Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should Creationism Be Banned?

 
A bunch of British scholars have issued a Joint statement on creationism and evolution in schools. The list of signatories include all the usual suspects: Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Steve Jones, Michael Reiss, Steven Rose, John Sulston, Lewis Wolpert, etc.
Creationism and "intelligent design" are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.

But this is not enough. An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools.
Nobody can argue with the second part of the statement; of course evolution should be taught.

I want to challenge the first part of the statement. Should the British government pass a law banning the teaching of creationism and/or Intelligent Design Creationism as science?

The first thing that troubles me is the idea of a legal ban on teaching anything at all. I don't think this is a good idea even for ridiculous ideas such as homeopathy or astrology. Do we really want lawyers and legislators making decisions about what should be taught as science and what shouldn't? Neither of those groups are competent to make such decisions.

Besides, enforcing a legal prohibition against teaching Intelligent Design Creationism as science only plays into the hands of the creationists. What are we afraid of? Are we worried that the creationist challenge is so strong that science may not be able to withstand the assault without protection from the courts?

There's another issue that's even more troubling. We could read between the lines of the joint statement and come up with the following logic ...
We the undersigned have adopted a particular version of what science is and we have adopted a particular definition of intelligent design. We agree on a particular (unstated) definition of "scientific theory." According to these views and definitions, intelligent design is not science and should not be taught as science in our schools.
Problem is, there are many different definitions of science and why should we believe this group of signatories over another? There are also many different ways of defining intelligent design and some of the definitions fit my view of what science is. It may be horrible science but it can't just be dismissed as non-science.

On this blog we often discuss books by Intelligent Design Creationists. Most of what's in The Myth of Junk DNA or The Edge of Evolution, for example, is pure science by any definition. It turns out to be bad science—or a very misleading version of science—but on the surface it seems to apply rational thought, evidence, and skepticism to the problem of evolution.

I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that those books should be banned from science classes.

There's another reason why banning bad science is wrong. Study after study has shown that in order to correct student misconceptions you need to address those misconceptions directly. For example, if a student comes into a classroom thinking that creationism is correct, they will not be swayed by simply presenting the evidence for evolution. That's necessary but not sufficient. You also have to show them why their creationist views are wrong and that means bringing up those incorrect views in science class.

Take irreducible complexity as an example. If students think that irreducible complexity refutes evolution then you aren't ever going to change their minds by ignoring irreducible complexity in class. What you have to do is explain the concept and demonstrate why it's bad science (or non-science if you prefer). You can't do this if you are legally prohibited from mentioning intelligent design in a science class.

We need to teach students what science is and what science isn't. The appropriate place to do this is in science class. You can't teach this concept without giving some examples of non-science or pseudoscience and that's a good thing because it directly addresses any misconceptions students might have.

Similarly, if Intelligent Design Creationism is mostly bad science (instead of non-science) then the best way to teach the difference between good science and bad science is to use examples and Intelligent Design Creationism is an excellent example because so many students think it's good science. Banning it from the science classroom is just bad pedagogy.

It's also counter-productive. By protecting it from direct critical analysis in a science class you are actually giving a free pass to the anti-science forces outside the classroom.


45 comments :

  1. I am with you. I think creationists are insane but the signatories of that statement are a bunch of totalitarian thugs :)

    Funny thing is, just like creationists, they too have left-handed DNA as their main graphics.

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  2. We need to teach students what science is and what science isn't. The appropriate place to do this is in science class.

    But you just said, in effect, that these rather well-known scientists don't know what science is. Why should we expect scientists (much less science teachers in grade and high schools) to be able to teach what science is? Won't you just end up with children being taught multiple and incompatible versions of what "science" is?

    What you need is a well vetted philosophy of science curriculum to raise all the various issues and illustrate them with examples. But that isn't a "science" course.

    And good luck getting public schools to fund and teach such a curriculum ... or even universities for that matter.

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  3. I'd be perfectly OK teaching Intelligent Design in principle (though I'm not a teacher, so the question is ... umm ... academic). But I would struggle like hell to find anything to actually say about it. "Here's a really bad argument from analogy, requiring, according to your convictions, revision of the constancy of the speed of light and radioactive decay, unknown forms for intelligence to take and unknown mechanisms to operate. Meanwhile..."

