Teaching Science to Biblical Literalists

By Saperstein, Alvin M. | Academe, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

Teaching Science to Biblical Literalists


Saperstein, Alvin M., Academe


Their numbers are increasing, and they're feeling more empowered. How can we teach without alienating them or compromising ourselves?

I have taught introductory astronomy and physical science for many years.1 I also teach courses on the application of science to world affairs: the impact of war and technology on the historical development of human society (and vice versa) as well as the "war" between man and nature. I explore the historical development of the sciences as well as the scientific view of the evolutionary nature of the universe and its inhabitants. In recent years, I have noted an increasing number of students who are "uncomfortable" with, or actually object to, such evolutionary paradigms. They state, or hint, that they accept the Bible literally as a historical and scientific text. They believe that fixed biological species were created, together with the earth and its universe, some six thousand years ago. How can I teach these biblical literalists while respecting them and others in my classes and remaining true to the requirements of scientific and educational professionalism and the needs of modern society?

In truth, I'm not sure whether the proportion of biblical literalists in my university has actually increased, or whether I've just become more aware of their beliefs and the kind of impact they can have on my teaching. I suspect both are true. The conservative religious segment of the American population seems to have become more vociferous in recent years, perhaps making biblical-literalist students less fearful of standing up for their beliefs in science classes. I also suspect that the lew students who openly voice doubts about the processes and results of science and its applications represent a much larger number of silent students. Are they si lent because of fear of professorial retribution, uncertainty as to whom to believe, or because they just don't care?

In my own teaching. I have added more discussion about the history of science and its role in society, including the development of human society, technology, and violence as well as issues relating to energy and the environment. These are all areas of potential discomfort for biblical-literalist students. And I have been doing less lecturing-I now emphasize interactive class participation, which permits students to publicly express disagreement and discomfort. The biblical literalists are there, they're evident, and they're entitled to respect. Yet the science and its important applications must be taught and learned, also with respect.

The ideal liberal arts education includes mathematics, the physical and biological sciences, the social sciences, arts, and humanities. The need for such education is practical, not theoretical: citizens in a modern democracy must make daily physical-science-based decisions about the environment, communication, transportation, and weather. They draw on the biological sciences in their decisions about food, health, and reproduction. The social sciences guide decisions about economics, crime, education, politics, war, and peace-about how our increasingly dense population might get along with one other in a shrinking world. And knowledge of the humanities helps people support and rationalize, on a human basis, all of these decisions and to deal with the growing threats of violence based on ethnic and religious differences.

Classroom Discomfort

Confronting these tasks is not made easier by the growing presence of biblical-literalist students. Take two examples from my recent teaching experience. First, immediately after the final exam for a one-semester introductory course in astronomy for nonscience students, a serious, dedicated student asked me, "What am I supposed to believe? You have spent the semester explaining to us why we should believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old in a universe created 13.5 billion years ago. Yet I grew up in a warm, loving, and supportive family and church that taught me that both earth and universe were created about six thousand years ago.

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