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
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
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
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
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
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.