    Nah, I wouldn't ban it. A very useful 10 minutes on what is and isn't scientifically, and logically, valid.

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  4. You should try some homeopathic remedies, Larry. They might work. After all, aren't scientists telling us that garlic and honey are better for us in their natural state rather than as pills containing their chemical extracts?

    I think that the genetic code and the central dogma of molecular biology should be taught as being an intelligently designed process - I don't think one can seriously argue in favor of a naturalistic origin. If I were the teacher, I would poke fun at the Darwinists and other such folks.

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  5. I think Prof. Moran would handle intelligent design in a classroom wonderfully. I wonder what the average high school "science" instructor would do with it.

    What happens when an instructor, principal and school-board are taken over by creationists? What happens when a State education board's Curricula committee are taken over by them? If we tacitly allow creationism in the classroom, its crazy to think that its going to be there as an example of bad science. It will most certainly replace in many cases good science.

    I don't think too much resentment should be directed to the signatories, they're concerned with the real possibility of a creationist takeover (its a conspiracy theory, in their minds). Hey they're well intentioned.......


    "John Pieret:
    What you need is a well vetted philosophy of science curriculum to raise all the various issues and illustrate them with examples."
    The problem with this of course is that there isn't much on the philosophy of science to work with here. Most scientists stop at Popper, and most philosophers of science utterly reject Popper.

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  6. I think this would be a very dangerous move. I can understand the argument that says "Let's bring this stuff into the classroom, apply the scientific method and expose it for the bunkum it is," but I fear the floodgates would open once such a concession is made. It would be seen as a victory by the creationists, who would claim - no matter how disingenuously - that they had forced us to accept their beliefs as being equivalent to the hard-won gains of science. Do you think they'd stop at this? Of course not. The moment they have a foot in the door they'll want more.

    Consider the public attitude to homeopathy: I suspect many people neither know, nor much care, that a solution is diluted to the equivalent of one molecule in a sphere of water that would stretch from here to the Sun. What they see are the theatrical tropes of science and medicine - the long words, the letters after a name - mimicked by these charlatans with their doctorates purchased online and assume that because it sounds plausible, it must therefore be credible.

    If we grant creationism a platform alongside evolution, what makes us think for a second an increasingly scientifically illiterate public won't think "Oh, I guess there must be something in it."

    DK, whatever one thinks of Dawkins or Attenborough calling them totalitarian thugs rather debases the term don't you think?

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  7. I'm with you Larry, I don't agree with banning it or anything else. It should gradually (or hopefully swiftly) disappear as people are educated enough to reject it.

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  8. You should try some homeopathic remedies, Larry. They might work. After all, aren't scientists telling us that garlic and honey are better for us in their natural state rather than as pills containing their chemical extracts?

    That's a pretty good argument against homeopathy. Things with stuff still in them are better than things with all the stuff taken out.

    I think that the genetic code and the central dogma of molecular biology should be taught as being an intelligently designed process - I don't think one can seriously argue in favor of a naturalistic origin.

    Hmmm... see the rationalskepticism thread you started where I do precisely that. Obviously, you can't contribute at the mo ...

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  9. Who and why has the right to decide what to tach or what not to tach in school?

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  10. Allan,

    If certain people want to ban creationism from the schools then why not ban them also from the media, the blogosphere, talk forums and just about everywhere. Why not impose a complete curfew on any discussion of creationism? Then tell the likes of the Chinese that the West champions freedom of speech and intellectual debate.

    I suspect there are some atheists who would try and ban kids from singing this song about Noah's Ark:

    The Animals Went In 2 By 2

    They would probably want to replace it with one about HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin.

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  11. From the website of the 'Joint Statement':
    The current government guidance that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ should not be taught in school science should be made statutory and enforceable.

    The wiser course would be to leave it at the current government guidance. To ask for a statutory and enforceable government ruling seems to me a self defeating and counter-productive strategy, indeed totalitarian (@DK), unworthy of science and of freedom of conviction.

