Friday, October 03, 2008

UNBelieve Reflections

I've been pondering the session I lead on teaching evolution this week at ASTA. In writing this book, I find that I have to think a lot about my message, both what it is and how I can communicate it effectively. Live presentations are good opportunities to test out that message.

One thing that I blatantly tried to do this time was to push forward my central message about students understanding, but not believing, evolution. I think I've mentioned earlier here how in writing that message has become my focus. The ASTA session seemed to work well with consistently bringing everything back to this message and making it the chief take-away for my participants. Science teachers must teach evolution, and they should teach it in a way that all students, even religious students, understand evolution. They should not teach evolution, however, with a goal of getting religious students to believe that evolution really happened.

Am I on thin ice here? Can students really understand evolution without believing it? I'm thinking they can. For some religious students, I would think that it's major progress if they simply had a basic knowledge of what evolution is and a sense that clear scientific evidence exists for it working around them and in the history of the earth. I'd be OK even if they didn't believe in evolution itself or even believe in the evidence that they saw. I also know that students from some religions, such as Christian fundamentalism, would encounter significant difficulties learning about evolution at even that basic level. 

Believing that evolution occurred at any level beyond natural selection is going to be a major stretch for many religious students. They've been taught to believe in creation, and they just will not believe that life evolved. They won't believe that it evolved by itself, because of their belief in supernatural creation, but I'm beginning to see that they won't even believe that evolution was the mechanism of special creation (i.e., that God created by evolution). Their faith tells differently, and believing the scientific worldview in this instance is going to be pretty much impossible for them.

So, we're back to understanding evolution, but not believing it occurred, as the goal of evolution education. And, I'm OK with that goal. I don't think it's undercutting science education because it at least lets students enter into the study of evolution at some level without creating a science classroom where they feel like they can't learn about evolution at all. As the teacher blatantly says, "I don't expect you to believe this," the students know that their faith isn't threatened. I'm hoping that having that security gives them the freedom to look more at the evidence for evolution and the way the theory explains the evidence.

Please let me know any thoughts you have on that message, especially holes that you see in it. More and more I'm focusing on "Understanding Not Believing." So, I guess I'm pitching the idea that we need to U.N.Believe (un-believe) the evolution curriculum.


JNoah said...

Lee: I think you probably are on thin ice here with the scientific community, but for me it's a huge sigh of relief! I think that any intellectually honest Christian (whether they're 13 or 30) HAS to be willing to listen to the so-called opposing viewpoint, and we should want to understand something like this, especially when it's the worldview, or at least a major part of the worldview, of most of the scientific community in our society.

I was never taught evolution like this. It was always, "This is fact, now let me tell you why." Or, "If you were intellegent like us, you'd see that this is the only real option." Both of those statements imply belief, and so if we could change the mindset of teachers to stop making those statements or presenting the evidence from that slant, then I think, yes, we could learn about evolution without feeling threatened in what we believe.

The cynic in me thinks that it will be next to impossible to get teachers to think of evolution as a belief, or at least a possible conclusion to be drawn based on what we see, but I would love to see it happen.

Lee said...

I really appreciate your feedback, JNoah, as always. It's good to hear someone talk here as a science student, not a science teacher or a science lover like most of the others who are blogging. The kind of changes that you wrote about here are just the things I hope the book does for students who come along and are like you.

Lee said...

P.S. to JNoah: I'm curious to know more about why you think I'm on "thin ice...with the scientific community." Are you thinking that they require a belief in evolution?

Anonymous said...

Hi Lee,

I've been thinking about your post for a few days - here are some thoughts I'm having. I realize I'm putting words in your mouth a bit - not my intention, but just me thinking aloud about your argument.

I've been trying to think about what distinguishes your ideas from the work of, for example, Mike Smith and Harvey Siegel. They also argue that it is inappropriate for teachers to try to change kids beliefs and I think their ideas have been influential. For example, in the latest National Academy book, I think it takes a similar tack - it isn't necessary for kids to change their beliefs to learn about evolution. In fact, this idea, that kids need to understand evolution rather than believe it has become a mainstream position of the science education community.

