08/09/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Science vs. Faith in the College Science Classroom

It is nearly 90 years since Tennessee v. Scopes, popularly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and nearly a decade since Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, but opposition to teaching evolution as the only valid scientific basis for understanding biology still rages across the country. As some surveys have shown, less than 30 percent of Americans accept naturalistic evolution as the proper scientific explanation for the diversity of life forms. In other words, most American children grow up in households that maintain considerable skepticism about evolution. Many churches only complicate matters by endorsing some version of "theistic evolution," which fails one of the basic tenets of science, namely falsifiability. Let us not forget that prominent political leaders (including former presidents and presidential candidates) openly express the view that creationism (or their derivatives) should be taught as an equally valid scientific theory. Further, most of K-12 science textbooks and teachers steer clear, or make minimum mention of evolution because of policies adopted by conservative School Boards.

No wonder, then, that the subject of evolution still flares up quite often in the college classroom as well. As reported in The Huffington Post recently, the president of Ball State University was put in the position of officially banning the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. This arose because a science class taught by a physics professor there was suspected of being a vehicle for teaching intelligent design. Yet, the university earlier hired another physics professor who has published a book in support of intelligent design. Can a scientist who writes in support of a patently unscientific hypothesis be considered worthy of a science faculty position at a university? Does this fall within the principles of academic freedom?

It is precisely because we hold academic freedom as a cherished principle that we need to demand academic responsibility from those who receive it. While colleges do encourage interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary forays in teaching and research, someone purporting to be practicing and teaching science must adhere to the attendant intellectual rigor in the classroom. Science does not begin with preconceived dogma; it is in the face of preponderant and overwhelming evidence that a hypothesis becomes widely accepted. Theories which begin with the premise of an omnipotent creator or "intelligent" external guiding force fail this fundamental framework of science. They are the tenets of religion. Tired of incessant tirade from those who peddle pseudo-science, many scientists have become quite bellicose in defending evolution. I argue below that the cause of science is better served if college professors take a gentler approach with students in first year introductory biology classes.

Adolescent students who have grown up in deeply religious families enter the college biology classroom quite confused about, and even skeptical of, evolution. Depending on the U.S. location, this could be the majority of students. At many institutions these students find themselves in a hostile climate inside the college biology classroom. Professors have been known to put up signs on their office doors ridiculing those who question evolution. One biology professor went so far as to declare in his syllabus that he would not provide a medical school recommendation to anyone in his class who did not "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question of human origins (see, e.g., The New York Times). A confrontational approach to challenge students to rethink their understanding and belief may have pedagogical value for some students. With others, this may simply deepen their mistrust of scientists and science. Nowhere else than in the study of biology, perhaps, is the transition from high school to college more of a personal growth challenge for many students as they try to sort through what their faith teaches them about the origins of life and what science teaches them.

Religious faith is in the mind of the believer. The true believer needs no proof, nor adheres to any fixed epistemology. Can a person who understands science, who practices science, also sustain religious faith? Not only can they, in fact a great many do. Among the most prominent scientists who proudly speak of their religious faith is Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health. For those who seek a higher purpose for life, a meaning for existence, the framework of science is inadequate or incomplete. Practicing scientists who observe and use evolution in their laboratories do not find it necessary to reject their faith in God. It is those who insist on a literal interpretation of the description of the origin of life or creation of the universe found in religious texts that go to extraordinary lengths to reject science in general, and evolution in particular. Worse yet, they try to substitute thinly veiled religious dogma as scientific alternatives.

The college introductory biology class may be the last chance we have to open the minds of many a future citizen to scientific thinking and to accepting evolution. An overly confrontational and hostile approach can squander this opportunity. To the biology professors who have had enough of ignorant attacks on evolution, I say reserve your venom for the politicians, the school board members, and the misguided religious literalists, but spare the young student who seeks your help in sorting out what is faith and what is science when it comes to the origins of life.