Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Giant's Causeway controversy: creationists continue to claim victory

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The new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway continues
to generate controversy
Last week, the National Trust drew a great deal of criticism when it emerged that educational audio tours new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim contained a reference to Young Earth Creationist explanations for the origins of the spectacular rock formation.

The National Trust was quick to clarify its intentions in including the reference to creationism,  emphasising that it "fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago", and pointing out that alternative explanations were only referred to in order to demonstrate how "the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today".

While it was clear that the National Trust was not promoting creationism as a plausible explanation for the formation of the Causeway, many observers were still troubled by the fact that it had consulted with Northern Ireland's most prominent creationist organisation, the Caleb Foundation, when planning the contents of the visitors' centre. The Trust has stressed that the Foundation was just one of a "wide range of groups" that was consulted, but the problem is that by doing so, and by including creationism in the final exhibition, it has provided an opportunity for the Caleb Foundation to exploit its relationship with one of the country's most prestigious conservation organisations and claim the inclusion of creationism at the Causeway visitors' centre as a significant victory. For evidence of this, look no further than the statement released by the Caleb Foundation last week, which praised the National Trust for its "acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this", and went on to suggest that the Causeway exhibition should serve as an example to other educational exhibitions:
"This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow. We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today."
The reference to creationism at the Causeway may only represent a small concession to the creationist view, but what the National Trust needs to be aware of is that winning such small concessions forms a key part of creationist strategy. By encouraging organisations such as the National Trust to acknowledge creationist perspectives, it is possible that the Caleb Foundation are following the "Wedge Strategy", a tactic devised by creationists in the United States, most notoriously the Discovery Institute, in order to "permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life" with creationism and Intelligent Design.

Aware that they can not simply convert the American public to creationism overnight, the architects of the Wedge Strategy aim to persuade politicians, journalists and educators that the correct approach to "debates" around evolution and the age of the Earth is to "Teach the Controversy", giving perspective such as creationism and Intelligent Design a hearing alongside scientific theories. Through "Teach the Controversy", creationists hope that their perspective will acquire a greater presence in educational establishments and the media. In short, once one school, or one museum, or one newspaper, starts to deal with evolution alongside creationism, others will follow.

Having hailed the inclusion of creationism at the Giant's Causeway in its own press release last week, the Caleb Foundation has continued to celebrate. In a post that appeared yesterday on the Belfast Newsletter website, the Foundation's press officer David McConaghie echoed the message of the initial press release, welcoming the National Trust's actions as a victory for "inclusivity":
"For the first time a younger earth interpretation has now been included as part of an official site such as this. The National Trust did so without abandoning its own commitment to the majority interpretation. If the Trust can do so – why couldn’t others? Clearly they could.

This new feature at the Causeway Centre also has another wider significance. Every church group, Sunday school, youth fellowship etc can now go to the Causeway Centre, take on board what is said about the continuing debate and, from that starting point, tell children, young people, men’s groups, ladies’ fellowships or senior citizens about the wealth of evidence in all branches of science – evidence that some would seek to suppress – in all creation, that points to the hand of a sovereign God in this world. From there, they can show how this is in harmony with the Bible’s revelation of the grace of God in reaching down to mankind to redeem from sin.

Where once the only view on display was of an old earth, there is now reference to another perspective. The availability of more information will promote healthy, informed debate – surely that is a good thing."
While it's not clear that the Caleb Foundation have consciously followed the Wedge Strategy, what is clear is that their involvement in the Giant's Causeway project has produced an outcome entirely in keeping with the aims of the strategy and the "Teach the Controversy" approach. It is for this reason that the National Trust should never have become involved with an organisation like the Caleb Foundation, and would do well to avoid doing so in the future.
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