Religion and Multifaith Diversity: Evolution in a Globalizing World

In this paper presented to the Evolution Symposium of 2014, Prof. Des Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, examines various creation narratives and beliefs of different religions and goes on the offence with regard to the thoughts of Richard Dawkins. Prof. Cahill also examines creationism and intelligent design and whether or not either of these might be taught in Australian schools, considering the legal and constitutional dimensions. With regard to the roles of state govenemnts and the duty of the Minister of Education to have oversight of what is taught in schools, there are some thoughtful issues raised by Professor Cahill.



Desmond Cahill
Professor of Intercultural Studies, RMIT University
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia

September 2014

Paper presented at a seminar on Evolution in Science, Technology and Society sponsored by LaTrobe University and the Victorian Department of the Environment and Primary Industries, September 2014

According to the psychologists, religion is about the 5Bs of believing, behaving, belonging, bonding and bridging (Saroglou & Cohen 2011): believing in faith and its tradition, behaving in an ethical way, belonging to a community in solidarity, bonding with the collective others in our society and bridging across to the others of this world. With their transcendent beliefs and pastoral activities adding considerably to a nation’s social capital (Cahill, Bouma, Dellal & Leahy 2004), the major religious traditions are also intellectually engaged with the world, not least with the world of science. The issue of religion and evolution is hugely embedded in the relationship between religion and science which ever since Galileo, if not before, has been an uneasy and complicated one. Today I want to examine, in the spirit of dialogue and shared understanding that has characterised the last two days, the intersection between the scientific understanding of evolution and current theological thinking which has been challenged and continues to be challenged by an evolutionary worldview as originally articulated by Charles Darwin and now by its contemporary proponents, especially the contribution of Richard Dawkins, high priest of the new atheism. It could be said that Dawkins’ aggressive stance has overly preoccupied the theological response.

The dialogue is not easy because science and religion operate each within its own discourse, framework and underlying values. One major difficulty in the dialogue is that evolution scientists are not appropriately engaged with the theological discussion, most notably Richard Dawkins who sees all religion as arrant superstitious nonsense and who does not have an indepth understanding of Christian theology nor of Biblical hermeneutics. Moreover, the existence or non-existence of God is not a belief that anyone can have with absolute certitude. Even the present Pope freely admits the doubt of faith.

Another difficulty in the dialogue is the speed of recent developments in evolutionary understanding and the difficulty for theologians to keep up-to-date. I am not a scientist but items presented during this two-day conference that have attracted my attention include:

  • The evolving over a period of four billion years of the Australian continent from Keonrland to Nuna to Rodinia to Gondwana to Sahul and, at the end of the last Ice Age (14,740 – 11,660 years ago), to the Australian continent as we know it today
  • The Pilbara as the oldest area of Australia in geological terms and, in terms of fossils, the key importance in world terms of the Gogo formation near Fitzroy River in the Kimberleys
  • The presence in Australia of the radioactive actinide metal thorium, enough for Australia’s needs for 26,000 years, able to be used for power generation but not in the production of nuclear-like armaments and which is predicted to be able to replace uranium as fuel in nuclear reactors though no thorium reactors have yet been built – India is currently doing research into the issue
  • The phenomenon of parthenogenesis in nature, including in the shark and, higher on the evolutionary chain, the Komodo Dragon, with the offspring clones of the mother but able to be male or female – the latter case was not first documented until 2005
  • • The key importance of the armoured prehistoric fishes called placoderms, the first fish to have jaws, and their transition from the marine environment into the land environment of tetrapods and eventually into hominids to human beings

Christian Theological Contributions

In this paper, I want first to examine the rapidly changing Australian religious context and the views of the major non-Christian religions about evolution. Then, after examining the issue of creationism, intelligent design and the errors of scriptural literalism, I want then to look at Richard Dawkins’ evolutionary worldview, especially examining it from theological and philosophical perspectives the two vexed issues of directionality and purpose in evolution and of randomness, chance and probability. Finally, I want to give some reflections on policy and practice in the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools.

