On February 11, 2021, Shippensburg University hosted its 13th annual Darwin Day event, in honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday.
The event was originally developed by Dr. Joseph Shane, Professor of Chemistry and Science Education. Why now? In 2005, there was a court case that was tried in Federal Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, centered on Dover high school. There, a group of school board members passed through the school board a statement that was read to the freshman biology classes at Dover questioning the veracity of biological evolution, and suggesting that students learn about another alternative so called theory, intelligent design. This was the latest and highest profile in a series of court cases throughout the United States history, going back to the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925. This led Dr. Shane to hold his first forum on science and religion; speakers have included the judge from the decision, and two of the teachers from Dover High School.
This year, led by Briana Pobiner, a group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows “took over” the event, offering their personal stories on how they have experienced the conflict between science and religion in their lives, with a particular eye toward reaching new audiences and educating a potentially reluctant public. If you haven’t met them already, these videos offer an excellent introduction to the Fellows and what inspired them to bridge the divide between the worlds of religion and science.Read Transcript
Dr. Briana Pobiner
So I work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I study human evolution, and particularly the evolution of human diets. So I study fossil and modern animal bones to try to understand what role meat-eating played in our evolutionary history.
My research involves excavating early Stone Age sites, mainly in Africa. I get the opportunity to discover what our ancestors ate, basically reaching across time, and uncovering direct evidence of our collective prehistory. I also study collections in museums around the world. And so, when I walk into museum collections, I’m not just opening a door to a room full of dusty old objects. I’m literally opening a door to understanding the past..
But my job also involves a lot of education and outreach directly with museum visitors, training volunteers and docents, teaching university students, and online, with our website and social media and online programs.
So when I was thinking about “What are my thoughts on how science and religion can work together for the common good?” I’m going to take a little bit of a US perspective on this question, it might be useful or not, I don’t know, to note that my own personal background and beliefs are as what I would call an atheist Jew.
So you may be surprised that, as a scientist, my answer to this actually doesn’t have to do with learning more science content.Please don’t tell my colleagues, but I actually don’t think it’s of vital importance that members of the public know the specific dates of early human fossils or even the important milestones on the timeline of human evolution. I know. And there are two reasons for this. So the first reason is that my focus is not necessarily on inspiring the next generation of scientists with what I do. That’s because I think science is captivating and cool enough to attract future scientists, although I think good mentors are also key, and I should say that I do think inspiring the next generation of scientists is an important thing to do.
But I really want to create the next generation science literate citizens – people who vote for evidence-based science policies and science funding, and people who trust scientists. And that means, most importantly, helping people understand the process and nature of science, and what motivates scientists to do the work they do. Science is done by a group of people, but there are a lot of people out there who are scared of science, they feel like the ever-growing body of knowledge of science means that scientists change their mind about things all the time.
They might be intimidated by how complex some science really is. This makes them think that science isn’t for them, or not something that they can do. They may feel excluded from the entire scientific enterprise. Based on surveys of Americans about various professions, psychologists Susan Fisk and Cindy Dupree from Princeton University have concluded that scientists have the respect of the US public, but not their trust. So we are viewed as “competent but cold,” that’s the phrase they use. And trustworthiness is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence So people often trust members of their own group, with whom they know they share values. But for strangers, warmth is the quickest path to trustworthiness. I’m going to come back to that.
If a member of the public that I’m interacting with as a scientist is the person affiliated with a religious faith, which 78% of Americans are, according to the most recent Pew survey data, or if they’re politically conservative, they may feel this lack of trust more acutely. They may have been told that scientists, especially scientists who study evolution, we do so expressly to target people of religious faith, or to somehow disprove the existence of God. But that’s not the case. Science can only investigate the natural world and, by definition, anything supernatural is outside of our bounds and outside of our lane.
So I don’t know about other scientists – actually I do a little bit – but I do what I do because I find endless wonder and awe in the natural world. I have questions, and I want to understand more. I’m curious, and is this not an approach that many people of faith also have? We need to find these commonalities.
The second reason – don’t tell my colleagues this either, and by that I mean actually “Tell all of my colleagues” – is that cramming more information into people’s heads should not be the goal of scientists’ interaction with the public. That’s a model of science communication called the information deficit model. It assumes that people just need more information and then they would accept and understand all the science. It does not work like that, and there are lots of studies out there that have data to support my viewpoint.
