Can schools find way through creationism-meets-science minefield in the classroom?

Origin of life, lesson one. Big bang, or God’s creation? Shutterstock

Should discussion of religious beliefs be banned from the science classroom? Specifically, should evolution be taught without reference to religious beliefs?

There are concerns that some faith-based academies and free schools – released from the strictures of the national curriculum – will replace Darwin with creationism.

In response, the government has clarified that all state-funded schools must teach evolution and not present creationism as a scientifically valid theory. Some science teachers favour ignoring the context of religion altogether, but might that alienate or confuse students with particular religious beliefs?

We wanted to explore students’ own views and experiences. Using questionnaires and focus groups, we conducted an in-depth study of more than 200 14-16 year olds to find out. They attended four English secondary schools representing three different contexts: Christian faith-based, non-faith with majority Muslim catchment zones, and two non-faith, with mixed catchment zones.

Did humans evolve or were they created?

Students were asked which of three explanations was closest to their understanding of how human beings originated. Their responses varied considerably by their religious belief, as the graph below shows.

Students’ opinions about origin of human life (by faith)

Most of those with no faith said humans had developed over millions of years but God “had no part in this process”, meaning they accepted evolution. More than half the Christian students thought they had “developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life and God had some part in this process”. Most Muslim students believed humans were “created by God pretty much in their current form”, meaning they believed in creationism.

This pattern was reflected in the type of school attended. More than 80% at the majority-Muslim school believed in creationism, whereas nearly 60% of those at the Christian school thought humans had developed over time with some divine involvement. A quarter at the Christian school accepted evolution without divine involvement.

Although half those at the mixed catchment, non-faith schools accepted evolution without any divine involvement, around one in three thought God had played some part in the development of humans and 10%, a significant minority, believed in creationism.

Willingness to engage

It was possible to divide the students into four types depending on how willing they were to engage with the inter-relationship between science and religion. We used the topic of the origin of life as an example.

The categories depended on whether students preferred belief-based or fact-based knowledge, if they were tolerant of uncertainty and open-minded, or whether they they considered science and religion as being in conflict or harmony. Based on this, we separated the students into four categories: the resistors, the confused, the reconciled and the explorers.

The resistors value belief-based knowledge above fact. These students consider that scientific and religious views cannot or should not be reconciled. Most Muslim students were in this camp. They felt it was inappropriate to challenge something so fundamental to their lives “We follow our faith for a reason, we shouldn’t have to question,” one said.

Meanwhile, the confused are either consciously confused and making uneasy compromises, or simply have not given much thought to the issue. “I was raised up with the religious education but the science is more logical so I just kind of bottle out and pretend they’re both right,” one student said. They are often torn between belief- and fact-based knowledge systems and see science and religion as being in competition. They also find it difficult to be sufficiently open-minded to achieve the resolution they desire. Examples were found across all four schools.

The reconciled have come to some accommodation between their religious views and their scientific outlook, allowing them to accept both. One student said: “In order for the big bang to have happened there must have been a superior being to have caused it.” They tend to give precedence to belief over fact. In their world view, science and religion are in harmony.

Finally the explorers enjoy the challenge of fitting together religious and scientific view points. They are not wedded to fact or belief, but are constantly weighing up the two forms of knowledge. They are comfortable dealing with a lack of resolution and willing to question.

A student in the majority-Muslim school found her school environment conducive because teachers were sensitive about life being seen through the lens of religion. “Cos we learn about religion and science together on a daily basis, we really have the choice to decide if there’s a conflict or not,” she said. But explorers were rare in the study.

Our research has shown that teachers need to be aware of this complexity, and that a silent classroom does not necessarily represent agreement. To avoid alienating students, understanding evolution should be emphasised instead of accepting it.

If the topic is presented insensitively, students may feel compelled to choose between science and deep-rooted religious beliefs. Rather than asking whether religious views should be covered in science lessons, the question is can we afford not to talk about them?

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