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Creationists taking on evolution in Germany

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What, no family resemblance? Photo: DPA
18:01 CET+01:00
Many Evangelical Americans might consider Europe a godless place, but as David Wroe reports, questioning the theory of evolution and teaching Creationism is on the rise in Germany.

Herald Janssen reckons that if people could only see a replica of Noah's Ark, they might be swayed toward the Biblical story of creation.

''It was as big as an oil-tanker,'' he says. ''If you could see it, you'd start to think, 'Wow, it might have fit all the animals in there.'''

Articulate and obviously well-read, Janssen, who sits on the board of a Swiss non-profit group that wants to build a Bible-themed fun park in Germany, nevertheless makes some unsupportable claims.

''It's a well-known fact that scientists are abandoning evolution,'' he says. ''Creationism is like a cross to a vampire for evolutionists. Empirical scientists have already abandoned this theory and ... in a few years, it won't be in the science books anymore.''

Given Germany's slumping church attendance, its liberal civil society and its theological tradition of interpreting the Bible historically rather than literally, it seems unthinkable that Janssen's claims might be taken seriously here.

Nevertheless, scientists across the country are worried. Creationism – the belief that Genesis and other books of the Bible explain life on Earth – is gaining strength in Germany.

A recent survey at the University of Dortmund found that more than one-fifth of students who wanted to become teachers had misgivings about Darwin's theory of evolution. Some 17 percent of students who'd studied basic biology doubted evolution, as did nearly eight percent who were studying a higher degree in biology.

Creationist faiths on the rise

Private schools run by conservative evangelical Christians – the flavour of faith associated in the United States with fundamentalist and creationist beliefs – are growing in number and prominence in Germany. Some 26,000 students attend about 80 evangelical schools (not to be confused with Germany's mainstream Evangelisch Protestant churches). Half of these schools are represented by the new Association of Evangelical Schools, which advocates teaching creationism alongside evolution.

''The problem is very much underestimated in Germany,'' says Thomas Junker, a professor of history of science at the University of Tübingen. ''In Germany, most scientists and biologists have tried to ignore it … Only now we're realising that's not the best way.''

In February, scientists held a conference at the University of Dortmund to discuss the issue. Dittmar Graf, who helped organise the meeting and also conducted the survey on teaching students, says that, based on anecdotal evidence from teachers, church groups and sociologists, he was ''really sure that the percentage of Germans who doubt evolution is going up and up.''

Graf says an evangelical teacher had admitted to him that some schools used a textbook with a creationist slant alongside an official biology textbook approved by Germany's education department.

In response, the association's secretary-general, Berthold Meier, insists the schools follow all the government requirements on teaching science. But he also made it clear that students were immersed in an evangelical outlook that prompted them to question evolution and see creationism as an equally valid alternative theory. The schools hire only evangelical teachers and take the view that the Bible is literally true and a credible authority in ''the natural sciences debate.''

''The students should … grasp the ways in which the theory of evolution does not match the statements of the Bible and what alternatives creationist models can offer,'' Mr Meier said. ''The theory of evolution is seen as unsatisfying regarding the emergence of life out of matter, the emergence of man and spirit and the emergence of basic forms (of life).''

What angers German scientists is that creationists put their beliefs on the same footing as science. Evolution and creationism are not two equally valid sides to a debate, says Professor Graf.

Equal to evolution?

''That's a misunderstanding of science. People think that science is the same kind of knowledge as religious knowledge. It's not.''

Science, he says, depends on evidence and constantly tests its theories against new findings. Theories are challenged and thrown out if they don't stand up to scrutiny. Creationism, by contrast, is pure faith.

The evangelical and Pentecostal churches associated with creationism are bucking Germany's downward trend in church attendance, according to Detlef Pollack, professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Münster. Although they are still a small presence in Germany, attracting less than three percent of the population, they are the only Christian denominations that are growing.

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But the scientists are less worried about incremental gains by conservative churches than they are about the general neglect of science in Germany. It's the neglect of science that makes people vulnerable to pseudo-scientific and charismatic religious claims, they say.

''Too many people simply aren't interested in these questions,'' says Professor Junker. ''We need a much better education in biology and evolution. People in German schools don't get any education in evolution after the 10th grade ... not just in school but for the rest of their lives. That's a big problem.''

Observers agree creationism in Germany is unlikely to attract the popularity it enjoys in the United States, where just 13 percent of people believe in natural selection, according to a 2004 Gallup poll.

A real litmus test for the movement will be whether the Biblical theme park planned by the Swiss group Genesis Land gets off the ground. The original location near Heidelberg has been abandoned due to opposition from locals and mainstream Protestants. Genesis Land is now in talks with planning authorities in three other locations, though Herald Janssen won't say where.

They need about €80 million to open the park and another €120 million to complete it. So far, they have raised less than half a million, though Mr Janssen points out they are awaiting planning approval before they begin their proper fundraising drive.

''Sure,'' he says. ''We have a long way to go.''

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