What Should Teachers Say to Religious Students Who Doubt Evolution?

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I’m teaching Darwin again this semester, in two separate courses, and I’m confronted with a familiar dilemma: How should I respond to students who reject evolutionary theory on religious grounds?


One course is a freshman survey of the humanities and social sciences, and the other reviews the history of science and technology. I asked both classes to write a paper on the following question: Why do you think Darwin’s theory of evolution still encounters so much opposition today? I encouraged the students to personalize their responses—that is, to discuss how they reconciled their own faith, if any, with evolutionary theory.

While grading the papers, I separated them into three categories. 1. Evolution and faith can be compatible, as long as faith is willing to abandon literal interpretations of scripture. 2. Science trumps faith, period. 3. Faith trumps science. Some of the papers were hard to categorize, because they were noncommittal or simply confusing. But here are the numbers I came up with: Of the 35 students, a majority, 20, said that evolution and religion are or should be compatible. Six students said that science has replaced, or should replace, religious explanations of creation. Nine students rejected evolution because it contradicted their faith.

Below are quotes from members of this third group:

“Many people become doubtful of their religions just because there is something more ‘scientific’ out there. Just because Darwin’s theory is scientific does not automatically mean that its findings are necessarily true.”

Written By: John Horgan
continue to source article at blogs.scientificamerican.com

38 COMMENTS

  1.    Although I’m registered at SciAm I could not sign in so I’ll comment here.  I used to teach Evolution at the high school level and had similar issues. I would say that when you ask for opinion you pretty much have to accept opinion. With regard to teaching evolution to religious students, I explained in the very first days that I wasn’t trying to “convince” anyone of anything. I didn’t care what their beliefs were in terms of their religion. They could believe whatever they wanted but my goal was to explain as best as I could, our current understanding of the science of the day as it relates to how life has existed and changed over time. Their only requirement was to learn what our best understanding was to date. I would go on and talk about how our understanding changes. How science continues to refine what we know and today, as is always true, we can only explain what we know today. I would also go on to tell them straight out that science today does not consider evolution to be a guess, a hunch or a maybe and that a scientific theory is not just a guess. I would end with reiterating that they don’t have to believe a thing but they do have to learn what scientists consider to be a theory based on facts. I’m a pretty friendly, non-confrontational person and never had any problem. 

  2. It’s curious but in my career as a biology teacher  to pupils from 14 to 18 years old in a Catholic school in Belgium from 1965 to 1997 I never had – as far as I remember – to defend evolution against something like creationism. Reading here where so many teachers come across this problem I realize that from one point of view it is a pity because I never had to deepen my insight because there was no challenge.

  3. I am a little different.  I simply tell the students that what they believe does not matter one ounce.  not a bit.  Leave your beliefs at the door because they do not matter once you enter the 4 walls of my classroom.  You are welcome to pick them back up after class is over.  You are entitled to whatever world view you establish as you trek through your life.
    We are not talking about your feelings or intuitions or beliefs; we are discussing science.

    I like very much what digibud says below and I largely echo their thoughts but I am direct and confrontational and do not care one bit who I piss off.  Especially when it comes to the telling of provable truths.  

    When it comes right down to it, my students must know Biology when I am done with them.  That is my job.  My mission.  I take it very seriously and owe it to my students and my employer to do the best job I can.

  4.  
    crookedshoes
    I am a little different.  I simply tell the students that what they believe does not matter one ounce.

    Honest science does not do “fudge”.  It does objective evidence and reasoning!

  5. Quoting Dr Richard Feynman:

    “First we guess it… Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results… directly to observation to see if it works.”

    “If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement, is the key to science.”

    “It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

    Following that quote, here’s what I would say:

    Those are the rules of the game, the science game.    In chess,  throwing the pieces is against the rules.  In football, anyone can move diagonally.  Science is not a religion, and religions are not science, precisely because religions, and religious teachers, do not obey the rules of the science game.  They are not required to.

