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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Volume 33 Number 1
Winter 2006

Teaching Adolescents about Religious Pluralism in a Post-9/11 World

Robert J. Nash and Penny A. Bishop

A Case Study in the Conflict Between Faith and Science in the Classroom

Keri Jenkins sighed and leaned back from her desk at the end of a long teaching week. As a first year teacher in a small, rural school in the Southeast, she found herself as part of a three-teacher team working with seventh and eighth graders. Her strong liberal arts background and double major in biology and botany prepared her well for the science curriculum she was expected to teach, and she enjoyed making learning come alive for the young adolescents on her team. She routinely relied on the wooded school grounds to serve as her classroom, bringing out groups of students to examine their learning in its natural context.

Last week, her team had completed a highly successful river study, analyzing water quality, flora and fauna for the community. The students appeared in the local paper, and the team had been invited to present their work at a community meeting. In the wake of such success and positive emotions, she had been entirely unprepared for last nightís angry phone call and subsequent parent meeting that was about to ensue.

She thought back to the conversation in class yesterday that provoked this afternoonís meeting. Most of her students had been enthusiastic about the river study, and were deeply engaged in posing questions. Having been trained in her teacher education program to honor studentsí questions as the basis for curriculum, Keri had excitedly followed the studentsí inquiry. What fish are found in this river? How do fish swim? Why do certain plants grow in water? The answers to these questions then raised deeper questions: How did fish come to be that way? What is the advantage to fish of swimming? How did river plants come to differ from others?

Before she knew it, the class had arrived at the questions: What process created this extraordinary variation of life as we know it? How did we/the world get here? Seizing the moment, Keri passionately spoke of Darwinís On the Origin of the Species, which had been an influential and thought-provoking text in her own learning of science. She was animated and enthused about the opportunity to open young learnersí eyes and minds to the very ideas that had motivated her own study of science in college.

When she arrived home that evening, her answering machine was blinking brightly. Taking off her coat with one arm and juggling folders of student work in the other, she pressed the button and listened. Immediately, she heard the voice of one studentís mother, berating her for teaching the theory of evolution to her son. "Just who do you think you are?" the mother asked angrily, "Coming to our community and teaching our children that God doesnít exist? That God didnít create man and the world that surrounds him?" Keri was speechless.

She certainly didnít mean to interfere with familiesí beliefs, nor did she want to make waves in her newly adopted community. After all, she attended a local church herself every Sunday. At the same time, how could she teach the central ideas in her curriculum regarding the diversity of life on earth without reference to how natural selection and environmental factors work together?  After garnering her courage, she called their house and opted not to enter into such a debate on the telephone. Instead, she invited the mother to join her in a face-to-face meeting to discuss the matter. Now, tapping her foot and waiting anxiously for her to arrive, she sure wished she had asked her principal or a teammate to join her.

Why the Study of Religion in Secular Public Schools
is so Controversial 

Keri Jenkins is about to face many teachersí worst nightmare: the prospect of meeting with an angry parent whose indignation with her teaching is grounded in strong religious beliefs. For her part, Keri believes that she is doing what all self-respecting science teachers should be doing in their classrooms, and that is teaching the scientifically agreed-upon facts about evolution, particularly when students ask questions that entail this type of knowledge. After all, isnít evolution a proven scientific theory, and a conceptual framework that all students will need to know in order to understand their natural and social worlds as they progress through their education?

How is it possible, for example, for students to understand the variations in plant, animal, and human life without examining the evolutionary theories of natural selection and adaptation? Also, how will students who are studying environmental science understand the principles of biodiversity and sustainability without exploring such concepts in depth? How will students understand the origins, and meanings, of human behavior without knowing something about sociobiology or evolutionary psychology? Also, why on principle, Keri wonders, will her foray into introducing students to a few of Darwinís pivotal ideas necessarily contradict the teachings of their religious faiths? Canít there be complementarity between the two?1

Keri, herself, is a believing Christian, and she does not perceive that her love for science contradicts her faith in God. In fact, if she were ever to be asked in private, she would probably acknowledge that her faith in the plausibility of science actually strengthens her religious faith. For Keri, a proponent of Big Bang Theory, it seems logical that one complements the other, because she believes that evolution is mainly a process created by an all-powerful Deity at a particular moment in time in order to set His Creation in motion.

