As recently as 2000, the late Stephen Jay Gould reassured the world that we needn't worry about creationism because it was a "peculiarly American" phenomenon. Ron Numbers's insightful and comprehensive book, The Creationists, quoted Gould as saying, "As insidious as it may seem, at least it's not a worldwide movement. I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity."
Gould wasn't wrong about much, but on this particular topic he could not have been more wrong.
While it is certainly true that the US population consistently rejects evolution to a greater extent than people in the rest of the developed world (with the exception of the citizens of Turkey), creationism has increasingly become a matter of contention around the world.
The most recent non-US outbreak has taken place in Northern Ireland, where the Belfast Telegraphbrought a fundamentalist minister and a Queens University scientist -- a church-going Christian scientist at that -- together for "a tour of the natural history section of the newly refurbished Ulster Museum."
Reverend David McIlveen, a Free Presbyterian minister, asserted that he believes "the world is probably around about 6,000 years old and during that time there was the Great Flood which, in my opinion, cleared or wiped out the dinosaurs which were in existence at that time."
Dr. Chris Hunt, a paleoecologist, had a very different perspective: "I actually see the creation of the world in the Bible as a parable of what really happened for those who weren't able to understand in more depth all that time ago."
What led to this spectacle in Ulster?
Nelson McCausland, Northern Ireland's Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, is responsible for this latest attack on basic science. McCausland wrote a letter to the Ulster Museum's board of trustees asking them to consider "how alternative views on the origin of the universe and the origin of life can be recognised and accommodated in national museums." His letter went on to say that he wanted "to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland."
In an interview with UTV McCausland further explained his position: "It was a request to the trustees asking is there any way in which you can reflect or accommodate the fact that here, in Northern Ireland, a third of the population would believe in either creation or intelligent design."
What McCausland and fellow creationists around the world forget is that the purpose of science museums is to educate the public about the best ideas science has to offer rather than making people who enter museums feel good because their particular ideas are presented. While our understanding of the natural world matures as additional experiments and observations are made, scientific consensus is based on technical expertise rather than public opinion.
But those who demand that their religious views be incorporated into science think otherwise. Walking through the Ulster Museum, Reverend McIlveen was willing to dismiss science completely, saying, "What I am looking at and listening to is only an opinion and nothing more." Apparently his skepticism knows no bounds. Upon coming across a rock brought back from the moon he said, "I have no reason to doubt this isn't a piece of the Moon, but at the same time, if I was cynical, I would ask where's the proof? It just looks like a piece of coal that has been burnt."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the attack on science in Northern Ireland is paralleling the Texas State Board of Education's attack on science. In addition to complaining about the way evolutionary ideas are presented, McCausland, like the Texas SBoE, has also weighed in on history, wanting the museum to rewrite its presentation of the past. He has asked, for example, for more coverage of the The Orange Order, a Protestant society founded in 1795.
Whether it be in Northern Ireland, Texas, or anywhere else, societies suffer when they permit partisan politics and religious doctrine to trump science and history.
There is one additional striking parallel between what's going on with the Ulster Museum and creationist attacks in the United States. Clergy members in both locations who understand the proper role of religion and who recognize that it makes no sense for religion to attack scientific findings have come to the defense of science.
For example, Church of Ireland minister Ron Elson made it clear that he has no problem with an old earth: "The vast majority of scientific evidence from a huge number of different sources points to the fact that the earth is very, very old and not very, very young. It's evidenced from biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, you name it, the evidence all points in the one direction."
As I've said so often in the past, the problem is not between religion and science but between those who have a very narrow, fundamentalist view of religion and all the rest of us.