Northern Ireland: Supporters of creationism abuse language of rights and equality

The Guardian

Last month Nelson McCausland, DUP assembly member and Northern Ireland culture minister, wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland about how "to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions" of the region. This included a more specific stipulation – referring explicitly to the Ulster Museum, the letter called for alternative views of the origin of the universe to be accommodated. In other words, creationism was to be incorporated into the museum's natural history displays. That an elected minister should make such a suggestion is a development that should be taken seriously.

McCausland claimed that a third of the Northern Irish population believe in creationism, and said that "the diversity of views" on this should be reflected in the region's museums. Calling it "a human rights issue and an equality issue", this could have been viewed as an honest, but seriously misguided attempt to improve diversity in museums. However, shortly after the letter was made public, the Caleb Foundation, a group which "promotes the fundamentals of the historic evangelical Protestant faith", revealed that it had previously met the minister to discuss the presentation of evolution in the Ulster Museum's nature zone exhibits. They called this "wholly misleading propaganda" and claimed they were responsible for the content of the minister's letter. As a fellow DUP member, Mervyn Storey, sits on the Caleb Foundation Council, this seemed plausible. McCausland himself is a Protestant fundamentalist, and what began to emerge was the pushing of a personal, religiously-informed viewpoint rather than the expression of a minister's opinion formed on the basis of expert knowledge of the heritage and culture sector.

In an attempt to intensify the controversy, the Caleb Foundation announced last week that they had met with tourism minister Arlene Foster to discuss the new visitor centre proposed for the Giant's Causeway. Mervyn Storey had already criticised the information boards at the Causeway, which state that the rock formation is 60m years old, conflicting with the creationist belief that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, and the chairman of the foundation, Wallace Thompson, said "All we are asking for is that the views that we hold, which are based on the word of God, are at least respected and taken on board". McCausland, meanwhile, has gone very quiet about the issue on his blog, only discussing his views about greater prominence for the history of Ulster Scots and the Orange Order that were also expressed in his original letter. But with elected politicians and a lobbying group working so closely together, the idea of presenting evolution and creationism alongside each other in Northern Ireland's museums could become a reality.

The proponents of creationism in this row have used the language of balance, free speech and human rights to defend their views. The Caleb Foundation has spoken of its "campaign for equality', while a letter to the Belfast Telegraph stated that the public were being denied the right to hear the "Christian position". But these calls for equal treatment of views miss the point. Science isn't about "views", it is about demonstrable fact. Creationism is manifestly false, perverting good scientific principles by taking a foregone conclusion (that God created the world in six days), and working backwards from it. The museum is a place where the expert-agreed consensus is represented, and faith-based ideas of history and science, with no root in the practice of those disciplines, cannot be incorporated without fundamentally undermining that principle. While an exhibition on the history of creationism as an idea would be entirely valid, creationism-informed natural history has no place in our museums until the majority of scientists agree with it. This is not a denial of anyone's rights, but a position based on the simple idea that if you want to know about natural history, ask a natural historian, not a cleric or a random person on the street.

While the allegedly level-headed British have derided Kentucky's Creation Museum, where dinosaurs are shown with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the idea of incorporating creationism into our heritage sites is now getting a foothold here. We shouldn't be complacent about attacks on humankind's scientific achievements and the integrity of our cultural institutions, and the situation is all the more alarming when those who criticise secular values do so in its own language of hard fought-for rights. Despite the rhetoric, the Caleb Foundation and its proponents seem to have little investment in the public understanding of history and science. This is nothing more than an attempt to abuse the language of rights to go beyond the religious respect they are already accorded and secure religious privilege. It should be recognised as such., Saturday 19 June 2010

Sophia Deboick