    Clearly, the move is unwise. Dawkins et al are giving free ammunition to anyone blasting them for intolerance and rigidity. Even worse, the move is attacking a non-problem.

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  12. Ultimately I think it depends on what, precisely, is being banned. Preventing teachers from bringing up or merely talking about creationism/ID in any form would, I think, be bad, precisely because it prevents teachers from explaining to students, who may raise the issue, why they're unscientific. But "may not be presented as scientific theories" seems rather specific - teachers would, in the wording of this proposal, be free to talk about pseudoscience like ID as long as they did not present it as a scientific theory. The same goes with the content of The Myth of Junk DNA and The Edge of Evolution, or any bad science.

    There are definitely some dangerous pitfalls associated with a sloppy wording of such a legislation, but I think it's sensible if done right.

    Atheistoclast:
    "If certain people want to ban creationism from the schools"

    Stop. No one's banning creationism from schools. There's a huge difference between telling teachers they can't teach creationism as science and preventing any discussion of it. It's similar to the distinction between removing institutionalized school prayer vs telling kids they can't pray in school. Very big difference.

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  13. Sean,

    There was a smilie there for a reason. I think very highly of Dawkins or Attenborough but the proposed move is exactly what totalitarian like doing.

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  14. Allan,

    If certain people want to ban creationism from the schools then why not ban them also from the media, the blogosphere, talk forums and just about everywhere. Why not impose a complete curfew on any discussion of creationism? Then tell the likes of the Chinese that the West champions freedom of speech and intellectual debate.


    Not sure why that was aimed at me - I raised no strenuous objections, merely pondering what on earth I could actually say about it in a science class.

    Creationists get banned from blogs, forums etc because of their behaviour, not their beliefs. The same thing happens to atheists who transgress, so don't get too much of a persecution complex.

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  15. Intelligent Design Creationism is not bad science, it's not science at all because it can't be falsified. Since the Judeo/Christian god, who even Michael Behe admits is the intelligent designer, is all powerful, she can do anything. Therefore, it is impossible to falsify a claim that god did it.

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  16. Creationists get banned from blogs, forums etc because of their behavior, not their beliefs. The same thing happens to atheists who transgress, so don't get too much of a persecution complex.

    I think you will find the Atheists control most of the science forums. That is not because of any conspiracy, but because they just do. They rarely, if ever, ban their own kind. I have never seen this.

    Both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne will ban anyone who expresses either creationist or ID views from their blogs. The Atheists, and their Deist friends, control the NAS, the NCSE, the ACLU and the AAAS. They also control most of the science journals and the NSF grant money.

    Creationists need to respond to this with legislation to curb their influence. The academic freedom bills are a first step.

    I think we need to get God taught in science class. Let's start with the genetic code.

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  17. SLC says,

    Intelligent Design Creationism is not bad science, it's not science at all because it can't be falsified.

    Lots of things count as science but aren't falsifiable so that's no reason to eliminate Intelligent Design Creationism.

    Since the Judeo/Christian god, who even Michael Behe admits is the intelligent designer, is all powerful, she can do anything. Therefore, it is impossible to falsify a claim that god did it.

    There's lots more to Intelligent Design Creationism than just an intelligent designer. Most of Behe's contributions have, in fact, been falsifiable. Some of them have been shown to be wrong. They are/were genuine science—just bad science.

    A good deal of the scientific literature falls into the same category. It consists of ideas, hypotheses, and speculations that turned out to be wrong.

    Sometime I wish we could pass a law banning the teaching of false concepts in biochemistry. It would make my life a lot easier at departmental meetings! (And it would help sell my txtbook.) :-)

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  18. Schenck:

    The problem with this of course is that there isn't much on the philosophy of science to work with here. Most scientists stop at Popper, and most philosophers of science utterly reject Popper.

    Actually, that was my point. Most scientists are too busy doing science to spend much time thinking about its philosophy and most teachers and schools are too busy just trying to get the basics across to get into the nuances. But there is a lot of really good stuff on the philosophy of science, though there is no "consensus." Which is why you can't just teach kids "what science is and what science isn't." You have to teach them multiple views of what science is and is not and the arguments for and against each. That causes enormous practical problems ... even before you get to my country's unique problem with the First Amendment.

