Being a former high school biology teacher in the Bible Belt, I have had my fair share of religious obstacles in science education. To start, a bit of background…

I am in the Southern US…aka The Bible Belt. I grew up out here. When I was religious, I went to church here regularly. I know what is preached in the pulpit in regards to science. Evolution is wrong. It is a conspiracy against religion. Scientists want to destroy faith. People are supreme and special. We aren’t really animals…we can’t possibly have come from animals. We reign over animals according to god’s word.

The churches allow some concession in science if they see direct benefits…medicine, technology, financial savings…Most (if not all) at the pulpit lack a basic understanding of evolution and science.

This may sound all too familiar from stories heard…newscasts seen…but there is a bit more to it. It is not so basic or cut and dry.

If Protestant, individuals here go to church every Sunday morning and evening as well as Wednesday night. Catholics go once a week usually either Saturday or Sunday. Most out here are Protestant and go to church three times a week.

It is so ingrained in the culture that some science teachers here disagree with evolution and tell their students that is it wrong. In Tennessee, teachers can teach Intelligent Design/Creationism along with evolution as science…legally.

How can you educate others in science effectively when there has been a lifetime of conditioning against this very discipline and reinforced at home as well as in some classrooms?

The first step?

Understanding that these individuals have made religion an integral part of their life and has become necessary for them to cope…

This area is primarily a farming town. There is not much to do in the way of recreation short of gangs, mischief, drugs, loitering, etc. Churches have gyms, youth programs, and socials to allow young people a safe place to interact. Many out here are impoverished. In this state, corporal punishment is still legal. Some parents hit their kids to borderline abuse. It is hard to prove. In many cases, if there is no one who can take a child, the child stays with the abusive family. Lack of healthcare as well as good food is a common issue here. Many kids get breakfast and lunch at school. This may be their only “nourishing” meals of the day as they may only have cheap/affordable junk food for dinner. Hope is found so little in many of these circumstances that religion fills a void.

A personal example…when I was religious, I went to church as a Nazarene . Every Sunday morning and evening as well as Wednesday nights you would see me in the pews singing and listening to the pastor. I had a very humble upbringing that was borderline impoverished…a single parent home and a mom who worked trying to support us. I was bullied as a kid. Church was a place I could go to be away from the problems of the world that weighed heavily on my young shoulders. At the end of each service, the pastor would do an “altar call” saying anyone who needed prayer could come to the altar and lay their problems before god. The song Just As I Am  would play…the church would sing…and I would walk to the altar…tears in my eyes..and the pastor would say that I will be ok. Others would then come and place hands on my shoulders and back…hug me. They would say how brave I am telling me they are thinking of me…that they are here for me. I would feel the weight of the world leave me and I was in bliss. I felt at peace and euphoric. The power of a community coming together and reassuring you that you are loved…by them and god is profound. This brought me joy.
What needs to be understood from this anecdote? When discussing science and rationality as a free thinker with a person of faith…they are taught that what is being said to them is wrong and their joy is trying to be taken from them. Their faith is very real to them as it brings them a peace nothing else has. They have spent every Wednesday night and Sunday experiencing a bliss brought from relinquishing their troubles to god and the community. No words said from anyone will change their perspective.

As a science educator I have intimate knowledge of what my pupils were taught and I knew this was an uphill battle. What did I do? I said things to them no one else ever did…

When they walked into my classroom they knew I would discuss evolution. They would hear which side of the fence I was on, would want to know if I was religious, what my political views are, as well as possibly fight with me tooth and nail about their faith.

I completely dismantled that wall and addressed the elephant in the room.

I said, “We are going to talk about controversial topics you may not agree with. That is ok. You all have been told what to think your whole lives. I will never tell you what to think. That is not my job. You all have fantastic brains. I want to teach you how to think and you make up your own minds. I know some of you will want to discuss religion. I am scientist. I have a whole bunch of degrees from a bunch old dudes who say I can represent the scientific community. I don’t have degrees in religion. Why would I teach something I am not an expert in? Would you bring your car to me to fix? I might have fun taking it apart, but I may not know how to put it back together! The same is for religion. Go to an expert, your pastor or religious leaders. You are all scientists in my science classroom which means you can tell me that I am wrong. However, I am going to ask for your (peer reviewed) evidence because I am going to show you mine.”

I heard no argument. These kids were never or rarely told to think on their own. They had respect from me that I understood they had their own beliefs and were allowed them, but we are scientists in my classroom. You must think for yourself.