It is striking that the major Christian theologians who have engaged with evolutionary theory have almost without exception had a strong scientific grounding. In the Catholic tradition, one can begin with the French Jesuit palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who died on Easter Sunday in 1955 and who was part of the team that discovered the fossilized remains of Peking Man. He saw the universe as an evolutionary process constantly moving towards a greater and greater convergence which he called the Omega Point with a greater state of complexity and higher levels of consciousness. Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009) was critical of Teilhard’s view as being overly optimistic. He specialized in European intellectual history, influenced by the thinking of Giambattista Vico before becoming a historian of the Earth, calling himself a ‘geologian’. He writes, “If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the Earth, if this same dynamic brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding principle is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture” (Berry, 1988, p. 137).

Several U.S.A. women theologians have been making interesting contributions in terms of conscious evolution, including Ilia Delio (b. 1956), a nun living a cloistered life, whose first doctorate was in pharmacology – she strongly believes in the openness of systems and their capacity for newness seeing God’s love in all creation, even in small and fearsome creatures like jellyfish and snakes who, in their natural habitat, have a beauty and a goodness. “We experience, in evolution, God ahead”. In her most recent book, she writes, “We all have a part to play in this unfolding Love; we are wholes within wholes; persons within persons; religions within religions. We are one body and we seek one mind and one heart so that the whole may become more whole, more personal and unified in love. This is our Christian vocation, to live in the Christ who is rising up
from the ashes of death to become for us the God of the future”. The better known name is Elizabeth Johnson (b. 1941) currently in trouble with the Vatican, partly because of her 2013 book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God. She is consumed by the ‘extravagant dynamism of the Earth that ‘bodies’ God’s presence. “Far from being in competition with the laws of nature acting around us, the hand of the God of love empowers the cosmos as it evolves. The world develop in an economy of divine superabundance, gifted with its own freedom, and in and through which the Creator Spirit’s gracious purpose is accomplished” (quoted in O’Leary, 2014, p. 12). Both women would see that to be creational is to be incarnational.

However, the best contributions, as we shall see later, have probably come from the deep tradition of British Protestant scientists-cum-theologians such as Charles Coulson, Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne as well as Alister McGrath, all Oxbridge dons holding or having held chairs in various aspects of science. Alistair McGrath (b. 1953), who took up the Chair of Science and Religion at Oxford University in January 2014, completed his first doctorate was in the biophysical properties of biological membranes. In his study of ‘the twilight’ of atheism, he has argued that atheism had its high point for a 200-year period from the French Revolution until the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

More recently, as we shall see, two important contributions have come from the Irish theologian, Gary Keogh (2014) critiquing Dawkins’ view of the world and from two other theologians, the American Cynthia Crysdale and the Australian Neil Omerod in a joint publication, Creator God, Evolving World (2013).

Let us firstly look at Australia’s religious profile and its educational implications before detailing the attitudes of Australians and Americans to evolution.

Australia’s Major Religious Groupings and their Views about Evolution

Australia has been rapidly evolving into a multifaith nation, especially in the last three decades. The number of secular humanists has grown in contemporary Australian society to be 22.3 per cent of the population with, in the 2001 – 2011 period, a huge growth of 65.07 per cent in those who ticked the ‘no religion’ box on the census form. However, it is to be noted that the ‘not stated’ category has declined proportionally.