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  19. @Atheistoclast

    I think we need to get God taught in science class. Let's start with the genetic code.

    You are f***ing joking, I sincerely hope. You can't see how the genetic code arose by naturalistic means - the latest bee in your capacious bonnet - therefore goddidit. That's science, that is!

    There is a sound rational explanation of the evolution of the genetic code from a code of fewer amino acids than the modern 20, which gives protection against transition/transversion bias and substitution of chemically related acids by purely material means, no designer (or even Natural Selection) required - modern error resilience falls out as an incidental byproduct of the evolutionary pathway. Why in hell would anyone teach your version?

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  20. I agree with Kodoku: the ban should mean that no teacher can say ID is science/scientific; they can still discuss it and explain why it is not science. Indeed, my reading of the statement is that this is exactly what is asked.

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  21. Yes, we absolutely should teach ID creationism in the science class, along with geocentric flat-earth cosmology, astrology, alchemy, and techniques for curing disease by burning a goat on a pyre of perfumed wood.
    Then, in the little time that's left, we might teach . . uh, I dunno. . .some real science.

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  22. Allan,

    Evolutionism is inherently untestable and unfalsifiable. One can imagine and speculate on the origins of anything and everything but avoid having to test your hypothesis - as science demands.

    The genetic code is one of the best evidences for intelligent design. It is the best mapping of codons to amino acid in 1.51 * 10^84 possible alternatives. There is virtually zero chance of of it being the result of some "frozen accident" or the like. I would teach kids this, and tell that the code is nothing but a direct insight into the mind of God. I am writing a scientific paper that strongly implies this.

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  23. Re Larry Moran


    Lots of things count as science but aren't falsifiable so that's no reason to eliminate Intelligent Design Creationism.


    Such as? In order for a hypothesis or theory to be considered scientific, it must be possible, in principle, to propose a finding, which is predicted not to occur and is observed or a finding that is predicted to occur and which is not observed. Either constitutes a falsification.

    As a for instance, the Special Theory of Relativity predicts a phenomena known as time dilation which was not directly observed until some 45 years after Einstein's 1905 paper. The observation was not possible until the invention of the synchrotron which allowed the production of fast muons. It was then found that fast muons had longer lifetimes then slow muons, as predicted by time dilation. If this had not been observed, it would have constituted a falsification of the theory.

    However, I would note that falsification is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

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  24. Letting the State determine scientific truth is an awful step backwards for democracy, and only opens the door for rulings on historical truth, religious truth, etc.

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  25. Interesting comment is found here:
    http://toddcwood.blogspot.com/2011/09/letter-to-great-britain.html
    Todd Wood is right on spot.

    Note the following in that blogpost:
    The results of their surveys are extremely interesting. Despite millions of dollars for promotion and lots of publicity, the creationist movement seems to have had little to no impact on American opinion. In 1982, 44% of the respondents said that God created humans in their present form, but in 2011, only 40% selected the same response. In contrast, those who identified with response 2, human evolution without God at all, grew from just 9% of respondents in 1982 to 16% in 2011. It seems to me that the American creationist movement has had almost no influence on public opinion, and despite their best efforts, atheism has experienced significant growth

    And the sensible advice:
    One final piece of advice: One thing that we religious "zealots" have learned is that efforts to stamp out ideas almost pretty much guarantee the spread of those same ideas. Even parents know this.

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  26. Allan,

    Evolutionism is inherently untestable and unfalsifiable.


    Tripe. God is; evolution, no.

    The genetic code is one of the best evidences for intelligent design.

    Is it bollocks!

    It is the best mapping of codons to amino acid in 1.51 * 10^84 possible alternatives.

    No - it's 1 in 10^6 (according to Hurst and Freeland) against random codes, not the best out of all 10^84 possibilities.

    There is virtually zero chance of of it being the result of some "frozen accident" or the like.

