Ulster Museum or Ulster-Scots Museum of Conservative Fundamentalist Christianity?

I awoke this morning to the news on Radio Ulster that our esteemed Minister at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland has written to the National Museums of Northern Ireland to ask for them (and presumably he means their recently renovated flagship, The Ulster Museum which he is pictured here re-opening) to give more prominence to Ulster-Scots, the Orange Order and alternative theories on the origin of the universe. I already had a sore head, and this did not improve it any. The claim is that this is in pursuit of the Northern Ireland Executive's Shared Future agenda, and given that I have worked with Mr. McCausland in the past on good relations issues I have no doubt of his sincere desire for such an end. However, given that he previously also has been an outspoken advocate of Ulster-Scots and a prominent member of the Orange Order, and that at least one member of his political party has been vocal in his demands for Creationism to be given a prominent place in the renovated Ulster Museum, this letter does not ring of impartial advocacy on behalf of a Shared Future agenda, but rather unwarranted political interference from a particular personal bias in an important, impartial cultural, historical and scientific resource. It is especially unhelpful while the Museum is in the running for the Art Fund Prize (vote here) and is under criticism for censorship and political bias during the troubles.

Personally I think that the historical section, and especially the section on the troubles, is a little weak... wishy, washy even... Following the traditional line of middle class Ulster i.e. "whatever you say, say nothing..." Perhaps more does need to be said about the Ulster-Scots Hamilton-Montgomery Plantation, and the role of the Orange Order in Irish affairs, but if there is, let it be a warts and all analysis... and the same should be said of the republican movement, with its toxic eulogising of the blood of the martyrs...

As for the "alternative theories on the origin of the universe", I note that Mr. McCausland does not specifically mention "Creationism". Is he therefore advocating that the Ulster Museum gives display space over to all the creation myths/theories advocated down through the years, including those of some minority communities in our province, such as the Chinese creation myth of Pangu, the origin of creation, hatching from a black egg with the aid of a hammer, or the Hindu myth of Brahma, the creator, being born in a lotus blossom that grew in Vishnu's navel, or is he just advocating literal "Biblical" Creationism, on the basis that a large number of people (largely from the more conservative protestant traditions that have tended to vote DUP) believe it in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I'm already out of the closet on this one, and have made clear how I think that the Ulster Museum should deal with the request for representation of "alternative theories of the origin of the universe". I'm a Christian but far from being a literal creationist, indeed I'm not far off the position advocated by James McGrath in his article "Why Anti-Evolutionism is Evil" which both Scotteriology and WhyNotSmile pointed me (and whoever else reads their stuff) to a couple of weeks ago. At this point I feel I need to publicly apologise to WhyNot Smile for cluttering up her facebook wall with an increasingly vituperative dialogue with an advocate of creationism.

My problem is not with those who believe in a six day or young earth creationism... people are entitled to their opinions and beliefs... my problem is with those who are militant advocates of the same such as Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, who misrepresent both science and the Bible... and often do so with children, creating an unnecessary dichotomy between a Christian and a scientific worldview. As I have said previously, such an approach plays straight into the hands of the so-called "New Atheists" who hold up such propagandist, scientifically illiterate approaches as being a direct result of belief in God. This is no more the truth than the belief that the propagandist, theologically illiterate arrogance of these new atheists is a direct and inevitable result of a belief in evolution. Over at Jesus Creed, they've been looking at this dichotomy in detail and particularly how it is then feeding into the attitude of the wider academic world in relation to religion, especially in the light of Elaine Howard's new book "Science v Religion: What Scientists Really Think". They have also pointed to an op-ed by Karl Giberson (a Christian evolutionist) in USA Today, suggesting that New Atheists need to learn how to "play in the sandbox." What he says is true not only of the USA, but of Northern Ireland... not only of the New Atheists, but the militant creationists.

There needs to be a respectful dialogue between people of divergent opinions, but that does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or deserving of representation in the public square. Nor does it, necessarily mean that truth is determined democratically, or should be shaped by those in political power. Be it our political or biological history we should look at the facts first and see how the theories then help us to interpret them. This is a process that most of the population have neither the skills or knowledge to do, therefore it is up to those in key positions in the worlds of museums, the media, schools, churches to responsibly communicate the clearest picture of current thinking... not the polarised opinions of pressure groups, be they scientific, religious or political.

A shared future does not necessarily require a shared understanding of our past, but it does require a shared commitment to each other. If our Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister is to act as an advocate for diversity of opinions within the museums, it would carry greater weight if he was advocating opinions that were not so clearly those of himself and his close allies.
ps. Professor Billy McWilliams over on 1690 An' All Thon is seemingly much more supportive of Mr. McCausland's position... And much funnier of course...



ichthus888 said…
Hi there,

Basically, I'm in almost total agreement with you about this. So, may I ask about the sermons you've preached/taught on the issue of science and faith?

In particular, given that many people here (NI) believe in a literal six-day creation, have you taken much pulpit time to address the biblical foundations that view assumes? Or just to explain Gen 1(-11?) in its ANE context?

I'd be very interested to hear about your experiences with this. I'm thinking about ministry myself in a few years and, especially with the New Atheism rhetoric at the moment, the 'science and faith' issue is one that those of us in leadership positions need to actually lead on.

All the best,
don't tend to spend a huge amount of time on this in the pulpit... except when I am speaking on the actual issues at the heart of Genesis 1-11, ie. the who rather than the how of creation (over and against other cosmologies then and now), the relationship of humanity and the God in whose image they were created, divine sovereignty and human freewill, sin and its consequences, redemption and restoration, covenant, to name but a few ... To that end, my congregation know that I am not a literalist, but that I take the Bible very seriously... Am prepared to spend more time in smaller groups where you can really get to grips with the subject, and actually deal 1 on 1 with people's questions... And it is a subject that has already been raised under our "What does the Bible teach about..." series of Bible Studies slated for the autumn.
One of my problems with the AiG and New Atheist dialogue (to dignify their slanging match) is that it actually skews the focus of both Christianity and science insofar as the core business of science is not metaphysics, nor is the core business of Christianity pseudo-science or the refutation of such. Interestingly, my previous experience is that I've had much more hostility from Christians on my stance than from scientists, even avowedly atheist scientists... indeed one such was one of my academic referees on coming into ministry.
ichthus888 said…
Hi there,

Thanks for the reply. Again, in terms of perspective we're very much on the same page.

Once you've actually had your classes specifically dealing with these issues, perhaps you could post on them? It would be very interesting and helpful to hear about your experiences. I'd imagine you'd have needed to build up a fair amount of trust with your congregation before tackling something so controversial with any directness.

Moreover, as you noted, the issues surrounding the limitations of science or religion are complex - i.e., Gould's NOMA, or McGrath's POMA etc. Anyway, thanks again for replying. I always enjoy your reading your blog.

Best wishes,

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