Table One: Major Religious and Secularist Groups in Australia: 1911 – 2011 (in raw numbers)

Religious Group   1911 1947 1961 1981 2001 2011
Anglicans N 1,710,433 2,957,032 3,669,940 3,576,641 3,881,162 3,679,907
Baptists N 97,074 113,527 149,628 190,259 309,205 352,499
Buddhists N 3,269 411 n.a. 35,073 357,813 528,977
Catholics N 996,804 1,586,738 2,619,984 3,786,505 5,001,624 5,439,268
Eastern Orthodox N 2,896 17,012 154,924 421,281 529,444 563,074
Hindus N 414 244 n.a. n.a. 95,473 275,534
Jehovah’s Witness N n.a. n.a. n.a. 51,815 81,069 85,638
Jewish faith N 17,287 32,019 59,329 62,126 83,993 97,335
Lutherans N 72,395 66,891 160,182 199,760 250,365 251,930
Muslims N 3,908 2,704 n.a. 76,792 281,578 476,291
Pentecostals N n.a. n.a. 16,572 72,148 194,592 237,986
Presbyterians & Ref N 558,336 743,540 976,721 637,818* 650,148 599,520
Sikhs N n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 17,401 72,297
Uniting Church N  –   –   –  712,609 1,248,674 1,065,794
No Religion N 177,209 189,801 263,051 1,576,718 2,905,993 4,796,786
Not Stated N 119,616 827,533 110,481 1,595,195 1,835,598 1,839,598

* From 1977 many Presbyterians identified themselves with the Uniting Church of Australia which was formed in 1977 from the Methodist Church and large portions of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches; n.a. = not available from the census figures.Based on Hughes, Fraser and Reid (2013) and the Australian census figures

Table One shows how Australia’s religious profile has been rapidly changing up until the last census in August, 2011 over a 100-year period since 1911. The Catholic Church has grown to be the largest religious group, principally as a result of migration of Catholic minorities previously residing in Asia and the Middle East after the European influx of the 1950s, notwithstanding the substantial haemorrhaging in its numbers in recent decades. Since the turn of the new millennium in the 2001 – 2011 inter-censal period, Catholic numbers have grown by 8.75 per cent whereas there has been considerable shrinkage in the mainstream Protestant groups, the Anglicans (-5.15%), Uniting Church members (-14.65%) and Presbyterian and Reformed Church members (-7.79%).

The mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches have little problem accepting evolution as a scientific theory within their faith framework though there is a residual wariness. Their many schools would not teach creationism. They reject creationism in contrast to the Pentecostal and evangelical Christians whose numbers have risen appreciably over the past three decades. Catholics would see natural selection as a God-guided mechanism and would stress that the human soul is the direct creation of God. Mainstream theologians would see a deep connection between the evolutionary processes and God’s revelation which is seen as God revealing Himself/Herself firstly in creation, then in the history of the Jewish people and the figure of Jesus Christ and finally in the continuous unfolding of history down the centuries.

Equally, if not more, importantly than the secular humanist growth has been the growth in multifaith Australia. Between 2001 and 2011, the Jewish faith adherents grew by 15.9 per cent, many from South Africa. The Jewish attitudes parallel the diversity of Christianity with some like the Lubavitch Jews led by the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson believing in the literal six-day account of the Book of Genesis.

It was in the other groups that very significant growth occurred. In the ten year period, the Buddhists grew by 65.07 per cent to remain as Australia’s second largest religious grouping. From the mid- to late-1970s, the Vietnamese arrived and began building their Buddhist temples. In fact, these religious groups were themselves ethnically diverse comprising a wider range of immigrants. Australian Buddhists represent many birthplaces in addition to Viet Nam (19.7% of Australian Buddhists were born in Viet Nam) – China (9.7%), Thailand (6.3%), Sri Lanka (6.2%) and Malaysia (5.5%) – these differences represent the diversity of global Buddhism. Like the Hindus, the Buddhist communities have yet to establish their own schools.

In Buddhism with its strong attachment to nature, all forms of life are seen as interconnected. The issue of the t
ime and manner of creation is seen as meaningless since, in Buddhist thinking, the universe is an eternally changing system of interdependent interrelationships without beginning nor end. Buddhism is also a non-theistic religion. So the issue of a creator God does not arise because ultimately everything is created by mind. All these issues are counted among the 14 unanswerable questions in line with the Buddha’s thinking that those who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice, including meditation. Some Zen Buddhists who argue for the spiritual evolution of the mind are critical of Dawkins and the selfish gene which he interprets as materialistic (Low 2008).

