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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Why Evolution should be taught in Christian Schools

This is a guest-post by Professional Engineer Gordon Glover, and is the ninth installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Gordon is the author of the book Beyond the Firmament. His three children attend a private Classical Christian school. He is currently publishing a series of blog posts on the topic of “Science Education in Private Christian Schools”.

Private Christian schools exist to give parents a distinctively Christian alternative to secular education. From my experience, however, the way that the Christian worldview is compared and contrasted to secular philosophies often results in academic subjects being treated as individual battle-fronts in an all-out war against secularism. While the intent is to prepare Christian students to effectively argue the case for Christ and promote biblical thinking wherever they find themselves, good science often becomes a casualty of friendly-fire.

Methodological Naturalism: Friend or Foe?
Somewhere along the way, as the shifting lines of battle were being hastily redrawn, methodological naturalism (MN) ― the methodology traditionally used to approach questions about the physical world ― found itself pinned down in the same foxhole as materialism ― a worldview philosophy that says the physical world is all that exists. Even though MN raises no weapon against Christianity, it unfortunately wears the same uniform as materialism and the two are easily confused in the fog of battle. Once this happens, the natural sciences cease to be effective tools of learning and discovery, and are instead taken by force and conscripted into the service of Christian apologetics.

This unfortunate case of mistaken identity is most evident in the life sciences, where comparing and contrasting our material frame to that of other creatures for the sake of scientific inquiry is summarily rejected as a dangerous philosophy that treats mankind as a meaningless cosmic accident. As a result, science teachers in Christian schools have little choice but to ‘fight the good fight’ by shielding students from any practical utility of evolutionary biology and supplying them with every conceivable reason why this 150 year-old paradigm of natural history is fundamentally flawed. So why would any private Christian school risk losing students, teachers and financial support by teaching evolution ― an issue that has become a key litmus-test of faith for evangelicals?

Why Teach Evolution? #1 - It is Good Science
The most obvious reason to teach evolution is that it is good science. There is simply no other natural cause-and-effect approach that unifies the life sciences under a single coherent paradigm. And unlike the supernatural intervention paradigms typically taught in the place of physical science (such as special creation and intelligent design), evolution actually allows practicing scientists to draw non-trivial conclusions about God’s creation ― an important point entirely underappreciated by Christian parents and teachers who are not called to sort through the challenging data of natural history and make sense of it.

It is important that students understand how scientific ideas, even when incomplete, fundamentally flawed, or theologically offensive can still add to our material understanding of the created order. However, all too often Christian schools use biology class to highlight the perimeters of our scientific ignorance and focus on only those areas where the theory of evolution breaks down. They mercilessly criticize the paradigm for failing to answer questions that don't even fall under its jurisdiction. If we took this same paralyzing approach with us into the physics classroom, Newton’s laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would all be mocked as ‘godless’ paradigms of matter and motion that fail to address spiritual realities, and are hopelessly flawed at the fundamental level. After all, none of these ideas even pretend to offer a complete picture of reality; and each are based on necessary assumptions that fall apart on some level. While such an approach might have the temporary effect of making science look silly and incompetent in the face of biblical truth, it doesn’t prepare our graduates for success in the real world where seeing through a glass darkly doesn’t require us to close our eyes completely.

Why Teach Evolution? #2 - It Enhances Critical Thinking
Teaching evolution in a private Christian school can also provide many fruitful opportunities for students to exercise critical thinking skills. Whether we like it or not, the undeniable patterns found in comparative anatomy, the fossil record, biogeography and molecular genetics all converge on a single universal scenario of common ancestry. If Christian students face this overwhelming reality for the first time in the workplace or at a secular university, a crisis of faith can follow. It is much better for students to learn about evolution in a Christian school setting where they have access to Christian faculty, staff, and parents that can provide faith-building support.

The questions that are bound to arise can indeed be challenging. Do these obvious patterns reveal an authentic natural process of creation, or could they have been purposefully built into the created order (by fiat) to enable man to make sense of the world around him? What are the theological consequences Christians face if this scenario is authentic? What are the theological consequences we face if this scenario is only apparent? And if the traditional Christian doctrine of special creation is indeed non-negotiable, does “enabling scientific progress” excuse God for creating a biosphere that conspires at every level against a superficial reading of the biblical creation account? These are the real challenges of evolution ― not blood clotting or the bacterial flagellum!

