And I thought it couldnʼt happen here…

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

A classic view of human evolution

I used to be smug that the ridiculous ‘controversy’ in North America about the Theory of Evolution was confined to the opposite side of the Atlantic. I really believed that the more secular societies of Europe would laugh the ideas of biblical literalists and creationists out of public discourse. It just couldn’t happen in a place like the UK.

Okay, I once overheard a man taking his granddaughter round the musuem where I work and explaining to her how “they’ve got it all wrong” in our Palaeolithic and Mesolithic display “because the world didn’t exist so long ago”. I struggled with my conscience: should I step in and say why her grandfather was talking nonsense or just leave it? I decided to leave it, probably correctly, but I still feel guilty for missing an opportunity to counter a religious viewpoint that has no basis in reality. That was an isolated incident and I know that our public museums don’t bow to sectarian beliefs and that our education system rightly teaches the Theory of Evolution by Common Descent as the best available explanation for the diversity of life on earth. I also know that religious creation stories are taught in religious education lessons.

Nelson McCausland MLA, Culture Minister for Northern Ireland

So when I learned that Nelson McCausland MLA, the Minister for Culture in Northern Ireland, had written a letter to the governors of The Museum of Ulster, asking it to include references to special creation, I was staggered. It was worse than I thought, though. According to his blog, the letter “asked the trustees to consider the representation of the Orange Order and othen (sic) fraternal organisations”, complained about “the omission of any mention of the Ulster-Scots” as well as “the consideration of alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life”. According to a report carried by the BBC, Mr McCausland has complained that the letter “had been leaked to the media by a “malign” individual” who “had “showed a lack of respect” for the trustees of the museum and the institution itself”. To me, the greatest “lack of respect” is Mr McCausland’s, who seems to think it appropriate for a government minister to interfere in how things are displayed in a national museum.

Alas, he’s not the first Northern Ireland Minister to try this tactic. Mervyn Storey MLA tried another creationist tactic in August 2008, when he said that it would be “ideal” if evolution was not taught at all in science classes. In February 2009, he threatened legal action over a display at The Ulster Museum dealing with Charles Darwin, calling for an “alternative exhibition” promoting creationism to be staged alongside it, using equality legislation as his weapon of choice. He has also criticised noticeboards on the 550,000,000 year old Giant’s Causeway for not giving the ‘alternative’ view that the earth is only a few thousand years old.

The Ulster Museum includes discussions of evolution among its displays of zoology. This is only sensible. To pretend, as a correspondent to the Belfast Times does, that there is “strong scientific evidence for the Christian position according to the Bible” is either misinformed or a deliberate lie. There is no such evidence. However, Mr McCausland seems to have been influenced in his views by Wallace Thompson of The Caleb Foundation, who wrote to him that The Ulster Museum’s displays demonstrate a “lack of balance which had tipped sideways so far, it had fallen right over and was “absolutely appalled” at “wholly misleading propaganda” aimed at “[t]hose who visit the Nature Zone, including impressionable young children, [who] will be seriously misled and misinformed”.

The Giant's Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway (Antrim, Northern Ireland)

A quick perusal of The Caleb Foundation’s website shows it to be a self-proclaimed fundamentalist evangelical protestant organisation. It has a special page dedicated to the Ulster Museum and a form letter complaining that the display at the Giant’s Causeway is “discriminatory” in only presenting geological data about its age.

Although these statements have produced little more than criticism from museum professionals and other educators, there is the danger that this is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Nelson McCausland MLA and Mervyn Storey MLA are speaking for a sizeable proportion of the population of Northern Ireland and their statements will have resonance among others with a similar conviction in biblical literalism. Their use of equalities legislation to try to force museums and teachers to present “alternative viewpoints” is worrying. Is not the point of education – and I include museums as an element in education – to confront people’s prejudices, to show them uncomfortable truths and to explain that the world isn’t quite as simple as some Iron Age goat herders living three thousand years ago in the Middle East believed it to be



  1. An interesting post! However, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (and with that double-barrelled surname, I assume he has to be English!), more or less answered his own question when he referred to ‘the more secular societies of Europe’. The ‘difficulty’ is that Northern Ireland, I think, ISN’T (yet) ‘more secular’. I believe, however, that things are changing – oh, and I’m a Scots Presbyterian too!


    1. Ah caught out! Yes, I am English. And, yes, I realise that Northern Ireland hardly conforms to the notion of a secular society…
      That said, there have been attempts to introduce elements of Creationist teaching into English schools (at least one of the notorious Academies that the Blair government was so keen on and the present ConDem coalition seems even more enthusiatic about). With the increase in “faith schools” (if they were in a Moslem country, we’d be honest enough to call them madrassas), there is bound to be more and more teaching of mythology-as-fact dressed up in whatever pseudoscience happens to appeal to the staff, governors and owners.


  2. What I find intriguing about this is that this seems to be confined to protestant Northern Ireland.

    Though Catholicism is far from perfect, at least it acknowledges that biological evolution took place and has the intellectual honesty to say that details of the physical world must be left to men and women working in the physical world with explanations limited to the physical world.

    Being a scientific, rational person and being a religious believer are not mutually contradictory phenomena…as long as you find the right church, that is.


