Bridging the Divide: Science and Faith in the Classroom

With the State Board of Education beginning its revision of science curriculum standards for Texas public schools, the battle over what to teach students about evolution will be heated. That debate has also been raging in other states, especially Kansas and, more recently, Florida. A report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund reviews how this debate has unfolded. At the center of controversy is the perception — promoted disingenuously by religious fundamentalists — that accepting the science of evolution is incompatible with faith in God. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant denominations see no such conflict. Even so, regardless of what statewide curriculum standards require, teachers still have to bridge that manufactured divide, writes the New York Times in a fascinating article this past weekend.

(I)n a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out.

With a mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how, science teachers are contriving their own ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan. How they fare may bear on whether a new generation of Americans embraces scientific evidence alongside religious belief.

The Times looks at one Florida teacher on the front lines in the clash between science and faith. David Campbell, a biology teacher and church-going Anglican, was part of the committee that added instruction on evolution to Florida’s science curriculum standards earlier this year. Florida had never required that students learn about evolution and its importance as the organizing principle of life science, and the debate over doing so was bitter. In fact, observers expect the Florida Legislature to introduce a bill in its next session to permit teachers to teach about alternative concepts such as “intelligent design” (essentially biblical creationism dress up in a lab coat but based on not a shred of science).

Among Campbell’s strategies is explaining how science and faith differ.

“Science explores nature by testing and gathering data,” he said. “It can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions.”

But he knows that a local church has been circulating among students copies of a common anti-evolution book. The book, published by a creationist group, suggests that the science behind evolution is nonexistent or at least very weak. The book seems only to have reinforced a hostility to evolution already cultivated by fundamentalists among Campbell’s students.

“I think a big reason evolutionists believe what they believe is they don’t want to have to be ruled by God,” said Josh Rou, 17.

“Evolution is telling you that you’re like an animal,” Bryce agreed. “That’s why people stand strong with Christianity, because it teaches people to lead a good life and not do wrong.”

Doug Daugherty, 17, allowed that he liked science.

“I’ll watch the Discovery Channel and say ‘Ooh, that’s interesting,’ ” he said. “But there’s a difference between thinking something is interesting and believing it.”

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

“I refuse to answer,” Bryce wrote. “I don’t believe in this.”

Campbell acknowledges this hostility but refuses to surrender to it.

“Faith is not based on science,” Mr. Campbell said. “And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

You can learn more about the debate over teaching evolution in Texas public schools and sign on to the Texas Freedom Network’s Stand Up for Science campaign here.