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On January 18, 2018, House Bill 258 was introduced to the Alabama House of Representatives. As reported by the National Center for Science Education, if enacted, this bill would allow teachers to present “the theory of creation as presented in the Bible” in any class discussing evolution. Doing so would afford students the opportunity to choose which understanding of Earth’s natural history they wish to accept: evolutionary theory or creationist theology. Moreover, the bill would ensure that students accepting creationism instead of evolution would not be penalized for answering exam questions in their science courses in a way that reflects their preference for creationist explanations, “provided the response is correct according to the instruction received.” Alabama House Bill 258, sponsored solely by Rep. Steve Hurst (R-District 35), sits currently with the state House Committee on Education Policy and is open for public comments (no comments have been posted at the time this blog entry was published). In light of this bill, we reached out to Dr. Amanda Glaze at Georgia Southern University, who is an expert in the intersection between science and religion in the American South. In the piece that follows, Dr. Glaze makes the important distinction that scientists and science educators need to be vigilant in our fight against educational policy that introduces religion into a science classroom, but not because we are at war against faith. Instead, this war is being fought in defense of science literacy. —JMO
The United States is no stranger to controversy when it comes to evolution, and the Southeastern United States has a particularly colorful history when it comes to resolutions, legislation, and court cases surrounding the teaching of science and evolution in particular. Within the region, legislatures have been slowly but surely chipping away at the integrity of science education through legislative measures aimed at allowing non-scientific perspectives into the science classroom under the guise of academic freedom and state standards with omissions or light treatment of subjects deemed by the public to be controversial. However, Alabama has taken this a step further, following in the steps of the Kentucky legislation to openly advocate for the teaching of “creation theory” as a viable scientific alternative to evolutionary theory in the classroom. As a scientist and science teacher educator, the weight of this proposal is both disturbing to me personally as well as in light of a decade of my research on evolution education and the intersections of science and society.
Following on the heels of the successful passage of House Joint Resolution 78 in March of 2017, an emboldened Alabama legislature is now building on the academic freedom language that affords teachers more autonomy in teaching topics such as climate change, evolution, origins of life, and human cloning. The new resolution, House Bill 258, would allow not only the teaching of alternatives to evolution but specifically allows teachers to circumvent the new College Readiness Standards in Science, which have the strongest evolution coverage of any previous set of standards adopted by the state. House Bill 258 goes much further than any previous attempts to impact science teaching by specifically providing for the teaching of Biblical creation as an equivalent theory of origin of life in science classrooms. It also provides protection for students who answer assessment questions with responses based in creationism.
Legislation that conflates empirical scientific evidence with evidence derived from religious texts can seriously harm efforts to improve science literacy. Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit with a young woman named Charlotte* (*name has been changed to protect identity), a dedicated college student and aspiring science teacher. This meeting was part of my research effort to highlight the layers of experience that frame teaching and learning of evolution, and how conflicting approaches impact not only the modern classroom, but potentially have lasting repercussions for student learning outcomes across educational levels. It is quite easy to sit someone down and preach to them about religious beliefs. It is equally easy to sit them down and engage them in discourse about science. However, it is the intersections of these two that are solely in the hands of the individual to navigate, explore, reconcile, or separate.
When Charlotte and I spoke, we spoke of shared histories, both of us having been born and reared in devout evangelical Christian families. We talked about the logic and evidence of science—the process of science; we spoke of the deeply rooted place of religion in our formative years; we talked about the passion we both have for teaching. It was important for me to validate her difficulty reconciling religious faith with empirical evidence. Equally, it was critical that I not belittle her strong religious beliefs, or describe her thinking as illogical. I did not suggest she needs to toss aside that history—that part of who she is—in favor of a science-based world view. Instead, it was my responsibility to provide her space to ask questions, to not feel judged from both sides, and to begin to explore the conflict and concerns that she felt she had to bottle up. We need to provide our students the tools and support necessary to effectively navigate conflict. This includes maintaining open spaces where safe conversations can occur, as well as providing opportunities to explore and share the processes and pathways they take as they build a scientific worldview and integrate it with with worldview they already have. Our job as educators is to underscore the foundational difference between science and religion: science is a process for understanding the natural world, whereas religion is fundamentally concerned with supernatural explanations. These two approaches for knowing and understanding are not equivalent, but they can be complementary as long as their limitations and mutual exclusivity are acknowledged.
A person can be religiously devout and also scientifically literate. This is why I focus on these intersections, because there is so much push from both directions and not enough room for people to find where they fit and feel comfortable enough to do so.
For so many people, having a safe space such as this can be transformational. I have already said that our targets are those in the middle–the majority of people who could fall in either direction based on the experiences they have. If the only experiences they have—experiences with religion—are forcing them to choose between what they know, love, and see as safe, on the one hand, and science on the other hand, science is going to lose. To be clear, I am not endorsing anything less than accurate and full representation of science. But it is crucial that we look at the bigger picture, if we wish to reach those with deep roots in faith.
One of the greatest disservices we can do to our students is to remove science from the science classroom. Cherry-picking the science that one agrees with and discarding the science that challenges religious faith is not only wrong, it will dramatically decrease science literacy in a generation of students. We are at war for science literacy, not at war against faith. As educators, we are here to plant seeds of understanding, but ultimately, it is the individual who is responsible for the development of her/his thinking. If we remove some of the evidence that builds science literacy, how can expect it to develop?
I learned a great deal from my experiences with Charlotte, and with the hundreds of others I have spoken with about these intersections in the years that have followed. The most important lesson I have learned is that if we want to have a seat at the table in order to improve science literacy, we have to first be willing to listen, to have empathy, and to understand and value diverse worldviews, even if they do not align with our own. Only when we are willing to put ourselves in that position do we gain the opportunity to speak to others who need and want to hear what we have to say. It is a matter of building trust to share the deepest parts of who we are and lay them out for others to see, only when that trust is there can we be agents for conceptual change. Legislation and machinations that directly challenge the accuracy and fidelity of science education represent a great threat to science literacy that will ultimately be perpetuated in the next generation of teachers and students. As scientists, science teachers, and science teacher educators, we must step up and speak out for science.
Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.