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Opening minds

Thanks to Derek for the link.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/04/religion.evolution


Opening minds
Those who teach our children science have a duty to reveal the workings of nature — even if it means challenging their faith

Sue Blackmore

Should science teachers in Britain challenge their students' religious beliefs? Is it their right? Is it even their duty?

I say yes. This is (amongst much else) what education is for; to teach children how to think for themselves. And thinking for yourself is challenging, especially if your previous beliefs were based on dogma and ancient books.

In his recent TV series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins visited a London secondary school, took a mixed bunch of kids out fossil hunting on the beach, and then came back to the school to talk to them and their teachers.

Some of what he discovered in his travels was truly shocking — like the science teacher who honestly believes that the world was created by God a few thousand years ago because the Bible tells him so. Some was less surprising, like the children who believe that humans are made in the image of God because their parents taught them so. Dawkins' response was to exhort people not to give undeserved respect to religious prejudices and to present lots of scientific evidence.

But many religious believers are simply not interested in evidence. I have now got used to debating with Muslims and Christians, but at my first meeting of the University of the West of England Islamic Society I simply couldn't believe that wonderful, detailed, scientific evidence was of no interest to them whatever. If something is in the Koran, they said, then no evidence changes anything.

What about understanding theories though? In my experience it is understanding, not evidence, that opens minds. If someone really understands how natural selection works then … gulp, jaw drop, stare, think … suddenly the world looks different. All previous ideas are thrown up in the air.

I guess this happened to me when I first read The Selfish Gene. I have seen it happen to many, many others in my lectures and classes.

It may seem odd to say so, but most people do not understand natural selection. Perhaps they never learnt about it at school, or perhaps they did understand it once but then forgot. I have explained it to intelligent students who assumed that they already understood it but when asked to explain it they could not. Darwin's great idea is so simple, and yet so slippery. So in case you are one of those, here it is in a nutshell — plants and animals produce far more (slightly varying) offspring than can possibly survive. Starvation, disease, predation, and unattractiveness mean that only a few go on to breed again. At each step the survivors pass on whatever adaptations helped them and so gradually they become better designed. You could call it "design by death". Like a human creating a sculpture by chipping away wood, nature's weeding-out is the force that creates new design.

Once you get it that's that! How can you go on believing that God created humans in his own image when you can see, because you really understand the principle, that nature's cruel and wasteful selective process can create all that design without him?

Well, I guess it's possible, but it's not as easy as burying your head in the sand over evidence. For example, some people claim that God put fossils there to deceive us, that scientists are wrong about carbon dating, and that evolution is "just a theory". None of this works if you really understand natural selection — you can still believe in God if you like but you can no longer claim that he is necessary to explain our existence.

This is why I think Dawkins should have emphasised understanding at least as much as evidence, and why I think teachers have a duty to do the same.

I don't mean that science teachers should belittle religious beliefs, or scoff at them, or even tell students they are wrong. They need not even mention religion or creationism. What they must do is explain so clearly how natural selection works that those students, like one or two in Dawkins' series, begin to feel the terrifying impact of what Darwin saw. This realisation will change them. It will challenge what mummy and daddy told them, it will cry out against what they heard in chapel or synagogue or mosque. It will help immeasurably in their ponderings on human nature, the origins of life and the meaning of existence. This is growing up. This is learning. This is the process that skilful science teachers need to initiate, encourage, and help sensitively to guide.

They should never shy away from challenging their students' religious beliefs and opening their minds, because understanding the world through science inevitably does just that.

TAGGED: CHILDREN, EDUCATION, SCIENCE


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