Ideologically motivated teachers indoctrinate students into thinking that science and religion are compatible

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.


(From paper): The number of students who had a perception of conflict or compatibility between religion and evolution pre- to post-evolution module. “Unclear” means the student’s answer could not be unambiguously characterized as whether they perceived religion and evolution to be in conflict or compatible.

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.


Brownell (left) and Barnes, apparently overjoyed that they achieved accommodation in the students. Photo from ASU blurb.

h/t: Todd


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.


  1. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Disappointing on several levels. “Just teach the damn science,” as you said. Not to mention logic.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Even more important, teach the scientific method.

      Teach what a scientific theory is and how totally different it is from “Watson, I have a theory that the butler did it.”

      Teach how scientific theories aren’t true or false, they’re just better or worse than competing theories at describing observations and making reliable predictions.

      I had a college chemistry teacher who told our class the story of phlogiston, but sadly, he was laughing all the way through about how “wrong” those foolish scientists were. I laughed too, but later I realized that he just didn’t get it.

      • Zach
        Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Shame. That could have been a real teaching moment about how the phlogiston theory of fire was superseded by the combustion theory we have today.

        If I had to teach evolution to students (of any age/grade), I would start with what I call Anaximander’s paradox, which is basically the chicken-or-egg paradox applied to humans. The first human couldn’t have been a baby, because it would have died without parents to take care of it. But it couldn’t have been an adult either, because adults grow from babies. What gives?

        I would mention some ways various cultures have addressed this origin problem, including the “a magical being conjured people from dust” theory (versus Anaximander, who thought the first humans gestated inside fish and sprang out as adults), and eventually work my way to 19th science and the voyage of the Beagle.

        Think that would go over well?

        • Posted February 21, 2017 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          “Anaximander … thought the first humans gestated inside fish” — well, give or take millions of generations, that’s not so far from the truth! #tiktaalik


      • Christopher Bonds
        Posted February 21, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        The scientific method IS logic–tied to what we are able to perceive of the universe.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink


  2. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    ASU is in deep with the Templeton Foundation.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Except perhaps for Lawrence Krauss…

  3. eric
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Ack, why are they wasting time discussing this in a biology class?

    This sort of discussion – minus the bias in favor of compatibility – is IMO custom built for a philosophy of science class. Its the sort of subject that fits right in philosophy’s wheelhouse.

    Second, getting someone to accept that the views are compatible is not the same thing as getting someone to accept that evolution is the best scientific theory for explaining the facts we observe. THAT is the lesson young science students need to learn and internalize. If someone comes out of the class thinking “sure, I see them as philosophically compatible…but I’m still a YEC because I still think YECism is the better fit to the data,” then the unit has failed. It’s that lesson about which theory best fits the data that is the crux of the science.

    Lastly, IMO this is something of a close-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-has-left solution. Okay, so you have the ability to get 28% of religious students to accept the concepts are compatible…in mainstream colleges. But the battle over evolution education is primarily being fought in high schools, and most of the victims (of poor science education) probably will never take biology in a mainstream college. This unit is basically focused on the ‘lowest risk’ group – i.e. the people who you probably didn’t need to intervene with anyway.

  4. Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    My situation was different because I taught at a different level, university, with mostly non-science majors, at the edge of the Bible belt. I did explicitly teach accomodationism, and I don’t apologize for it.

    I knew from long teaching experience (including anonymous questionnaires I had them fill out at the end of classes) that the majority my students would let evolution just wash into their brains long enough for the test and then out again. The problem wasn’t how the facts were presented, but a certainty that the stories in Genesis were literally true. Therefore, I talked about those stories.

    My points: There are two incompatible creation stories. (Different orders of events, which they brushed off, and different images of God, more of a problem for them.) The first creation story is poetry, perhaps a hymn. Beautiful even if you don’t believe it, but not necessarily history. The second story is a fragment of a larger story, relatively primitive. (I personally like the image of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.}

    Therefore [from a stance of believing the Bible], the stories must be there to convey a message (God created heaven and earth) and not to convey history.

    And anyway, what if God managed to convey the real story (very old earth, gradual evolution) to a prophet? Would that prophet have the words to convey it to his goat-herding audience? If they did, would the audience get the message, or would they get hung up on the details of dinosaurs, trilobites, etc.?

    Therefore: the creation stories aren’t history (however true they may be in some way) and evolution is true.

