Faith, knowledge, respect and science education


People sometimes make decisions and solve problems without using reason. It’s part of our nature. People seek understanding through a variety of modalities. It’s normal.

I don’t use reason and science to deal with everything I encounter in the world, but I rely heavily on evidence. Faith remains perplexing to me, and not for the lack of education about a variety of religious traditions. Faith is the choice to believe that something is true without evidence. I won’t choose to use faith about anything of real consequence. I am not a religious person, and I choose against faith.

I am aware that my approach to understanding remains a minority view. Remembering this fact is an important part of my job, if I am to be an effective science educator.

Last year, the blog Sci-Ed (I’m a fan of the site) ran a piece by Adam Blankenbicker arguing that we should not “believe” in science because the belief requires faith, whereas knowledge is gained though evidence and investigation. With respect to the facts and the concepts, I agree with Mr. Blankenbicker, wholeheartedly.

However, I never would attempt to sell his concept, as written, in a blog devoted to science education. Science is about evidence, but just because science educators put an emphasis on evidence that does not mean that we need to go out of the way to insult belief.

The first concern about this post was expressed by Holly Dunsworth, who wrote that an interview with her for that piece was taken out of context.

In contemporary culture, the prevailing view is that faith is a virtue rather than a vice. On the other hand, many scientists have gone to the great trouble to point out that faith more often leads to bad behavior. But, as a science educator, that’s never an argument I want to actively seek out. That conversation will not be resolved anytime soon, and if you bring that conversation to the forefront of science education, the conversation will promptly stall.

One cannot win the argument that faith is a vice, if the definition of winning includes earning respect from people of all backgrounds. In my book, science education wins when everybody learns and loves evidence-based science, and that includes people of faith.

Some science educators, such as Mr. Blankenbicker, attempt to convince others that the use of faith is a vice. I may agree with him, but delivering that argument would hobble my own efforts as a science educator. Once a person who has strong religious faith sees the “faith = bad” idea coming from science educator, the analytical part of the brain turns off.

Too much science education involves preaching to the converted, in which people who are already interested in science learn even more about science. A different approach is required when informal education efforts target an audience that arrives with both scientific ignorance and suspicion of the motives of the science educator. With some topics that are (allegedly) connected to religious doctrine, such as the origin of life on Earth and the diversification of biodiversity, lessons involving facts, knowledge, and evidence won’t be accepted if the same lessons simultaneously attack faith.

To bring new people over to science, we can’t start by insulting them. No matter how many fan emails published by Dawkins, this basic fact remains: Whenever a science educator argues that religious faith is a delusion, the receptivity of the target audience shrivels.

To put it more simply, when someone feels that an educator just insulted their beliefs, they’re not going to consider the content of that educator’s science lesson. Ever since Sci-Ed published a piece insulting the use of faith, I imagine that religious readers of the site, if any remain, will be less receptive to the science content within. I find it dismaying that some science educators have written off the majority of the US population because they are religious. That religious population is the one that informal science educators need to reach the most, if we are to reverse the nation’s decline in science education.

When people don’t trust science educators for information, they’re not necessarily leaning heavily on Descartes either. Lots of people simply make decisions without any useful evidence. Most people who reject facts generated by science don’t necessarily see their views as a product of “faith” or “belief.” Some people use faith about empirical matters in which it is often useless, when knowledge would be more useful is more useful. But most people who use faith for spiritual matters don’t have the theological or philosophical training to understand which kinds of decisions are better solved with knowledge instead of faith.

Here is a small story, to illustrate how people use faith when knowledge and reason is required. When my son was in kindergarten, he was having a friend over, and they were playing with some toys. The friend was struggling mightily to join together two pieces in a puzzle, even though these pieces weren’t designed to connect to one another. Literally, one piece had a square peg and the other had a round hole. When the friend was told that the pieces would not fit together, the child replied, “They will fit. I have faith that they’ll fit.” Then he continued to twist and push, but the pieces never joined.