Islam is the third largest religious group in Australia, having increased since 2001 by 69.15 per cent. Australia’s Muslims have come from over 70 countries, especially from Pakistan and Bangladesh in recent times. In 2011 the major Muslim birthplace group is Australia (37.5%), reflecting the youthful profile and comparatively high birthrate within this community with 50 per cent under the age of 24. Other countries of origin include Lebanon (7.0%), Pakistan (5.6%), Afghanistan (5.5%), Turkey (5.3%), Bangladesh (5.0%) and Iraq (3.2%). Most live in either Sydney or Melbourne. Their children attend over 40 Islamic schools – it is not known whether they teach creationism or not.

The Muslim mind finds it very hard to accept that someone could not believe in God given the wonder and beauty of creation. The creation stories in the Qu’ran are vaguer than in the Bible and allow for a wider range of interpretations. Whilst there are conservative Muslim scholars led by the Turkish scholar, Harun Yahya (b. 1956), who rejects evolution on the grounds that it is an ideology that tends to atheism and materialism. More liberal scholars would accept the compatibility between Qu’ranic teachings and evolution though most Muslims would have problems believing that one species, especially the human species, can develop from other species. Man and woman are divinely and directly created.

The period between 2001 and 2011 has seen an explosion in the two major Indian religions, especially since 2006. The Hindu community has almost tripled with a large Indian influx with those born in India being well over 50 per cent of the total Australian Hindu population. In 2011 the major national sources of Hindu migration were India (50.7%), Fiji (9.6%), Nepal (7.1%), Sri Lanka (5.6%), Malaysia (1.6%), and South Africa (1.4%). At the same time, the Sikh population has more than quadrupled. The Indian presence is particularly concentrated in Melbourne.

Hinduism, as the oldest of the world’s major religious traditions, represents a complicated intellectual landscape with a remarkable diversity in religious ideas, understandings and practices where its sacred texts such as the Vedic scriptures give mutually inconsistent creation narratives. No Hindu creation narrative is challenged by modern scientific development, and many are open to some aspects of the evolutionary narrative (McGrath 2010). Hinduism speaks of the cosmic being ‘manifesting himself as the universe’. Each being coming into existence and into the physical world is in a state of evolution whose ultimate aim would be its liberation from ignorance, darkness and mortality through an inner consciousness process of purification and illumination (McGrath 2010). At one stage, the Rig Veda asks, “Who really knows and who can swear how, when or where the creation took place”. Sikhism has no problems with evolution.

Religion in Australia

Major Religious Groupings in Australia

Australian Beliefs in Evolution and Creationism

In Australia, creationism has been associated with the Australian Creation Science Foundation which has morphed into Answers in Genesis and, more generally, with evangelical Protestantism. Regarding beliefs about evolution and creationism, exact figures are very hard to come by. One 2009 Neilsen poll found that 23 per cent of Australians believed that God created all life at a stroke 10,000 years ago in line with the literal Biblical account of creation as opposed to the Darwinian account, whereas a 2010 poll by the Australian Academy of Science found that 71 per cent of Australians accepted evolution while 10 per cent were opposed and 11 per cent were unsure. Proportionally far more Americans do not accept evolution than Australians.

In the U.S.A., the Pew Research Center found that in 2009 a third of Americans (33%) rejected the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living beings have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. Whereas only 8 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 22 per cent of Mormons and 24 per cent of evangelical Protestants accepted evolution as “the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth”, in contrast 81 per cent of Buddhists and 80 per cent of Hindus accepted evolution followed by Jewish (77%), Catholic (58%), Christian Orthodox (54%), mainline Protestant (51%) and Muslim (45%). It is important to note that in these figures the educational factor is cutting across the patterns. Also of note is that the Catholic figure was lowered by the creationist views of Hispanic Catholics.

