Who are the British creationists?
By Julian Joyce
At first glance the Genesis Expo museum, in the naval town of Portsmouth, looks like any other repository of natural history exhibits: fossils of dinosaurs and unusual rock formations.
But focus on the narrative of the information panels alongside them, and you start to realise this is a museum with a difference - one dedicated to the theory of creationism.
The revelation that US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a "creationist" has raised few eyebrows in the US. Like Ms Palin, an estimated 47% of Americans reject outright Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, accepting instead the Bible's account of the creation of the universe - as laid out in the first chapter of Genesis.
If we came from nothing and go into nothing... that encourages people to lead reckless and materialistic lifestyles
Rev Greg Haslam, Westminster Chapel, London
But in Britain, where a portrait of Darwin appears on the back of the £10 note, his theory of life evolving from primitive to complex structures by means of natural selection appears to be unchallenged orthodoxy.
Not so, say those on both sides of the creationist divide - a point amply proved by the existence of the Genesis Expo museum, to date Britain's only creationist museum. The museum is the work of Britain's oldest creationist group, the Creation Science Movement, which has built Genesis Expo to visibly challenge the theory of evolution .
In its walk-though display, fossils in glass cases purport to show that ancient animals - including man - did not evolve from lower creatures but were instead divinely created "after their kind" (Genesis Chapter 1, verse 21).
A picture of a landslide-causing volcano is used to counter the scientific understanding that rock strata took millions of years to build up.
And throughout the display are scattered examples of "intelligent design" - complex creatures that "could not have evolved" as the result of natural selection.
Leading British scientist and author Dr Richard Dawkins has warned of creationist "brainwashing" in the UK - spurred on by an unwillingness of the authorities to offend religious sensibilities. His creationist adversaries say their ideas are beginning to gain wider acceptance within these shores as dissatisfaction grows with "materialist" evolutionary explanations of how life began.
The pocket evolutionist - Charles Darwin, on the back of a £10 note
Museum curator Ross Rosevear describes himself as a "Young Earth" creationist, who believes that the earth was created in six days "less than 10,000 years ago."
Standing before the museum's prize exhibit - a mock gravestone inscribed: "Here lies the Theory of Evolution" - he rejects as "unreliable" the scientific tests that fix the age of the earth at more than four billion years. While he concedes his convictions are intimately connected with his Christian faith, he insists the evidence presented in the displays could convince even non-believers of the "fatal flaws" in Darwin's theory of evolution.
"All we are saying is that it is not unreasonable to present an alternative explanation of how life began," he says.
For some, it's an explanation that has gained a surprisingly wide acceptance in the UK.
A 2006 survey for the BBC found that more than a fifth of those polled were convinced by the creationist argument. Less than half - 48% - chose evolution.
And while the Church of England this week issues a formal apology to Charles Darwin, after long publicly disassociated itself from the creation story as a scientific fact, other churches - mostly on the evangelical Christian wing - adhere to old beliefs.
Justin Thacker, head of theology for the Evangelical Alliance, says research in 1998 found one third of the Alliance church members were "literal six-day creationists." The other two thirds embraced evolutionary theory to a "greater or lesser degree" he says.
British creationist and curator of Genesis Expo, Ross Rosevear
"Since that survey was done, I'd say fewer of our members are out-and-out creationists - it has become more acceptable to embrace some form of Darwinism," he says.
But Keith Porteous Wood of the Secular Society is unconvinced.
"There is no question that creationism is growing," he says. "It is increasingly well funded, and well organised."
The society says Britain is beginning to follow the lead of the US where supporters and opponents of creationism have joined battle - in the school classroom. Two years ago the government sought to clarify the rules on creationist teaching, following revelations that the head of science at one of its new academies was the director of an anti-evolution pressure group.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families says creationism is not included in the science curriculum because "it has no scientific basis... but it can be discussed in [religious education] lessons".
But that ruling was questioned last week by an influential figure. The Rev Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, says science teachers ought to be willing to talk about creationism if students brought the subject up.
He told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool that while making clear creationism is not accepted by the scientific community, teachers should convey a message of respect that does not "denigrate or ridicule" children's beliefs.
Charles Darwin - 200 years from your birth (1809) the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you
Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, of CofE's mission and public affairs department
It's a sentiment that inflames the anti-creationist lobby, which sees any compromises in the classroom as a betrayal of children's interests.
"Creationism is anti-science," says Mr Porteous Wood. "Teaching it to children is a form of intellectual child abuse, because it gives them the wrong facts about life." His passionate views eco those of Prof Dawkins last month, who accused teachers of "bending over backwards" to respect "prejudices" that children have been brought up with at home.
And secular groups also point out that while state school pupils are "protected" from creationist teaching, similar guidelines do not exist to cover children who attend private religious schools - Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
One such school that teaches creationism as a science is the respected Islamic Karimia Institute in Nottingham.
"We teach what it says in the Koran," says institute director Dr Musharraf Hussain. "...that God created Adam and Eve, and from them came the rest of humanity. "We do not teach that man is descended from a lower animal - we say that God created the different species on their own."
This shared belief in the origins of man - and the universe - is uniting unlikely bedfellows in the anti-evolution cause.
The Rev Greg Haslam, who preaches the creationist Christian creed to his 400-strong congregation at Westminster Chapel in London, welcomes the determination of Muslims to impart a religious-based view of the world.
"Science does not have to be taught in conflict with faith or religion," he says. "I believe the current debate over creationism versus evolution is beginning to draw more and people over to our side of the argument
"The materialist explanation of the creation has nothing to offer - if we came from nothing and go into nothing, then that encourages people to lead reckless and materialistic lifestyles.
"Evolution is a world-view that leads to futility. It's no wonder people are dissatisfied with it."