Christian School Causes Student to Abandon Creationism

How can parents make sure their children don’t lose their faiths? Enrolling them in religious school is not enough. As a recent story from the BioLogos Forum makes clear, education ranges far beyond schooling. Too many hasty critics, religious and secular alike, have assumed that we can control education by controlling schooling. It’s just not that simple.

This Christian learned to embrace evolution, but not in school...

This Christian learned to embrace evolution, but not in school…

In the pages of the BioLogos Forum, college sophomore Garrett Crawford shared his educational story. Crawford was raised in a conservative evangelical household. He went to a Christian school, one that presumably hoped to shield Crawford’s faith from secularism. While at that school, Crawford relates, he grew curious about the scientific evidence for evolution. After a lot of reading and study, Crawford concluded that he could no longer believe in young-earth creationism. After a lot more reading and study, Crawford concluded that Christian faith does not require a belief in a young earth. It is entirely theologically legitimate, he decided, to accept the science of evolution.

In Crawford’s case, his education took him in directions his school never intended.

Such stories shouldn’t surprise us. After all, with just a moment or two of reflection, we can all think of ways that our “education” has differed from our “schooling.” Yet in all of our tumultuous educational culture wars, pundits rush to make sweeping claims about education based on scanty evidence from schools.

We’ve seen this recently in the pages of the New York Times, when philosopher Justin McBrayer declared–based on data that was not just slim, but positively anorexic–that Our Schools Were Training Amoral Monsters.

Among conservative Christians, too, this tradition of school-bashing has a long history.  In the 1970s, for example, fundamentalist school leader A.A. “Buzz” Baker decried the tendency of many conservative Christians to rush into school-founding for the wrong reasons. In his book The Successful Christian School (1979) Baker warned that too many parents and pastors rushed to open new schools because they thought

Public education has failed! It is failing to provide a good academic education while exposing our children to a godless, secular-humanistic approach to life.

Leading young-earth creationists have long assumed that the best way to protect their children’s faith is by attending creationism-friendly schools. Ken Ham, for example, argued that Christian colleges and universities can lead students astray from true faith when they abandon young-earth thinking. As he put it,

the real issue concerns Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries that break away from the authority of Scripture in Genesis—held to by the majority of scholars up through the Reformation—and teach students that God’s Word doesn’t mean what it says. That’s what makes students doubt the truthfulness of the Bible as a whole, and can be a major reason many of them walk away from the Christian (not “creationist”) faith, as we see happening in our culture today.

From the other side, many secular or liberal critics insist that fundamentalist schools are nothing but indoctrination factories. As friend of ILYBYGTH (FOILYBYGTH) Jonny Scaramanga told the BBC, his fundamentalist schooling experiences were nothing short of “horrendous.” During his sojourn in a fundamentalist school, Scaramanga remembers, he did nothing but recite back theological nostrums. The school was so socially crippling, Scaramanga relates, for the rest of his life he was “always playing catch up.”

Scaramanga’s own case, however, shows that schooling of any sort is only one part of a person’s education. Scaramanga himself has now become a leading voice in the anti-fundamentalist education scene. Like Garrett Crawford, Scaramanga’s education took him in directions that his schooling never intended.

The take-away? Of course we should all care about the way schools operate. Better schools will help produce better educations for all students. At the same time, though, we all need to remind ourselves that formal schooling makes up only one slice—sometimes a small slice—of a person’s education.

How many of us, after all, can say that we came out the way our schools intended?


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.

Not Jesus OR Evolution, Jesus AND Evolution

What dead-end questions do we keep asking in our continuing creation/evolution debates?

  • What does real science say?
  • What does real religion require?
  • What does the Bible mean?
  • How does the evidence prove the claims of Darwin?

As we’ve seen recently, smart people can bump heads endlessly on these questions without ever convincing one another.  As I argued in my 1920s book, these go-nowhere debates have been going on for almost a century.

More evidence today that the real question we should be asking is different.  Instead of asking about true religion or true science, it seems the real question is simpler:

  • Who am I?

A piece on the BioLogos Forum recently demonstrates the centrality of this basic question to attitudes about evolution and creation.

