Teaching Evolution at a Faith-Based University (Faith and Science 7)

It seems to me that there are three main options for the faith-based scientist in the science classroom. 1) Teach science the way the average believer in the pew (and some church administrators) want you to teach it, disparaging evolutionary science and scientists, and highlighting only the evidences for creation. 2) Teach science the way you were taught in secular, graduate schools and let the religion teachers worry about the fallout. 3) Teach micro and macroevolution as significant and helpful scientific disciplines but also expose your faith to the students and show how you have maintained your faith in the face of what many consider overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The first option would probably be the simplest way out for scientists in a faith-based institution. But experience has taught scientists of faith that if you do that, most students and their parents will be comfortable, but the same students will often lose their faith when they move to graduate school at a secular university or to a scientific workplace. Easy and shallow answers can crumble overnight in the face of what comes at you as overwhelming evidence. To not prepare students of faith for graduate school and the workday world they will face later on is simply irresponsible, comfortable though it might be. The second option is also relatively simple, but is also irresponsible in my opinion. If science teaching in a faith-based institution is no different than that taught anywhere else, why should any aspiring scientist choose a faith-based institution for their studies?

So that leaves the third option as the most responsible approach. The problem is this, if you do teach evolutionary science in a responsible way, some students and many parents will be angered. And some students will likely lose their faith along the way no matter what you do. But if you prepare them well, the majority of students will withstand the scientific challenges of graduate school and the workplace and will be preserved to serve the church with their wisdom and talents. In many ways it is a thankless task, but I honor all scientists of faith who teach according to their consciences, in spite of criticism. Such teaching will be misunderstood, so it requires great courage. But I believe the outcomes of such courageous teaching will be celebrated in eternity.

Should the science professor be satisfied that fifty to seventy per cent of his or her students keep their faith in spite of the challenges of scientific evidence and theories? Of course not. Every student lost to the faith is a tragedy. Scientists of faith must constantly observe and experiment to learn the best ways to introduce troubling material to young and sensitive minds. In the process there will always be tension with those on both extremes whose minds are made up. But it seems to me that the effectiveness of scientific education in a faith-based university should be judged, not on what the professor teaches, but on the outcomes in the lives of the students and graduates. Students are relatively fragile creatures, easily broken. Scientists of faith who love people will care deeply about the impact of their teaching.

There is a strong tendency in today’s world to push to the extremes. This is very evident in political speech and often also in the theological and scientific realms. Instead of a genuine search for truth, people prefer to cherry-pick the evidence that supports a predetermined conclusion. This happens on both sides of the origins debate. A theologian of faith is easily tempted to ignore the problems by focusing only on evidence that challenges the prevailing theory and disparage all who disagree as perverse. The evolutionary scientist may, consciously or unconsciously, avoid experiments and evidence that don’t fit the prevailing theory, because a God who acts in history is not a working concept for him or her. Scientists of faith, I believe, will know and teach the assumptions on both sides, assumptions that color the evidence and the models one creates to explain the evidence. Scientists of faith will acquaint themselves with alternate interpretations of the data, so they can compare different ways of understanding the evidence. Helping students sort out the strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the tension will prepare them to evaluate the arguments they will face in later years.

Both evolutionists and creationists tend to overstate their case to make a point. The less you know about the subject, the easier it is to buy in to one or the other of the over-statements. A truly informed view creates anomalies and challenges that are hard for less-educated people to hold together. So there will always be both value and shortcomings in a less-educated faith perspective. But all other things being equal, a more-educated faith is much to be preferred.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Evolution at a Faith-Based University (Faith and Science 7)

  1. Ian M Fraser

    Is it possible that option 3 could include discussion of the alternative models proposed by other conservative Christians? These may range from theistic evolution to successive creations to Satanic involvement prior to a 6000 year creation to a longer but stil short time scale to other possibilities. Is the official Adventist creation model the only alternative to standard scientific evolutionary model that can be discussed under option 3?

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