This time last year, scientist and teacher Michael Reiss made headlines for appearing to claim that creationism should be taught in science lessons. In spite of a repeated refuting of this position, he was ousted from his position as director of education at the Royal Society shortly afterwards. Despite his mistreatment, Reiss remains thoughtful, gracious and philosophical
Considering that it was distorted headlines and media misrepresentation that put Michael Reiss’ career and reputation in jeopardy a year ago, I’m surprised at how willingly he agrees to be interviewed – and how agreeable he is in turn. In September 2008 press reports claiming that Reiss was promoting the teaching of creationism in classrooms led to an outcry among members of the Royal Society that forced him to step down from his position as director of education. He could be forgiven for adopting a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ outlook towards journalists, but recrimination seems to be absent as I’m warmly welcomed into Reiss’ office at the Institute of Education.
Reiss was trained in science and is a teacher by profession; he is also a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England. Naturally he chooses his words carefully, qualifying his statements with the precision of a scientist, but remaining remarkably philosophical about the events that, 12 months ago, resulted in two years of careful research being destroyed by two days of careless press headlines.
It all began at a science festival in Liverpool where Reiss was engaged in a debate with philosopher Mary Midgley on the benefits of allowing creationist viewpoints to be represented in the science classroom. “The irony is that I was actually arguing that we don’t want too much creationism and intelligent design discussed in school science lessons,” he recalls. “A lot of papers ran stories on the debate and most of them were extremely fair because the journalists had interviewed me. But one paper that hadn’t interviewed me was The Times and I think that, at rather short notice, they cobbled something together. The result was that their front page the next morning carried a story along the lines of “Director of education at Royal Society calls for creationism to be taught in school science lessons.”
In fact Reiss had spelled out his position on creationism in the classroom many times before. He is unequivocal in his belief that evolution is the only biological theory with scientific merit. However, he does believe that science teachers should, if they feel comfortable, address the questions raised in the classroom by pupils who hold a creationist perspective by showing why the theory of evolution is the only valid scientific argument on the table. Hardly a controversial approach, but a misrepresentation of his position overtook the facts and led to a deluge of concerned responses from fellows of the Royal Society.
“Unsurprisingly, they were asking, ‘For crying out loud, what’s going on?’” recalls Reiss. “For several days the Royal Society gave a very consistent response that I had been misquoted and that these were not the views of Michael Reiss. I thought it was all going to die away.” And so it might have, but for the decision on the part of the Royal Society that Reiss should step down from his position. If the organisation had been hoping that this would end the controversy, then they had badly misjudged the situation.
“It was a total mistake,” he says. “You don’t have to be an expert in the media to know that a story that was almost certainly going to die away in the next 48 hours suddenly got an extraordinary new injection of life that carried on for some time.”
Science and Faith
For one who has suffered such a public injustice, Reiss’ recollection of the whole affair is delivered with incredible equanimity. Keen to describe a positive side, he extols the benefits of being able to resume his place as professor of science education at London University’s Institute of Education where the question of how to deal with creationism in the classroom remains a live one. Softly spoken and thoughtful in his recounting, he describes how he reconciled his own views on the biblical and scientific accounts of creation early on in his Christian life.
Reiss grew up in a household where the subject of faith was rarely raised. His father was an agnostic Jew and his mother had rebelled against her Catholic upbringing to become “a pretty firm atheist”. Reiss’ own unreflective agnosticism would be challenged during his years as a science undergraduate at Cambridge, when a friend invited him to the Christian Union mission. There, under the preaching of John Stott, he was converted. The penny dropped and “it all just seemed to make sense”.
“When I first developed my Christian faith I remember spending a very short amount of time wondering whether I was meant to take the very early chapters of Genesis literally,” he says. “As someone in the second year of a biology degree I simply deduced that I couldn’t be meant to literally assume that every word of those chapters was meant to be read as documented history.”
