Clergy’s Views on Teaching Evolution

As I reported in the previous posting, a recent study entitled Clergy views on evolution, creationism, science, and religion published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume: 43, Issue: 4, Pages: 419-442 reported very interesting findings that science teachers, parents, and students might benefit from.

The authors used qualitative (indepth interviews) and quantitative (a survey instrument) methods in their study. I am going to focus on the qualitative part of the study in this discussion.

This study was designed to inform the science education community about what clergy think regarding evolution and creationism. The authors ultimately sought to: (a) determine clergy views about evolution, creationism, science, and religion; and (b) acquire useful information that we could give to students or colleagues struggling with these issues.

They interviewed eight clergy and one religion professor for the pilot study. The following questions were used to structure the interviews:

1. What do you believe are the major ideas in the theory of evolution?
2. How would you counsel a parishioner who felt that accepting the tenets of the scientific theory of evolution meant giving up their belief in God or Christianity?
3. How do you respond when people say the Bible has been proven false by science?

As a result of the interviews with the clergy in their study, the authors ended up with the following patterns or categories of views.

1. The (Christian) Bible was not meant to be interpreted literally.
Interpreting the Bible literally is a stumbling block toward accepting evolution and other scientific conclusions. This category, perhaps as much as any of the following four, has created the most stress in the evolution/creationism debate over the past century in this country. I thought that the authors did a good job of differentiating among three views of creation—these views would help all of us understand people’s views of creationism, and why they might or might not object to evolution. They identify the three views as follows:

Young earth creationists: literal understanding of the Bible; earth about 10,000 years old; literally 7 day creation
Old earth creationists—share many beliefs as young earth creationists, but believe the earth much older than 10,000 years
Intelligent design—believe some structures are too complex to have been created by evolution; although they share the concept of evolution, they differ in thinking that some outside agent (intelligent designer) must have created complex structures

2. It is difficult to move from a concrete to a more abstract interpretation of the Bible.
This is an important concept—it brings the constructivist notion of learning into the debate. The authors reported that: “Although our interviewees never referred to Piaget, constructivism, or conceptual change, they nevertheless made frequent statements paralleling these general ideas. Rather than discuss changing preconceptions about evolution and adaptation, as science educators do, the clergy discussed changing from concrete or literal interpretation of the Bible toward more abstract understandings.”

3. God plays a role in nature and evolution.
Clergy reported views that touch on the concepts of theism and deism. A theistic view of God implied that God continues to act and affect the material world. A deistic view is that God created the world, set it motion, and then left it alone. The authors rightly point out that science can not answer the question, Does God play a role in nature and evolution. The answer is rightly in the domain of religion. It’s unfortunate that some scientists have used evolution as a means to claim that God does not play a role in nature. This in itself has created a motivation for the religious right to attack the teaching of evolution in the schools.

4. It is okay to ask questions and have doubts.
Certainly, as scientists, we encourage the asking of questions and to raise doubts about a theory or idea. Here the authors are reporting the clergy are stating that raising questions about faith are well intended. As one interviewee said, “Faith is a gift that grows because of doubts and because of questions.”

5. Science is limited in what it can understand.
As another interviewee said, “Science needs to acknowledge mystery beyond its proper sphere.” I think this is right on.

It would be very difficult for a science teacher to incorporate these categories and examples in a science curriculum. However, in discussions that biology teachers have with their students about evolution and faith, knowledge of these categories would be very helpful. It would be a very interesting experiment for a science teacher to work with a social studies teacher and plan a short unit of study in which students explored the concepts developed above. I realize that this would require some very careful planning, and explaining (to parents and school administrators), but I think it could serve to help students with the conflicts that they might have.

What do you think about this suggestion?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University