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When Students Ask about Religion, Part II

Previously on the Science League of America Minda Berbeco interviewed her colleague Peter Hess. At the center of the interview was a situation that had arisen at the end of a class Minda had taught at Tufts University on evolution, where on the last day the students wanted to talk about the implications of evolution for religious belief. Peter’s response focused on how one might defuse religious concerns that could result in a student being dismissive of evolution. Now Peter follows up with Minda to see how he did!

What did you think of my suggestions about how you should have responded when your students wanted to discuss religious perspectives on evolution? Were they appropriate to the situation, and do you think that they would have helped?

In my case, my students were genuinely interested in religious perspectives on evolution, and you were right when you said that they were asking about it because “the question is out there.” I think every teacher will handle this differently, but I found your answers actually very apt for my situation.

I definitely got the impression that my students felt as if all religions are uniformly against evolution. It would have been useful for them to hear that this was not the case. I wish that at the time I had known about NCSE’s Voices for Evolution or some of the other information you noted so I could have shared that with them as appropriate.

Not then knowing what information was available, though, I think your other suggestion would have been a good one for me—namely, stating clearly that as a biologist (and not a religious scholar), I did not feel that I was appropriately suited to talk about issues of religion. This is something I would have been comfortable saying as well.

What was the perspective of your students at the time?

I definitely got the sense that there was a bit of variation in the group as to their religious perspectives, some considering themselves atheist while others thought of themselves as religious. I recall specifically having one Catholic student who was very put off by what she perceived as attacks on her religion. I really wish I had had the information that you shared with me about the Pope’s statements on evolution to put some of her concerns at ease. My concern is that she left the class thinking that based on her religion she was required to reject evolution, and as we discussed, that is simply not true.

Do you see a difference between talking about religious perspectives on evolution in a classroom and teaching creationism?

Definitely. It’s completely unacceptable for clearly unscientific information like creationism to be presented in science classrooms. Science teachers are ambassadors from the scientific community to their students; we depend on them to give the best possible and most up-to-date information available based on the scientific consensus on all scientific issues from evolution to climate change. Doing otherwise is both unfair to their students, the scientific community and the science itself.

There is nothing I feel more passionately about than making sure students get the best scientific information available, presented in a way that they can understand and benefit from. It’s important to them as students and later when they are voters or even scientists themselves.

Do you see some connection between the rejection we see against evolution and continuing pushback against climate change?

Yes—there are so many parallels between the two that I’m not even sure where to start. Science denial is science denial. The difference is that with evolution, denial tends to be based in religion, whereas with climate change it tends to be based more on political or economic concerns. Deniers can legislate all day and night, but they’re not going to change the fundamental science of how greenhouse gases trap heat. Not unless they have some sort of magic up their sleeve—but that wouldn’t be based in science either!

Minda, I appreciate your candid observations on these thoughts springing from our earlier conversation. I look forward to discussing more issues at the interface between science and culture.