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Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion

Lee Meadows

Elizabeth Doster

David F. Jackson

The creation versus evolution conflict smolders on. Courts and curriculum committees have closed the issue repeatedly at national, state, and community levels, but the embers still glow. Occasionally, the controversy re-erupts into full flame. Parents band together and file suit against their school board claiming that the teaching of evolution undermines their children's worldview. State legislatures argue laws designed to de-emphasize the role of evolution in the curriculum. University scientists gather to champion the need for an uncompromised approach to the teaching of evolution in secondary schools. Often, though, the controversy remains just on the brink of flare-up, a tension that biology teachers feel more than any other players in the conflict.

Biology teachers face the demanding challenge of crafting a learning environment that mediates colliding agendas. They want students to deepen their understanding of biological evolution in order to become scientifically literate citizens. At the same time, they also want to support, rather than undermine, the values of students, parents, and communities whose worldviews can oppose the teaching of evolution. On a private, and often unspoken level, many biology teachers themselves must face their own unresolved conflicts between biological evolution and their personal worldviews. Teachers from various religious and philosophical backgrounds face conflicts between their beliefs and biological evolution that range from simply thought-provoking to deeply disturbing. Is it possible for teachers to actually resolve these conflicting ideas?

Strategies & Assumptions

To answer this question, we talked with conservative Christians who were science teachers, future science teachers, science teacher educators, and scientists. Our goal was to determine how they managed conflict between their religious beliefs and their beliefs about biological evolution. We chose this group of people because they were deeply devoted to science, yet they were also deeply committed to their religious beliefs. Those two passions often created conflict, and at times the conflict raged.

We interviewed a total of 17 people who had identified themselves as orthodox or fundamentalist Christians and who had demonstrated, by virtue of their current occupation, a strong interest in science and science teaching. The sample was not selected systematically to be representative of any particular population, but we consciously strove for diversity in terms of age, gender, and professional status in the academic world. Our participants included two university professors of science, a professor and two graduate students in science education, four high school biology teachers, and eight prospective middle- or secondary-level science teachers (undergraduate or nontraditional graduate students in science education). They included 11 females and six males. All were white, and all but one were natives of the southeastern United States.

Informal, exploratory conversations were held with four of the participants (three undergraduate students and one graduate student), and subsequent data were collected through minimally structured interviews with 15 of the 17 participants. Interviews were conducted in a naturalistic, emergent style without a formal protocol, although a consistent effort was made to elicit responses addressing three broad questions:

1. What do you believe about evolution, or the history of the Earth and of life?
2. How are your beliefs about evolution related to your religious beliefs?
3. Given your career interest in science, do you feel a conflict between your professional and personal beliefs and values, and, if so, how do you resolve that conflict?

The teachers' descriptions of their beliefs make up the data for our research, a research style often called qualitative research. We reviewed the transcripts of each of the interviews for initial themes in the participants' comments. We used these themes to guide repeated analysis of each interview transcript for ideas held in common by several or all of the participants. The result of this process was that four major categories seemed to explain how our participants managed the conflict they saw between biological evolution and religion. We then restructured the participants' comments around these major four categories and summarized our findings.

As a research team, we approached this whole process with two points of agreement among ourselves. The first was that biological evolution is the only appropriate scientific model of life origins that should be presented in the biology classroom. Creation science is inappropriate for the biology classroom. The conservative Christian on our research team was the most passionate about this stance! Students need to develop a deep understanding of biological evolution because nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution (Dobzhansky 1973). Additionally, students will need to understand the implications of biological evolution throughout their lives, from the entertainment world of "Jurassic Park" to understanding why they need a flu shot every year.

Our other team agreement was that trying to change teachers' or students' personal worldviews is dangerous and unethical. We value the contributions that religion makes to human life, and we challenge the traditional notion that science teachers do a service to students by divesting them of their religious beliefs. We wanted mainly to listen to what these teachers said about their religious beliefs. We would ask questions when we saw conflicts between their beliefs about religion and science, but we made no attempt to attack their personal beliefs.

We offer verbal snapshots of our interviews. The process of this analysis caused us to seriously question the plausibility of resolving the conflict between beliefs about evolution and beliefs about religion. Our results may signal the need for developing an entirely new approach to teaching evolution in the biology classroom focusing on managing, rather than resolving, the conflict. We describe the teachers' personal approaches with the hope that we may begin to take the fire out of the conflict and move toward classrooms where all students learn about biological evolution while preserving their religious worldviews.

Categories of Conflict Resolution

The participating teachers used four different approaches in dealing with the conflict between their beliefs about religion and their beliefs about evolution. Their approaches fell in the four categories of being unaware of the conflict, avoiding the conflict, being disturbed by the conflict, and managing the conflict.