If you know typical 5-year-olds, that conversation is perfectly normal except for the fact that the child specifically explained that he made his decision based on faith. This child learned, at home, to use faith to solve an everyday problem to which knowledge was suited. It so happens that one of his parents was being trained as an evangelical minister. I have no idea if the parents would have been proud of the child’s faith in this circumstance. I don’t know how the parents would have handled the situation if they were present. I’m sure that he eventually figured out that spatial problems using puzzles are solved using reason, and not with faith.

When it comes to more complicated problems that take a little more than round holes and square pegs, I don’t know if he’ll learn to drop faith and pick up knowledge. Will he use the same reasoning as biologists to measure natural selection and reconstruct evolutionary histories? Will he use the same logic and evidence that geologists and physicists use when seeking to understand the age of the Earth? Many adult Americans inappropriately apply faith instead of reason to these topics. Or, they use poor quality reasoning from lines of inquiry that originate from faith-based assumptions.

To get to the factually correct answers, faith must be set aside. Effective science education doesn’t require that the entire audience reject the use of faith for everything. It just requires that the audience uses reason when it comes to matters of science. Emphasizing that knowledge is useful and appropriate is a positive, but emphasizing that faith is useless and inappropriate is a negative. People rarely learn, or adopt constructive approaches, by focusing on the negative.

As far as I’m concerned, as a science educator, it’s beyond my job description to judge other people if they use faith about matters that are not informed by science. Moreover, if I do judge other people because they use faith, then I’ve just made my job impossible because I have cut myself off from my target audience. Some science educators don’t worry so much about teaching science content, but instead primarily argue that it’s stupid to be religious. This approach is not going to solve the science education crisis in the United States.

I want everybody to use the knowledge gained from science to make factual decisions about the natural world. If I can demonstrate that knowledge provides answers, then others will be able to conclude that faith is not suited to scientific matters. There are a small number of people who insist on using faith to directly controvert factual evidence. These people have no interest in knowledge, and these people are lost to science education efforts.

If science educators focus heavily on the small minority of the uber-faithful and anti-factual, we alienate the nearly everybody else: the people who who use faith at some times in their life but are open to knowledge. Effective outreach begins with respecting the notion that some people use faith and religion in some aspects of their life. Any science educator who can’t respect the fact some of the audience is religious and uses faith at times is in the wrong line of business.

Science and religion may or may not be compatible. But much of the country is religious, and it’s in all of our interests for this majority to use reason to understand and accept facts that have been established through science. It’s the job of the science educator to convince the faithful that science requires reason and knowledge. You can’t do it successfully if you start by insulting the faithful for their faith.

13 thoughts on “Faith, knowledge, respect and science education

  1. Thanks for braving a post on an often charged topic. As you say, many people of faith do direct their faith toward topics where there are more appropriate ways of knowing. However, it is also important to recognize the limits of science in addressing important and meaningful questions in life. Many people who value scientific understanding also attempt to direct that kind of knowing toward inappropriate questions, or to simply dismiss the kinds of questions that scientific understanding is not capable of addressing.
    Finally, ‘faith’ can be understood differently than a ‘choice to believe that something is true without evidence’. I phrase that I find helpful (perhaps originating from John Polkinghorne?) is faith as ‘motivated belief’. Other forms of motivation for holding something to be true exist, beyond scientific evidence.

  2. In an attempt to add further nuance to “faith” as “a choice to believe that something is true without evidence” I’ll point out the there is often ample logic within various faith traditions, hence “theology”. A mature believer therefore might hold their faith because of how well its logical structure fits with their experience of the world, thereby tying observation to their religious belief. However, the extent to which individual members of a faith tradition take this to heart varies widely.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, debates like Nye vs. Ham conflate two questions: (i) is evolution scientifically true? (ii) is using science as a source of truth when discussing origins theological admissible? Our expertise as scientific educators generally extends to the first scientific question, but not the second theological one. So when we curtly denigrate someone’s faith tradition, we turn them off not only by insulting them personally but because they dismiss us as an authority on both points, wrongly on the first but perhaps rightly on the second.

