Some questions for the UK Royal Society

1. Royal Society's Director of Education discusses the treatment of creationism in schools

In September 2008, Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's former Director of Education, who is also a minister of religion, delivered a lecture at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, devoted to the question of how schoolteachers should deal with a situation where pupils raise, during lessons on Evolution Theory, questions relating to creationism or Intelligent Design. In an article in the Guardian, Reiss summarises his views as follows:

... when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion. The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time ... I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it.

2. Atheists' coup: Reiss is removed from his post

In a letter to New Scientist, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins stated his opinion that Reiss's position was 'not a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take', but other atheists were less sanguine about this.  Specifically, three knights of the realm (Harry Kroto, Richard Roberts and John Sulston: all of them Nobel Laureates, but 'speaking outside their area of expertise'), wrote to the RS President declaring themselves 'greatly concerned' about what had been said by Reiss, and finding it 'most disturbing ... that the comments were made in the first place by an official representative of the premier scientific society in the UK'. In due course, such atheistic pressures led to Reiss 'agreeing' (as one puts it nowadays) 'that it would be in the best interests of the Society if he were to step down'.

3. The RS attempts justification

In an attempt to justify this action, an Officer of the Society circulated to its fellows a letter detailing Reiss's sins (e.g. writing material that might be misinterpreted, talking to the Press), backed up not with a link to the article itself which would have allowed proper judgements to be made, but a pdf file that appears to have been 'doctored' to highlight the title produced, as is the normal practice, by editorial staff rather than by the writer ('Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design') and an introductory paragraph, also one gathers the production of editorial staff: 'Teachers need to accommodate the differing world views of students from Jewish, Christian or Muslim backgrounds; which means openly discussing creationism and intelligent design as alternatives to evolutionary theory', while Reiss's own text, surely more relevant to the issue than anything editorial staff may have produced, appears in smaller, hard to read, text. One wonders, is such misrepresentation what one expects of 'the premier scientific society in the UK' (perhaps the manipulated article was simply the result of technical incompetence, in which case maybe more heads should roll at the Royal Society)?

4. Issues remaining

Perhaps the RS in its naivety considers the matter has now been dealt with. I beg to disagree, and since it has not responded to serious questions that I have put to it in relation to this whole affair, I will repeat these questions here:
For what it's worth, my own opinion on these matters is (a) it is an issue that should be addressed by the Society; and (b) Reiss came to essentially correct conclusions (further, I think it very likely that after the dust has settled, those attacking religion per se will be proved wrong by science).

But it is up to the RS to think this out for itself, rather than just letting the atheists among its number pull the strings as they have done so far.

5. Inconsistencies in the atheists' position

(added Nov. 25th., 2009)
Richard Roberts has written recently in regard to his letter to the Royal Society: "We ... had a problem with the fact that the premier professional scientific society in the world would think it appropriate that a professional religious advocate should be chosen to lead its education program and be the public face of the RS in the eyes of the public." The principle here seems to be that one should not choose as a representative of an important position involving scientific contact with the public someone who at the same time publicly advocates a particular position in regard to religion.

I have doubts as to the applicability of this principle unconditionally, as I believe it is perfectly possible for a person to wear one hat as it were in one kind of situation, and a different one for a different kind of situation. Let us however, for the sake of argument, accept the principle. Take a look then at the official web site of Richard Dawkins, There you will find links to 'atheist resources', and material attacking religion such as his DVD the Root of all Evil. Furthermore, he has stated that the publication of The God Delusion is "probably the culmination" of his campaign against religion.

According to the principle enunciated above, Richard Dawkins should not have been involved with any position involving speaking to the public on behalf of science whilst holding his highly public anti-religious stance. In fact, from 1995 until his retirement in 2008 he was Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in the University of Oxford, 'expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of science'.

The atheists cannot have it both ways: it is inconsistent to attack Reiss in the way that they did in his capacity of Director of Education of the Royal Society, while at the same time having no problem with Dawkins attacking religion in the way that he did as holder of the Oxford Simonyi Chair. Ironically, Dawkins and Reiss both speak in support of rational analysis, while again both emphasise that creationism is not a science. Clearly, if you are an atheist you can say what you like, but not so if you are a minister of religion.

Finally, in regard to Roberts' letter quoted above, a correspondent has noted that it would be illegal under UK employment law (Roberts is not currently resident in the UK) to discriminate against someone such as Reiss on religious grounds except in very narrowly defined exceptional cases, which do not apply here.

Note: the above views are those of the author alone, and should not be taken as an official position of the University or of any Department or Research Group in the University.

Brian Josephson
February 3rd., 2009 (updated Feb. 5th.)