He describes himself as always having a “perfectly orthodox” Christian faith. It led to him to train for unpaid ministry in the Church of England, and in keeping with his earlier conversion, he has continued to hold to a broadly evangelical view of scripture. He carefully teases out the categories of events that he sees as having foremost importance.
“I’ve always accepted a lot of scripture very literally. I have a completely conventional, literal acceptance of the resurrection. I tend to assume the virgin birth is literally true, though I probably wouldn’t insist on it being in the same category as the resurrection. I tend to accept the miracles of the New Testament happened pretty much as told although I’m not sure I’d go to the stake about the feeding of the 5,000 and a separate feeding of the 4,000.”
The books that line his study shelves – titles by Alister McGrath, Francis Collins and Denis Alexander – bear witness to others in his field who hold that a Christian faith is no barrier to scientific enquiry. Reiss sees himself in a long tradition of scientists whom he says “have conducted their professional lives in the framework of Christian faith”. In common with these and other ‘theistic evolutionists’, Reiss is categorical that God should not be invoked in the day-to-day investigations of the laboratory. This makes theories such as intelligent design a non-starter in his view. God purposed evolution, but he did not tinker with it.
But what of the atheist scientist who maintains that even God’s role as the author of creation is an unnecessary addition to the purposeless process of evolution? This is where confusion over terminology can produce the kind of headlines Reiss had to deal with a year ago – so he makes it very clear where he stands.
“You and I might be very familiar with a language of ‘purposefulness’,” he states. “Whereas many non-Christians might think, ‘Oh crumbs, Michael Reiss sees God as intervening every now and again in the course of evolutionary history.’ That is not how Michael Reiss sees it. I see it as the whole of creation, for all eternity, being held in God’s care. The whole of this world would cease to exist if God didn’t continue to maintain it.”
For Reiss, this is the balance that needs to be struck. The evidence for faith and the evidence for science are different, but mutually supportive. Evolution explains our biological existence, God is the one who sustains the world in which it happens. Moreover, rather than seeing the evolutionary process as a barrier to belief in God, it in fact serves to deepen our theological understanding.
“An acceptance of evolutionary biology is beginning to help Christians to answer questions that have previously been theologically troubling, such as the problem of suffering,” says Reiss. “In the evolutionary view, organisms that lack the capacity to suffer lead less successful lives – they die earlier and leave fewer offspring. Creation over countless years has evolved the ability to be sensitive. Theologically it means if we want a world in which we have joy, we may also have need of a world in which there is suffering.”
Sadly, nuanced presentations of the interplay of scientific and Christian beliefs are rarely the stuff that newspaper headlines are made of. Reiss seems resigned to the fact that many people would inevitably draw the worst conclusions from the reports that led to his resignation. But how did he feel towards the Royal Society who, knowing his real views, still forced him to go?
“I was very disappointed to be leaving the Royal Society. It was surreal. The issue of how to deal with creationism was one I had thought about very carefully for several years, and I knew I hadn’t said a single thing that I wished to retract.”
All things considered, Reiss strikes me as being remarkably gracious towards his former employer. But what about the damage to his reputation? Again, he refuses to paint things negatively. “Reputation exists only in the eye of the beholder,” he says. “I feel very fortunate because one of the immediate consequences of having left the Royal Society was being deluged with a very large number of sympathetic emails, letters, and even presents of books and chocolate cakes!”
While the Royal Society appeared to bow to popular pressure to remove Reiss, in personal correspondence many Christians and atheists alike expressed a sense of injustice at his departure. “People who I’d never met before were writing in and saying things like, ‘My family’s been atheistic for five generations, but I think you were appallingly treated.’”
Reiss himself never uses such strong terms when speaking of those who took the decision to remove him. This may in part be due to the fact that he believes most of the pressure for his resignation came from a small but vocal minority wishing to oust him. He remarks that three fellows of the Society wrote an open letter published by The Guardian asking for his dismissal. With almost 1,500 members, this might not have been so bad, “but all three had Nobel prizes” – which apparently counts for something in the scientific world. And it was not just the misleading headlines fuelling concern, they were also opposed to Reiss’ faith commitment. “They were quite explicit that they felt it was a mistake to have a clergyman as director of education.”