    As I have attempted to draw your attention to elsewhere, if you start with a minimal amino acid set and add acids to it by minimally disruptive means (substitutions are most likely where they are least disruptive), then all the error-tolerant features of the modern code derive, by neutral means, from this expansion. Did you read that paper I linked above?

    I would teach kids this, and tell that the code is nothing but a direct insight into the mind of God.

    I am writing a scientific paper that strongly implies this.

    Stay away from my kids!

    Scientific papers have to do a bit more than "imply"! And when did we start teaching kids unpublished work in science class?

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  27. "I am writing a scientific paper that strongly implies this."

    *Snickers*

    I can't wait to see your paper published in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal.

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  28. Allan,

    I'll get back to you on the genetic code - and why it is an intelligent design - when I have my suspension lifted on Saturday over at Ratskep.

    I reject teaching kids naturalistic philosophy in the science classroom and would prefer that they be taught about the manifest role of divine intervention in Nature. In a democracy, the will of the majority needs to be respected as well as the rights of the minority. You have to acknowledge that more people think as I do.

    The sooner we teach ID in the schools, the sooner we can raise a new generation of scientists who don't waste time speculating about naturalistic origins that cannot be tested or demonstrated.

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  29. The sooner we teach ID in the schools, the sooner we can raise a new generation of scientists who don't waste time speculating about naturalistic origins that cannot be tested or demonstrated.

    And raise a generation of scientists who do waste time speculating about supernatural origins that cannot be tested or demonstrated?

    Super! (rubs hands) I can hardly wait!

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  30. "You have to acknowledge that more people think as I do."

    There was a time when virtually everyone on the planet thought they lived on a flat earth with the sun revolving about it.

    ID is really nothing more than an argument from ignorance. Now you have merely layered on the additional logical falacy of argument from popularity.

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  31. And raise a generation of scientists who do waste time speculating about supernatural origins that cannot be tested or demonstrated?

    Since when has intelligent design been "supernatural" or undemonstrated? We live in a world shaped by our own creativity and intelligence. Where would genetic and protein engineering be without ID? What do you think Dr. Craig Venter is doing with his work on synthetic genomes?

    We need ID taught as the cornerstone of biology.

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  32. I would also insist that all English-speaking children learn to recite the Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon:

    Prayer in schools

    It is time to return to the old values of virtue and religion.

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  33. I would also insist that all English-speaking children learn to recite the Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon:

    Prayer in schools

    It is time to return to the old values of virtue and religion.


    Aye. Let's round up everone not in church on a Sunday, and give em a damn good thrashing. Maybe whip women who are caught driving, and shove red hot pokers up the arses of the non-believers and Friday meat-eaters. Or are we not talking quite that old-tyme?

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  34. Since when has intelligent design been "supernatural" or undemonstrated?

    Ha ha. So the big deal is that we should teach kids that intelligent human designers can design things? In biology class? I fancy that ID says something a little more profound (and disputable) than that, Slippery Jim!

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  35. ... virtue and religion

    Like a particle-antiparticle pair they annihilate each other.

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  36. Atheistoclast said...
    I would also insist that all English-speaking children learn to recite the Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon

    I think it sensible that all western children learn the Lord's Prayer in their own present day language: after all, this is part of their cultural heritage. Same for a basic understanding of christianity and bible knowledge. After all, it is difficult to understand many good paintings without some of that knowledge.

    I don't see where the Anglo-Saxon comes in. Why not the original Greek, if one opts for something nobody nowadays can understand?

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  37. @Heleen

    I think it sensible that all western children learn the Lord's Prayer in their own present day language: after all, this is part of their cultural heritage. Same for a basic understanding of christianity and bible knowledge.

    I am amazed at how much ignorance there is in the English-speaking world of its own heritage. We need to learn about our cultural ancestors and their traditions.

    It was Thomas Jefferson, supposedly a Deist or Atheist, who likened the Anglo-Saxons and their legendary chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, to the children of Israel and the God's chosen nation. He was stating that America had a divine mission just as pilgrim father, John Winthrop had done.

    We need to stop appeasing the liberals, secularists and atheists.

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  38. "He was stating that America had a divine mission just as pilgrim father, John Winthrop had done."