Why Teach Evolution? #3 - It Offers an Opportunity to Discuss Biblical Inspiration
Teaching evolution also provides ample opportunities to discuss the nature of special revelation and the scope of biblical authority in a very relevant context. Rather than cause us to question the inspiration of Scripture, teaching evolution should force us to examine the very nature of biblical inspiration itself. On what level does God speak to us? Does God emphasize the technical details of cosmic structure, making the Scriptures relevant only to those generations who shared the cosmology of the biblical authors? Or does God emphasize the teleological details of cosmic function, making the Scriptures relevant to every generation regardless of their “contemporary” scientific paradigms?

Not Easy, but Essential
The questions raised above are difficult and there are no easy answers. But Christian educators must be willing to tolerate a certain amount of unresolved tension in the science classroom. Not every question will have a satisfying answer, but our children are better served by teaching them to think through the issues and deal with the theological consequences that are inevitable once we start poking around the cosmos. If we fail to teach our students the proper use of contemporary scientific paradigms in their current form, no matter how theologically unsettling they might be, we are effectively denying them a seat at the table of discovery and isolating an entire community (professional scientists) from the light of the Gospel.

We all want our children to have the best education possible, to succeed in their various life pursuits, to learn how to think critically about the world around them, and to develop a theologically robust God-centered worldview. Teaching evolution as a valid paradigm for understanding the life sciences, at the appropriate age level, is entirely consistent with these goals.

21 comments:

C. David Parsons said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jimpithecus said...

Whoa! What just blitzed past at 500 miles per hour? Calm yourself there, C. David Parsons. Steve, very good post. The "friendly fire" aspect of things is alive and well. I wish I could remember who it was that said something to the effect that by and large, young earth creationists have very good theology in other areas. They are very trinitarian, have sharp morals and behaviors and are kind and generous human beings. Consequently, others see that and are attracted by that relationship with God. They then incorporate the creationism right along with the other things without knowing better. I have many friends who are creationists who honestly have not thought about it much. It would never occur to them to take their kids to a school that taught evolution. Your point by point elaboration of why evolution should be taught would, I fear, fall on deaf ears.

Jimpithecus said...

So sorry, got my names wrong. Good post, Gordon.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,
You can ignore the blitz of random rhetoric ... The C. David Parsons comment has been deleted. He is a spammer.

Yes, I agree that the message will fall upon many deaf ears. But hopefully not all of them will ignore the evidence. More importantly, I'm hoping many of our fellow followers of Christ will see that this type of change can be helpful not only for their children, but for the gospel.

Jimpithecus said...

I have often wondered how to address this in my own church. Most of my friends know I have a background in palaeontology and human evolution and they just sort of ignore it. My only experience in addressing the controversy in a Sunday School setting went badly. There was simply no openness to what I had to say. I have been asked to try again but have declined. It is as I said in another post; nobody wants to hear about evolution.

Daniel said...

I'm not a product of a Christian school, but this quote mirrors my personal experience:

"If Christian students face this overwhelming reality for the first time in the workplace or at a secular university, a crisis of faith can follow"

I seen it happen to others and have experienced it first hand.

Daniel said...

Wow, I can't type this morning. The comment should have said "I've seen it happen to others and have experienced it first hand." I really do understand basic grammar! :-) (I wish I could edit my post).

Tom said...

I, too, had a "crisis of faith" that really took a number of years to materialize into materialism. I'd like to think that I would have arrived here one way or the other, but you never can know. It really comes down to what you expose yourself to and how you interpret those exposures.

I can see having exposure to evolution in a Christian setting having three effects: 1) It may cushion the road to apostasy. I know with this statement that I am running counter to the sentiments of most readers on this blog, but I am in the camp that says science and religion cannot mix. 2) It may just confuse the person. Trying to mix science and religion is confusing and may lead to the person throwing their hands up at the whole mess, or if they choose to remain a believer or not may be even a more painful experience. 3) As Gordon says, the exposure and ensuing discussion is necessary nevertheless. It is the hope of most readers (and the mission of this blog?) that science and religion do mix and even complement each other enabling personal fulfillment and saving of the spirit.