    Now, in a science class, we are playing the science game, and we are all bound by its rules.  Belief is not required, just a grasp of the rules and how to apply them.  For other games, with other rules, you may attend other classes, but you cannot apply other rules in this class. 

    Now, back to evolution, and the meaning of the term “theory”, as it is used within the game we are now learning …..

  6. ‘Evolution and faith can be compatible, as long as faith is willing to abandon literal interpretations of scripture’. But religion is in the literal, if a person does not accept or believe in the literal , then the basis for belief in the religion is gone.

  7. Frustrating though it may be, there might also be a positive side to this brave struggle against creationism in the US.

    Because of the opposition, the American biology teachers have to put an extra effort to teaching evolution. This may force them to clarify their own thinking and knowledge of the continously accumulating scientific arguments. Likewise, the students who do accept evolution probably have to reach his conclusion through understanding the facts, the evidence and the basic mechanisms.

    Where I live, pretty much everyone accepts evolution as a fact. But I doubt there is much real understanding of the scientific beauty, rather just conforming to authority. An odd creationist argument from some poor kook would probably get a few chuckles and eye rolls from the classmates. So, a good biology teacher might actually welcome a creationist student, because that would give a chance to present the evidence in the form of a debate instead of a lecture. Frustrating though it may be, there might also be a positive side to this brave struggle against creationism in the US.

    Because of the opposition, the American biology teachers have to put an extra effort to teaching evolution. This may force them to clarify their own thinking and knowledge of the continously accumulating scientific arguments. Likewise, the students who do accept evolution probably have to reach his conclusion through understanding the facts, the evidence and the basic mechanisms.

    Where I live, pretty much everyone accepts evolution as a fact. But I doubt there is much real understanding of the scientific beauty, rather just conforming to authority. An odd creationist argument from some poor kook would probably get a few chuckles and eye rolls from the classmates. So, a good biology teacher might actually welcome a creationist student, because that would give a chance to present the evidence in the form of a debate instead of a lecture.

  8. ‘God doesn’t exist’. That can’t be said until we prove that energy can be manifested from nothing. I know there’s working theories out there that are endevouring to explain this.  Can and will this ever be verified in experiment , its hard to believe that it will. Purely because whatever we describe as nothing , will always , it seems , be a kind of contained nothing.

  9. Mr Horgan is obviously part of the “lets not offend the faith heads” school.

    He managed to work a poke at Richard, him being the big Bogey Man of the above mentioned school, in there.  Did he totally misunderstand what Richard meant in the quote from The Blind Watchmaker, or did he misrepresent it on purpose?

    Even when bolstered by modern genetics, evolutionary theory does not explain why life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago, or whether life was highly probable, even inevitable, or a once in a universe fluke.

    That is because evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life.

    The theory doesn’t explain why life, after remaining single-celled for
    more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms,
    including one exceedingly strange mammal capable of pondering its own
    origins.

    Well after recently watching the fantastic David Attenborough series First Life, it seems to me that Mr Horgan clearly has no idea what he is talking about. Sir David explained an extremely plausible hypothesis/theory  for why multi-cellularity so suddenly developed after life had been around for billions of years in uni-cellular form. I’m pretty sure that Sir David didn’t just pull what he said out of his back side.

  10. I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: “Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America’s youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply ‘wrong’ due to a certain scientific explanation.” On the other hand, if I don’t prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I’m not doing my job, am I?

    It’s not just a question of you not doing your job. It’s a question of what is any student doing partaking in a course where they have already made up their mind about what they want to know? Are they there to learn or not?

    There are 2 main points I would raise with any such students:

    1) Ask them what they’re doing on the course if they have already made up their mind what they know. They are wasting your time and theirs.

    2) If anyone argues that God created life on Earth, don’t take that as any kind of explanation for anything. Ask them to explain exactly what “God” is and by what process he created life or assisted in evolution.  If they can’t begin to answer that, put it to them that they aren’t making any argument at all. They might as well say that Fred created life on Earth. They are not expressing any kind of knowledge whatsoever. They are operating way below the intellectual standard required to be on the course. One the other hand, if they can explain what God is and how he created life, it will be an education for all of us.