    Giving students a different way of interpreting the Bible was shocking for some of them. Some talked to me as they reconsidered the interpretation they’d been given. I think it was good for them, destabilizing the rigid interpretation they had grown up with.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      It helped that I had enough university-level classes in what I’d call real biblical scholarship (not the stuff you’d get a fundamentalist schools) that I could hold my position confidently and with evidence if students pushed back on the bible-interpretation side, which some did.

    • Sshort
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Really good points. As a bible-belter myself, I was utterly amazed at fellow students… good students… who could ace their exams on biology and evolution and not change their creationist views one whit…

      Just get the good grades, get a good job, join a good church and teach bible fundamentalism to your kids just like you was taught.

      So dishonest. But they were only concerned with their “truth”.

      • Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Or, as the kids say these days, the Bible is fake (good) news.

      • Posted February 22, 2017 at 2:16 am | Permalink

        “I was utterly amazed at fellow students… good students… who could ace their exams on biology and evolution and not change their creationist views one whit…”

        In the days before plate tectonics, those of us who accepted the evidence from geology and paleontology for mobile continents had to do the same.

        Problem is that most science in schools is taught the same way as theology. Ditto a lot of science at university level.

        Hard to teach science as a way to find out how the physical and biological world works, Much easier to teach science as dogma, which is one of the reasons Richard Feynman was so respected.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Do you know the price of papyrus?


      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted February 22, 2017 at 4:14 am | Permalink

        Lovely. Asimov at his best.

    • Posted February 22, 2017 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Great points. Most of us don’t have the privilege of teaching evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago where I suspect the proportion of student coming into the class with no religious objections to evolution is considerably lower than say in WV where I happen to teach.

      I think it’s very easy for some one in Jerry Coyne’s position to say “just teach the damn science” (as if we don’t) when you are teaching to a much more receptive classroom.

      Religion is not going away any time soon and we need to decide as science educators if basic science literacy is more important than an anti-religion agenda.

      • Posted February 22, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry, but I also taught at the University of Maryland, and have lectured many times in the southern U.S. about evolution (once I had an armed guard). I always taught the damn science and never mentioned religion except to say that the creationist account isn’t supported by evidence (something Darwin also did in the Origin). I am not “privileged” for I’ve talked about evolution all over the world.

        Fortunately, I can wear different hats at different times, so we don’t have to decide between promoting evolution and fighting religion. And, as I said, there’s NO evidence that an evolutionist who criticizes religion actually turns people away from evolution. In fact, if you want to get rid of opposition to evolution, the best way is to make people less religious, for virtually all opposition to evolution stems from religious beliefs, creating blinders that immunize people against the truth.

        Now that you’ve been snarky toward the host, which is forbidden on this site, I suggest you go pontificate elsewhere.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Smells a lot like Templeton as well. It’s an effort to trick people, just like religion does all the time. First we do this little brain washing exercise and then you will believe us when we teach you. Like has been said many times – the only way to except facts is to drop the religion.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      sorry…accept facts.

  6. Sshort
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    So were they discussing “religion” and science or liberal Catholic theology and evolution(I think the Ken Miller bet is solid)?

    Let’s get an Imam or two in here for balance. And a BYU prof to discuss the truth clams of Mormonism. Perhaps scientology vs science deserves a nod.

    Faith vs. Fact should have been required reading at the outset.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I imagine that in some places mentioning that Miller (if that is who it was) is Catholic will work *against* you.

  7. Posted February 21, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Is science to be taught in religion classes too or is the ‘accommodation’ one way?

    • Historian
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      I agree with you on this one, Speaker. Good point.

    • Sshort
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      excellent point

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, excellent point.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      There has been a movement for about 2 1/2 years to start teaching science in seminaries, one such endeavor being co-sponsored by the AAAS and the Templeton Foundation. (An area where JAC has most significantly changed by thinking is regarding the latter!)

      The Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University is encouraging science ed in Catholic seminaries. However, since the Vatican has its own observatory and is tenuously on board with evolution (or at least following the Beagle in their own monogenistic boat), this seems less significant.

  8. BJ
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    There’s an interesting question that comes up here that I don’t really know how to address, but that I think Sedgequeen’s comments above got to the heart of pretty well: how do you get extremely religious people whose religious views completely contradict scientific fact to accept the science?

    I think it’s safe to say that one can’t simply say, “here are the facts. Everything you’ve been taught through your lifelong indoctrination is wrong. Believe the facts,” and expect it to work. If we bring this to the high school or lower level, I think that’s what we’re dealing with most of the time in many areas of the country. How does one counteract that without some form of accommodationism? Can we look at accommodationism as merely a first step towards a more rigorous acceptance of science and voiding of religious indoctrination? If we do look at it that way, how do we implement it as such, and what is the next step once you get such students to accept compatibility?

