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A few years ago, when I was visiting friends in Colorado, my host suggested going for a walk in the foothills of the Rockies. I readily agreed. We were accompanied by a friend of my host, a university-educated woman in her forties.

As we walked, I looked at the towering mountains around us, with their rock strata clearly visible, and said “Isn’t it extraordinary to reflect that what we are looking at took literally many millions of years to be formed?”

“Or it might have happened very quickly”, said my host’s friend, “because of pressure”.

“What do you mean ‘pressure’?”, I asked.

“The strata might have been created very quickly, by the pressure of God’s hand,” she replied.

I was stunned. I knew that there were still people alive, even in a modern society like the US, where people believe that the universe was created a few thousand years ago, but I did not expect to meet such a person, aged in their forties, with a university education, at the end of the 20th century.

But then I came across a survey of opinion conducted in the US in 2008. People were asked which of the following statements came closest to their views on the origin and development of human beings:

• Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.

• Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process.

• God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

Astonishingly, 44% of respondents in the survey chose the third option, indicating that they believed humans had been created by God in “pretty much their present form” within the last 10,000 years.

I consoled myself that New Zealanders would be much better informed.

But recently my attention was drawn to what appear to be officially approved notes for primary school teachers teaching science. After explaining the orthodox view of the “water cycle” driven by the sun – with water evaporating, rising into the air, condensing in the atmosphere’s cooler temperatures, and eventually falling as rain – the notes explain that

in a Maori world view, life began with the separation of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatuanuku (earth mother). From them emerged the various atua (gods).

Aspects of the water cycle are beautifully represented in the story of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Rain is represented as tears while mist is explained as the sighs of Papatuanuku. The waterways are created by the tears of Ranginui and Papatuanuku….

Tanemahuta and Tangaroa are the children of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Tanemahuta is the atua of the forest. He created the plants and animals that inhabit the forest (including humans)…

In a Maori world view, all things in the natural world (eg. streams, rivers, mountains, plants and animals) have their own mauri (life force).

I don’t know of course how many New Zealand school children will get stuck with the myth that Tanemahuta “created the plants and animals that inhabit the forest (including humans)”. Most grow out of the myth that Father Christmas travels the world on Christmas Eve distributing presents to reward good behaviour, so perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much.

But it’s depressing that we teach myths like that in a school system which in principle is supposed to be entirely secular. There would rightly be an uproar if we found teachers telling our children that the world was created by God within the last 10,000 years, even if we hoped they would grow out of that myth as they grew older.

Is it any wonder that New Zealand’s performance in international assessments of Year 9 children in Maths and Science has fallen in recent years, and is now below the mid-point of the international results in both subjects?

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