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What Should Teachers Say to Religious Students Who Doubt Evolution?


I'm teaching Darwin again this semester, in two separate courses, and I'm confronted with a familiar dilemma: How should I respond to students who reject evolutionary theory on religious grounds?

One course is a freshman survey of the humanities and social sciences, and the other reviews the history of science and technology. I asked both classes to write a paper on the following question: Why do you think Darwin's theory of evolution still encounters so much opposition today? I encouraged the students to personalize their responses—that is, to discuss how they reconciled their own faith, if any, with evolutionary theory.

While grading the papers, I separated them into three categories. 1. Evolution and faith can be compatible, as long as faith is willing to abandon literal interpretations of scripture. 2. Science trumps faith, period. 3. Faith trumps science. Some of the papers were hard to categorize, because they were noncommittal or simply confusing. But here are the numbers I came up with: Of the 35 students, a majority, 20, said that evolution and religion are or should be compatible. Six students said that science has replaced, or should replace, religious explanations of creation. Nine students rejected evolution because it contradicted their faith.

Below are quotes from members of this third group:

"Many people become doubtful of their religions just because there is something more 'scientific' out there. Just because Darwin's theory is scientific does not automatically mean that its findings are necessarily true."

"If Darwin's theory was completely accurate, then after only several generations the world should be vacant of non-perfect people." (This seems to be a critique of the concept of adaptation.)

"I personally do not believe in the theory of evolution. Nevertheless I am open to changing that belief if presented convincing evidence."

"Even though I still believe in creationism, I have a better grasp of evolution after gaining a thorough understanding of the observations and scientific materials that support it…Since everyone is entitled to his own beliefs and opinions, there will always be conflict between both views."

"The reason Darwin encounters so much opposition today is due to proof as well as logic."

"Evolution has all these different theories and drawbacks, whereas the Bible is simple (parsimonious)… There is a creator. There is a God."

"I don't mind believing in evolution, but the only part I refuse to believe in is that man evolved from apes… Regardless of the facts that science presents to the world I will believe that God exists and what is in the Bible is the truth."

How do I respond to students like this? I point out that some religion-bashing Darwinians exaggerate the power of evolutionary theory. For example, Richard Dawkins was wrong--egregiously wrong--when he claimed in his 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker that life "is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it."

Even when bolstered by modern genetics, evolutionary theory does not explain why life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago, or whether life was highly probable, even inevitable, or a once in a universe fluke. The theory doesn't explain why life, after remaining single-celled for more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms, including one exceedingly strange mammal capable of pondering its own origins.

Some prominent thinkers—from philosopher Karl Popper to complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman--have critiqued Darwinism for purely scientific rather than religious reasons. Some of these critics have suggested that natural selection, as conventionally understood, must be supplemented by other processes, such as "self-organization" of simple chemical and biological systems.

But so far none of these alternatives has gained much traction. As for proponents of intelligent design, some raise reasonable questions about the limits of biology, but their answers—which invoke some sort of divine intervention--are pathetically inadequate. The theory of evolution by natural selection is arguably the single most profound insight into reality that humanity has ever achieved, and it is supported by overwhelming evidence--mountains of evidence!--from the ever-expanding fossil record to DNA analyses of living species.

These are the sorts of things I tell my students. I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: "Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America's youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply 'wrong' due to a certain scientific explanation." On the other hand, if I don't prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I'm not doing my job, am I?

Illustration: Gramercy Books.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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