The Creation Myths and Scriptural Literalism

Most peoples, including the Australian Aborigines, have their creation myths as did the Jewish people, often borrowing elements from surrounding peoples. The debate focuses, in the Christian and Jewish context, on the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis before the appearance of Abram in chapter 11 and recorded history. The Jewish cosmology of the time was of a flat, disc-shaped earth floating on water, heaven above, underworld below. The Book of Genesis was compiled at the end of the seventh or beginning of the sixth century B.C.E.. Here we must draw upon the science of Biblical hermeneutics which aims to understand the sacred texts in their sociocultural and linguistic environment and according to the worldview and mindset of the scriptural writers based on archaeology, history, philology etc.. As a consequence, Biblical scholars interpret the texts in this context, rejecting any literal interpretation such as scriptural passages such as the six-day account.

Whilst I appreciate there are debates amongst anthropologists and others about the notion of myth, the first eleven chapters of Genesis are essentially religious myths with or without an historical foundation that illustrate a religious truth. In the two very different accounts at the very beginning of Genesis there are two very different sources with very different literary styles. The six-day creation account with God resting on the seventh day has many purposes based on the historical fact that the multiverse came into existence. It proclaims in poetic form that God made the world, that earthly time should be divided into the seven-day week and that on the seventh day we need to rest, as human beings in need of rest and relaxation, and give praise to God. How and when God made the world is a scientific question, obviously of interest to the human mind, but ultimately not an essential human question. As a sixteenth century cardinal, Baronius (1538 – 1607), allegedly in conversation with Galileo (1564 – 1642) put it, “The Bible tells us, not how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven” – heaven in mainstream Christian theological terms is seen as a condition of eternal happiness outside time and place with totally transfigured bodies beyond the comprehension of the human mind.

The recent film, entertaining though it is, has highlighted the myth of Noah and his ark, full of animals, escaping the flood. Most peoples have a flood myth; certainly the local Aborigines have accounts of Port Phillip Bay being flooded. Whether the historical foundation for the Noah myth is the end of the last Ice Age is conce
ivable but it fundamentally is a story about evil in the world and God’s punishment. When every so often people head into different parts of the Ararat mountain range in Turkey looking for the ark in a pseudoarcheological event, the whole thing becomes ridiculous. The Noah story is adapted from a Mesopotamian poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In chapters two and three, we have the story about the expulsion of Eve from the Garden of Eden and the subsequent fratricidal murder of Abel by Cain. These stories illustrate the historical truth that in some past time in some particular place, perhaps several times and places, selfishness, sinfulness and evil in contravention of God’s plan for human behaviour entered the world. However, evolutionary theory does present a very serious challenge to Western theology, both Catholic and Protestant, less so in the Eastern churches, to the notion of the so-called “Fall” from an original state of perfection in the Garden of Eden into a far less perfect world of rampant sinfulness contrary to the basic tenets of human dignity, justice and peace. The theological theory of “the fall” and so-called “original sin” may have to be rethought in light of the scientific evidence against an original ideal Garden of Eden.

Hence, in mainstream Christian thinking, creationism is seen as a theological and hermeneutical aberration, totally out-of-accord with scientific findings. The Young Earth creationists accept only the literal interpretation of Genesis, seeing the world as about 10,000 years old whereas the Old Earth creationists would see the Biblical day as equivalent to thousands, if not millions of years in duration.

The theory of intelligent design emerged in the mid-1980s from the Discovery Institute in Seattle with its Center for Science and Culture which defined it as the view that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”. It has been associated with names such as Michael Behe and Charles Thaxton, opposing evolution but without using religious discourse. William Dembski has become one main exponent with his notion of specified complexity, suggesting that when something exhibits specified complexity, it can be inferred that it was produced by an intelligent cause rather than being the result of natural processes. The theory has some close parallels with the God-as-watchmaker explanation. It received an inexplicable fillip in the Australian context when in 1995 Brendon Nelson, as Minister for Education, Science and Training, said it should be taught in schools.