  11. For example, Richard Dawkins was wrong–egregiously wrong–when he claimed in his 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker that life “is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it.”

    I have to say I’m a bit saddened by yet another gratuitous gibe at Dawkins. Whether it’s a total misquote or nasty quote mining, it’s pretty cheap. Anyone who’s actually read any Dawkins knows he doesn’t think life is “a mystery solved”. The “solved mystery” refers to how the immense complexity and variety of life has arisen. This is a mystery that Darwin basically did solve, a true claim that Dawkins does make.

    It’s pretty arrogant and disingenuous of Horgan to claim that Dawkins was “egregiously wrong”, as if we need Horgan to point out that abiogenesis and evolution are two different things. Dawkins has been saying this very thing on countless of different occasions, and Horgan must know it. But apparently Horgan just wants to score a few points with his creationist students by presenting himself as cool and moderate against “the strident fundamentalist Dawkins”. Very cheap, very tiresome.

  12. Pauly_
    ‘God doesn’t exist’.  That can’t be said until we prove that energy can be manifested from nothing.

    “Giant alien universe manufacturing experimenters don’t exist’.  That can’t be said until we prove that energy can be manifested from nothing.” ???

    .. . .. . . . . Or maybe we can just say, anthropomorphic explanations PROBABLY don’t exist, but we don’t really know what forces were involved. 
    There can certainly be no  fallacious:  “science can’t prove, therefore”, arguments.

  13.   @rdfrs-c6d6445d97e06d08b60853156601cf58:disqus 

    The theory doesn’t explain why life, after remaining single-celled for more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms, including one exceedingly strange mammal capable of pondering its own origins.

    Well after recently watching the fantastic David Attenborough series First Life, it seems to me that Mr Horgan clearly has no idea what he is talking about.

    The details of everything are not included in theories. 
    However, anyone who has studied sponges, would know the answer to that question, as single cells can group together to form a more complex organism.

      http://www.sheppardsoftware.co… –

    Though the fossil record of sponges dates back to the Precambrian era, new species are still commonly discovered.

    Primitive: Sponges represent the most primitive animals, and as such, lack many of the typical features of animals including nerves and locomotion. Because of this they are placed in the group Parazoa, which is a sister taxon to all higher animals (metazoa).
    Sponges share many characteristics with colonial protists, such as Volvox, though they have a higher degree of cell specialization and interdependence.

    However, if a sponge is placed in a blender, any surviving cells can reform a complete organism. If multiple sponges are blended together, each species will recombine independently

    http://www.sheppardsoftware.co

  14. There can certainly be no  fallacious:  “science can’t prove, therefore”, arguments. I agree with that.

    Our whole universe is built on the notion of cause and effect. Its a legitimate scientific question though and very basic and as it happens, most primary , how did all the energy and matter in this universe get here. If children are to be told their is no god as education then it holds that that this is verified as fact. With regard to the tooth fair analogy(the original poster), it dosn’t do anything for me personally.
     I see matter , we observe it , its objective so isnt it legitimate to ask how it came to be, or if you like what its source is.

  15.  

    @rdfrs-c6d6445d97e06d08b60853156601cf58:disqus   -  Well after recently watching the fantastic David Attenborough series First Life,
    it seems to me that Mr Horgan clearly has no idea what he is talking
    about. Sir David explained an extremely plausible hypothesis/theory  for
    why multi-cellularity so suddenly developed after life had been around
    for billions of years in uni-cellular form. I’m pretty sure that Sir
    David didn’t just pull what he said out of his back side.

    Early multicellular animals:

    David Attenborough series First Life, – Charnia etc 58min:50
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

     Fractal organisms 2mins 30 sec :- http://www.ask.com/web?l=dis&a

  16. Are you suggesting that the pressure of creationists on the population of science teachers is producing science teachers with more knowledge and more refined explanations of the science of evolution?

