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Communicating Evolutionary Science to a Religious Public

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Communicating Evolutionary Science to a Religious Public
Author(s): 
Keith B Miller
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
2
Year: 
2009
Date: 
March-April
Page(s): 
34–35
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

First, I want to endorse enthusiastically Daryl Domning's plea to those in the scientific community who are theists, and especially to those of us who are members of the Christian community. It is essential to the advancement of the public's understanding and acceptance of modern science (particularly evolutionary science) that we articulate that science to the faith communities of which we are a part. The presumption of "warfare" between science and religious faith perpetuates erroneous understandings of the nature and content of science. Such misconceptions erect completely unnecessary barriers to the embrace of science by a substantial portion of the population, and turn public science education into a forum for cultural warfare. When people of faith reject the central theories of modern science because of a false perception that those theories conflict with their faith, they not only deprive science of vital public support, but also deprive it of many bright enquiring minds in the future.

In many cases, people reject evolution (and other unifying theories within the historical natural sciences) as much because of popularly held misconceptions about the nature of science itself as because of any perceived theological conflict. The roots of the science/ faith conflict are often embedded in false notions that are widely held within our culture and impact general public science literacy. It is these very misconceptions that are exploited by anti-evolution advocates. For example, theories are often viewed as merely unsubstantiated guesses, rather than as the unifying concepts that give our observations coherence and meaning. Theories within the historical sciences, in particular, are seen as being inherently untestable. Many people conceive of science as simply an encyclopedic accumulation of unchanging observational "facts". Thus, the dynamic nature of science with the continual revision of theoretical constructs becomes for them evidence of the fleeting validity of scientific "truth". The claim that modern science is based on an atheistic philosophy that denies the existence of anything beyond the material is commonly built upon the background of these other false notions of science. The result is both predictable and preventable.

As Domning states, being public advocates for the compatibility of evolutionary science and religious faith is not about injecting religion into science. Far from it! It is simply presenting the true face of science, which is practiced by individuals representing a very wide range of theistic and non-theistic views. The methods of the natural sciences are limited to understanding the natural world and its history in terms of natural cause-and-effect processes, a limitation frequently described by the term "methodological naturalism". Science, as a method of inquiry about the natural world, can make no claims about the existence or non-existence of God, or of any supernatural entity. Atheism is neither an assumption nor a conclusion of science. Scientific investigation is a trans-cultural and religiously neutral enterprise, and is therefore universally accessible. However, while science as a discipline is religiously neutral, individual scientists are not. We each live out our scientific vocations within a broader context.

A view of science that recognizes its interaction with the values and beliefs of the broader culture need not be left at the public school door. Presenting the historical development of scientific theories in the classroom is a very effective way of communicating to students why certain theories have come to be widely accepted by the scientific community. Such historical accounts will of necessity display the roles (both positive and negative) played by culture, religious faith, philosophy, and even individual personalities in the shaping of modern science. History also reveals how new powerful explanatory theories arise and displace previously strongly held views. It reveals the interesting, dynamic, and very human processes involved in advancing our understanding of the natural world. Such an approach to teaching science also provides a legitimate context in which teachers and students can address the ethical and social dimensions of the application of scientific knowledge.

Science is not learned and applied in some culturally and religiously sterile environment. The motivations that drive us to understand the natural world and to apply that knowledge for the good of others and the world are part and parcel of our most deeply held philosophical and religious commitments. Why should those commitments be hidden when we communicate our passion for science to others? People will more easily recognize that science has something valuable for them when they see it embodied in those who share their deeply held faith commitments. A consequence of this more human face to science may just be a reinvigoration of scientific interest in our schools and in our nation.

I discuss these various public misunderstandings at length in my "Countering public misconceptions about the nature of evolutionary science" (Southeastern Biology 2005; 52: 415–27).

About the Author(s): 

AUTHOR'S ADDRESS:

Keith B Miller
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Keith B Miller, a Supporter of NCSE, is Research Assistant Professor of Geology at Kansas State University. He is the editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Grand Rapids [MI]:William B Eerdmans, 2003).