Steve Martin said...

Jim: Your experience is probably not that uncommon. Have you seen Allan Harvey’s materials that he used to teach a science & faith course in his church? This is really good – chapter 5 is primarily about evolution.

Daniel: re: editing comments. I know. Blogger is pretty limited in that regard – I think there are other tools (like wordpress) that give you better flexibility – but right now I (and therefore my readers) are stuck with Blogger’s limitations. However, you can delete your own comments and then re-enter them.

Tom: I think complement is a good description – “mix” I’m a little more uncomfortable with – there are too many people that mix science & religion together as if you can use the tools of one to judge the claims of the other – a bad recipe in my opinion. I personally like the word “coherence” better for describing the relationship between my faith and the evidence I see from science.

Gordon: My kids do not go to a Christian school, so I’m probably unfamiliar with the environment. Does your school have a “statement of faith” that it abides by, and that school staff must sign? If so, does it even mention the relationship between science and faith? Does it have strict biblical interpretation guidelines? I’m wondering if, in general, it’s the curriculum that drives the attitudes – and I suspect that most science curricula from Christian publishers take a pretty firm stance against evolution if it mentions it at all. What is your experience with this?

servant said...

Haha! You got Parsoned! ;) I'm yet to be Parsoned. I yearn for the day when Parson leaves an imprint on my blog.... it's only a matter of time.

Great post by the way!

Steve Martin said...

Hi Frank (servant). Welcome.

For my readers. I recommend checking out Frank's Blog. He works for an Evangelical organization in New Zealand and has just recently started discussing his own acceptance of the evidence for biological evolution. I'd start with his post on Theistic Evolution: My Fears.

servant said...

Thanks for the positive mention Steve, it is greatly appreciated.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Good qeustions Steve. The "SOF" at my kid's school is very generic, very evangelical. We would all embrace it -- except perhaps for their use of the term "inerrant" to describe the Scriptures. However, I still use the term "inerrant" for the simple reason that the biblical authors can't be held responsible for not communicating to us on a level that the text never intended. Some details might indeed be erroneous by modern standard, but I try to avoid imposing expectations onto the Scriptures that would not have existed in their original context.

However, in the School's stated curriculum goals, the following is said about science:

We seek to:
a. Teach that the biblical Creation account is true and that the theory of macroevolution is
false.

b. Teach the students the basic elements of both accounts and that both systems are based on either sound or unsound faith.

c. Show the students that because God made the universe, it has inherent order which in turn
makes it possible to hypothesize and experiment (scientific method). Guided inquiry will
reveal to the student the intrinsic laws, systems, and truths God put into Creation.

d. Treat the study of science as a "means to an end," not an end in itself.

e. Use many forms of instruction to teach scientific concepts and methods, e.g., a large variety
of experiments, demonstrations, research projects, illustrations, field trips, guest speakers,
etc.

Now, "b" through "e" are actually pretty good. Why screw it up with "a"? The question of 'to what degree the various species are related' is not a philosophical or theological question the requires us to state our position! It is a scientific question that needs to be investigated.

Imagine if a school's curriculum objectives included the following: "we believe that T-Rex was a deadly hunter, and reject all views that attempt to portray him a scavenger." Or what about: "We believe that light is a particle and theory of wave-like behavior is false." What would be the point of that? Those are questions that demand objective analyses, not statements of belief! But when it comes to the unifying principle of the biological sciences, a-priori philosophical stances are what we get.

The science curriculum at my kids school is too watered down to really be considered science.

Even though I spend a lot of money to have them educated, I have to work extra hard to augment, and even at times correct, what they learn in school. We watch a lot of National Geographic, Discovery and Science Channel. And, of course, living in the D.C. area, have access to several free museums.

Jimpithecus said...