So I’m going to end with telling you a story about when I participated in “The Scientist Is In” program, a public program at the museum where I work – and this was pre-COVID. This was not in the Hall of Human Origins, where I often facilitate these programs.
But it was in the context of The Bearded Lady Project, which is a documentary film and photographic project celebrating the work of female paleontologists and highlighting the challenges and obstacles that they face. (And the way, today is International Women in Science Day). So I had a mobile cart with some objects related to my research on it, but I also had some big printed photos from when I took my then-six-year-old son to the field with me in Kenya in the summer of 2018.
So a mom and her two daughters approach my cart. I think one was probably in middle school, the other maybe upper elementary school. And they took a look at the objects, they took a look at the photos, they asked me what I studied, and then the mom said, “Oh, so you believe in evolution.” And at that moment, I shifted the goalpost for my interaction. My objective was not to make sure that her daughters look closely at the zebra bones on the cart to see the tooth mark left by lions that I watched eat their prey, or to hold the 1 million-year-old fossil elephant bone from Kenya, and to actually see with their own eyes where early humans use stone knives to slice meat from it.
Yeah, those would be great. But I wanted to make sure that they all felt heard and respected, that I met them on their level and that I didn’t talk down to them. That I validated and answered their questions with enthusiasm and encouragement, and that maybe, if I really hit my goal, I inspired them. That the daughters, when someone asked them later if they’ve ever met a scientist, they would think “Oh yeah I met a scientist at the Smithsonian. She really loves what she does, and maybe I could do something like that one day.” Thanks.
Dr. Amanda Glaze-CrampesRead Transcript
So a little bit about me, I’m Dr. Amanda Glaze-Crampes, and I’m an Assistant Professor in Science Education at Georgia Southern University in Savannah, Georgia. And I study the places where science and faith tend to interact. So that would be classrooms, communities, within families, so looking at the intersections of science and society and how the perceived conflict we see often with these elements impacts science literacy here in the United States.
So I do what I do in the Southeastern United States, because to me the Southeast is a very unique place to study, really, anything that has to do with science and faith, and that’s because of this wonderful concept Joe L. Kincheloe and William Pinar called “significance of place.” And it’s this idea that because of shared underpinning cultures that exist in a region, that there are impacts that go beyond the individual level. So while we don’t all have the exact same culture here in the Southeastern United States, there are a lot of things in our politics, in our society, in our civil structures that are tied into underpinning currents of existing culture. And that tends to be a fundamental Evangelical Christian culture here in the Southeast.
So I was actually born and reared in rural Alabama in a ministry family. So one side of my family is in the Southern Baptist ministry tradition, and the other side is United Methodist. And so I came up very much a part of that shared culture, where the idea is that Church is family, and you know, even today, if you look in a town of 6,000 people outside of where I grew up, I think we had 38 Protestant churches for 6,000 people, one Catholic Church, and when I was in my 20’s, there was a mosque for the first time. So it’s very much a part of the fabric of community.
But what we don’t often see is that when there are things that we’re taught or things that we’re talking about in the classroom, and those things don’t quite jive with what we’ve been taught at home or in our faith traditions, there can be a conflict there that really plays off of what Briana was talking about, with the interactions between knowledge and accepting something.
So you can know a lot about something – it’s your ability to recall, or you can build that up further to understanding, where you can do new things with it. But the idea of acceptance is, “Are you willing to do things with it?” And that’s one of the places where we see this really unique interaction between evolution, specifically, but science and faith, in that, with almost any topic, the more you learn, the more accepting you become. You see the evidence, you can explore the concepts. And “Okay, that makes sense. It’s real. I know this is happening, I can talk to my friends about it, I can talk to my family.” But when it comes to evolution, there’s this entirely different phenomenon. There is no predictable measure of connection between how much a person knows and whether they accept evolution or science, for them. So, for example, you can know absolutely nothing about evolution from a content standpoint, and yet be completely advocating for evolution. “Yes, that’s a fact, I am wholeheartedly behind it.” And yet, people can know everything in terms of content, about evolution, and yet actively choose to deny that it actually happens.