From the parentís perspective, however, there are two distinct world views in conflict in Keriís classroom, the supernatural and the natural. In public schools, and in most colleges for that matter, it always seems that the secular or natural worldview wins out. Why, according to the parent, canít Keri teach the concepts of Intelligent Design and Creationism right alongside evolution? Why canít Keri underscore to her students, more than she appears willing to, that evolution is only a theory with no more intrinsic validity than any other theory? In fact, why does it seem that science has become the official secular "religion" in public education? The parent resents the glaring absence of religion in Keriís science curriculum, as well as in the history, civics, and English curricula in her childís school.

In one sense, this parent may even be more open-minded and "liberal" than a separatist, fundamentalist, or orthodox Christian, Jew, or Muslim parent might be. Many of these types of religious believers want religion kept completely out of secular schools in the name of the First Amendment principle of the absolute separation of church and state. They do not want religion to be contaminated in public school classrooms by secular educators with vested philosophical or political interests.

Thus, for most separatist, sectarian parents, religion should be left exclusively to the home and the church to propagate. For them, the home and the church are two of the three legs of the socialization stool in any society, and they are the strongest ones at that. The other leg is the state school, and as every biblically-based Christian knows, believers are commanded to give to Caesar that which is Caesarís and to God that which is Godís, and never the twain should meet. The state school, as every orthodox Christian believes, ought not to be the venue for religious education of any kind.

If Keri were ever to teach her students that there is potential compatibility between faith and reason, religion and science, many orthodox religious parents in her community would be outraged. They would see her pedagogy as being nothing more than a transparent attempt to transgress the constitutionally-protected boundaries between the private and public spheres in the United States. They would suspect her motives. They might accuse her of surreptitiously trying to water down the sanctity of religious truth. Why, Keri might even lose her job over the brouhaha, because she knows that her local school board is made up predominantly of conservative Christians.

We believe, if our own experience with educators in middle schools and high schools is any indication, that there are an increasing number of Keriís in the public school classrooms of America. Many of these teachers, all their good intentions notwithstanding, know very little about how to negotiate religious issues whenever they arise in the classroom. In responding to her studentsí excellent, environmental questions, Keri, herself, is probably unaware of the deep-seated religious concerns that teaching about evolution would raise in her community.

What she thought might have been a perfectly appropriate and teachable moment in her science classroomóone that lent itself to a beneficial conversation about Darwin and evolutionóturned out to be a lightening rod for some administrators and parents in her school system. Unfortunately, Keri had limited knowledge of the Creationism-Intelligent Design-Evolution controversy sweeping through school systems in this country, because she never had an opportunity anywhere in her own teacher preparation to examine the controversy in detail.

Likewise, the vast majority of students who pass through the public schools of America during these early years of the 21st century, like millions before them through the decades, have had little, or no, formal academic background in the study of any of the worldís religions, including, most especially, their own. As teachers and teacher educators, we have found the general level of religious literacy in this country to be dreadful.

Most Americans are completely out of touch with what is at stake in the global community as groups and nations war with one another over their religious differences. They lack even the most rudimentary understandings of the content and practices of the worldís major and minor religions. Even more alarming is the complete absence of any kind of religious literacy study in teacher education programs.

To Keriís credit, however, few teachers we know, even science teachers, would be willing to touch the subject of religion with a ten-foot pole, especially its possible conflicts with the study of evolution. Sadly, even fewer school administrators would sanction the attempt for fear of alienating many religious believers in the larger community. Remarks we have heard, whenever we talk about teaching for religious literacy, from professors of education, teachers in training, teachers, and administrators range all the way from "What the hell do I know about religion?" to "Thereís no way Iím going to stir up that hornetsí nest. Why not leave well enough alone?" to "Havenít you heard about the Ďwall of separationí between the church and the state? Why invite a law suit?" to "Isnít this just another add-on that you people in teacher education expect us public school teachers to incorporate into our curricula? Donít we have enough to do?"

Even though we understand these well-intended concerns, we have decided not to leave well enough alone. The status quo of religious illiteracy in our nationís classrooms must not continue, indeed, cannot continue. There is simply too much at stake, in our estimation.

Yes, it is apparent that Keri has her work cut out for her as she anxiously awaits the arrival of the angry parent in her office. She feels caught between two implacable forces, one secular and the other religious, and, therefore, she is stuck in a no-win situation. Whatever, she will be damned if she does and damned if she doesnít. She wonders why she has to be put in this situation in the first place. Why is there so much hostility today between those who reside in the religious square and those who reside in the public square, between those who choose faith over reason and vice versa, between those who want to teach about religions in the classrooms and those who donít? Will things ever change?

Why Things Must Change

There are a number of significant and defensible reasons, we contend, why middle-level and high school teachers (and administrators) need to become more religiously literate and to teach their students to be the same. We describe some of these reasons below.

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