    Pure weapons-grade drivel. You're opining that Jefferson, who was at most a deist, and you imply possibly an atheist, thought America had a devine mission? Huh?
    On my planet, words have meanings, and an atheist or deist would not think anything had a "devine mission."

    "We need to stop appeasing the liberals, secularists and atheists."

    How? By denying them their right of free speech?

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  39. @Atheistoclast
    It was Thomas Jefferson, supposedly a Deist or Atheist, who likened the Anglo-Saxons and their legendary chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, to the children of Israel and the God's chosen nation. He was stating that America had a divine mission just as pilgrim father, John Winthrop had done.

    Such ideas about the Anglo-Saxons as the children of Israel or a divine mission for America are rather jingoistic, isn't it? Especially as Hengist and Horsa or their historical equivalents quite likely were a bunch of heathen mercenaries deciding to exploit a somewhat christian romanized Britain.
    Other nations had similar, but competing, foundation myths. All very 19th century. Such opinions about 'chosen people' and 'divine mission' had better be forgotten.

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  40. Does that Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon actually appear in a reputable manuscript, or is it a reconstruction by some scholar?

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  41. @Heleen

    We have lots of Anglo-Saxon texts (including the Lord's Prayer)written by monks. One of them, Bede, did believe that the Anglo-Saxons were settling in their promised land just as the Hebrews had done in Canaan.

    We should see the spread of the English language as divinely ordained whether it is jingoistic or not. I believe that a love of God and country can solve most of our social ills. We need more scientists like Newton and less like Darwin.

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  42. Of course creationism and intelligent design should not be banned from schools. But that is not what is being proposed.

    There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.

    In other words the signatories are saying there is nothing wrong with discussing intelligent design or creationism in science classes, just don't present them as if they were established scientific theories of the same stature as evolution.

    They also want to give statutory force to that view and that should make us wary. Political and legal decrees about what constitutes good science raise the specter of Lysenkoism or the similar creationist attempts to measure good science by the extent to which it accords with Scripture. Obviously that's not what's intended but we need to have the confidence that science can look after itself.

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  43. We should see the spread of the English language as divinely ordained whether it is jingoistic or not.

    Blink. God talks English, now?

    I believe that a love of God and country can solve most of our social ills.

    Blink. Blink. And if people love the wrong God, or a different country (or a more liberal version of the 'right' country)? Well, let's just wade in and sort 'em out!

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  44. Atheistoclast said...
    Bede, did believe that the Anglo-Saxons were settling in their promised land just as the Hebrews had done in Canaan.
    Anglo-Saxons were his own group. Why stick to his belief?

    We should see the spread of the English language as divinely ordained
    And the spread of the Spanish language, and the spread of Chinese, and ... (name any colonial power).'Divinely ordained' comes with a lot bloodshed. The Old Testament did not disapprove of bloodshed if it was by Israelites, it is true, but is rather against the bloodshed by Assyrians or Babylonians or Greeks that spread their language

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  45. @Atheistoclast: I reject teaching kids naturalistic philosophy in the science classroom and would prefer that they be taught about the manifest role of divine intervention in Nature.

    You'd have to demonstrate the existence of your god in order for this statement to have any weight at all. Of course, the problem is the argument is entirely circular:

    God causes complex beings to exist by design; that they are complex means they are designed; that they are designed proves there's a God, who causes complex beings to exist by design; that they are complex means they are designed; that they are designed proves there's a God, who causes complex beings to exist bydesign; that they are complex means they are designed; that they are designed proves there's a God, who causes complex beings to exist by... etc., etc., etc.

    No, first you have to demonstrate there is such a being. Then, you have to demonstrate that this being created the universe, or, barring that, at least that it intervenes in the processes of life and HOW it does. Not start from "this is complex" and leap to the conclusion there's a god.

    If I were the teacher, I would poke fun at the Darwinists and other such folks.

    Yeah, that would be a hoot. "Ha ha, them crazy evilutionists! They believe natural things happen naturally, and they don't believe an invisible man in the sky with a big white invisible beard made it all and watches us so he can get upset if humans get naked! Yuk yuk yuk!"

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