    Interesting…

  17. I already commented on SCIAM (under “Brian H”) but I’ll add a few bits here. 

    Since this was and assignment for a history of science class it would have been better to grade the papers on how scientific their responses were.  On how they applied rules of evidence, reason and logic.  

    And I have a little sympathy for Mr. Horgan.  Some of his students have probably never been confronted with the real and unequivocal evidence for evolution and it’s probably a bit traumatic for those that make the connection and make the leap.  Better for them in the long run of course, but I just watched my five-year-old clue into the whole Santa Claus thing the other day and it was not fun to watch.  But better in the long run.  

  18. So…the students were graded on their opinions, then the teacher sorted all the “opinions” into categories…. Sorry, but it sounds like the kids were part of an experiment rather than a learning process. When I learned about the Egyptian pyramids, I don’t recall being asked by the professor whether or not I thought space aliens were involved in the process of their creation. 

  19. If it weren’t so politically incorrect I would kill them off one by one while explaining that this is extinction by natural selection which is what our entire species is soon going to be subject to the longer we go without switching our thinking from  faith-based to  evidence-based.

  20. In some ways this article is shocking. The author’s stated ‘queasiness’ about challenging firmly held religious views from which strength is drawn can only leave a rational C21 mind in despair. Admittedly teachers have to get through the material – so fair enough. But, to me, it just helps to underline why it is so important that you (and others) keep challenging weak and muddled thinking.

  21. Evolution – fact; religion – myth. Let’s finally be done with this nonsense. A school is a place to learn facts and exercise our reasoning faculties. Religious belief (for those who enjoy the nonsense) is a private matter, and for the betterment of everyone should be left at home and inside the walls of churches. It’s infuriating enough that even our money in the U.S. impose a blanket religious statement on all (the print “In God We Trust” reappeared again after the 1930s I believe), and quite irritating that public elementary schools in my area still enforce the Pledge of Allegiance at least weekly. As other atheist friends have done, I taught my child to skip the ‘under God’ part when reciting.

  22. No, I’m not saying the creationist pressure produces more knowledgeable science teachers in general. That’s would be a big general claim, for which I have no evidence. I was just trying to make lemonade of a bad situation by suggesting that having to convince an opponent may refine one’s own logic and arguments.

    But I can honestly claim there are certain occasions where having to battle an outrageously silly opinion has managed to clarify my own thinking and forced me to seek better understanding of the facts, by going back to simple basics and rebuilding on that.

    At the time I was taught evolution at school, we didn’t even know creationists exist. That level of religious silliness was unheard of. Evolution was a fact, glanced through on a few pages on the biology book. The facts were taken for granted without questioning them, so the understanding remained superficial.

    To me, not being a science major, it took meeting an annoying creationist in my adulthood to make me start reading Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, John Maynard Smith etc. And my understanding of science and the nature is much enriched because of that. 

    The ubiquity of creationism in the US is deplorable, and the science teachers having to battle it do have my sympathy. It must be tough to make lemonade of a situation when the students aren’t willing to make honest simple questions, but unwilling to see that lemons are related to oranges.

  23. Students dont have to believe it but they must understand it. And it isnt really evolution they have trouble with, it is the natural selection part they dont like. Any self respecting person accepts that a virus can mutate thus showing their belief in evolution.

    Id be hesitant to see a gp who was purely creationist though. They shouldnt be licensed.

  24. Pauly_
    There can certainly be no  fallacious:  “science can’t prove, therefore”, arguments. I agree with that.

    Our whole universe is built on the notion of cause and effect. Its a legitimate scientific question though and very basic and as it happens, most primary , how did all the energy and matter in this universe get here.
    If children are to be told their is no god as education then it holds that that this is verified as fact. 
    I see matter , we observe it , its objective so isnt it legitimate to ask how it came to be, or if you like what its source is.

     

    You can ask progressive  causality questions and will always reach the unknown sooner or later.

