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An evolving encounter

06 June 2014

Pam Hanley considers the task of teaching both evolution and religion in schools


CAN religious belief prevent engagement with science at school? For some, Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection contradicts tenets of faith, including the individual creation of species, and the uniqueness of human beings.

Eager for headlines, mainstream media sniff out any hint of controversy, often presenting it as a simplified debate about evolution versus creationism, pitching science against religion.

The exploratory research we carried out sought to investigate how the origin of life was being handled in schools, and whether students found what they were taught in science incompatible with their religious or cultural perspectives. And, if they did, how did they cope?

The study focused on four state schools in England, which were chosen to represent particular contexts. One was a church school; one a non-faith school, where the majority of students came from a Muslim background; and two were non-faith schools that drew from no particular faith background. Student surveys and focus groups (involving more than 200 teenagers aged from 14 to 16) were conducted across the four schools.

An item on the questionnaire asked how human life originated. There were three options: human beings were created by God pretty much in their present form (creationism), or they had developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life (evolution), God either playing some part in this process or not. Alternatively, students could write in their own answer.

Just over 100 students who took part in the study had no formal religious affiliation; 77 described themselves as Christian; and 26 were Muslim. Most students (85 per cent) with no religious affiliation opted for evolution with no divine involvement.

In contrast, creationism was the overwhelming choice of Muslim students (23 out of 26). There was much less consensus among those students who described themselves as Christian. Although more than half thought that there had been gradual development, with some involvement from God, almost one in five (18 per cent) opted for gradual development without God's involvement, and only slightly fewer (14 per cent) believed the creationist viewpoint.

Teachers at the non-faith, mixed catchment school did not expect to find any creationist views among students. One in ten of their students favoured the "special creation" explanation, however, compared with only one in 20 in the church school. This shows that it is unwise for teachers to make assumptions about students based on superficial knowledge of their faith. A lack of a verbal challenge during lessons does not necessarily indicate acquiescence.

From all the information collected, a model was developed that classified students by their willingness to engage with the interrelationship between science and religion. Their preference for belief-based or scientific theory-based knowledge, tolerance of uncertainty, open-mindedness, and perception of science and religion (as in conflict or harmony) proved critical.

Four categories emerged: resisters, confused, reconciled, and explorers. Some indication of the prevalence of each group has been given alongside descriptions below. Because the model was developed based on just four schools representing particular contexts, however, it is impossible to generalise the findings to the wider school population.

The resisters were very defensive. They valued belief-based knowledge above scientific theory, and were unable or unwilling to reconcile science with religion. Resisters resented having their beliefs challenged: "Why do we have to know? We have religious points of view in our head, and we have to look at science and it gets all muddled up." Several (but importantly not all) of the Muslim students were in this group.

The confused often perceived science and religion as being in competition, and found belief- and science-based knowledge systems equally compelling. They struggled to be sufficiently open-minded to achieve resolution. They tended either to be students with a strong faith who were favourably disposed towards science, or those who had not considered the issue previously and had insufficient time during the focus group to reach any logical conclusion.

In contrast, the reconciled had a world-view where science and religion were in harmony, although they tended to give precedence to belief over fact.

One student said: "The reason behind the Big Bang theory would be because God wanted the Big Bang to happen." This was the dominant group in the church school, and the most common position among other non-literalist Christian students.

Explorers enjoyed the challenge of fitting together religious and scientific viewpoints. They evaluated scientific knowledge against faith-based beliefs, were willing to question, and were comfortable dealing with a lack of resolution, as this Muslim girl exemplified: "Once we start learning about everything, we start seeing things in a different way, and it might change our perspective". This group was rare in the researched schools.

One thing was clear from this study: for those with a strong faith, insensitive teaching of evolution is an attack on the very core of their identity. How can this be avoided?

In the UK, the origin of life is covered in both science and RE. This provides a wonderful opportunity to combine the strengths of both disciplines. Cross-curricular collaboration between the science and RE departments would benefit both teachers and students. Science teachers could learn from their RE colleagues about tackling controversial issues sensitively; RE teachers could learn more about the complex science behind evolutionary theory.

Most importantly, the resulting sympathetic and coherent teaching approach would give students the confidence to ask questions, and explore any doubts, without fear of ridicule.

Pam Hanley is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Effective Education at York University.

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