,000 after, corresponding to the six days of Creation, on the grounds that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).  Needless to say, Archbishop Ussher’s implied prediction that Planet Earth would expire in 1997 CE did not come true.

The latest South African “Revised National Curriculum Statement for Grades R-9 (Schools) Natural Sciences” was published in Gazette No. 23406, Vol 443, in May 2002.  The Curriculum Statement provides a definition of “Science” on p4 from which the following extract forms part: “To be accepted as science, certain methods of inquiry are generally used. They promote reproducibility, attempts at objectivity, and a systematic approach to scientific inquiry. These methods include formulating hypotheses, and designing and carrying out experiments to test the hypotheses. Repeated investigations are undertaken, and the resulting methods and results are carefully examined and debated before they are accepted as valid.”  The Curriculum Statement proposes four core knowledge areas in Natural Sciences, to wit (1) Life and Living, (2) Energy and Change, (3) Planet Earth and Beyond and (4) Matter and Materials.  I have not studied the whole Curriculum Statement in detail, but have no objections to what I read there.

My youngest child attends a state primary school in an established middle class neighbourhood in Pretoria, Gauteng Province.  Natural Sciences is an obligatory subject.  Earlier this year (2009) the origin and evolution of life was the subject in class for a couple of weeks.  The teacher (let’s call her Mrs D) distributed class notes containing the following:

“How did the universe originate?

  • There are many beliefs and scientific theories regarding this.  The one that is generally accepted is the “Big Bang” theory.
  • Cosmologists believe that between 15 and 20 billion years ago a huge explosion known as the Big Bang took place.  Everything shot out of nothing and formed solar systems.  Our own sun and its planets were also born in this manner.”

(My translation.  The original reads: “Hoe het die heelal ontstaan?  Daar is baie gelowe en wetenskaplike teorieë hieroor.  Die een wat algemeen aanvaar word is die “Oerknalteorie”.  Sterrekundiges glo dat daar sowat 15 tot 20 biljoen jaar gelede ‘n baie groot ontploffing bekend as die Oerknal plaasgevind het.  Alles het uit niks uitgeskiet en sterrestelsels gevorm.  Ons eie son en sy planete is ook op hierdie manier gebore.”)

The objection against the above is of course that it is expressed in the typical creationist vocabulary usually applied to conjure up the straw man version of the Big Bang.  “There are many beliefs…”   “Cosmologists believe…”   “…a huge explosion…”   “..everything shot out of nothing…”   “…born…”   and of course the wide window of uncertainty implied by the “…15 to 20 billion years…”, as opposed to the current scientific estimate of 13,7 billion years.

The central theme of the lesson was however not contained in these printed class notes.  Mrs D proceeded to read from Genesis 1, explaining to the children that the biblical version is what actually happened, as opposed to what those ignorant cosmologists “believe”.  So light and darkness were created on the first day, the firmament separating waters above from waters below on the second day, dry land and sea on the third day, and eventually the lights in the firmament, the sun and moon on the fourth day.  It was not mentioned at all to the class that the bizarre sequence of events described in Genesis stands diametrically opposed to the scientifically well-understood and actual sequence of star and planet formation.

Needless to say, my child was mortified.

In a next Natural Sciences class, still on the origin and evolution of life, Mrs D once again had the Bible open at Genesis 1.  This time the different life forms were being discussed.  No class notes were used, for reasons that will immediately become obvious.  Mrs D proceeded to draw a huge table with six blocks on the black board – respectively titled “Day 1” to “Day 6”.  The species as “created by God” on the appropriate days were written into the blocks – grass and trees on the third day, fish and birds on the fifth day, and reptiles, mammals and humans on the sixth day.  The evolution of life and speciation by means of natural selection was never mentioned, except by oblique reference to the effect that “…many people believe different things about the way life on earth developed.”

A pupil asked Mrs D where dinosaurs fitted into the table with the six blocks, only to be told that they were merely one of the “walking / crawling” animals created on the sixth day.  The scientific fact that the descendants of dinosaurs are still alive today in the form of birds, was never mentioned.  Mrs D did however make a rather big fuss about the “huge difference” between humans and animals.  According to her, the latter were called into existence by God’s divine command, whereas homo sapiens was apparently sculpted “in the image” of the Creator.  The fossil record, the DNA evidence for common descent, the factors that promote speciation and the process of evolution by natural selection were not mentioned.  Not a word on the overwhelming evidence for the descent of homo sapiens from earlier hominid species and his relatedness to other big apes alive today.  Nothing.  Only Genesis.

When my child reported these strange events from the Natural Sciences class to me I was furious.  A person like Mrs D is clearly guilty of gross dereliction of duty and wilful misrepresentation.  In my opinion, she ought to be summarily dismissed.  But how does one address this while one’s child is still in the school?  If the parents were to object to this type of “scientific” instruction, the child will almost certainly be subject to ostracism and possibly even stronger forms of censure.  The power of an old myth book is alive and well in 2009, in at least one South African state school.  I suspect the same holds true for most.