Teachers falling into the first category, though familiar with both perspectives, remain unaware that their beliefs about evolution and their beliefs about creation are conflicting. The beliefs of Christine, an undergraduate pre-service teacher, typify the beliefs of teachers in this category. In the following passage Christine responds to an article (Phillips 1991) on earth science misconceptions that she read during the course of the study:

There's something I'm a little confused about in the paper we read. It never occurred to me that "The Earth is 6 to 20 thousand years old" or "The Garden of Eden is where human life began" (p. 22) are misconceptions. I've just always known things like that.

At the time of the interview, Christine was enrolled in a geology course where she was actively engaged in learning the names of geological time periods and the millions of years that represented them. Apparently, Christine has comfortably incorporated the knowledge of the scientifically accepted age of the Earth into her scientific beliefs. Her religious beliefs, however, are so completely unaffected by the addition of this knowledge that she is astounded to learn that the scientific community considers the biblical accounts of the origin of life on the planet to be misconceptions.

Typical of people in the first category, Christine's belief systems are separate and contextually based. In contexts such as her geology class, Christine operates according to her scientific beliefs, a stance that permits her to intellectually engage in discussions of evolution. However, in other contexts such as her everyday or church life, Christine operates according to her religious belief that human life began in the Garden of Eden 20,000 years ago. Christine's surprise at learning the discrepancy in her two belief systems indicates that she has been able to comfortably shift between her two belief systems as the situation dictated.

Contrary to those like Christine, teachers in the second category are well aware of the conflicts between evolution and creation. These teachers are unwilling, however, to confront that discrepancy and consciously choose to keep separate their beliefs in science and religion. The following discussion by practicing secondary teachers demonstrates their beliefs that they can best serve their students by telling them that creation and evolution are unrelated:


Never mention religion.


What if they asked you?


Tell them it's not linked -- just get the facts.


Yes, teach evolution as a theory that some people believe and that [students] do not have to believe it as truth, but just know it for the test and forget it if you prefer. We're supposed to keep science and religion separate, right?

In their classes, these teachers stress the theory of evolution as something that is unproven and almost unworthy of believing.

Barbara resisted further discussion about issues that cause conflict in her own mind as well as in the minds of her students, perhaps because she realizes the implications of the consequences. For whatever reason, Barbara chooses to maintain and separate both her beliefs in creation and evolution. Unfortunately, these teachers are neglecting the inherent connection and conflict between the two topics that occurs naturally in students' minds. By asking students to deny that a relationship exists between topics the students instinctively believe to be related, these teachers inhibit science's function as an intellectual process and students' development as critical thinkers.

Easily the smallest group in the study, the teachers who fell into the third category experienced a troublesome state of cognitive and emotional dissonance when confronted with the apparent incongruencies between their religious and evolutionary beliefs. In the past, Helen taught evolution to her high school biology classes while holding the personal opinion that it did not necessarily contradict the tenets of creation. However through the process of reading an article by Stephen J. Gould (1991) and discussing issues relevant to the topic, Helen began to question her religious beliefs:

I really thought I could [reconcile creation and evolution] until I read the "Gould Gospel." Generally, if you don't look too closely it all fits together fine, but if you look at the meat of the thing it doesn't. It's not truthful to tell students, "It's okay -- it all fits together" when it doesn't. It doesn't sit well with me to bend over backwards to come up with a sufficiently obscure metaphorical version of Genesis like this. I believe that the evidence for evolution is so strong . . . and if evolution is true, then the Bible isn't. So where does that leave me?

As Helen reflects upon her evolutionary and religious beliefs, she develops a rift between the two. For her, the question becomes "Which one wins out?" Do her mind's cognitive demands prevail at the expense of her heart's religious beliefs, or do her heart's religious beliefs prevail at the expense of her mind's want of intellectual independence? Teachers in this category experience real, deep and often emotionally painful conflict.

The teachers who fell into the fourth category represent the majority of those in the study. These teachers acknowledge the conflict between their evolutionary and religious beliefs and attempt to manage the conflict by constructing mental models incorporating selected elements of evolutionary theory with a biblical understanding of creation. These models help the teachers to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies between their beliefs in evolution and creation. Though their models have some similarities, all are unique. They range in complexity from the very simple to the very elaborate.

The most common model constructed by the teachers involves accepting the basic principles of evolution, as long as those principles are not applied to humans. Randy, an undergraduate pre-service teacher, reflects on his view of evolution:


What does evolution mean to you?


As I understand it when biologists say evolution they mean we came from a single cell -- step by step -- [to] where we are now. I don't really believe that we all came from a single cell, but I don't rule that out. I think that would be limiting God, and I can't do that. He's the only one who is all knowing and all powerful, not us. I do see that all organisms change, both short term and long term, you know like peppered moths (short term) and like humans (long term).

