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Victor Dominocielo: While God Is Watching — Teaching Scientific and Critical Thinking to Young Teens

Every classroom is an incredible mix of students from many different personal, cultural and religious traditions. Teachers have to teach to all of these traditions and disrespect none of them. Carefully sticking to subject matter avoids many conflicts in these areas, but inquisitive students have a way of bringing the ideas that matter most to them (their traditions) to the classroom, whatever the official subject matter.

Consider for a moment all the individual creation stories, particular to each religion. How does one teach the scientific “creation” story and other aspects of science to these many different students?

It is common in skeptical and scientific circles to argue with and disparage belief in God (e.g. Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and Michael Shermer’s article, “Is God Dying?”). There are hundreds of books and thousands of articles in which scientists question the belief in God.

For scientists and especially for science educators, this is a fool’s errand, but this kind of confrontation is very popular right now.

The rationale is that if one is going to question ideas and beliefs for which there is no measurable scientific evidence, like flying saucers, ghosts and psychics, then why not go to the heart of the matter and question a basic belief of most people — the belief in God?

This is all well and good when adults get together to question, explore, educate, argue different points of view and learn. Dr. Harriet Hall does a good analysis of how to talk to someone who is mixing their personal beliefs and science in this post.

However, questioning and arguing basic belief systems is absolutely not appropriate when teaching children. Teaching young children is sacred ground, a careful intrusion into the relationship between parent and child. Parents and society have let teachers enter this sacred ground only after a careful vetting process.

Young teens have usually developed their sense of self into a belief system of some sort. It may be religious or it may not, but it explains their world and their relationship to their world. What these children don’t have at this age is an adult system of knowledge, a large amount of experience and a variety of different technical skills, so their belief systems are more important and essential to them because that’s how they make meaning at this point in their lives.

In this context, arguing with a child over personal beliefs is not appropriate for two reasons:

» Children’s beliefs are tied to their sense of self, which no teacher has any business questioning and which is properly the realm of parental influence.

» Teachers should be teaching subject matter, technical skills and how to use that subject matter in practical application and should not be teaching their personal opinions and beliefs about religion or politics.

In past years, there have been Young Earth Creationist students in my classes. These religious beliefs are antithetical to the study of biology, since the scientific theory of evolution is the cornerstone of biology. So what happens in these situations? The teacher must draw clear lines between personal belief and the scientific discussion of evidence. Also, the teacher must defend the student’s right to their personal beliefs even while curtailing their discussion in science class.

As a society, we are very careful to separate church and state (that is, religion and politics) because of the obvious pitfalls that this has caused historically and even presently (Crusades and Jihads). In addition, we also separate out the relatively new “third rail” of American life: science. We have a wonderfully tolerant society in which scientists can be deeply religious, religious people can be expertly scientific and anyone can be of any political party. Most people in our society, who are not radicalized by their belief system, will usually take evidence based, scientific explanations as far as they will go and then assign any further explanations to the Deity. This relationship, between science and religion, seems to work pretty well for many people.

This paragraph from Steve Novella’s article “Trying to Impose Religion on Medicine” correctly outlines the separation between science and religion: “One of the major themes of science-based medicine (unsurprisingly) is that medicine should be based on science. We consider ourselves specialists in a larger movement defending science in general from mysticism, superstition, and spiritualism. We are not against anyone’s personal belief, and are officially agnostic toward any faith (as is science itself), but will vigorously defend science from any intrusion into its proper realm.”

Some teachers can divert from course material to teach their personal religious beliefs and political opinions. Their personal beliefs might be great ideas like the political environmental movement or the religious Great Peace of Gandhi, but the specifics don’t really matter. The course, whatever the subject, can quickly become an opinion and belief class, to the detriment of the students’ learning the course methodology and material.

In college, my son was repeatedly told in history and political science classes that he should vote the Democratic Party line and that if he didn’t, he was beyond ignorant and consigning the country to a fate worse than death, etc. The fact that most college professors identify as Democrats should not affect the teaching of historical or political science material and methodology.

Good teachers teach methodology and skills and then leave it up to the students to find their way, questioning and balancing opposing points of view.

At a recent science conference, a young college professor asked a panel, “How does one keep from arguing beliefs when trying to teach a science class?” My answer to that question would be to create a safe, non-threatening environment for class discussion and never to argue with students about their beliefs. This is how I do it:

“Your beliefs are your own. No one can tell you what to believe, least of all me”.

 “This is a class about evidence, how to examine it and how to question it. The entire process of science is directed at attempting to remove belief, opinion and personal experience from the examination of evidence.”

“Learn the science and believe what you want. You’re going to do that anyway.”

This works well with children, but the larger point here is that science-oriented people shouldn’t be arguing against people’s deeply held beliefs, whether those people are children or adults. Arguing against a person’s life long belief in their God or their religion is a lose/lose, zero sum argument and pointless conversation. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, when chiding Dawkins about his acerbic style in his role as a science educator, “You can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”

Even when Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door (two or more adults, ready, willing and able to talk about religion), I don’t argue with them about their religion or their bible. I try to engage them about how they know what they know and how they are examining evidence. Topics like circular reasoning, self-validation and removing personal bias from an investigation form the core of my discussion. My wife says that we are the only home from which the frustrated Witnesses eventually flee: “He’s more committed than a Mormon: He’s a scientist!”

Most people are very willing to separate science and how the world works from their personal religious beliefs. Talking about scientific methodology, how it works and how it doesn’t work, how to examine evidence and how we can often deceive ourselves by confirming our own biases leaves an adult or a child with the proper tools to make their own meaning out of their relationship to the world.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 38 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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