When Students Ask about Religion

When I was a graduate student, I had the ambitious idea that in addition to my regular teaching load, classes, and research, I wanted to teach a course on evolution that centered on Darwin’s Origin of Species. I had read the Origin on my own a few years before, but was unable to find any other students that were interested in reading it with me or even talking about it. If I taught a class, I thought, I could build a book club around a text I really wanted to spend more time exploring.

The next semester I had a room full of retirees from the Osher Center for Lifelong Learning at my university, and it was one of the most fun classes I’ve ever taught. Each week we read a few chapters of the Origin, talked about the big topics, and ran labs to demonstrate the ideas. We completed a multi-week experiment mating fruit flies and played with skeletons to discuss homologous traits. I even had some of my fellow graduate students come in to talk about their genetics research.

There was one topic, though, that I knew from the start that I would not address. That was religion. Religion, I said to myself, was irrelevant; it wasn’t going to be discussed. And it wasn’t, until my last day of class. Because the students had read the entire book, picked it apart chapter by chapter, completed a series of relevant labs, and listened to a multitude of visiting speakers, the last class was up to them. We could discuss anything they wanted.

What did they want to discuss? Religion.

This is not an uncommon experience for biology teachers across the country. How can they best handle these types of challenges? How can they respond to students’ questions pitting science against religion? How can they respect their students’ religious beliefs without undermining the science?

I asked Peter Hess, NCSE's director of religious community outreach, to sit down and chat with me about these challenging questions. Peter has a master’s degree from Oxford University in philosophy and theology, and a PhD in science and religion from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He has written extensively on the topic of science and religion (he's co-author of Catholicism and Science), and has been declared a “heretic” more than once. I thought for sure that he would have some thoughtful advice.

Q. What do you think I should have done when my students wanted to discuss religion in a course on evolution?

A. The first step is to determine whether the proposed discussion is pedagogically legitimate, or whether it would constitute an illegitimate use of class time and teacher resources. Students can be masters of diversion in raising issues tangential to the course syllabus, and it is important to be able to distinguish between bogus and legitimate questions.

For a biology class, it might well be appropriate to reply, “You raise interesting questions about the religious interpretation of evolution, but we as a class do not have the time to spend on that discussion, and I as a biologist do not have the expertise to comment on those questions.”

I would recommend students to bring up these issues in a philosophy or religion or sociology class, as that is where they properly belong. Questions about the philosophy of science, or hermeneutical principles of scripture interpretation, or anthropological issues about why there are flood traditions in many different world religions—these are all excellent questions, but are not directly relevant to biology class. Nor are questions about Noah’s Flood relevant to a class in the geology of the Grand Canyon, or stories about a dragon’s tail sweeping a third of the stars out of the sky and flinging them to the earth (Revelation 12:4) relevant to an astronomy class.

Q. Given that I never mentioned religion once in the entire course, why do you think it still came up? Where is this persistent interest coming from?

A. Because it is out there in the culture. “Evolution” for better or for worse is a charged word. For those of us who work with it as scientists, or as scholars in religion and science, it is of course no more charged than “gravity.” But in the case of evolution, there has been a sustained social controversy about the compatibility of science and faith: for many people, when they think of evolution, they instantly imagine a nefarious scientific effort to undermine their faith.

Q. What would I say to such people?

A. I would recommend citing examples from the numerous scientists who have integrated current science into their religious worldviews, scientists such as Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, Robert Russell, and Father George Coyne.

Another tack would be to cite statements from theological figures, such as Pope Benedict’s statement in Communion and Stewardship (2002), when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:

Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you cite the views of such scientists and theologians as authoritative. There’s a wide range of religious reactions to evolution, from rejection to embrace, and you may not feel comfortable in endorsing any of them. (Indeed, a teacher in the public schools is required not to endorse any of them in the classroom.) But many people who reject evolution for religious reasons are ignorant about, or have never been seriously exposed to, the range of religious reactions to evolution. It may come as a complete surprise to them that devout religious people—perhaps even people of the same faith—have no theological objection to evolution. And opening people’s horizons is part of what education is all about, isn’t it?

Q. Any last thoughts?

A. NCSE has a lot of great resources on our website for teachers who are interested in learning more.  I recommend starting there, and of course contacting us if they need further support.


Minda Berbeco
Short Bio

Minda Berbeco is the former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.