Evolution and Directional Purposelessness

One centrepoint of Dawkins’ view of evolution is that the universe or multiverse is inexorably without purpose, reflecting Bertrand Russell’s view from a previous generation that “there is no law of cosmic progress, but only an oscillation upward and downward, with a slow trend downward on the balance owing to the diffusion of energy….From evolution, so far as present knowledge shows, no ultimately optimistic philosophy can be validly inferred” (Russell quoted in Keogh, 2014, p. 113). Dawkins thinks that purpose is a construct of the human mind, driven by our preoccupation with “why?’ and “what for?” questions. In his new atheism, he is partly driven by the cruelty and barbarity of nature as not being in accord wih a benevolent creator God (e.g. the female digger wasp). Ernest Mayr elaborates on this by suggesting that “natural selection is never goal-oriented. It is misleading and quite inadmissible to designate such broadly generalized concepts as survival or reproductive success as definite and specified goals”.

In the response since 1859 to Darwin’s theory, the theological response has forced theology to refine their view of God in two ways. The first is to highlight the inadequacy of the earlier notion of William Paley (1743 – 1805) of God as the watchmaker who winds up the watch of creation and lets it roll from the moment of the creation of time, space and matter by the God who is beyond time, space and matter in a humanly unknowable way. Every piece of the universe is like a crucial mechanical device, each playing its role so that the intended whole will operate according to design – Darwin challenged such a worldview (Crysdale & Omerod 2013). This has brought up in a new way the relationship between God and creation.

The second has been to completely expunge from theology the notion of “the God-of-the-gaps”, especially by Charles Coulson (1910 – 1974) and John Polkinghorne (b. 1930). For Coulson who in 1972 became the first Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Oxford, natural reality as a whole demands explanation, “either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all” (Coulson, 1958, p. 28). John Polkinghorne was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge before at the age of 49 resigning his chair and becoming an Anglican priest. He argues that one of the most significant achievements of modern science has been its demonstration of the ordering of the world. The “gaps” approach unfortunately “kept getting filled through scientific inquiry, with the result that God gradually got squeezed out of a series of steadily decreasing gaps” (McGrath 2010, p. 218).

The philosophical and theological response has been to highlight that “the world is riddled with purpose”, everything fitting together in a coordinated way to generate the remarkable degree of explicable order and regularity in the world, thus making the scientific agenda possible. The key point here is that the ordering and regularity is discerned; it is not something invented by human consciousness. Simon Conway Morris (b. 1951), Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge, is opposed to atheism and materialism, insisting upon the incompleteness of the science of evolution. “Of course our brains are a product of evolution, but does anyone seriously believe that consciousness itself is material? Well, yes, some argue just as such, but their explanations seem to have made no headway. We are indeed dealing with unfinished business. God’s funeral? I don’t think so” (Conway Morris, 2009). The world is unfolding dynamically with a certain directionality. Like people, the universe is on the move. This dynamism is directed indeterminately because probabilities always include exceptions to the statistical norm.

Predictability, Chance and Probability

Dawkins in his evolutionary worldview emphasizes the essential randomness in genetic mutations, the drivers of evolution. In rejecting the watchmaker analogy, Christian theologians have warily embraced the notion of randomness and chance in the process of natural selection. In accepting the inherent unpredictability in the mechanisms of the world, several have spoken of evolutionary convergence.

Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection has been assumed to unfold randomly; however, the focus is upon populations, not individuals. Natural selection is about probabilities and about the likelihood of survival and successful mating. It is not about sheer chance and pure randomness. Crysdale and Omerod suggest that “there is no such thing as a random event but are random only in reference to a pattern of events. So there must be an aggregate of instances in which one discerns a trend of some kind” (Crysdale & Omerod 2013, p. 29 – 30). Whilst there is no such thing as absolute randomness, there is a random element to natural selection “which are to do “with the configuration of underlying traits, the genetic variation upon which the principles of natural selection work, generally through mutation, migration and genetic drift” (Crysdale & Omerod 2013, p. 31).