Debates with Dawkins
Another high profile criticism came from the pen of Richard Dawkins who wrote scathingly “a clergyman in charge of education for the country’s leading scientific organisation – it’s a Monty Python sketch.” So is there an atheist agenda to purge believers from the scientific community? “Perhaps,” admits Reiss, but those who hold the view that faith and science are incompatible still remain a minority in the scientific community. “It’s a small proportion. They are analogous to those people who claim that if you don’t have a religious faith you are always a morally bad person. That’s far too simplistic a way of looking at it and there are people who hold extreme views on both ends of the spectrum.”
When it comes to chief atheist Dawkins, Reiss remains a model of Christian charity. He laughs off the Monty Python joke and instead focuses upon Dawkins’ scientific record. He describes The Selfish Gene as an “extraordinarily impressive” book and his less well known academic work The Extended Phenotype ranks as “the third most important biology book to ever be written” in Reiss’ view.
The praise is genuine, and not what might be expected from one who has been scorned by a scientific colleague he has known and respected. His only notable criticism is reserved for The God Delusion. While he concedes that some parts of it are “rather good” for the questions they raise, he feels that Dawkins’ treatment of theology and philosophy are lamentable. “His understanding of the subject, at least as evidenced by his writing, is one that one would find disappointing in an intelligent 15-year-old,” says Reiss. “But a lot of academics write things toward the end of their career that history will probably judge are not their best works.”
Even where they agree scientifically, Reiss is still concerned that the manner of Dawkins’ interactions with those who hold creationist viewpoints may be counterproductive. He recalls the documentary in which Dawkins spoke to a class of students and sought to persuade those who held creationist beliefs. Treating such views with scorn may only serve to entrench them. “The only difference between the way Richard and I would have run that class is that I would not expect to be able to change creationist pupils’ views quickly. I don’t think I would exhibit the incredulity that Richard displayed, which edged at times towards a dismissal of pupils who held that position.”
Central to Reiss’ careful approach is recognising that creationism is a ‘worldview’ that will not simply be changed by presenting the scientific facts to a person. “In the long run, people are more likely to change their views if they are respected and not ridiculed,” he says. “When I read in the Gospels of Jesus’ interactions with people there is a wonderful blend of respect for the person, but absolutely wanting to change them. And on a far more modest level, any teacher who wants to change his or her pupils can do it in a way that is wholly respectful of those pupils.”
The sentiments ring all the more true given Reiss’ own years of experience as a teacher. His view has been shaped by the practical experience of teaching students who bring a variety of worldviews into the classroom. To some it may still sound like too much ‘accommodation’ is being made for unscientific views. But perhaps those who worry that faith is being smuggled into the classroom would be less concerned about such Trojan horses if they were more in touch with the practical realities of how to engage with students where they are.
Michael Reiss certainly hopes that, despite his own experience, the Royal Society will not bow to the shrill voices of those who decry religious beliefs altogether. He says his own status as an ordained vicar was never an obstacle to being appointed the first director of education – his scientific and teaching background were the key. But would it help if the next director of education was a person of faith? “I think it would be quite useful as they might be less likely to dismiss these issues as ridiculous as some atheists might be more likely to.”
Whether the Royal Society is brave enough to follow such principles when it appoints the next incumbent remains to be seen.
Michael Jonathan Reiss was born in 1960, and grew up in north London in a secular household. He studied Biology at Cambridge University where he was converted as an undergraduate. He gained a PhD and taught science in schools for many years as well as being ordained to non-stipendiary ministry in the Church of England. He has researched and written extensively in the field of science education, bioethics and sex education, working for the Institute of Education at the University of London. He became the Royal Society’s first director of education in 2006. After stepping down from that role in 2008 he resumed working for the Institute of Education as assistant director of research and professor of science education.