I had to decompress today with a few colleagues, after the two strange biology classes I had. Same students, attentive and courteous, but we approached, a little too close for comfort, the idea that humans and chimps could be related. The question was (how could I be so naive?), What do you think humans and chimpanzees share so many similarities? They were to talk in groups and all they came up with was variations on because God made them that way. Either God made them that way, period, or God gave them some of the same characteristics because they were good adaptations for a similar lifestyle. One boy did offer the possibility that they might have a common ancestor, so I added that to their ideas. No one thought of genetics, but when I mentioned that genetically the two species are very similar, there was a pause, and “that doesn’t prove anything, though.”
I feel like these are just ordinary, evidence-based ideas, and that I don’t need, in fact should not–in the name of providing a science education–avoid them or couch them in creationist terms. Plus there’s so much that could be discussed about the reasons for the religious reservations there are to seeing connections between species, and especially to seemingly undermine the special status of humans in creation in any way. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to bring up what I know about biblical teaching on creation or how there need not be such a sense of threat at all. I wish I could talk with the parents away from the school, tell them I believe in God, have great respect for the Hebrew Bible, and can read it pretty well in the original. We have an entire library of commentaries (in storage), and are not godless pagans. The reason I thought God was so awesome as a kid was because of the wonderful things made by the Creator, and how much great design I recognize in both the big picture and fine detail. The theologians call this “general revelation,” which is available to all (as opposed to “special revelation,” available only to those to whom it revealed throughout history).
Instead, I fell I am coming across as anti-religion. I want to counter that, subtly but somehow, but it might not be possible. Can I direct those who are interested to sources from within the Christian community that have a more evidence-based view of biology, and a more literary, this-is-not-a-science-text view of the Bible? Maybe the best approach is, if it seems like there are barriers to learning growing, or that it seems to families that I am not respecting their majority culture, to ask questions. I could even offer the option that they research any biology and science-related passages in the Bible, and see how it relates to scientific evidence. Which passages of Genesis, for example, run parallel to science’s view on the origins of the planet and its life, and which seem to run contrary? How have theologians tried to work this out?
But time is short, and they still have to learn about cellular processes, ecology, homeostasis, inheritance, and physiology. But first we have to get through the evolution chapter with some semblance of integrity and harmony.
Here’s the piece I wrote to try to address parents on the issue:
In several of our discussions in biology class, it has come up that a majority of students in the classes consider faith in God, belief in the soul, and the special status of the humans species as very important. This was in the context of a discussion about how humans are unique, and the characteristics they share with other primates, based on their observations. The way I addressed this is to say that there are different ways of knowing, some accessible and testable by science, and others not, but known or believed very deeply in other ways.
Sometimes the scientific evidence presented in class may conflict with religious views of students and/or parents, and I am very aware of the need to be mindful of my role as public school teacher delegated by this community. Off and on I’ve had good conversations about this with parents, staff, and others as I work out the best way to proceed. I have really appreciated the opportunity to better understand views of both students and parents here in the area. I have also appreciated the openness of both to learn and converse in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Okay, so I’m in ——-, and I knew what I was getting into when I took on this job. I homeschooled my own four children for many of the same reasons our ——– families do, and have had reservations about the way a public school must by law provide a religion-free education, and so, by default, appear to communicate a low value for faith perspectives, while trying to respect all citizens’ religious, or non-religious, views.
In science classes, I must refrain from engaging in teaching even about religion, although it is permissible by law in social studies or history classes. The ACLU’s interpretation of the law is that “[I] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”
This respect for the law about my duty as a public school teacher has made me reluctant to directly address any of the faith-based views I have encountered in class. On the other hand, discussing the apparent conflict between religious and scientific views is very interesting to me personally. I also wish I could provide resources that could help families to understand the ways in which scientific scholars of the Judeo-Christian faith have tackled these areas of conflict. But once again, I hesitate due to the constraints of the law. I also realize that other than asking questions to help students develop their own thinking as related to biology, it’s not my role to address about religious views about science.
I will be teaching evolutionary theory in the next month or so. This will include presenting the scientific evidence that has accumulated from many sources for the theory of common ancestry, as well as teaching about the biochemical drivers of evolution on short, medium, and long time scales. I will do my best to continue to nurture a respectful forum for discussion and individual interpretive work (in writing and projects), where that can lead to a greater understanding of high school level biology. I appreciate parents’ and students’ patience as we go through this sometimes uncomfortable process.
I also want to communicate here some of the things I have said in class about the value and limits of science. I have said that science is a great tool and way of knowing, but that there are other ways of knowing and being sure of things. Science attempts to be objective and relies on evidence–lots of it, to develop theories. I point out that although a theory, as the term is used in science, is well supported by evidence, all theories are subject to testing, revision, and falsification if there is enough contradictory evidence. No theory ought to be spoken of as “true” or “proven” in science. Science is also not useful for verifying or disproving any type of knowledge for which observable or measurable evidence cannot be gathered, and so can never be used to disprove, for example, ideas about God, or whether there is a divine force behind both evolution and the day-to-day life of molecules and cells.
The only area I see a direct conflict between faith and science is in the view that the Bible, Hebrew or Greek testaments, are sources of reliable, sufficient empirical evidence to counter scientific views about the age and history of the Earth. I cannot present the young Earth view as a viable alternative theory, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for it. That said, there are many alternative faith-based ways to view biblical teaching relating to creation, and there are good books, lectures, and websites that offer guidance for those who want to inquire. I hope that students in conflict will seek these out rather than either simply refusing to consider scientific evidence on the one hand, or, on the other hand, doubting their faith because they believe it is incompatible with scientific evidence. Mostly, I hope that they will gain an appreciation of how amazing, intricate, and interesting the world of living things is, and as much knowledge about how it works as possible.