Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

I rarely post an essay on both here and on my homeschooling blog (Quarks and Quirks), but this one fits both. 

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“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

A Letter to My Father: Agnosticism Explained

On the morning of April 19th, the day after a night of gunfire and fear in Watertown, just four days after the Boston Marathon shooting, two days after the explosion in West, Texas, and two days after the Senate refused to pass tighter laws regarding the acquisition of guns, I felt a deep sadness. I felt a need to connect with family, to receive the comfort of talking to someone who worried often and thought deeply, so I called my dad. Since time was short on his end, my dad emailed me with some reassurance and concerns that events like these had led to my adult-onset agnosticism. Was my agnosticism a theodicy problem (the existence of evil in the presence of a good and omnipotent God) putting science in conflict with religion?  Nope. This is the letter, slightly edited for an audience who hasn’t known me the past 43 years, I sent in return:

Dad,

Thanks.  The business of the day provided plenty of distraction. It’s hard to be so far from family when the world shows its grungier human and even natural (Texas explosion) side, and this week has served up plenty of all that.

I don’t know how far back you’ve read [of this blog], but the loss of faith is multifactorial. I simply can’t reconcile the idea of any omnipotent or omniscient deity with what I see and sense. It doesn’t work with my science understanding, although I don’t see a conflict between the two. I just don’t see the evidence. I can’t reconcile that a deity active in lives on Earth — could exist without being, well, I’ll just say mean. It’s not a question of being evil,  but the logic just doesn’t work for me.  As far a god just watching and loving us, that honestly seems rather insufficient and pointless. If I loved my children but never protected them, supported them visibly, or otherwise operated in their lives, what kind of parent would I be? And what good is that love? God weeping isn’t a comfort. Deism I can almost see, but that offers little on a day-to-day basis.

Is there an overarching element of the universe that makes the pieces bigger than the whole, something greater than us? Love? Community? The best of humanity? A few years back, I’d have given an unequivocal yes. Now I’m less certain. I believe and trust in love, the human spirit, the universe, and nature’s ability to find every crack and crevice, taking hold and bringing forth more life. I believe people can continually try to do better and work harder to make the world a better place for the very least of us and to the Earth itself. I believe that while we’re hard-wired to be out for ourselves that our vast and as of yet poorly understood brains can buck that wiring. Thus people run toward the explosion. Thus parents sacrifice for children. Thus we rebound from tragedy more determined to live and love well. I am hopelessly optimistic and desperately realistic, a mix that gives me heartburn and hope.

I see no conflict between this event and going to Boston [a planned upcoming vacation]. After 9-11, with a four-year old and a newborn, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Of course, there were no places we were headed, but hunkering down seemed best. I don’t feel that way this time. I fly. I go places where there could be risk (well, not like I have huge opportunities).Just as anyone else, I’m good at rationalizing my own safety. Heck, it’s either that or be chronically scared. And I really don’t want to be chronically scared.

It’s not events like this that shook my faith. That faith fell away gradually over many years, lessening as I moved from the Catholic church to the Episcopal church, and there drastically changing. Not because of anything there, but just because I had more room to think. And I’m quite settled in my agnosticism. The universe still holds all its mystery, love holds all its power, and life holds all its miraculous nature. I’ve lost, in my opinion, nothing at all. I do good on Earth because I am here on Earth, not because there is a God to whom I’m accountable (and idea I can’t embrace and really never could). I can wonder at the universe and can’t see why a God would need or desire mere human praise. It seems like narcissism on a grand scale. I can grieve and fear, knowing I’m not alone in the universe but that others have grieved and feared as humans have for all of human kind. I’m not alone, and I can’t see where, for me, a belief in God would add any more meaning or purpose than I feel now.

I completely respect those who find solace in the divine in whatever form. I don’t understand those who use belief to divide and sort humanity. The God they claim is irreconcilable with the way I see the world, and it sickens me. Jesus had it right, but most Christians don’t have it right about Jesus. Sometimes I miss what I felt about God — the comfort, the assurance — a decade or two ago, but I could no more talk myself into believing again than I could talk myself into believing the Creation story or the flood. It’s not, at this point of my life, a two-way street. Now, I know I (hopefully) have decades ahead of me, and my mind could change. So be it. But now, I just don’t see that happening.

I’m  happy, I’m whole, and I respect that you believe. I don’t doubt that my agnosticism tugs at you somewhat, but I know you well enough to know that you respect my way of seeing the world, too.

Love,

Sarah

My dad’s reply was swift: “THANKS!”  Thanks to you, Dad. I love you.