At this point in the interview, Randy appears to accept one of the most elementary principles of evolution, that throughout time all organisms, including humans, have been in various states of change. However, as he continues, it becomes evident that in fact, he does not accept the idea of human evolution:


What do you think of the fossil evidence of early humans?


We have evolved -- the bones may look increasingly human, but I think the first human had to have the capacity for thought.

While Randy does believe that humans have evolved, his model describes a limited evolution from a very human-like animal. Randy's views were probably grounded both in anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are too good to have their origin linked so closely to lower life forms, and in biblical teaching that people were created in God's image.

Not all teachers in category four, however, discount human evolution from lower organisms. Dr. Davis, a professor of quantum chemistry, describes his rattler sophisticated model of human evolution:


So how do you reconcile your belief in creation with your belief in evolution?

Dr. D:

Well, I think first of all, that there are some problems with the evidence for evolution -- questions concerning the amount of time it would require if chance alone were responsible for the great number of species we have today. I do believe in evolution in that all species are related and have been changing throughout time.


What about humans?

Dr. D:

I believe they have changed too.


Okay -- what about the evolution of humans? The Bible says that humans were created in God's image. If we have changed, how could we have been created in his image?

Dr. D:

Well, I believe that at some point in the evolution of man, God breathed into [man] the spirit of his image. It isn't a physical image, but a spiritual one.


So you do believe that we have evolved from lower forms?

Dr. D:

Yes, and at some point, we were given the spiritual nature of God.

Dr. Davis' personal model describes his belief in human evolution. While he concedes that humans have evolved from lower life forms, he carefully integrates that belief with the contradictory biblical notion that people were created in God's image.

Another common model constructed by teachers focuses on the interpretation of wording in the Bible as the predominant barrier separating creating and evolution. Dr. Evans, a professor of evolutionary biology, discusses his beliefs:

Dr. E:

My earliest background was in phylogenetic analysis, "Who is related to whom?" "Bats and rats" -- that's what I originally worked with. For instance, how might specific anatomical adaptations have arisen, possibly multiple times? I was fascinated by that. But my other background is as a Christian, and that's the most important part of my life. I actually do couch myself as a fundamentalist, although many people would deny that I am. I do believe that the Bible is God's word; it is inerrant.


I think that my main misunderstanding here has always been that I don't realize how central biblical inerrancy was. I still don't understand the distinction between inerrancy and literalism.

Dr. E:

The Bible has been kept intact -- there have been word changes, but God has kept the meaning intact. . . . I have a foot over the edge of the cliff here in the direction of denying strict literalism -- I may face God one day, and he'll say, "You were wrong," . . . but I don't believe that God lashes out at people. I'm not really concerned whether I'm wrong or not. My standing with God has nothing to do with my stand on evolution. There's still tension; it doesn't resolve.

Dr. Evans touches on one of the most elusive aspects of theistic evolution from a conservative Christian point of view. Many conservatives hold tightly to the conviction that the Bible is God's word, that a although it was written by human hands, those hands were divinely guided so that the words are those of God himself. Their dilemma then is, with a foundational underpinning of their faith being the Bible as God's word, how do they modify the words to render meanings consistent with evolution and still remain faithful?

In addition to developing a model based on his beliefs about the Bible, Dr. Evans reconciled his beliefs about religion and evolution in broad philosophical terms:


But isn't there still a real conflict? I still don't know how [your belief] squares with science.

Dr. E:

Don't get me wrong -- I accept evolution. I accept some things that I'll never know. I mean, one's eternal and one's not. I'm often asked how I can be a Christian and a scientist, or vice versa -- scientists ask me, and my Christian friends ask me, and they all assume that I must be compromising both sides, but I'm not really. I accept that evolution is the mechanism that God used to create life. See, some tension comes from mistaking the process for the reason, the "How?" for the "Who?" and the "Why."

Dr. Evans focuses on the broad concepts of how life developed rather than by whom or why did it happen, but he believes that evolution is the mechanism that God used to create life on the planet. We still see a conflict, though, because the idea that evolution proceeds according to some terminal direction violates one of its most fundamental principles.

Synthesis of Findings

The manner in which teachers in the study approached the conflicting ideas between evolution and religion, though unique and personal, fell into one of four distinct categories. The first two categories represent teachers who either unintentionally or intentionally separate their religious beliefs from learning evolutionary concepts. Teachers in both categories were comfortable engaging in learning evolutionary concepts. Regardless of any judgments that may be brought to hear on their naiveté, these teachers ostensibly were able to resolve the inherent conflicts through compartmentalizing their conflicting beliefs.