And yet, when I read your thoughts, it feels very different than those other works, even though I think your recommendation ends up being similar to theirs. The difference I think (and it is an important difference) is the reason or motivation behind not teaching to change belief. For Smith and Siegel, it is because belief and scientifically knowing shouldn't interact - they're different spheres, different ways of knowing. So for them (and for the NAS book) when people (namely conservative Christians) struggle with evolution it is because religious people are inappropriately treading onto the ground of scientists.

So you end up arguing for a similar approach to evolution education (understanding not belief), but for a different set of reasons. You acknowledge that evolution and religious belief (for some people) make claims about the same history, the same earth, the same domain, the same kind of Truth, and that for those people, learning about evolution will be difficult. So your recommendation (to teach for understanding not belief) comes out of a compassion or care for students who find themselves in that position rather than out of an epistemological position (like Smith and Siegel) or a political one (like NAS).

And I think this matters a great deal. When I saw you present at NSTA, this struck me about your presentation even before I realized you were a believer. The fictionalized story you tell of the young girl's dilemma about whether to study biology resonated as such a different sort of tale about religious students than anything I had heard before. And I wonder whether that is one of your goals of your book - to foster that compassion in teachers (even in or maybe especially in unbelievers).

And imagine if evolution had been approached in this compassionate way from the beginning - would it have stirred the same kind of response from fundamentalists and other conservative Christians that it has? I don't know, but I think it has the potential to make a dent in the conflict in ways that other approaches have not.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope I haven't been too presumptuous.


stephy said...

Hmm, interesting.

JNoah said...

Lee: Thanks for the encouragement to keep posting. As to your question in the P.S.: Yes, my education on evolution from middle/high school all the way through college felt like I was being taught to believe that evolution is true (and this was in small town, suburbia, in the heart of the Bible Belt!) So, I just always assummed, perhaps incorrectly, that the scientific community "required" belief in evolution, since that's what it felt like was being asked of me as a student.

If this isn't the case, then the scientific community should be jumping up and down cheering this effort on, 'cause they have a HUGE PR issue.

Lee said...


Your response wasn't presumptuous at all. You've understood me well, and hearing your reaction was helpful and encouraging. I'm so close to this work that at times I forget what might make it distinct.

Thanks for pointing out the differences with Smith and Siegel's work. I know Mike Smith and have enjoyed several talks with him on the subject. You've helped me realize, though, how I differ from him. I guess we're back to Steven J. Gould's NOMA argument.

As I read through his Rocks of Ages (, at first I really liked NOMA. Yes, science and religion are two really big, wonderful ways of understanding that don't and shouldn't overlap. The more I read, though, the more I thought to myself, "No, they do overlap!" Also, I thought I began to see Gould's assumptions about science's superiority to religion slipping in, and that made me think that he really didn't think they overlapped either. If science is superior, than it has to be superior in an area that both science and religion address. I also know that in religious students' minds, the two definitely overlap. Telling them that they don't wouldn't really be helpful to the students.

So, I appreciated much what you said about the sensitivity of my approach. Maybe this compassion for religious students really is something that I'm bringing to the endless debates on the teaching of evolution. Oh how I would hope that something I say and do would help science teachers stop giving the impression to students that evolution is about stamping out their faith!

So, now you have me thinking about compassion. That's a beautiful word. How much I need compassion in the heartache of my life, and I'm a 45-year old adult who has worked through many of the big-pictures struggles. When we're talking about the teaching of evolution, however, we're talking about children who are often confused, scared, and even fragile during discussion of big issues like evolution. They need compassion as they work through all of these tough issues.

So, thanks again, Jeff. You continue to encourage me, and I'm glad you're walking with me on this journey.

Glenn Borchardt said...


I understand and sympathize with your conundrum with regard to teaching evolution. You are on the forefront of the battle between science and religion. As a scientist and former fundamentalist, I don't envy your position one bit. Everything in the universe evolves (see my blog at "thescientificworldview"), so evolution is absolutely critical for scientific thinking. My own conversion occurred slowly (at age 22), as I was exposed to more and more scientific facts along with their logical connections. I agree that you have to be gentle with especially young students who have been heavily indoctrinated by the time they appear in your class (if they are allowed to appear at all). Others will be more accepting--those are the ones you want to spend the most time with. The unconvinced nevertheless will be there, in the background, taking it "under advisement," just like I once did. Remember, evolution involves the motion of every single portion of the universe throughout every microsecond. You are part of the grand process on this particular planet. Don't give up. Thanks so much for your valuable service to the science.