    At this point the honest answer is either “We are working on it”, or “We don’t know”.
    God-did-it, is not a legitimate substitute for these answers.

    If children are to be told their is no god as education then it holds that that this is verified as fact.

    There is no evidence for gods, but if you are going to ask, “Did a god (or aliens, or natural forces) do it”, you need to ask, “Which god(s) of the thousands available? – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L… – show that such an entity exists, and how it did it?? 
    You can’t just assume that the god myth of your present-day local community is a default position.

    The balance of evidence is – natural forces have been consistently shown to be responsible for physical phenomena.  
    There is no evidence for anthropomorphic tinkering by gods, although there is much evidence of anthropomorphic gap-filling, by the ignorant making up stories.

    With regard to the tooth fair analogy (the original poster), it doesn’t do anything for me personally.

    There is just as much evidence of tooth-fairies as there is for gods, so it is a fair analogy.

  25.  I agree with you Negasta. I was on this guy’s side until he bashed Dawkins. I’m so bloody sick of accommodationists using Dawkins as the bogey man so that they can play the conciliation game. “See? I’m on YOUR side, kids.”

  26. What would I tell them, simple if you do not believe evolution then you do not believe in science and thus pretty much everything that you have done today you have not believed in so fuck off back to your cave.

  27. OP: “….evolutionary theory does not explain WHY life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago….”   and    “The theory doesn’t explain WHY life, after remaining single-celled for more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms….”

    Apart from other issues mentioned in other comments, saying ‘why’ instead of ‘how’ also causes confusion in the 2 statements above. Teachers of science & evolution should know the fundamental difference between those two words.

  28. It’s really quite simple.

     Ask them if THEY have been created or went through the evolutionary process of foetal development through pregnancy leading to their eventual birth.

    If they were created, whole and intact, get the rights to their story, contact a publisher and give up teaching.

    If they went through evolution like everybody else, ask them to be patient until the end of class, suspend their disbelief and learn how the process works and enjoy opening their minds.  
     

  29.  Reality is if they are committed it will take years to convince them.  Simply isn’t enough time in the curriculum to answer all the justifications creationists will come up with.  I take the tack of if you want to disagree with this then first you need to fully understand what you are disagreeing with.  I’ve had several students who then use that as an invitation to argue with me on my playground duties (where we supervise students outside in lunch breaks).  I had a couple who after years of throwing every argument they could at me eventually little by little came to accept it.  What this teacher is doing seems to be diluting the science.  It’s like he’s saying it really isn’t that bad because look here are some other scientists who disagree with aspects of it.  Sorry this guy doesn’t seem to understand what he is talking about.  Cannot believe Scientific America published it.

  30. Totally agree, evolution should be taught as fact.

     

    Having said that it also needs to be taught correctly and
    the picture shown with the article above gives a very wrong impression as to
    the nature of evolution. It is one dimensional and human-centric. It implies
    progress, perfection and even foresight. Evolution is not heading anywhere and
    it certainly has no knowledge of the future, it is about local adaptations to
    local environments and such adaptations could be an organism becoming more
    complex or less complex (think parasites for example), whatever works. More
    people should read Stephen J. Gould; he is very eloquent on this (as on many
    other things). As Darwin implied, evolution is a bush not a ladder.

     

  31. When I was in year 10 we had a creationist start arguing in biology about some stuff he’d got off the internet. The teacher told him that this was the science dept and we only dealt with evidence not beliefs, the RE dept was over there and to take it to them till he had some real proper evidence.

    We didn’t know back then but the two depts always warned each other of incoming creationists so they could adopt a joint strategy to deal with them.

    In RE he was given five minutes to put his point on the firm understanding that though faith was personal and he was perfectly entitled to his beliefs and opinions, science was not and evolution was already scientifically proven fact, In both subjects  he tried to argue some science somewhere he’d found that was supposed to support creationism.