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I never felt there was an appropriate next step for me. My goal was focused; get the students to understand that evolution really happens. I really didn’t care if they turned out to be atheists or simply less rigid Christians.

    • eric
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      how do you get extremely religious people whose religious views completely contradict scientific fact to accept the science?

      I’m not sure that should even be a primary goal for 101 biology teachers. Teach them how to perform a good experiment and do good data analysis? Yes. Teach that it’s the accepted biological theory of science? Yes. Teach that its the methodologically best supported conclusion of science (i.e. why it’s accepted)? Yes. Show them how lots of things make sense under the TOE framework? Yes. Get them in their heart of hearts to believe it happened? Not really the prof’s job, I’d say.

      If that upsets anyone, I would personally counsel patience. If they’ve decided to take biology in college, they have lots of opportunities to change their mind between Bio 101 in fall of freshman year and graduation. Rome wasn’t built in a day. They’ll get plenty more on evolution as they take more biology.

      • BJ
        Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Good point about biology 101, but I guess I’m just speaking generally about the concept of not accepting any accommodationism. It seems to me be a necessary first step for a lot of the extremely religious people out there. If we can get them to accept compatibility, then they don’t immediately dismiss science out of hand the second they hear it because they automatically see it as in contradiction with their deeply held religious beliefs. I guess I’m asking the larger question of whether some kind of accommodationism is, in fact, a necessary evil to bring some people over to the side of scientific truth, as Sedgequeen basically points out in this thread.

        • eric
          Posted February 21, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          I think there’s a hidden assumption here, that incompatibility is some great psychological failing akin to hypocrisy, and thus saying ‘science and religion are methodologically incompatible’ is tantamount to telling someone they must renounce their religion or be labeled bonkers.

          This, IMO, is nonsense. The judicial system is methodologically incompatible with science, but sane rational people flip between using one or the other in different contexts, depending on the problem we’re trying to solve and how amenable it is to resolution by one method or the other. Our methodology for public policy development is not solely scientific either (though science is a part of it). Other simpler decision-making systems that you use every day are also not methodologically purely scientific, but we don’t question someone’s sanity just because they didn’t double blind test their preference for cereal.

          On a practical level, incompatibilists may quite reasonably claim that folk like Ken Miller are wrong in their compatibilism, but I think it’s difficult to claim he’s insane because of it.

          So I think if we are convinced that the systems are methodologically incompatible, we should be true to that. We should not pretend to compatibilism just because it makes for a convenient alliance amongst believing and nonbelieving secularists. But we should also acknowledge that believing science and religion are compatible, or even accepting that they aren’t but not caring if that’s the case, doesn’t make a potential ally insane. We may think Ken Miller is wrong. That’s okay. Ken probably thinks we are wrong too. 🙂 So long as we don’t make the disagreement some sort of ideological purity test or sanity test, we’re all fine. Resist the urge to make it a sanity test.

          And that same lesson is probably a reasonable way to approach a student who has cornered you on the question of compatibility and won’t let it go. Don’t say ‘it’s compatible’ if you don’t think that’s true. Not even out of convenience. Be truthful and tell them it’s not. Then tell them that using these two fundamentally, methodologically incompatible systems in different contexts is something lots of people do. That doesn’t make them insane, and in fact they can be quite good scientists doing it. You think those folk are wrong; but you also think that they’re “merely” wrong, not bats-in-the-belfry-insane for thinking that way.

          • BJ
            Posted February 21, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            I think we’re talking about different issues. I’m just asking the question of whether, when trying to convince extremely religious people that science is something they don’t have to reject outright the moment they hear it, using some form of a compatibility argument might be a good idea as a first step toward reducing their indoctrination. Changing people’s minds about religion is just like politics: sometimes you have to start with something that’s easier for your opponents to accept in order to take baby steps toward the ultimate goal.

            • Rita
              Posted February 21, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              I recently had discussion with a veterinary college instructor who taught in a very religious area. When his students would start to argue against evolution because of their beliefs, he would tell them that evolution was part of the course material, and they were required to follow the steps leading to evolution and ACCEPT that. But they could accept the science of evolution without having to change their BELIEFS. This seemed to be a good way of giving them an “out”.

            • eric
              Posted February 21, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

              using some form of a compatibility argument might be a good idea as a first step toward reducing their indoctrination

              It might be, but I’m of the opinion that if you don’t believe that first step is true, then it’s somewhat dishonest to take it. Its better IMO to be honest with your student but then point out that ‘compatibility’ is not the end-all, be-all criteria they seem to think it must be.