And that’s a unique dynamic to study in the South, because we do see a lot of conflict among that Young Earth Creationist conceptualization, that literal interpretation of the Bible. And it produces very rich stories that people have about “Well, I learned this in school, but I came home, and you know, it was literally considered a taboo.” Which was my experience, actually, growing up. So I didn’t learn about evolution in school, I learned about it from reading the book, when I was told that we would be skipping it in my honors biology class. I went home to talk to my family and it was meltdown. And so many years later, and conversations with people about this experience, I realized, “You know, this is not a common experience for some of the people that I work with and I know, and it is for others.” So it really created a curiosity in me, for, you know, “Why does this happen?” And then, more importantly, what can we do for this? Because if teaching content is not enough to make someone consider scientific literacy, then we have a major problem, because it does negatively impact our scientific literacy, as does putting together this idea of us versus them – Rabbi Mitelman was talking about the forced false dichotomy.
And so my interest became, “How do you have discourse about this? How do you have conversations with people about science and faith?” And it brings this idea of radical empathy, which aligns so well to my faith tradition, because we talk about things like agape love in our faith traditions, across different traditions. But how do you put yourself, as a scientist as well, into the shoes of someone else, to empathize in a way that you can have conversations and create a space and make it where it’s no longer a battle to try to overcome someone’s culture and beliefs and background, but rather this dynamic engagement that allows everyone, regardless of where they come from, to build into their existing worldviews a scientific worldview that appreciates and understands science?
And so, you know, the short version is there’s always these unseen factors, so we have to stop assuming that people are ignorant if they don’t know. We have to stop talking and seek first to understand others before we can seek to have them understand us.
You know, we have to recognize that evidence, in a lot of cases where worldview and faith are involved, has limited power, but voice carries. And then, of course, to be willing to step outside of our echo chambers and focus on the middle, because there are so many people that are interested and have questions, and if we don’t create the space for them to engage, to ask questions, to feel comfortable, nobody else will, and we’ll just continue to be at sort of a standstill when it comes to these elements.
Mark BloomRead Transcript
I’m Mark Bloom, I’m a science educator. My primary teaching role at Dallas Baptist University is teaching non-majors biology. I also teach pre-service teachers how to teach science. So I’m kind of in education and in science.
Funny thing, my background is I was raised in a very conservative Christian home – the Church of God from Indiana chapter, if that means anything to you. My parents double-dated with Bill and Gloria Gaither. If you know who they are, that means something. So we went to church twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday. It was definitely the family that Amanda spoke about. That was the people that I engaged with, the people I grew with, the people that loved us. And, as I began to develop an interest in science, I began to sense that tension that Briana and Amanda both spoke about – concerns. I’d be pulled aside by youth pastors who said ,“Now be careful, you’re going to hear things in these classes that you seem so interested in.” And so already this sort of wedge was beginning to form.
But my curiosity and the awe I have of nature that Briana mentioned just drove me and pulled me into it further and further, and so I kept pursuing science as much as I could and became a biology major at, funny thing, Dallas Baptist University. The reason I said it’s funny is – I meandered my way through my undergraduate degree, and by the time I went to Dallas Baptist, I already had four years. I was on my third year being a sophomore, I think. And at that point in time, I had not started there yet, but I’d gone to church with my family one Sunday morning – which really shows how extreme they were. But on this Sunday morning, the service was about the perils of evolution being taught in school. And the pastor – I’m already a biology major and undergraduate, I’ve studied this stuff, I’m accepting of it – and he looks out and says, “You cannot be a Christian, and have any integrity, if you believe in evolution.”
And it was like, “Wow that’s a line in the sand. That’s a very strict line in the sand. You’re saying I don’t have integrity, you’re saying I no longer have a rapport with this group of people who I’ve grown with for over two decades?” And the end result is “Enough of that.” I walked away. I said “Okay, I won’t be a part of that group if that’s how you view me.” And those family close family ties were broken.