  3. just a further comment on “faith” as “a choice to believe that something is true without evidence”. At least within the Christian tradition, I don’t think this describes most people’s experience. Rather, they see abundant evidence of their god, and jesus, and salvation. It’s a feeling in their gut, the smile on your face, the beauty of a waterfall (or a sunset), the apparent morality of humans, the apparent design of the universe, the apparent specialness of humans. It’s not evidence that you or I would accept as reliable but it is evidence (and they would argue that it is reliable evidence). I do think there are some very liberal theologians and ministers and lay persons (Martin Gardner came up recently) that admit to evidence-free faith but these are in the minority.

    This lack of ability to recognize reliable v unreliable evidence is the norm in humans. My running buddies are immersed in a faith-based culture . A conversation between runners is really no different than one between southern baptists – both are full of culture-specific jargon that is code for a way of making sense of the world. For runners, the focus is making sense of performance, injuries, and health. The paralellisms are quite remarkable. A conversation between my hippy friends (which largely overlaps with the runners) is not much different. There is a lot of faith in “natural is good” and human-engineered is bad. None of these folks are very religious but even the atheists among the bunch aren’t very critical thinkers when it comes to “making sense of the world”.

    • Religion-peddlers come to my doorstep once every few weeks. I usually let them know, politely, that they can spend their time elsewhere more effective because we don’t believe in a god. One visitor asked me, “But it’s such a beautiful day out. How can you explain how wonderful the world is?” She was genuinely puzzled that we could have the same “evidence” but come to a different conclusion.

      My perception of beauty, wonder, love and the stuff that makes the world nice is evidence of something, that’s quite right. I just don’t connect the dots to anything supernatural. To conclude that that kind of evidence indicates a kind of god does require faith, and making conclusions that aren’t warranted based on the information at hand.

  4. Interesting that your post comes on the heels of the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham “Creation Debate.” Ham completely reframes all of human knowledge and experience in such a way as to make his perspective sound nearly like someone who suffers from a mental disease or defect. “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” Part of the faith-based Christian viewpoint denies the existence of older and alternative creation stories, like those contained in the Hindu Vedas. Somehow, Christian stories are superior to all other stories.

    A peer of mine teaches engineering physics at a university. His children are homeschooled. I was speaking to him one day about how awesome it must be for his kids to have such great access to an intelligent guy, for all STEM based education. And, then he told me his oldest child works from a geology book based on the “Young Earth” viewpoint.
    “Why??” I asked, incredulous.
    “I want him to see an alternative theory, a different viewpoint,” he replied.
    “So, are you going to get him a real book with factual information?”
    He looked puzzled. “Why would I do that?”
    “You said you wanted him to see an alternate theory. Alternate to what? You have to give him factual information and then show him alternative ideas in order to for him to be able to sort out fact from fiction in a critical way.”
    He appeared to contemplate this for a moment, rubbing his chin. “Yeah, I suppose so. I’ll have to think about that.”

    You are right. As soon as you challenge religious doctrine and faith, many people simply tune you out. In one day, at a local bookstore, I was chatting with the employees. Each of them admitted to a literal interpretation of the Bible – the Earth was created in 6 days. The prevalence of ignorance, and the conflation of “facts” and “opinion,” is a real problem.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking posts.

  5. It does irk me a bit to hear you recite the often used be erroneous definition of ‘faith’. It is not, and has never been, belief without evidence. Most variations of the definition refer to trust or how much a belief is held to when tested (such as when you say have faith in someone’s abilities – it is a statement of trust). Some dictionaries offer an alternative definition to be belief without proof, but any scientist should recognize “proof” and “evidence” are different concepts. By both these definitions, scientists literally have faith in science (a well-founded faith is still faith). You won’t get anywhere with religious people by writing off their beliefs with a falsely construed label; at least meet them on fair grounds, and hold the debate/discussion there.

    • The way language works, if a word is often used a certain way, then it gets codified and that’s what the word is acceptd to mean. My definition of faith might not fit yours, but it is commonly accepted and, thus, that’s what the work does, or at least, reasonably can, mean.

      For example, the word ‘speciose’ means beautiful, at least in Latin. But for several years people have been using it to mean species-rich, which is not what the word had ever meant. Until now. So I have to accept that use of speciose, even though I don’t like it.

