Using Religious Cultural Competence to Talk to Students and the Public about Evolution


This is a guest post by Elizabeth Barnes.

Over thirty years of education research has revealed how to effectively communicate evolution to religious individuals. If I could boil down that research into one sentence it would be this: Highlighting potential compatibility between religion and evolution and de-emphasizing conflict is the best way to increase acceptance of evolution. Here are concrete steps, backed by research literature, for how to have productive discussions about religion and evolution both in the classroom and with the public.

1)    Don’t assume an individual’s religious beliefs are in conflict with evolution. Unless someone believes in the literal separate creation of species by a God/god(s), their religious beliefs do not have to be in conflict with evolution. Because science is bound to the natural world and cannot prove or disprove the existence of a God/god(s), there are plenty of ways individuals reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution. Further, when we insist that evolution and religion are fundamentally incompatible it only creates more rejection of evolution. In my most recent study, 35% of strongly religious individuals thought that in order to fully accept evolution, they would have to be an atheist. Unsurprisingly, these individuals were the ones that reported accepting evolution the least.

2)    Highlight the ways in which evolution and religion are compatible. There is a great deal of visibility given to the so-called conflict between religion and evolution that is disproportionate to the level of actual conflict that exists. When the former Oxford Chair for the Public Understanding of Science claims that God is a “Delusion” is his New York Times best-selling book, it is no wonder that some religious individuals continue to be skeptical of evolution. What will be most helpful for increasing acceptance of evolution is to highlight the overwhelming examples of compatibility between religion and evolution that do not get as much visibility. Here are a few concrete ways to highlight the compatibility rather than the conflict between religion and evolution:

a.      Discuss religious scientists that accept evolution: Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said in a 1973 essay that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” but what people do not usually realize is that he also argued for compatibility between religion and evolution in that very same essay. Dobzhansky was also a pioneer of the modern evolutionary synthesis of evolution and genetics and was also religious. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and headed the human genome project. A staunch defender of the importance of evolution, he is also an evangelical Christian and he founded the organization BioLogos to promote harmony between evolution and religion. Kenneth Miller is a Catholic biologist who famously argued against the teaching of intelligent design in science classes during the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial and wrote a book on the compatibility between his faith and evolution. Discuss these scientists to highlight where evolution and religion can be compatible and to give individuals an opportunity to see their own religious identity reflected among authoritative scientists.

b.      Discuss theistic evolution: theistic evolution is the belief that a supernatural deity is somehow responsible for evolution. A person can fully accept every tenant of evolution, including the common ancestry of life on earth and still think this was somehow the work of a supernatural creator. Highlight theistic evolution as a concrete way that someone can believe in God/god(s) and accept evolution. If you do not believe in God/god(s) resist the urge to project your own beliefs onto evolution. Evolution is by definition agnostic rather than atheistic, and therefore both an atheistic and theistic view can be compatible with the scientific theory of evolution (read more here).

3)    Communicate Evolution to People of Faith by Developing Cultural Competence. While 70% of the United States public identifies as Christian, only 25% of biologists identify as Christian. Rejection of evolution is mostly based in perceived conflict with religious beliefs and yet mostly secular biologists are trying to communicate evolution to a mostly Christian populace. Cultural competence is the ability of people from one culture to communicate effectively to people of another culture and biologists need cultural competence to communicate to religious audiences. Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (ReCCEE) is a framework created specifically for secular college biology instructors to help them teach evolution to religious students in a culturally competent way. Although this was created for college biology instructors, it can be helpful for anyone who is interested in communicating evolution more effectively to religious audiences.

I also think it is important to be transparent about my own positionality as a secular science education researcher. I started my journey researching effective evolution education with a goal of expelling religion from science to advance acceptance of evolution. Through studying the history and philosophy of science, science education, and social psychology I have learned that this strategy will only backfire to create more rejection of evolution. Further, the idea that the presence of religion weakens science is based on a fundamental misconception that science and religion are at odds. What I have learned is that by insisting that religion and evolution are somehow fundamentally incompatible we fail to understand the nature of science and we harm our relationship with the religious public.

In studies done with my team we are consistently finding one clear theme: the perception of conflict between religion and science is greater than the reality of conflict (see this study for one example). We should work to mitigate this misperception if we want the public’s perception of evolutionary biology to improve. I will end this blog with a quote from the prolific evolution educator and popular science communicator Stephen J. Gould, who had this same insight more than 20 years ago:

If 80–90% of Americans profess that (they believe in God) and they think that evolution is against religion, then we (scientists) are not going to get very far… so the main rea­son we have to keep stressing that science is a different matter and is not opposed to religion…is that it happens to be right logically, but we should also be aware that it is very practical.

Stephen J. Gould, annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in the Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2000

One thought on “Using Religious Cultural Competence to Talk to Students and the Public about Evolution

  1. I am a geologist and biologist and a member of the Episcopal Church. I pray from the Book of Common Prayer almost daily. And, I have taught evolutionary theory in Animal Behavior and other courses. Although my research is in ecosystem ecology rather than in evolutionary biology, evolutionary theory is always in the forefront of my thinking (see Pastor, J. 2016. Ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology, a new frontier for experiments and models. Ecosystems 20: 245–252 Obviously, I see no conflict here between religion and science.

    A few years ago, I attended a meeting of campus evangelical Christian students where they discussed evolution. Virtually everything they said was scientifically wrong and even theologically silly. Then they turned to me and asked “what the biology professor here thought”. I had a sense that giving them a lecture in evolutionary theory would do nothing to change their minds. So instead, I asked for a Bible and ten or so were handed to me. I began with the difference in Creation stories between Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis and asked them why there were two creation stories. The point was not to decide which was scientifically correct, but to discern the underlying theological reason for two different accounts of creation. Genesis has nothing to do with science: it is about who God is and what our relation to the Supreme Being and to nature is all about. I then went to Chapters 38 and 39 in Job where God says: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? I pointed out that every verse in these two chapters could be a question that motivates a thesis in geology or biology, but a proper answer to most of them would have to include evolutionary theory and an understanding of the long history of the earth (much more than 6,000 years). Job could be a source of research questions for a religious scientist, but this makes sense because the Hebrew people then lived closer to nature than at any other time (shepherds abiding by their flocks….)

    I don’t think I convinced anyone that evolutionary biology was correct, but a passing understanding by me of Scripture opened the door for an enjoyable evening discussing religion and science. The point here is that the Bible is the document many evangelical people go to first. If you don’t have a passable understanding of at least some parts of Scripture, you have no credentials with many of these people and trying to convince them with theory and data will often go nowhere.

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