Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Evolution and Religion -- Problems and Panels

I am an evolutionary biologist. Well, I'm a grad student, but still. To warn you up front, this post is long, and there is no apparent point. I am just making some observations, and then end with some questions. I am trying to think of how to be a good teacher in the future, and I have noticed some problems with how evolution and religion are either discussed or avoided in college.

When other Christians find out what my field is, they are often intrigued to meet a "neo-Darwinist" who is, like them, a committed Christian. I have had so many great conversations with these guys about science, and I have always found that they really want to learn whether I think evolution is real and why. These other Christians are generally not scientists themselves, and may have only taken one required science class in college, if that. Reading the numerous books for and against evolution only confuses them, because they know they don't have the scientific background to really evaluate the arguments. Intelligent design author says: evolution is bogus, and here's the science saying why! Evolution author says: evolution is great and here's the science saying why! Some Christians I knew in college just threw up their hands and went with whatever their pastor said. The pastor sounded like a reasonable guy, and he was much more trustworthy and had more in common with them than the science professors did.

What happens for Catholics is a little different, and they haven't made up their mind in college, they may just go on indefinitely fence-sitting. They know it isn't going against our faith to "believe" evolution, but of course evolution is also not an article of faith. The Catholics (and many other Christian groups) say they can see it's possible evolution is what God used to create the universe. However, they aren't sure they can trust evolutionary biologists fully because biologists have a reputation of rabid atheism. Even if all evidence pointed against evolution, they think, the scientists would refuse to recognize it will do not ever want to have to recognize a higher power.

I am always impressed by how much people want these discussions and to actually learn the truth, and I'm also a little sad they didn't get this at college themselves. I wish I could say that my colleagues ask as many interesting questions about religion as my fellow Christians ask about science, but that's another topic altogether. These conversations, though, make me wonder about how "Evolution and Religion" questions are addressed in college -- or just how evolution is taught to the better public, and how we can do a better job as science educators.

Scientists are quite aware that Americans are not too impressed with our field. Statistics on the numbers of Americans not "believing in evolution" are printed fairly frequently, especially whenever a state school board restricts the teaching of evolution in schools -- or demands that Intelligent Design theory be taught alongside it. To give you some of these stats, and how they are reported, I googled and went to one of the first sites, from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. They compile a fairly full list of polls taken in the US over the last several years.

To me, the most interesting were the views of college students from the 1991 Gallup poll:

Creationism 25%
Theistic evolution 54%
Naturalistic evolution 16.5%

and those of scientists:

Creationism 5%
Theistic evolution 40%
Naturalistic evolution 55%

Theistic evolution, the idea that evolution has occurred but that God had something to do with it, is the most popular among college graduates. In the general US population, Creationism has been the most popular for the 20+ years of the polling span, polling consistently at 44-47% and followed closely by theistic evolution at 37-40%.

At my university in the mid-west, where creationism and evangelical Christianity is very popular, one or two of my numerous biology professors addressed views about God and evolution on the first day of class. They explained the range of beliefs about God's role in our origins, and that there was a whole spectrum on which students could fall. Further, they made it clear that they personally did not mind whatever students "believed" but only wanted to teach them scientific findings and principles. I thought this was a good move, especially in large classes. I had heard students occasionally grumble that professors want to brainwash you into agreeing with all their pet ideas, and the evolution professors just want to undermine Christianity. Unfortunately, this didn't really happen in my actual evolution class, which was my least favorite science class in college. The professor was not a very good teacher, and he also used religious examples to teach evolution and to mock Catholicism at the same time, in the most foolish and ignorant ways. The students loathed him, and a friend of mine and I actually made up a "Buzzword Bingo" to play in his class because he repeated his favorite lines so often. Who knows how many students came into that class with open minds and left thinking evolutionary biologists were, after all, the prejudiced cranks their pastor had always warned them to avoid? I learned a lot about evolution from my other biology classes and swore one day I would finally get to study all the cool things I'd been cheated out of learning in that stupid class.

Scientists don't generally want to be that professor. In fact, I think most of the atheist/agnostic profs want to avoid religious discussion (with religious people anyway), or if it is discussed, they want to be respectful. The most they want to do is the first lecture disclaimer and maybe discuss it later in office hours if students are that desperate to bring it up. But students? They want to talk about nothing else.

That's where "Science and Faith" and "Evolution and Religion" panels come in. You can hear a debate, or you can see a bunch of people of different views all sit together answering your burning questions. Maybe the school will even offer a class, just so people can discuss it. A friend of a friend taught such a class. She said it was the worst experience of her life, that she had made a huge mistake, and that she would never do it again. Of course, a broad class on Science and Faith could also touch on really electrifying issues, like abortion, stem cell research, sex, etc, so maybe evolution wasn't really her biggest problem. The students apparently were quite nasty and rude to each other and she, being a sweet person, did not thrive on the strife. Who will, even later in their careers, be drawn to sit on panels and ultimately end up as the teacher for these contentious classes? Probably contentious people. If the panels are stocked with nice, normal people who just want to showcase a range of views, I suspect the students tend to be a bit disappointed. I suspect students do not go to these panels only to learn things they could find in the library, but that they also want to see "their side" win in some sort of academic dogfight. That's why they often want to invite famous, contentious professors to hold "debates:" they want to see who can win. On the other hand, panels are nice because students can ask any question, whereas in biology class, asking about religion would be off-topic. The drawback of the panels is the limited philosophical and theological abilities of evolutionary biologists. We aren't trained in it, but as soon as they retire lots of science professors think they should write books about God. These books sell! If an annoying atheist writer comes to campus, what should Christians do to balance it? Should they have a panel? Hopefully after the famous guy leaves. Should they have a different speaker who is a religious scientist?

The wasteful thing, in my view, is that scientists can be really quite good at what we are trained to do, which is investigating and teaching nature. But our views on God, whether we believe or don't believe, are fairly mundane. I am a Catholic. My science plays a role in my faith, for sure, but I think few people would find it profound. I know a fair bit about Catholicism and the Bible, but not much more than the average well-read lay person. I took a course in symbolic logic to fulfill my philosophy requirement, and it was great fun because it was just math with words, but it didn't teach me who the heck Hegel was or why I should care. In grad school, I met some other Catholics who knew a huge amount about theology and philosophy, and I sometimes read books they recommended. I had to look up every other philosopher and write them on a stickynote to keep them straight, I really couldn't see the point of most of them after Aquinas, and sometimes I wanted to learn how to resurrect the dead just so I could punch some of them in the stomach. I kept feeling like Alice in the courtroom, wanting to shout "You're all a pack of cards!" but the philosophers were dead and couldn't hear me. I worried about getting carpal tunnel from all the fist-clenching and took to reading other things. Ahem. Anyway, I think I'd be fairly useless on a panel about theology. On the other hand, I know lots of neat things about science, but nothing really short and snappy that could make a fellow panelist look foolish. I could never crush Dawkins or Hitchens in debate because all I've really got is "I'm Catholic because [typical, boring, they're-not-really-interested, Chesterton-said-it-better reasons]..." and all they've really got is "I'm an atheist because... [typical, boring, I'm-not-really-interested, Shaw-said-it-better reasons]." How tiresome these conversations, repeated again and again by increasingly ignorant people can be, when we could be talking about fun science.

Someday I would like to be a biology professor. Someday I would like to actually, really be in charge of a classroom instead of just being a GTA and I will have to decide whether and how to approach the minefield of "Evolution and Religion." I am learning so much about how to teach science effectively, but I don't really know what is best when it comes to talking about culture. In the classroom, I like the approach my good professors took

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