Steve, thanks for the heads up about the material. I will read it post haste! Gordon, i like your definition of "inerrant" and have often wondered if that was what was intended. Literal inerrancy cannot be defended reasonably. There are simply too many contradictions in the text that vanish when one recognizes the context in which the books were written. As far as schooling is concerned, my wife and i were going to stick our kids into a Christian private school here in Knoxville but I discovered that, even after being assured to the contrary, the science material leaned heavily creationist. Ultimately, that is not the reason we did not elect to go this route, but it played a part in my decision.

James F said...

Gordon,

It sounds to me like you are doing an outstanding job of giving your kids both a scientific and spiritual education. Well done!

On your list, I would say that "b" unfortunately falls into the trap of conflating science and theology, as if creationism were a scientific theory or modern evolutionary theory were based on faith (as opposed to evidence), and I would venture a guess that only evolution would be taught as being based on "unsound faith." From my admittedly outsider's perspective as a non-Evangelical TE, it seems that "c" fits quite well with EC philosophy, "d" perhaps guards against philosophical naturalism, and "e" is applicable to any educational institution.

Gordon J. Glover said...

James F,

Thanks for the kind words. I actually don't have a problem with (b) because both science and faith are based on a set of self-validating assumptions about reality. However, where I might differ with thi school is this: most of the modern scientific consensus on biological origins is based on SOUND FAITH.

In other words, it assumes that the patterns of material behavior observed on earth have been operating continuously over the entire course of natural history. Without this assumption, science wouldn't be possible.

Nishantha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I ran across this post a little late, but thank you for so clearly defining the problem. It seems that few people these days are willing to address the topic. I attended Christian schools until I was a junior in high school. I left disappointed with how they taught science and am now working towards my Ph.d. in geology. My fall away from Christianity is strongly associated with the lack of acceptance of evidence for anything that contradicts a deep-rooted theological system of beliefs. I really hope something changes because it is not fair to students to have to deal with the harsh reality that they have been fed propaganda (particularly when it was purposely intertwined with their spiritual beliefs!) . Even though I choose to not be a Christian, I believe evolution and Christianity are compatible. Christians are doing a great disservice to themselves and Christ when they teach bad science.

Anonymous said...

I find the teaching of science and evangelical Christianity to be a zero sum proposition. The better the science, the more tepid the religion, and vice versa. How can you convey the importance of evidence, testing, independent confirmation and vigorous debate in science class, only to send your students down the hall to Bible class where they are told to accept the book's infallibility on faith?

Scholarly, open-minded research and stubborn belief are not two paths to different kinds of knowledge. They are simply contradictory mindsets, and teaching them to kids simultaneously is abusive. This is the perspective of a resentful product of Christian education who wouldn't send my three children there if they paid me tuition.

Cliff Martin said...

Anonymous,

I stumbled upon your comment today; don't know if you'll ever read my response, but here goes ...

You make a valid observation: the methodology for science instruction is very different from the methodology for theological instruction. And we could add that the methodology for art instruction is also different. Does that mean that of the three, only one can be valid? I don't follow your logic.

I, for one, find my own theology wonderfully informed by science! I love science. And I love my efforts to understand God. These are two sides of the same coin in my pursuit of truth. No conflict here! Your projections show your lack of understanding of people like Steve, myself, and countless others who are intent upon a faith that is reasonable, and in keeping with reality.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a good post. Came across it by googling "teaching evolution in a christian school."

I teach high school biology in a Christian School, and I teach evolution theory. It all comes down to how people interpret scripture, and I start the unit by acknowledging that not all Christians see eye-to-eye on this subject. I stress that strong, Bible-believing Christians have legitimate reasons for interpreting Genesis in non-literal ways. I also spend some time in discussion on various Christian views on origins (from YEC to day-age to theistic evolution, etc).

My personal goal is to create understanding of evolution theory, and give students the tools to evaluate it. This fits well into the mission statement of our school, which does not include a specific faith statement on origins, other than to declare God as Creator.

Although I personally reject YEC, I have not encountered resistance from the YEC in our broader school community. I teach using language which encourages understanding and respect for those with differing interpretations, and I do not tolerate a confrontational or vitriolic approach between students with different views. The unit has gone over well, with parents and students alike, and it leaves my students well-equipped to attend university with an accurate and informed understanding of evolution theory.