              • Posted February 21, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                I grew up in a Christian church where evolution was completely accepted. Therefore, I’ve never felt that an accomodationist approach was hypocritical. It happens that I personally have slowly moved far away from Christianity, but that’s another issue.

    • Posted February 21, 2017 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds, The New Yorker

      Related: Curiosity Is Better Than Knowledge for Curing Bias, New York


      • Posted February 22, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        That suggests that to teach evolution students should be provoked into (re)discovering areas where it matters. I’m not sure how to do that, but I’m not a biology teacher!

  9. nicky
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Well, I guess different sheep need different ways of shaving.
    The direct approach, such as ‘The God Delusion’ or ‘Faith versus Fact’ can be surprisingly effective in many cases.
    But (the despised but) I can also imagine that a kind of accommodationist approach might do better in some cases.
    Personaĺy I use both, depending on who I’m talking with. I often miscalculate and take the wrong approach, I think.
    What are -if they exist- the signs and symptoms that could guide towards the right approach for this or that particular person?

  10. GM
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    A ton of our students still don’t accept evolution, and the number one reason is because of their religious beliefs

    They got that right!

  11. JohnH
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    When will churches, christian colleges and theological seminaries reciprocate and begin teaching the facts of evolution (not alternative facts) as true and discuss how compatible it is with their religious view? I agree that schools should just teach the process of evolution, what evolutionary theory means, and the massive amount of factual support it has. Students should work out compatibility issues with their world view on their own time.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 21, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Friends of mine who are teachers in the South tell me that down there Catholic schools do much better teaching evolution than the public schools, so this isn’t a totally bad idea.

    Why not “Teach the Controversy” [no, NOT THAT controversy!!] and say that some folks think science and religion are compatible and some do not (while also noting that this may depend on the religion!!).

    Expose them on one side to Ken Miller, Joan Roughgarden, etc. and on the other side to Dawkins (“Greatest Show on Earth” probably more appropriate here than “God Delusion”), et al.

    • eric
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s a great idea for a philosophy of science class or HS elective. No so much a good idea for a biology or chemistry class. There’s already much important content to cover than a teacher has time to do justice to; let’s leave ‘philosophy of’ type material for a ‘philosophy of’ type class.

    • GM
      Posted February 21, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Friends of mine who are teachers in the South tell me that down there Catholic schools do much better teaching evolution than the public schools

      Interesting observation, but it needs to be interpreted in the proper context.

      Catholics are officially theistic evolutionists (i.e. somewhat milder creationists in practice)

      The South is full of fundamentalist protestants.

      The public schools are under a lot of parent pressure from such fundamentalist protestants.

      Thus the public schools being worse.

      But that they are teaching it better does not mean that catholic schools are teaching evolution well.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted February 22, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        Full and complete agreement with both eric and GM

  13. Posted February 21, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    It is just my personal opinion that swaying anyone’s opinion on any issue is dependent upon just how open minded that individual is. Does that make sense to anyone but me? The more rigid a person is in their beliefs the less likely you are in succeeding in changing their opinion. If anyone that follows this blog reflects back on why and when they came to “believe” in evolutionary theory, what realization do they come too?

    I remember when I was presented with the “conflict” between evolution and creationism. It was in biology class as a sophomore in High School (1967). Our teacher, whose name escapes me at the moment, declared he had to teach both. To this day I’m not really sure which side he favored but he did his best to “teach the controversy” as best he could considering the time (the mid sixties) and the place (Huntington, WV). I made my decision which “side” I believed in. My turn to atheism came later. Another process of evolution! However I had been primed for both by the open-mindedness’ in my home. That I do believe. Of course it could just be my neurophysiologic make up.

  14. Posted February 21, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see that any of today’s religions can ever comfortably coexist with science. But what to do? Is it better for people to accept evolution along with religion in some compartmentalized fashion…or for them to dismiss evolution entirely because it disagrees with their world view? Is half a victory better than none?

    Religion will trump science for most because of death. If you took personal mortality out of the equation, religion would instantly evaporate…and Creationism would go with it. However, we’re likely to have death around, by one cause or another, for a long time.

