UPDATE: I forgot to include the blurb from the ASU news office summarizing the accommodationist study discussed in this post. It says this:
Then, the class discussed that science can answer certain questions and religion can answer other questions. According to Brownell [one of the study’s authors], evolution and science in general are excellent when it comes to answering “what and how?”, but religion is able to answer “why?”
“Science can’t really answer why,” Brownell said. “In the same way, religion can’t really explain how something actually works. They’re just two different ways of knowing. So, presenting that to students helped them see they don’t have to be in conflict. They can have both of these beliefs and use them to answer different questions.”
This, of course, is Gould’s solution, but it’s even worse, because Brownell states flatly that religion IS ABLE TO ANSWER WHY QUESTIONS that science can’t.
Can anything be more tendentious–and ludicrous–than such a claim? Religion can’t answer any “why questions,” because it has no method for answering them to everyone’s satisfaction. As we all know, different religions given different “answers”, and they’re often flatly contradictory. To tell students that religion can answer questions about purposes, meanings, and values is to lie to those students in the service of getting them to accept evolution. Unlike creationists, who are lying for Jesus, Brownell and her colleagues are lying for Darwin.
It’s one thing to think that science and religion are compatible; it’s another to devise methods of indoctrinating students with that belief—a belief that, after all, depends on how you construe “compatible” as well as which religion you’re talking about. Plenty of scientists, and a considerable number of believers, don’t think science and religion are compatible, and in Faith Versus Fact I argue for incompatibility on the grounds that both endeavors are based, at bottom, on factual assertions about the cosmos, and that only science has a valid method for determining what’s true. That is, the incompatibility rests on grounds of methodology, outcome, and philosophy, which diverge markedly between science and faith.
The big battle between the two areas is, of course, fought mostly in the arena of evolution. Now if you construe “compatibility” as “the ability to be religious and accept evolution at the same time,” well then you’re home free, because many religious scientists accept evolution (examples: Ken Miller and Francis Collins), and many religious laypeople also accept evolution. But that’s not compatibility; it’s compartmentalization. Another “proof” of compatibility is Steve Gould’s claim that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA): the claim that the domains of science and religion are mutually exclusive. As Gould said in his book Rocks of Ages (see my review here), Gould defined these non-overlapping domains:
“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”
But in Faith Versus Fact I argue that this claim is also wrong—for two reasons. First, religion doesn’t limit itself to studying meaning, purposes, and values; it makes factual assertions, and not just about Jesus and the Resurrection, either. If religion didn’t make factual assertions, then creationism wouldn’t be so popular in America, and nobody would go to the Ark Park. This is why the most vocal opponents of Gould’s thesis are not scientists, but theologians who realize that their faiths do depend on factual assertions (see my book for what they say). Second, “purposes, meanings, and values” are not the sole purview of religion. There’s a long history of secular philosophy, beginning with the ancient Greeks, that deals precisely with those issues.
But there are those who are accommodationists for tactical reasons: if we can convince religious people that evolution is compatible with their faith, opposition to evolution, they say, would wane. This, for instance, was one goal of the National Center for Science Education, and remains the main goal of the organization BioLogos, founded by Francis Collins. That this tactic hasn’t worked very well (forcing BioLogos to devote a lot of its energy and money to Christian apologetics) hasn’t stopped people from pushing accommodationism as a weapon against creationism.
And that is the explicit aim of M. Elizabeth Barnes, James Elser, and Sara E. Brownell, who published an accommodationist “experiment” in the latest issue of The American Biology Teacher, an experiment designed to see whether telling kids that evolution and religion are compatible would make them accept that. Their paper (free online, with pdf here, reference below) was also touted as “resolving the conflict between evolution and religion” by Arizona State University (ASU), where the three authors work.
It’s very clear from the paper, and explicitly stated, that the authors’ aim was to convince students that evolutuion and religion were compatible; it wasn’t just a “let’s-do-this-and-see-what-happens” approach. If that were the case, they should have done the mirror study in which they try to convince students that religion and evolution are incompatible. They claim, though, that if they don’t teach compatibility, religious students tend to see a greater incompatibility after learning about evolution.
I’ll be brief in describing the study. The authors added a two-week “compatibility module” to one first-year class in biology at a “large public university located in the southwest United States.” Surely it must be ASU! Students’ religiosity and their perception about whether religion conflicted with evolution was measured both before and after the module was inflicted on the helpless students. The module included the following:
- Guest scientists!. As the paper notes, they had an accommodationist and what appears to be a “control” visit by scientists, which seems unnecessary since the class wasn’t split into two bits. Rather, the “second guest” was added to provide a female role model (why did that add that?) as well as to highlight new research. All quotes are from the paper:
“The students met with two guest scientists during the module. The first guest was a biologist who is a devout Roman Catholic and a public defender of evolution. In class, the students were shown a video of this biologist discussing the potential compatibility of religion and evolution. [JAC: My bet is that this was Ken Miller.] Then the biologist videoconferenced with the students in class and discussed his own journey of reconciling his Catholic faith with evolution. This biologist’s visit was meant to provide students with a potential scientist role model who is both religious and an advocate for evolution, thus demonstrating that religion and evolution do not have to be in conflict. The second guest was an evolutionary biologist and ecologist. She videoconferenced with the class and discussed her research on microbial communities. The purpose of her visit was to provide students with a female scientist role model who studies evolution and to showcase that current researchers are working on evolutionary problems.”
