Friday, August 29, 2008

Understanding vs. Believing

A long time ago, my democratic/Yankee/agnostic/liberal good friend David Jackson talked about how he wanted fundamentalist kids to understand evolution but not believe it. I'm wondering if that should be my message to teachers, and I would appreciate feedback on the idea.

I've been searching for a central message. People ask me about my book, and after a couple of minutes of me talking, their eyes usually glaze over. I know that this is a tough topic, and I know it's threatening to a lot of people. That's one reason why I'm looking for a nice, terse message. I like elevator statements, and I've been trying different ones out when people ask about how the book is going. None of my messages have worked well thus far. Maybe this one will.

I've always admired David for how his goal of understanding, but not believing, didn't require religious students to change their core beliefs. He has always been very strong about how belief change is the wrong thing for a science teacher to target. Coming from someone who trained under Stephen J. Gould, his sensitivity on this point is something I really appreciate, and it's something that surprises people when I tell them about David's worldview. Until now, though, I've wanted more for religious students. I know that a disbelief in evolution will hamper future biologists and geologists; they have to be able to work within those fields where evolution is treated as fact. Although I still see that believing may be important for future scientists, I'm now realizing David's wisdom when we're talking about teaching all the students in a classroom.

I think this message could bring a lot of clarity to science teachers and to students studying evolution. What's the goal? Students need to see the evidence for evolution and understand where it came from and why it's reliable. Students need to understand how scientists explain the evidence using the theory of evolution as a natural explanation of how life on Earth came to be. If all students in a biology class understood those two things, the evidence for and the scientific explanation of evolution, I would think their teacher had worked a miracle!

They wouldn't have to believe that life evolved on Earth without supernatural intervention. They wouldn't have to believe in macroevolution. They wouldn't have to even believe all of the evidence they had seen in the unit. If they stayed engaged in learning, realized that evidence for evolution exists, and that scientists explain the evidence without using religious arguments, that would be very successful teaching of evolution in classes with religious kids. 

So, I'm really liking this message. "What's your book about, Lee?" Well, it's about teaching evolution so that religious kids understand it, but don't have to believe it.


Chris Morrow said...


I think your elevator statement is descriptive and disarming. I'll put it to memory.


Anonymous said...


I think that is a great statement. It is important for all students to understand and be able to thinkers on evolution no matter if they choose to accept/believe it or not.


Lee said...

OK. That's 2 votes for the elevator statement and the focus behind it. I'm glad you both like it, and I'll be interested to hear what others say.

JNoah said...

So, are you going to present evolution as a fact and then say, "You can believe it or not"? (Similar to the way a Christian would present the gospel message to someone.) Or, are you going to say something like, "Given this reliable evidence, this is the conclusion evolutionists have come to"?

Lee said...

More of the latter, except that the word "evolutionist" is something scientists don't use. That's a creation of the ... uh... creationists. You might have an evolutionary biologist, but not an evolutionist.

I would want kids to know that the scientific community treats evolution as a fact. But, individual scientists may or may not see it as a fact. Plenty of scientists are religious and believe in a Creator. So, sort of like you said, "This is the conclusion that science has come to based on lots and lots of reliable evidence."

JNoah said...

Lee: thanks for the lesson on verbage! Seriously, that's helpful, and I want to be as accurate as possible. So says the product of a creationist upbringing!

Lee said...

JNoah: Glad that helped. I don't have any problem at all with creationsists, as long as they're willing to look at the evidence. It's the head-in-the-sand thing that bothers me.