The Canadian Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, arguably the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, developed the notion of ‘emergent probability’ to highlight the importance of statistical laws as against the laws of na
ture. There are events in nature that occur by chance through probability. “The world unfolds according to emergent probability, not by pure chance or absolute randomness because all factors are not totally independent of one another”.

The Teaching of Creationism in Australian Schools

In this last section, I want to address the issue of teaching creationism in Australian schools. I begin with the premise that it is in the interests of good science and good theology for creationism and intelligent design not to be taught in Australia schools because of their domonstrated falsity. Unfortunately, we do not know to what extent creationism is taught in Australian schools, in government schools through special religious instruction or in private religious schools. However, we run up against the right to religious freedom. In the Australian context, nesting in our religious freedom framework is the principle of accommodation which allows certain religious practices to be permitted even though they may contravene the law e.g. Muslim burial practices; Sikhs wearing the kirpan and turban or the more controversial exemptions under the Equal Opportunity legislation.

Does the principle of accommodation apply to the teaching of creationism? It seems to me acceptable that a school can teach creationism just as they can teach that the earth is flat. However, if the school is registered and accepts public funding, this changes the religious freedom parameters. The education minister has responsibility for whatever is taught in a registered, publicly funded school. However, the fact is that education departments have never monitored the content of religious education programs in schools, public or private. It seems to me there are two series of questions to be addressed: is the problem of creationism sufficiently serious enough to warrant concerted action? And would such action withstand a High Court challenge, given Australia’s very moderate model of the separation of religion and state? Would community education be a simpler strategy? Secondly, if it is serious enough, what strategies would science and religious leaders put in place?

In conclusion, some theologians think that evolution is ‘science’s greatest idea’; others say it has changed the view of history as beginning at the origins of creation rather than when we come into recorded history. All religion is dealing with the mystery of the transcendent and of the ultimate, not merely as an explanatory mechanism as to the meaning of life. Mystery and mysticism is at the heart of religion. C.S. Lewis put it very well, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”.

List of References

Berry, T. (1988) The new story. In Berry, T. The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco)

Cahill, D., Bouma, G., Dellal & Leahy, M. (2004) Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia (Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Canberra)

Conway Morris, S. (2009) Darwin was right, up to as point. The Guardian, February 12th.

Coulson, C. (1958) Science and Christian Belief (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C.)

Crysdale, C. & Omerod, N. (2013) Creator God, Evolving World (Fortress Press, Minneapolis)

Delio, I. (2013) The Unbearable Wholeness of Being (Orbis Books, New York)

Johnson, E. (2013) Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God (Bloomsbury Continuum, New York)

Low, T. (2008) The Origin of Human Nature: A Zen Buddhist Looks at Evolution (Sussex Academic Press, Sussex)

McGrath, A. (2010) Science and Religion: A New Introduction. Second Edition (Wiley-Blackwell, U.K.


O’Leary, D. (2014) Divine evolution. The Tablet, August 23rd, 12.

Saroglou, V. & Cohen, J. (2011) Believing, bonding, behaving and belonging: The big four religious dimensions and cultural variation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 42, 8, 1320 – 1340

Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Prof. Des Cahill

Desmond Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, has been teaching about and researching cross-cultural issues and multicultural societies for the past 35 years based on his training in theological and social psychological studies. His recent focus has been on religion, globalization and interfaith issues. In 2004, he published with his colleagues, Gary Bouma and Hass Dellal, for the Australian immigration department, Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia in the aftermath of 9/11 and in 2011 for the Australian Human Rights Commission, Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia. Since 2000, he has chaired Religions for Peace Australia and in 2008 was elected co-president and deputy moderator of Religions for Peace Asia. He led the City of Melbourne’s bid to stage the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the world’s largest interfaith gathering and was subsequently its honorary Melbourne Program Director. In 2010, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “his services to intercultural education and to the interfaith movement”.

Source: © Desmond P. Cahill