Teachers in the third and fourth categories recognized the conflict between their beliefs about evolution and religion. Teachers falling into the third category began to question their beliefs in creation as they came to a deeper understanding and appreciation for evolutionary concepts. This process of questioning was troublesome and emotionally trying for these teachers. Teachers in the fourth category chose to combine selected evolutionary concepts with the biblical account of creation through personal theories, a strategy that helped them to manage the conflict between their religious beliefs and evolutionary concepts. The degree to which these teachers would engage in learning about evolution strongly depended on their personal theories. They were comfortable learning about general evolutionary principles, but several remained uncomfortable discussing human evolution.

Figure 1 synthesizes our research findings. The two dark lines represent beliefs about religion and beliefs about evolution. The lines begin far apart and parallel for teachers of category one who are unaware of the conflict. Their beliefs are compartmentalized and do not conflict. The lines diverge from parallel for teachers who are aware of the conflict but avoid it. They have begun to realize that conflict exists. The lines move closer together for teachers who are disturbed by the conflict because they are beginning to actively seek some sort of resolution to the conflict. For teachers who are managing the conflict; the lines are closer together but again parallel. These teachers don't seek to resolve the conflict, as overlapping lines would indicate. Instead they are content to manage the conflict, comfortably moving back and forth between the two systems of beliefs.

We do not mean to imply, however, that individuals necessarily begin on the left side of the model and move toward the right. The model is a conceptual representation of the relative positions of the belief systems, not the movement of any individual. The two belief systems begin far apart, converge through a period of dissonance and end closer together. Individual teachers, however, may stay in the category they began with, skip categories as they move, or move in either direction.

Implications for the Classroom

The findings of our study question the value of the traditional struggle to reconcile conflicting beliefs about evolution and religion. Instead, managing the conflict appears to be the most effective strategy because it allows teachers to comfortably engage in learning about evolution while maintaining the integrity of their religious beliefs. Although the results of this study do not advocate any particular method of teaching evolution, the study does provide insight into how students, paralleling the teachers of the study, may develop their own personal models for managing the conflicts between their belief systems.

In the science classroom, teachers will encounter students who have a wide range of beliefs about religion and evolution. For teachers who may think their students' religious beliefs are not conducive to learning about evolution, a majority of participants in the study sent a clear message that simply increasing their understanding of evolution did not change their personal beliefs about it. In particular, students who parallel teachers in our second and third categories may actively resist learning about evolution. When they perceive a conflict between their religious beliefs and new lessons about evolution, students may choose to hold on to their religious beliefs. These students do not fail to learn about evolution as teachers often think; instead, they actively choose not to learn about evolution.

Teachers who value their students' religious beliefs often feel compelled, as a sincere and genuine expression of their concern, to pass along their own personal management strategies to their students. Our study suggests, however, that managing the conflict between religious beliefs and evolutionary concepts is a highly personal process. While classroom teachers do play a part in how well their students are able to manage the conflict, many other factors are involved, including students' thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and experiences. Students will manage these conflicting issues in varying degrees and many of these management strategies may help even the most deeply religious students to engage in learning about evolution.

We question the ethics of a teacher's attempt to force upon students any type of resolution between the two conflicting belief systems. Not only is changing personal beliefs a very troublesome task, but students who are persuaded to change their beliefs about evolution may also experience distressing changes in their deeply held religious beliefs. Because of the importance of religious beliefs, we caution teachers against forcing persistently resistant students to engage in conflict management strategies. Fortunately, our findings also indicate that changing student religious beliefs may not be necessary for students to engage in learning about evolution.

We also caution teachers against preaching about evolution. Many of us are familiar with strong-arm preaching of religious beliefs. Often the forceful delivery of a message serves more to drive listeners away rather than drawing them near. In our research, participants related parallel stories about their experiences as students in the biology classroom. In these stories, however, the preacher was a biology teacher and the sermon was dogmatic evolution. Rather than to drawing the participants toward learning about evolution, these tactics drove them further away. Drawing a better analogy from religion we suggest that, instead of preaching about evolution, science teachers should bear witness to the facts supporting evolution, to its central role as a powerful scientific explanation, and possibly even to its beauty and mystery. We believe students will respond much better to the winsome witness of a sensitive science teacher than they will to the dogmatic sermons of an evolutionary fundamentalist.

Because of the value of beliefs about both religion and evolution, we encourage teachers to increase their own awareness of how students make sense of evolutionary principles within the context of their religious beliefs. With this information, teachers can make more informed decisions in planning and implementing their instruction.

Lee Meadows, Elizabeth Doster and David F. Jackson are science teacher educators and former science teachers. Meadows teaches in the School of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294; Doster is at East Carolina University and Jackson is at the University of Georgia.

(From "Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion" The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 62, No. 2, February 2000, pp. 102-107.)

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