  3. You have a passion for truth and that’s good. However, I think your tone is harsh against those who believe in the Biblical account. Especially the assessment of the motives being to domineer people. That is just not so, at least across the board in the way you portray it. I am a Christian, who takes the Bible at face value. What you describe is not my motive, nor the motive of those I know. The very unkind and unfair things you say make it hard to appreciate the depth of your scholarship, which is excellent. Funny, the reaction you had to the fellow with his grand-daughter at the museum display is exactly how I feel-in reverse: I long to de-program kids who are being led to swallow a point of view that I once believed, but now see at untenable for a number of reasons. Honestly. Preposterous, especially from the standpoint of statistical probability. But the sad thing is that the qualified scientists who are trying to bring forth this point of view are not being allowed to publish in the standard journals, so there is a lack of a healthy dialog. Yes, I will admit there are some very goofy things that are put forth to support “creationism”–but that goes for both sides. Piltdown man, etc., being an example. I’ll just level with you: I don’t think you are being fair. Your attitude smacks of bigotry. If you detest Christians, well enough, that is your privilege. But one who is attempting to stand for truth publicly ought to show fairness. I mean, I could say, “All evolutionists are evil manipulators who want to get money out of gullible people.” Yeah, that might rouse some shallow people to gnash their teeth against evolutionary thinkers. But it wouldn’t be true. There is a great variety amongst them. Some may be greedy and manipulative. But many are sincere. I think they are sincere but wrong: but would it be fair to take a an attitude of despising,and paint them all with the same brush? No. I would encourage you to keep on exposing bogus archaeology wherever it may be found, religiously-based or not. But (my advice) strive to be even-handed and not mock those who sincerely believe the Bible and think it important to stand for it in the public square, and do have some very good evidence–despite the sad hoaxes, wishful thinking, and ill-examined evidence which you so carefully seek to remedy. May God bless you!

    Tom Edmund


    1. My heart sunk when I reed your accusations which a view as deeply unfair. Have you ever read something about evolution theory not written by Creationists? There are plenty of easily available first and second hand sources about it and (more or less) associated subjects. Ever since I learn to read I have devoured such popular scientific literature. While I am not an expert this makes me more qualified to describe adherents of evolution theory and scientists in general.
      I think most adherents of evolution theory are perfectly honest. Within the school system one might have motivation to lie about it in the form or school reports. I don’t know if you earn anything from lying about it on the college level. In the scientific community what you earn most from is disproving old and widespread ideas. If you could do so with the methods commonly accepted within this community evolution theory would likely have been disproven by now. In addition, scientists has been devoted to openness for centuries. Lying about your work is definitely not approved. If I understand it correctly anyone found out to do that will be pretty much kicked out of the scientific community.
      I don’t see mainstream scientists as particularly bigoted. Being a modern scientist requires realising the possibility (however distant) of yourself being wrong. This is incompatible with looking down at or being hostile towards the ones contradicting you, at least in your particular field of expertise. The real reason why scientists don’t listen to Creationists is the latter’s obvious lack of intellectual skill. Also, becoming a scientist means spending years to a acquire a highly complex skills. Proponents of “alternative” views tend to write them off without trying to find out what these skills are all about. Who wants to be treated like that?
      Adherents of evolution theory like me have a way of thinking very different from yours. While I am a non-believer some others consider themselves to be Christians or Jews. They just don’t consider the Bible to be the ultimate authority in things in the physical world. In fact, these typically consider their religious beliefs and their search for truth about the physical world to work independently of each other. Furthermore, we all consider the main scientific theories criticised by Creationists as largely independent. Evolution theory, Actualist geology, Big Bang Theory and the likes are perfectly useful in and of themselves. As such “Evolutionism” as a unified system of inseparable ideas is a Creationist illusion.
      Creationist seems prone to use value judgements – real or imaginary – as arguments. However, to the average present-day Westerner “is” and “ought” are mostly different concepts. “Is”does not have to lead to “ought” and “ought” does not have to lead to “is”. This distinction is called “Hume’s guillotine” after David Hume (1711 – 76) who first pointed it out.
      You say that you take the Bible “at face value”. Far from all Christians really do that. Still, the majority of Westerners self-identifies as Christians. Yet Biblical literalism is uncommon in the Western world today. I see no reason to think that the blogger hates Christians in general. Harshly criticising your particular subgroup of Christianity does not have to mean hating all Christians. Even if he does why do you think he has some sort of “privilege” to do so? Privileges only exist as long as people behave as if they existed.
      I have no doubt about your honesty. But if you are really interested in dialogue you should at least reflect over what I say. It would also be very nice if you could clarify a couple of things. Why do you find the idea of the world being more than 10,000 years old “untenable” and “preposterous”? What is the “statistical probability” you are talking about? If you ever read this reply please try to explain to me how you think.


    2. Ahh, Piltdown man. OK let’s take this to its ultimate absurd conclusion. The fellow that “found” Piltdown man also “found” ancient roman roof tiles. The tiles turned out to be fake.
      So if Piltdown being fake implys evolution didn’t happen then surely the roman tiles being fake(and which were on museum display for decades)implys the roman empire didn’t happen. No roman empire,no roman occupation of Judea, no Pilate, you see where this is going right……

      Of course in the real world both the roman empire and evolution are real. For neither modern classical history or the modern evolutionary synthesis are predicated on the above fakes, no matter how long they sat on museum shelves or were in textbooks. On a last point both fakes were disproved by ACTUAL experts not creationist cranks.


  4. I’m Scottish and a atheist(raised as such,my father can’t stand the bigotry of religion)and we can’t be complacent just last year a primary school was caught with homophobic american missionaries who gave the kids a booklet called evolution-the lie. Thankfully they were rumbled,the missionaries were sent packing and the head teacher had to resign. In Scotland as well as in Ireland we have fundie bigoted catholics and protestants hating each other over who is liked best by their imaginary friend.


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