      • The same sentence irked me, too. I’m on board with everything you say in the post–but the framing makes me a little uncomfortable. After all, as I point out ion my blog, people of faith worship the thing-they-believe-in, not the principle of accepting things as true without evidence. It’s not that your definition is wrong, it’s just not the element of faith that a lot of the faithful (particularly those who aren’t fundamentalist and don’t proselytize) put at the center of it. To hone in on truth-claims when talking to the faithful is to talk past them rather than to engage them. I’ll cheerfully admit that your arguments for not worshipping God are stronger than my for doing so (since mine have absolutely nothing that would count as evidence to support them), and then I’ll go home and light Shabbat candles tonight and say the blessings. I’ll also do everything I can in my non-science classroom to get students to ground their intellectual lives in evidence-based inquiry. These things are not incompatible.

  6. Based on subsequent conversations and posts, it’s clear to me that a better working definition of faith would be “choosing to believe that something is true without factually compelling evidence.” As others have pointed out, saying that faith is without any kind of evidence whatsoever discounts the evidence that faithful use in their decision-making processes. For example, to some, a sunset is evidence of a god.

    • Well, that’s better–but if we’re using the word “faith” to designate a system of belief and not just a particular attitude towards evidence, then things get slippery. “Faith” as in “person of faith” is different from faith as in “I have faith that you’ll get that paper finished by the deadline.” For a lot of people “faith” exists apart from the whole realm of truth, evidence, and reasoned inquiry. It’s more like the position one has about a much-loved spouse than the position one has about, say, evolution. The question of whether my husband is the best possible life-partner for me probably COULD (given world enough and time and highly refined psychological methodology) be put to some kind of empirical test, and demonstrated to be false. But why would I possibly want to do that? We love each other, we make each other happy, we’ve built a life together, and I’d be unutterably lonely without him. Same with faith: I fully acknowledge that sunsets, beautiful as they are, in no way justify my belief in God. (I’ve read my Hume, and I know exactly how spurious any argument from design ends up being.)

      My faith in God is not founded on the presupposition “God has to be real!” any more than my love for my spouse grounded on the presupposition that “My husband has to be the best possible life partner for me out of all the possible life-partners in the world!” I choose to behave as if there is a God because doing so gives a shape to my life that I value, because I need a place to channel my inchoate gratitude for my happiness, because it’s a thread connecting me to some of the qualities I most valued in people who raised me, because it gives me a sense of community, because…I could go on at length.

      I’m more articulate about it than most (growing up with a profoundly atheist father and a profoundly devout mother and then converting to Judaism in adulthood can have that effect…) but I have a feeling a lot of people of faith who are quiet about it believe in a similar kind of way.

  7. Though not a science prof, I taught basic argument for 30 years and faced the same issues science profs face when dealing with classroom religion. In the interest of full disclosure, My father was and brother is a preacher, both highly educated, including Harvard.

    I am not religious, but both the community college and university where I taught had a large contingent of believers,none of whom challenged me* in the argument class because I reminded students from the beginning that the common denominator in the four great freedoms protected by the First Amendment is free speech: press, assembly, speech, religion. What I sought from the students was a well-supported argument, which led to evaluation of evidence, which could lead to use of religion in an argument, but also lead to a critique of using any a priori knowledge as evidence. Nor did I ever cast reason in opposition to religion because I’d read David Ehrenfeld’s classic “The Arrogance of Humanism.”

    In other words, empiricism is one way of knowing, but the knowledge generated by empiricism, like religion, can be as useful as the cancer drugs that cured me and as destructive as nuclear weapons. What is done with the knowledge generated by science involves value judgment always, and the basis of those judgments can be based in religion or they can be based in a secular tradition or anywhere in between.

    Lastly, I’d recommend reading “Epiphany,” a short story about a monotheistic God visiting one empiricist after another seeking an answer to the meaning of God’s existence. God lives in constant fear of being discovered empirically and then having no explanation, once discovered, for God’s existence. Personally, I could give a damn. The third option other than the leap of faith and atheism is being a-religious.

    *Once in a while during office hours a student would try to convert me, but that ended when I mentioned by brother and it became obvious within two minutes that I knew more about the bible than the student. Amen.

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