Empower those who you want to listen to you…be non-threatening and approachable.

Next Step?

It is not enough to dole out science terms and definitions in an effort to boost scientific literacy. You have to convince people to care.

It is often heard, “When am I ever going to use this?! Why do I need to know about biology/evolution/mitosis/photosynthesis, etc?”

Understanding terminology is not the issue with science literacy. You can not teach people if they do not care to learn. 

When Pres. Obama was running for his second term, students had heavy debates over who was the best candidate for President. They would ask me my thoughts on politics. I used this as a teachable moment in showing the importance of scientific literacy. I posted quotes on my screen that certain candidates said… Todd Akin quote regarding pregnancy and rape…essentially he said a “legitimate rape” would not likely lead to a pregnancy.

I asked my students, “What is wrong with this statement?” They would tell me, “A woman can’t prevent herself from getting pregnant!” I would respond, “See? You are all smarter than people who run this country. This is  what I think of politics. This is why you need science classes so you can know when people are lying to you.” 

This translates to discussing science with those who would not listen. They are not incapable of understanding. They have to be shown why this is important and how it will affect them personally. Adults need to understand global warming will affect food supply raising prices as well as energy costs. They need to understand healthcare science so they can make informed decisions about who leads their government in affecting their healthcare coverage.

Showing people the personal relevance of what you are saying is essential in science education and communication.

The last step?

You have to make it fun and interesting…

My 1st Master’s degree project was based in linking content interest to content mastery.  It should be obvious that people who enjoy the content will be better at it. It is difficult to quantify this. I managed to do it through surveys and test scores as well as previous performance with my students. What I found out was that students who enjoyed the content did better than those who did not. Scores increased with those who were interested in what we were doing. Those who did not had no change from previous scores.

I based my model on the major personality types diversifying assignments and instructions in order to generate interest. I incorporated video games, hands on activities, and allowed students to pick their own assignments from a list of varying types of activities. I used videos and even dance to encourage positive association with my content.

I charged my students with the responsibility of their own education. I never told them what to think. I presented my evidence. They either believed it or not. However, they would know what the correct information was. One can not ask for more than that.

The bottom line? I was fun, approachable, non threatening, and made silly jokes. I made fun of myself and only took the evidence seriously. I showed respect for their beliefs and empowered them to think for themselves.

A final example…

There was one student I had who is a highly religious person. She is extremely smart. She struggled with the history of persecution of scientists in the church as well as evolution. She swore nothing would ever change her mind. She took not only my Biology 1 class, but my more difficult Biology 2 class as well. I taught her for 2 years. I could see the internal struggle she had with the obvious evidence. She struggled with the possibility she had been lied to…My heart broke for her as I feared she would not reach a point to accept evidence. I know her struggle as that was once me.

There is an internal battle rational people of faith undergo when they see obvious evidence that points to only one solution which contradicts everything they have ever known to be true…as told to them by people who they think love them. 

It is not fun. It is hurtful to them to a degree. This has to be understood if a science communicator wants to be effective in their trade. Respect, understanding, and care is essential if science education/evidence acceptance is the goal.

In summary…

Faith must be respected and addressed as it has a profound affect on the deeply religious…it is a joy they fear science is trying to take from them. Making the content relevant to the lives of those who need scientific literacy is the only way to be effective in communicating it. No one will learn what they feel is personally unnecessary. Be approachable, non-threatening, and fun. They may not remember everything you said, but they will come back to you for the correct information if they feel comfortable learning from you.

I leave you with the words of Maya Angelou…


Thank you for reading.

Scientist Mel


5 Thoughts to “Science Communication and Overcoming Religious Obstacles”

  1. I’m a Christian and love science. Evolution is a pale example of science compared to intelligent design, fine tuning of the big bang and the universe, DNA being a language of information with order.
    I’ve written extensively on these.
    Come and see.

    1. I am a scientist who is being published soon (and likely more publications) for my scientific work. Evolution is not a pale example of science. It is heavily reinforced through countless studies involving genetics, comparative anatomy, embryology, fossil record…

      You are not going to convince me evolution is a pale example of science when it has been reinforced over 150 years. There is no evidence for ID. DNA follows Information Theory (a scientific theory involving order through energy expenditure)…unless your article is peer reviewed and checked for error through such a rigorous process, it is not substantial compared to all of the articles published on what you feel is incorrect.

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