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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 15:47 GMT
The creation of a row
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair ducks creation questions
test hello test
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent
It would appear to be a simple question - does the prime minister believe the theories of evolution and creation have equal merit?

It may sound like a particularly esoteric inquiry on an issue that has not got them talking down at the Dog and Duck.

Professor Richard Dawkins
Dawkins challenging school
It has only become news because the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead teaches that they ARE of equal merit - both, apparently, being "faith positions."

And, under Tony Blair's policy of encouraging diversity in education, these teachings are now perfectly acceptable, maybe even to be encouraged.

But the issue has raised some fundamental questions about both the prime minister's personal beliefs - which are a matter of legitimate public interest as they inform his politics - and the wider policy of faith schools.

And it has seen leading Darwinists like Richard Dawkins demanding a re-examination of the policy.

Widespread confusion

On the first, the prime minister appears to have had a number of problems recently.

When asked by Labour backbencher Tony McWalter during question time what his core philosophy was he was lost for an answer, but claimed improving the NHS was important.

Clearly aware that there is widespread confusion about what he actually believes in, he attempted to answer the question in a speech last Tuesday.

Charles Darwin
Darwin's theory questioned
He spoke of building a modern Britain where power, wealth and opportunity were in the hands of the many not the few.

But, once again, his words failed to offer any concrete framework of beliefs or ideology - a dirty word in New Labour politics.

Now, over the question of evolution versus creation he also seems unable or unwilling to give an answer.

Whether this is out of fear of offending one set of voters over another or out of a belief that spiritual affairs are best kept private is not known.

Racist preaching

But that leads to the second issue of faith schools. If religious beliefs are a private matter should they be taught in schools at all?

Alternatively, if diversity in schools is such a good thing, where should it stop?

Would a Nation of Islam school preaching the views of leader Louis Farrakhan - banned from Britain by David Blunkett for his allegedly racist preaching - be acceptable?

But the prime minister will not answer these questions.

Downing Street refuses to be drawn over Mr Blair's personal beliefs and suggests faith schools of any description might be acceptable so long as they stuck to the national curriculum.

Critics, however, point to Northern Ireland as a example of how single faith schools - of the sort they believe are now bound to emerge in England - can provoke only division.

And they fear they are witnessing a trend towards the acceptance of faith over science.

It is an area of huge controversy and it is likely the prime minister will now regularly find himself being asked to reveal his own beliefs.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Assinder's Question Time Verdict
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