I ended up going to Dallas Baptist University, because it was the one place I could finish my degree without taking calculus. Absolutely, the fact that it was a Baptist institution was in the negative pro-and-con column. It was not actually a good thing, but I went there as it was close to home, I could finish quickly and be done. So fast forward now, all these years later, and now I’m a professor at Dallas Baptist University. I found myself in need of a change, this school was here, I graduated from there, I stopped by to visit, and next thing you know they were offering me a job.
And my wife actually said, “You won’t be able to keep your job, you’re going to get fired if you work there.” And I have come back to religion, I have found a way of reconciling my religious beliefs and my scientific understanding. But I thought “I’m gonna do my best, I’m gonna give this a shot.”
Early on, teaching nonmajors, as we approach those touchy subjects – you see, I know, what the touchy subjects are, because I was raised in that world. So I know what they’ve heard, I know what they’ve experienced. And so one year, I decided to survey my students about evolution. And I know it’s much more nuanced than this. Before my nonmajors class I said:
“Let’s assume there’s four explanations of the diversity of life on earth. And the first one is Young Earth Creationism – 6,000 to 12,000 year old earth. God made everything in its present form.
Over here, we’ve got choice two, and that’s going to be a very, very old earth, but everything was created in its present form by a divine creator.
Over here, we’ve got a third choice, which is very old Earth, billions of years old, and evolution explains the diversity of life on earth, but not humans.
And then we’ve got choice D, which is very old Earth, evolution explains everything.”
And out of the 83 students I had that semester, 54% of them were young earth creationists. 10,000 year old earth that was made in its present form. Only three of my students chose the fourth option that evolution explained everything. And a whopping 22% accepted evolution, but not with humans. That kind of shows you that the group of people that i’m working with.
So, how did I keep my job – because I’ve been there for eight years now and i’ve kept my job.
And I think what Amanda, what Briana, and what Rabbi Geoff have already mentioned, is there’s got to be a respect. There’s got to be dialogue. The more they learn about it, the more likely they are to accept it. That’s what I think Amanda just said, right. So how do I get them to learn about this topic? And what I’ve done is I’ve kind of tapped into my cultural intelligence. And I know who these people are, I know the kind of things that can be upsetting to them.
I’ve learned even more than what I knew from growing up. And I’ve had students bring up to me that there was no death before the fall of Adam and Eve. And of course i’d already I guess it always interpreted that as death being separation from God, sin, no piece this kind of bit, but no, they mean there was no physical death before the fall of Adam and Eve. and so, when I query them stifling the laugh that was kind of wanted to come up but I kept it down,”Wwhat do you mean by that>”
They said literally “Predators ate grass before, so lions ate grass before the fall of Adam and Eve. Nothing died.” And when I said “But plants are dying when you eat them,” and they said “Well they don’t have lungs and have not responded. They don’t have noumen.” They were drawing on Greek words to try to just – so I thought, “Okay, this is a different group that I’m working with.” So I’ve developed – I’ve worked with my cultural intelligence to try to help them be more accepting to learn about a topic. And the way I do it is I avoid the trigger words. Jonathan Haidt wrote the book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” And it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s really great. But in it, he describes the inner psyche as sort of an elephant with a human on top. And when the human thinks he’s driving this elephant around, right, but if you trigger and scare the elephant, the human has no control whatsoever.
So if I walked in there and said “Folks, today we’re going to learn how you are descended from other primates,” well, I’ve scared the elephants. And the elephants are running, the students aren’t learning, the topic is shut down, and I’m not effective in my job anymore.
So instead, what I do is I talk about vestigial structures. And I talk about how adaptations to environment for different organisms and how they fit in, and “Isn’t this amazing that this works this way?” And, by the time they finally recognize that I’ve been teaching them evolution for 10 weeks, and then you see this shocked look, where the thought bubble is like, “Oh my God, I’m an evolutionist.” And I’m like “Yes, you are, and it’s okay, because so am I, and I’m here, and i’m at a Baptist institution and I’m vetted, and it’s a safe place to learn.”
So I’ve found that a lot of the times with with students who are reticent to learn these subjects or apprehensive about it, the first, most important thing is opening their eyes to the fact that there are religious people who hold these ideas, and they understand them and they’re not offended by them and they’re not, scared by them. And so that’s really the blend of those ideas, is why I think my communication with students has been as effective as it’s been.
