Jesus Loves Teaching Evolution

Is there a way to talk about creation and evolution without anger?  Without getting defensive?  Can evangelical Christians teach evolution without alienating their staunchly creationist fellow Christians?

To cut this Gordian knot, Christian biologist Kerry Fulcher offers what he calls his “Pedagogy of Hospitality.”

Fulcher laments the anger and hostility that are so often generated by these questions.  How does he approach teaching evolution in a Christian, creationist environment?

By remembering that love comes first.

Fulcher offers a six-point guide for teaching evolution in a Christian way:

  1. Begin by disarming/diffusing, which creates an openness to listen and discuss vs. feeding the flame that threatens others and causes them to be closed to real dialogue.

  2. Create a reason for the audience to be engaged or care about the topic by helping them understand why open discussion or dialogue about the issue might be helpful to them.

  3. Recognize the complexity of the issue and how an individual’s faith can rightly or wrongly interact with it in foundational ways.

  4. Set the tone of discussion as one of mutual respect for individuals that honors right relationships above right answers.

  5. Set goals of education that promote greater understanding vs. advocacy that promotes winning the argument. This puts us in the uncomfortable position of being OK with others understanding our position without necessarily accepting or believing it.

  6. Honor the individual and their journey by remembering our own – It has taken years and a lot of study and thought to get where I am on this issue, so don’t expect others to make huge leaps in their own positions…be gradual.

Of course, for some pundits on various sides of the creation/evolution debates, Fulcher’s person-first approach raises hackles.  Some creationists might worry that the Bible must always come first, even if some people find it off-putting.  Some evolution advocates might lament this sort of truckling to religious superstition.  The legitimacy of science, they might say, must not be abandoned, even if it hurts the feelings of some religious listeners.

How can someone really understand evolutionary theory, critics might say, without somehow believing it?  Can belief really be separated from understanding?

Though I don’t share Fulcher’s religious faith, I do share his opinion that effective education of any sort must begin by understanding and even loving one’s students.  In the narrow question of evolution education, that means not attacking students’ faiths.  It means beginning and ending with the positive relationships between teacher and student that are at the heart of any good teaching.

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5 Comments

  1. Given the way this is written, I have to assume that the author is referring to adult non-academic education. I do not see how some of these steps are appropriate for science classes in public schools. While I disagree wholeheartedly with the current demand to “teach to the test,” I think students need to know up front what the academic requirements are for successful completion of the course, and that accurate comprehension of the theory and processes of evolution is one of those requirements. I don’t think it is wise for the teacher to bring up the question of religious issues unless students make a point of it. Getting into any discussion of personal religious beliefs in a public school classroom is a dicey proposition, at best. And it must be made clear that handing in a paper arguing for creationism and denouncing evolution may be fine for a course in rhetoric, but not for biology.

    College courses are a different matter. Within the past few days I read one college professor’s description (I don’t recall on which website ~ sorry!) of how he tells his classes at the beginning of the term that he recognizes some of the course material is going to conflict with their religious beliefs, and that he is not asking them to change their religious beliefs, but he does expect them to master the material sufficiently to be able to explain evolution accurately. That seems very fair and appropriate to me.

    Trying to educate public officials who are basing legislation on science denial is another problematic area. Dialogue is fine as far as it goes, but meanwhile they must be stopped from causing harm. Witness the struggle in North Carolina last year over the legislation which would have banned computer modeling of projected sea level rise.

    Reply
    • Excellent points. I assumed Professor Fulcher was talking primarily about teaching evolution in the context of an evangelical college classroom. Very different from what would work in a public school secondary school. In that context, I assume that many of us outside the world of Christian higher education assume erroneously that religious schools teach a dogmatic sort of anti-evolutionism. Professor Fulcher gives a very different vision of the sorts of thinking and teaching that go on. Plus, I think one overall notion DOES apply to all teaching in every sort of school: Instead of beginning with a “deficit” approach to our students, one that assumes our students come from inadequate backgrounds in terms of culture, class, gender, or religion (or any other category), we should begin with the assumption that we want to make all our students feel welcome in our classes. Only then will any sort of real learning occur.

      Reply
  2. Donna

     /  September 25, 2013

    Understanding evolution and not believing it is an interesting idea. My first reaction is well of course someone could understand it and not believe it. But if that is not the case, then what does that look like, or what is the end result? On the other side Adam, you are not a conservative but your area of study is conservatives. Do you think there is a limit to what you can understand, or is it not necessary for you to personally be a conservative or creationist in order to understand? I’m just curious, because I think in part, you are mistaken for being a conservative sometimes because of your understanding.

    Reply
    • Great points. I think the essence of what a historian does is to try to understand people that are by definition different from him, separated in time. Other academic fields, too, such as anthropology, are based on the assumption that we can make some sense of people without ourselves being from that group, that we can understand beliefs that we do not share. In school, though, there is a stronger sense of intellectual mandate. Can a student really be said to have understood her rights as a citizen if she doesn’t think she really has them? Or, even stronger, aren’t schools supposed to get young people to embrace their rights and duties as citizens?
      On the other hand, schooling might be said to be successful only when that imposition is both understood and transcended. A young person who understands her rights and duties as a citizen, yet feels free to act on that knowledge however she chooses, might be said to be better educated than the young person who only learns that she must vote. Or in literature, a student who learns why some people consider King Lear beautiful, yet feels free to agree or disagree might be said to be better educated than a student who only learns that he must find King Lear beautiful.

      Reply
  3. Donna

     /  September 25, 2013

    I should clarify and say in order to fully understand.

    Reply

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