  15. Posted February 21, 2017 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Do the math: 62 million people elected Donald Trump President (yes, that was coming in number two). Sean Faircloth or David Noise are not getting the ear of the Narcissist-in-Chief. Steve Bannon is. His Vice President and several cabinet members are creationist-friendly (either YEC or ID depending on their mood). It is highly likely support for antievolution efforts from the Administration will be growing in the years to come. If you want a practical policy that works to drive some religious people away from seeing evolution as a neutral scientific player in the Culture Wars, do continue digging the trenches on science and religion being intrinsically incompatible. The flag may be waved honorably right up to the time the science education ship sinks.

    • Posted February 22, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Suppose Jerry were instead a master electrician teaching in a trade school, and there was a popular movement that insisted that the power companies do not deliver flows of little tiny particles but instead god’s littlest angels. The angels must be prayed to before the system is ready, etc. What would you propose he do?

  16. Posted February 22, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    I agree with the need to push back against the notion that religion has anything worthwhile to contribute to any branch of science.

    However, I would like to see a survey of the most eminent scientists since 1850 to discover how many believed that science and religion are compatible, based broadly on S.J. Gould’s criteria. I would bet that over 50% would have agreed and still would agree with Gould.

    I have been an atheist for 50 years or so, but did reject Christianity because of any scientific theory or evidence.

    Karl Popper’s criterion would lead to: Since there is no way to disprove the existence of a Creator, theology is not science.

    A philosophical approach would be to consider the proofs for the existence of a Creator.

    I find none of the philosophical proofs convincing.

    An historical approach would reveal that all the major religions rely on revelation. God reveals Himself or Herself to some human witness(es).

    I find no way to determine if any of the witnesses were or are reliable. So in a sense I form my judgment about the existence of a Creator the same way a juror would decide how to vote during a trial based on the testimony of witnesses.

    On the balance of probabilities? Or beyond a reasonable doubt?

    Whatever test I have tried I have found no reason to believe either in a Creator or a spiritual realm separate from the material world.

    For me belief in a Creator is equivalent to belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

    But, though I have an M.S. in physical science, mainly Earth science, my reasons for disbelief have nothing to do with any branch of science, more to do with epistemology and ontology.

    I am also an entity realist. This particular tree that I am touching exists. The “forest” in which I found the tree is a theoretical construct.

    (Wikipedia: Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, entity realism)

    The next generation of students will be familiar enough with virtual reality (including tactile feedback) that philosophers of scientific realism may have to rewrite their lectures.

    • Posted February 22, 2017 at 3:29 am | Permalink


      I have been an atheist for 50 years or so, but did NOT reject Christianity because of any scientific theory or evidence.

    • Posted February 22, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I’ve never understood why one should be a realist towards trees and not forests. The forests have properties (for example geographical area, a current value of humidity at various points), etc. and also are likely used to formulate generalizations (for example those of climatology and ecology), etc.

    • Posted February 23, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Good post, Frederick. I was raised Catholic but have rejected virtually all of the trappings of that religion or any religion. I also am unconvinced by any philosophical or historical approaches to the question of a Creator. What struck me most about your post, however, was your comment that “This particular tree I am touching exists.” My sense of the “spiritual realm” (not “separate from the material world” but decidedly inseparable from it) stems from an experiential approach that is intricately connected with trees, a central feature of the Olympic Peninsula in which I grew up.

      I was very young when I first sensed that that there was a spirit in trees and recognized it as the same spirit that is within me. I’m fully aware that science can provide a material explanation for the how of this in terms of the activities of my brain, but this doesn’t explain the why of it, nor does it do justice to or in any way diminish the reality of my experience. I can reject religion and philosophy and even scientific materialism, but I’m not about to deny my own experience.

      This is why, thanks in large part to trees, I’m a pantheist. Touch that tree long enough and it may just end up touching you.

  17. Posted February 22, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    In your excellent (and strangely vanishing) review of Gould’s book, you rightly take him to task for failing to define what he means by “religion.” On the other hand, your definition of “faith” as “belief without evidence” strikes me as somewhat tautological. If one accepts something BECAUSE of the evidence, does this even count as “belief”?

    Whether religion and science are examples of NOMA, as Gould claims, it would seem to me that “faith” and “evidence” almost certainly are. For example, the fact that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God. Or it might mean that, for whatever reason, God prefers faith. Just sayin’.

  18. reasonshark
    Posted February 23, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Accommodationism is nothing more than a white flag waved between robust facts and emotionally manipulative childhood falsehoods. It’s ultimately halfway to crazy town. I don’t respect any views that compromise with bullshit.

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  1. […] A new study out of Arizona State University claims that it was able to teach students to reconcile science and religion. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne disagrees (Why Evolution is True). […]

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