John Van SlotenRead Transcript
I’m a Canadian pastor in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who preaches and has preached science a lot over the last 10 years, and over those 10 years have had literally dozens of experiencing-God-through-science spiritual epiphany moments – while conversing with scientists about the nature of their work, usually in the context of researching a sermon on their work. And those scientists were atheist scientists, agnostics and also scientists of faith. And for the record, in terms of what i’ve been able to do in exploring this it’s the atheists and agnostics who helped me get to the business of nature and the physical world faster than the scientists who have faith. You always have to work through something with them to get them to engage creation in a revelatory way.
So, a story: talking with a world-leading radiation physicist seven or eight years ago about the ever-evolving precision of subsequent generations of radiation therapy over the past five decades, starting with 2D X-rays, then 3D CT scans, then 4D imaging, where time is taken into account, so the laser goes on and off in time, to 5D imaging, where a person’s unique biology is also taken into account, all of that happening while the a beam, a radiation beam is rotating around a person.
I was struck by how the technology – and my scientist friend who helped create the technology – imaged God. A God, who in my Christian faith tradition, sees what’s wrong and treats the problem more precisely than the best radiation treatment imaginable ever could. A God, who, like the best imaging technology, sees from every angle and dimension in perfect time. And so, when exploring with the scientist what he did, the physics, math and computing and biology all come together for these ever-more-precise radiation therapies to happen.
When I do that, I believe, and believed in, interacting with him, that I was learning or getting a glimpse of the mind of God, in whose image, he was made. In the Old Testament.
Protagonist Hannah said in a prayer that “God knows what’s going on, he takes the measure of everything that happens” (1 Samuel 2:2-5).
A couple of years, or a couple of months ago now, many science sermons later, while researching a sermon on chemistry and catalysis with two scientists from a local Canadian. petrochemical company called Nova Chemicals, I had two epiphany moments. One was connecting the nature of catalysts that make kinetically impossible reactions possible to the nature of Christ, who makes irreparably broken people into whole new people. Jesus once said “With God, all things are possible,” and in the Christian story, he is very much the catalyst.
And then the second epiphany occurred when one of the chemists – who has tons of patents made great discoveries, a pretty big-name successful chemist – started to talk very personally about how he loved making molecules. And as soon as he said, the words I thought “Well, surely God loves making molecules too. He made a lot of molecules!”
And then we talked for 10 minutes about how Godlike it was to make molecules, and how maybe through the actual process of making molecules, there would be, or could be, opportunities to engage the empirical mind of God, like Johannes Kepler said, “To think God’s thoughts after him.”
And then there was the time of the Geophysicist and the forest biologist and the MARS Rover researcher and the River hydrologist and the UC Davis chemist, who discovered a couple years ago with an Israeli scientist, what makes ice slippery, which evidently was a question over the last 100 years that we didn’t have an answer for. So I thought “I’m Canadian, how can I not preach on what makes ice slippery?”
Or the neuroscientist who was attending our church at the time, 29 years old, wrote an article for Nature Neuroscience. She discovered what her predecessors, too, thought could be there for decades, a neural stress-reducing mechanism that turns the volume down in our brains when things are like, freaking out. Like, it just happens without us even thinking. And it was hard not to talk about that neural Sabbath grace in a Christian church Sunday context.
So, with the help of all those scientists, I, personally, in our faith Community Church was able to experience and know God more by looking at God’s wisdom in the cosmos, and looking at how it echoes and rhymes with and reflects with our sacred text.
And yeah, theologically, if you come from a Christian background most Christians agree God made everything, everything was a thought in the mind of God before it ever came to be. Scientists are made in the empirical image of God, so we should honor that. God is the ultimate imaginative and rational being, and that physical creation is a literal text, through which God “speaks.” So for me, science has become a crucial ally, enabling to read God’s creation book.
And for the last 10 years, I’ve just been exploring that idea, moving from chapter to chapter and different scientific fields, and talking to scientist after scientist. And yeah, it’s all come together now. I’m just finishing a book on it – shameless plug – and teaching a preaching course at Ambrose University on March 24 online, you can attend and register now – even more shameless plug.
But the bottom line for me is that if God really can be known through all that is, I want to be reading that book.