Four decades after the ‘British Invasion,” a battle exported from America flares across Great Britain

After the Sunday service in Westminster Chapel, where worshippers were exhorted to wage “the culture war” in the World War II spirit of Sir Winston Churchill, cabbie James McLean delivered his verdict on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“Evolution is a lie, and it’s being taught in schools as fact, and it’s leading our kids in the wrong direction,” said McLean, chatting outside the chapel. “But now people like Ken Ham are tearing evolution to pieces.”

Ken Ham is the founder of Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky-based organization that is part of an ambitious effort to bring creationist theory to Britain and the rest of Europe. McLean is one of a growing number of evangelicals embracing that message – that the true history of the Earth is told in the Bible, not Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

Europeans have long viewed the conflict between evolutionists and creationists as primarily an American phenomenon, but it has recently jumped the Atlantic Ocean with skirmishes in Italy, Germany, Poland and, notably, Britain, where Darwin was born and where he published his 1859 classic.

Darwin’s defenders are fighting back. In October, the 47-nation Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, condemned all attempts to bring creationism into Europe’s schools. Bible-based theories and “religious dogma” threaten to undercut sound educational practices, it charged.

Schools are increasingly a focal point in this battle for hearts and minds. A British branch of Answers in Genesis, which shares a Web site with its American counterpart, has managed to introduce its creationist point of view into science classes at a number of state-supported schools in Britain, said Monty White, the group’s chief executive.

“We do go into the schools about 10 to 20 times a year and we do get the students to question what they’re being taught about evolution,” said White, who founded the British branch seven years ago. “And we leave them a box of books for the library.”

Creationism is still a marginal issue here compared with its impact on cultural and political debate in the United States. But the budding fervor is part of a growing embrace of evangelical worship throughout much of Europe. Evangelicals say their ranks are swelling as attendance at traditional churches declines because of revulsion with the hedonism and materialism of modern society.

“People are looking for spirituality,” White said in an interview at his office in Leicester, 90 miles north of London. “I think they are fed up with not finding true happiness. They find having a bigger car doesn’t make them happy. They get drunk and the next morning they have a hangover. They take drugs but the drugs wear off. But what they find with Christianity is lasting.”

War of words

All this activity has lifted spirits at the Westminster Chapel, a 165-year-old evangelical church that is not affiliated with nearby Westminster Abbey, where Darwin is buried.

In the chapel, Rev. Greg Haslam tells the 150 believers that they are in a conflict with secularism that can only be won if they heed Churchill’s exhortation and never, ever give up.

“The first thing you have to do is realize we are in a war, and identify the enemy, and learn how to defeat the enemy,” he said.

There is a sense inside the chapel that Christian evangelicals are successfully resisting a trend toward a completely secular Britain.

“People have walked away from God; it’s not fashionable,” said congregant Chris Mullins, a civil servant. “But the evangelical church does seem to be growing and I’m very encouraged by that. In what is a very secular society, there are people returning to God.”

School curricula generally hold that Darwin’s theory has been backed up by so many scientific discoveries that it can now be regarded as fact. But Mullins believes creationism also deserves a hearing in the classroom.

“Looking at the evidence, creationism at the least seems a theory worthy of examination,” he said. “Personally I think it is true and I think the truth will win out eventually. It’s a question of how long it takes.”

Terry Sanderson, president of Britain’s National Secular Society, a prominent group founded in 1866 to limit the influence of religious leaders, fears the groups advocating a literal interpretation of the Bible are making headway.

“Creationism is creeping into the schools,” he said. “There is a constant pressure to get these ideas into the schools.”

American export

The rupture between theology and evolution in Europe is relatively recent. For many years people who held evangelical views also endorsed mainstream scientific theory, said Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, a British-based, Christian-oriented research group. He said the split was imported from the United States in the last decade.

“There is a lot of American influence, and there are a lot of moral and political and financial resources flowing from the United States to here,” he said. “Now you have more extreme religious groups trying to get a foothold.”

‘Stupid points’

In some cases, the schools have become the battlegrounds. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford university biologist and author of last year’s international best-seller “The God Delusion, “frequently lectures students about the marvels of evolution only to find that the students’ views have already been shaped by the creationist lobby.

“I think it’s so sad that children should be fobbed off with these second-rate myths,” he said. “I think creationism is pernicious because if you don’t know much it sounds kind of plausible and it’s easy to come into schools and subvert children.”

White, the director of the British Answers in Genesis, is well aware that the group’s school program is contentious. The group has removed information about it from its Web site to avoid antagonizing people.

He says that when he is asked to speak to science classes, he challenges the accuracy of radioactive dating which shows the world to be thousands of millions of years old and says that the Bible is a more accurate description of how mankind began. He personally believes the Earth is between 6,000 and 12,000 years old.

“Usually I find the discussion goes on science, science, and science and then when the lesson is finished one or two students say, ‘Can we talk about other things?’ and I sit down with them and usually they want to talk about Christianity,” he said. “They want to know, why do you believe in God? Why do you believe in the Bible? How can you be sure it’s the word of God?”

Dawkins feels the effect. He said he is discouraged when he visits schools and gets questions from students who have obviously been influenced by material from Answers in Genesis.

“I continually get the same rather stupid points straight from their pamphlets,” he said.


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