Geochemist Steven M. Smith relates his story.  For followers of the creation/evolution controversy, it is a familiar one.  An earnest young Young Earth Creationist sees the scientific evidence for a young earth.  This evidence brings on not only a scientific or religious crisis, but an existential one.  As Smith relates, his young self felt forced to choose between his Christian identity and the unassailable evidence of science.

For Smith, it was Christian support, including the “Christ-like” model of a Christian academic mentor that convinced him that he could be both Christian and scientific.

Smith’s story is not an outlier.  As anthropologist and science educator David Long argued so convincingly in his book Evolution and Religion in American Education, the central question for most students is not one of scientific evidence or religious belief.  The real question is one of identity.  Evidence that contradicts deeply held beliefs can trigger an existential crisis.  Though a few extraordinary individuals might pull off a wholesale revolution in their understandings of their selves, most people reject the evidence and stick with their well-established identities.  In the case of Long’s study of biology students at a large secular public university, most students from creationist backgrounds did not “convert” to belief in evolution.

As Steven Smith’s story suggests, simply pouring more science on people will not make much of a difference.  If we want to promote more and better evolution education, we need to consider the profound implications of evolution for the identities of many creationists.  An acceptance of evolution, for many, is not simply an acquiescence to evidence.  Instead, unless and until they find a way to construct an identity consonant with both their religion and the scientific evidence, it would entail a wholesale revolution in their understandings of themselves.

If we want more people, more creationists, to accept the evidence for an old earth and common ancestry of species, it makes sense to support those religious folks who can help create and promote such identities.


Creationists: Randy Moore Wants Your Children!

There is no doubting Randy Moore’s evolution-education credentials.

A professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Professor Moore has received the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin award, and the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education award.

Randy Moore, in short, has long been one of the most engaging and engaged voices in the campaign to get more evolution education into America’s schools.

And what is Moore’s most recent argument to make America’s schools more evolution-friendly?

In a remarkable article in the “evolutionary-creationist” BioLogos Forum, Moore and colleague Sehoya Cotner offered two recommendations for improving evolution education:

1.) Let Jesus teach it!

2.) Catch creationist kids young!

Here are their actual words:

“We know of no evidence that the availability of such solely science-focused workshops, seminars, and other forms of evolution-related education will significantly affect what creationism-based biology teachers teach. Since the impediments to better teaching of evolution are primarily the philosophical and religious views of biology teachers, programs that do not address the more personal, ‘non-science’ issues of science educators directly and effectively are likely to have little impact on what students learn in high-school biology classrooms. Instead, if further fact-based instruction in evolution is part of the answer, it is likely to be most effective with young children, who are developmentally primed to seek explanations for natural phenomena. However, evolution instruction is essentially absent prior to high-school biology; by high school, a student’s teleological demands have likely been met by supernatural explanations, creating a cycle of adults who know little about evolution and teach creationism-flavored biology.”

In other words, as Moore and Cotner convincingly demonstrate, simply assuming that the scientific evidence for evolution will convince creationist teachers has not worked, and will not work.  They rely heavily on the research of Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer.  Instead, evolution education needs to get away from the delusion that the scientific evidence alone will do the job.  With adults, effective evolution education, as Moore and Cotner contend, must address “philosophical and religious” issues involved.  This conclusion makes eminent sense.  However, it brings us to an awkward realization: science education must range far beyond science education to be effective science education.  Are creationist teachers to be taught that Jesus wants them to accept evolution?  That seems to be Moore’s and Cotner’s implication, and it raises a host of thorny issues.

The second prong of their policy argument is equally radical.  If “fact-based” evolution education is to work, Moore and Cotner argue, it must reach young students before their families’ influence has become decisive.  In other words, effective evolution education must evangelize aggressively to counter the “supernatural explanations” offered young people by their parents and church leaders.  Effective evolution education must seek to replace those family influences with the influence of scientific evidence.

Randy Moore has long been one of the smartest voices in the field of evolution education.  And his logic in this article seems uncontrovertible.  Yet it raises disturbing questions.  Can evolution educators discuss “philosophical and religious” implications of evolutionary theory?  Doesn’t that amount to sectarian religious education?  In other words, if science educators try to teach that Jesus is not against evolution, isn’t that making a strictly religious argument?

And we need to ask tough questions about targeting young minds:  Can a campaign to reach young creationist kids work?  Is it the place of public education to target family culture and religion?