Letter from the Editor: Perspectives on Science and Religion

MARGARET CROWDER (margaret.crowder@wku.edu), editor in chief of In the Trenches, is an instructor of geology at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY.

As science educators, we know our best classroom strategies recognize that students come from diverse backgrounds and may bring multiple perspectives and deeply held beliefs to the classroom. We invite these students into our respective science disciplines by helping them develop critical thinking skills, data collection and analysis skills, and an understanding of the scientific method. All through this process, we understand that attacking our students' belief systems may only serve to entrench them more deeply in their misconceptions about science. Unfortunately, one topic in the classroom that is often avoided is a discussion of religion and science.

Full disclosure:

  • I teach geology. My students learn that the Earth is nearly 4.6 billion years old and that the universe, which started with a Big Bang, is closer to 13.7 billion years old. My introductory class deals with the immensity of geologic time and the cumulative effects of such slow-change events as plate tectonics, which alters the surface of Earth at rates of centimeters per year.
  • I am a Presbyterian. I regularly attend church and participate in service as both a lector and a member of the choir.
  • I don't teach religion. However, it would be shortsighted of me to think religion was not in my classroom (and I don't just mean on exam days!). My mostly Bible Belt students have upbringings within a region of the country where most of the population identifies as Christian (Pew Research Center, 2018). I am fortunate as my church family is composed of many teachers and science-minded individuals. However, I know some church communities assert that an individual cannot be both a scientist and a Christian or, even more generally, a believer in God.

I invite discourse with my students on perceived controversies between religion and science. I openly let students know that I am both a scientist and a person of faith and briefly discuss with them my own convictions regarding such things as the immensity of time and the nature of God as an infinite being. I brook no debate on the actual science while clearly letting students know that, to me, science and religion are not in opposition to each other; the more I learn about science, the more I am awed by the complexity of God's creation.

I have received overwhelmingly positive responses from students to my short (maybe 15-minute) classroom discussions on this issue. Students have thanked me, both in person and via comments on evaluations, for providing connections between items they previously thought were irreconcilable. I've had multiple office visits from students wanting deeper conversation. One Muslim student even wrote a short paper for me (unrequested, and without any consideration for class
credit) on science and the Quran and we had a wonderful discussion about how different peoples of the world should work harder to understand one another, because through understanding, we can find peace.

By allowing no brokering between religion and science, both "sides" are responsible for expanding the divide. A faithful Christian is no more required to believe the world was created in a literal seven-day period than a top-notch scientist is required to be an atheist. There is more overlap here than popular debate would have us believe. I am hopeful this issue of ITT will provoke open discussion of science and religion. Even though a decreasing number of Americans report belief in a Young Earth version of Creationism (Swift, 2017), for students who do come to the classroom with a religious view that seems contrary to science, we should reach out through the regular tools of our trade – critical thinking and open discussion – instead of avoiding what can end up being an incredible teaching moment.


Pew Research Center, 2018, Religious Landscape Study: Religious composition of adults in Kentucky: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/state/kentucky/

Swift, A., 2017, Gallup Poll Social Series: In U.S., belief in Creationist view of humans at new low: http://news.gallup.com/poll/210956/belief-creationist-viewhumans-