    In science the teachers just told him the stuff he was saying was wrong or misused or incomplete and that he should not be misleading people until he’d checked it first. Sometimes they put him right, sometimes they just said there is too much that is wrong there to deal with please don’t waste peoples time as there is lots to learn for your gcse and sometimes they asked questions about what evidence he had that made the stuff he was saying look illogical.

    In RE he was always told he was entitled to his beliefs and opinions about the bible and that he would be entitled to talk about those as long as he didn’t waste too much class time. However he was not to claim any scientific support for creationism as that would be misleading as there was none. The teacher also reminded him that the bible was clear about not lying and directed him to a special website for checking creationist science stuff before using it. She also taught us that there were lots of different ways of reading the creation story and that lots of christians accepted evolution and the big bang and all the rest with no problems at all and some didn’t.

    It sounds far more brutal than it was. They managed to do it in a really nice way and to be really nice to him and not  make him feel small at all. After a few weeks he gave up trying, went back to being normal and just got on with his gcses.

  32. Stephen Welch
    Totally agree, evolution should be taught as fact.

     

    Given the wide ranges of forms of evolution in the different branches and different species, there should be no time to waste on creationist nonsense. 

    As Darwin implied, evolution is a bush not a ladder.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wi

    Having said that it also needs to be taught correctly and the picture shown with the article above gives a very wrong impression as tothe nature of evolution.

    A  phylogenetic tree would be more appropriate.

    It is one dimensional and human-centric.  It implies progress, perfection and even foresight

    Indeed!  It seems to be pandering to the theist  homo-centric view of evolution leading to the “superior” human.
    It would be a more appropriate title illustration for “The Ascent of Man”, but even then there should be an indication of branching speciation.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic….

    Evolution is not heading anywhere and it certainly has no knowledge of the future

    It only goes where competitive pressure and environmental change leads. 
    There is no fore-knowledge involved.

  33. Dear ju’saracen. You just read my mind and ‘typed’ the words right off my fingertips. I see Prof.Jerry Coyne is touring the UK this week – its going to be ‘bloody hell’ for any accommodationists ;)

  34. Since its a history of science class, it should be easy.  This is the history, as recorded by various historians and documented in publications.  Darwin lived, he traveled to the Galapagos, he saw things, he wrote up what he saw and presented a theory – just a theory – for how such varied life came about.  This caused much annoyance, including to himself, as it contradicted the conventional religions of the time, and it still causes annoyance in some quarters today, among some religions.  Others – including the RCC – have learned from previous mistakes in confronting and denying uncomfortable discoveries, and found their own accommodation with scientific knowledge.

    But for those whose dedication to the scientific method, the curiosity, the quest for knowledge outweighed the dictates of their inherited religion, the theory gave them a framework on which to explore and explain the world.  They did this so successfully that the “theory” is fully vindicated, and is absolutely essential for any understanding or appreciation of scientific achievement.  Among scientists, it is not in doubt, it is not controversial, any more than the works of Newton and Einstein.

    In practical terms, scientific investigation has made possible all the things we take for granted in the modern world.  That is why scientists get very pissed off when they keep having to argue the fundamentals of science with the willfully ignorant,  and even more pissed off when attempts are made to deny children access to the education they will need to be able to continue to investigate the world around us, advance our knowledge, and improve our lives.

    Some religions draw a line at a certain level of technology.  The Amish don’t use cellphones.  Others refuse modern medical treatments such as blood transfusions.  But the existence of the technology, the obvious fact that it works, is proof that the fields of science and technology are definitely on to something real about the world.  Ignore or deny it at your peril.   But be honest with yourself.  Every time you rely on GPS to get to an address, you are trusting in a gadget that is built assuming Einstein got it right.  Every time you get a flu shot, you are trusting in research that assumes Darwin got it right.

    The rest of the History of Science is a collection of names and dates,  of false starts and brilliant insights, of mistakes, of triumphs, and a growing accumulation of hard-won knowledge that is now available for you to understand, and extend, if you choose to.

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