Royal Society is considering casting out God

September 25, 2008

All references to "God" would be removed from the founding charter of the Royal Society under an idea mooted by some of its senior figures, Times Higher Education understands.

The society has three charters, drafted between 1662 and 1669, that set out its aims and that are used today. The 1662 charter refers to fellows' "uprightness of character and piety". The 1669 document requires the society's president and deputies to take an oath "upon the holy Gospels of God" to faithfully execute matters of office.

The suggestion to remove the God references comes amid an ongoing dispute among fellows of the society, the UK's national academy for science, over its stance on religion, and conflicts between religious beliefs and science.

The society has faced criticism from its fellows over links to the conservative Christian US Templeton Foundation. And concerns were raised earlier this month over the role of the society's education director, Michael Reiss, who is an ordained minister of the Church of England.

Professor Reiss caused a flurry in the media when he suggested that school science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism with pupils in class. It led to headlines - strongly denied - that he was advocating the teaching of creationism alongside the teaching of evolution.

Professor Reiss, a professor of science education at the Institute of Education, agreed to step down from the part-time role, which he took up in September 2006 on a two-year secondment. He confirmed to Times Higher Education this week that he had recently signed a three-year extension of his contract, but had now returned full time to the Institute of Education.

Speaking this week at a Nuffield Foundation event to mark the launch of a practical biology website for schoolteachers, Professor Reiss joked that he had enjoyed looking at the experiments headed "answering creationism - recreating the early conditions for life on earth".

"There actually isn't (such a heading), but I do look forward to it being there," he added.

This week, a senior source in the research community said: "Significant players in the Royal Society would like to change the charter ... only they do not know whether it is worth the trouble."

The Royal Society declined to comment.

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