- Readings and videos, which included the odious National Academy Report, which is thoroughly accommodationist:
“Students were required to read a chapter on natural selection and a chapter on speciation from their textbook Biological Science (Freeman et al., 2013). Students were also assigned to read a handbook from the National Academy of Sciences entitled Science, Evolution, and Creationism (NAS, 2008). A theme throughout the handbook is that evolution and religion can be compatible with one another. For instance, the handbook explains how science only explores natural causes in the natural world and is neutral to the existence of God. The handbook also includes statements from biologists and religious leaders explaining how religion and evolution can be compatible.
The students also watched videos about evolution itself, and were propagandized about accommodationism by the instructors:
“Similar to the Science, Evolution, and Creationism handbook, the course instructor highlighted that scientists study natural causes within the natural world, whereas religious ideas address questions of morality, purpose, and the existence of a higher power. In accordance with the NOMA paradigm described in the introduction, the course instructor told students that if religion was bounded to address questions of only purpose, ethics, and the existence of a God/gods, then it is not in conflict with evolution. In one of these videos, the instructor described the history of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”
- In-class activities. These included making a timeline of the universe and evolution, doing a simulation of natural selection, and having a discussion of the evidence for evolution and counterarguments by creationists.
The results. 95 students took the course and the module, and 60 of these completed the pre- and post-module surveys of religiosity and whether they saw evolution in conflict with religion. The results are shown in the graph below; note that the Y axis is “numbers of students”, which aren’t numerous
As you see, the number of students who saw a conflict before the module dropped from 32 to 21 (the graph appears to be erroneous here), and the number who saw them as initially compatible rose from about 14 to 28 (I’m estimating from the graph here, as numbers aren’t given in the text.) Those who were unclear about the issue increased very slightly. Notably, no student changed their perception from “compatibility” to “conflict”, while 18% of all students changed their perception from “conflict” to “compatibility”.
When the authors looked at religious vs. nonreligious students (they assessed this by deeming students “religious” if they fell in the upper half of the religiosity scale), 28% of religious students changed from either “unclear” or “conflict” to “compatibility”, while 35% of nonreligious students made the same switch. In other words, the module was slightly more effective with nonreligious than with religious students—an unexpected result.
It’s clear that both the authors and ASU think this is a great result, not just an interesting finding, and one that needs to be implemented in many classrooms. As the ASU blurb notes:
Evolution is a historically controversial topic, and those that hold religious beliefs often reject the concept due to a perceived conflict between the two. However, in a study published in the journal American Biology Teacher, a group of Arizona State University researchers proved that evolution and religion don’t need to be at odds in the classroom.
“A ton of our students still don’t accept evolution, and the number one reason is because of their religious beliefs,” said Sara Brownell, a faculty member in the Center for Evolution and Medicine. “We could ask students to choose, but the reality is that for the most part they aren’t going to give up those beliefs to learn evolution. But while it’s often presented in the literature and popular press as an either-or situation, it doesn’t have to be.”
. . . As it turned out, simply talking about the subject went a long way toward clearing the air between religion and evolution. Brownell explained that, due to personal beliefs or the potential for controversy, many teachers shy away from the subject. However, this study demonstrates that embracing the discussion will help keep religious students from rejecting evolution, which Brownell described as the core thread that connects all areas of biology.
As a next step, Brownell and Barnes plan to condense what was previously a two hour module into a ten minute discussion. The thinking is, if they can condense this down to such a short period of time, teachers lose very little class time discussing it and stand to help students a great deal.
My objection to this study is that it was tendentious, didn’t look at the effect of the mirror-image study, used small samples, and, most important, took a particular theological point of view, pushing it on students in a public (state) university. This module requires a special interpretation of religion—one saying that it is not at all in conflict with evolution. Yet many religionists feel otherwise.
In other words, the instructors, in a well-meaning attempt to get people to accept evolution, are propagandizing the students with theological views. That’s clear since they trotted in a religious scientist and let the students read accommodationist literature while denying them arguments about the incompatibility of faith and evolution, which I see as powerful. (Why else are most scientists nonreligious—far more so than the general public?) By pushing a particular view of theology on the students, I see the experiment as a First Amendment violation. Would it be any better if the professor propagandized the students with a view that science and religion are incompatible? For that, at least, is a philosophical rather than a theological view. But if they did that, they’d be excoriated. Such is the eagerness of Americans to “respect” faith—the tendency to believe without evidence.
But in my own view, they should leave the accommodationism or anti-accommodationism out of public school classes. Just teach the damn science, and let the students work out the issues themselves. To do otherwise is to push a certain view of religion on them, one that should be left to parents, private discussion, or preachers. The authors of this paper are going the route of Elaine Ecklund at Rice, who has devoted her career to accommodationism. It’s not a pretty endeavor. And it’s injurious because it lets the students retain their view that faith, belief without evidence, is a valid way to accept religious claims.
By the way, Elizabeth Barnes’s online c.v. shows further entanglement with religion, as she got money from BioLogos:
Biologos Travel Grant: Awarded $500 to cover travel expenses to present research and collect data at the Evolution and Christian Faith 2015 conference hosted by the Biologos foundation. Awarded March 2015.
Barnes, M. E., J. Elser, and S. E. Brownell. 2017. Impact of a Short Evolution Module on Students’ Perceived Conflict between Religion and Evolution. The American Biology Teacher 79:104-111.