Science, Christianity, and Homeschooling
Today's entry was written by Abigail McFarthing. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
Science and technology dominate the world of young people. Not only do teenagers seem to live their lives through their smart phones and Facebook pages, but our culture’s view of science has affected their understanding of truth. Often, “scientific truth” is more real to them than “religious truth”—and if the two should seem to conflict, more often than not, science wins. Perhaps turned off by the “conflict mentality” that they perceive in the church, and by the church's inability to relate Christianity to the world around them, many of those young people leave the faith.
Parents, youth leaders, teachers—all of us—need to encourage young people to have a passion for God’s world and God’s Word. We should help them learn to distinguish between primary issues of the faith, and secondary issues that Christians may in good conscience disagree on. And we must equip them to think critically and biblically through the many different issues of science and faith so that they can be effective citizens and witnesses in today’s society. Today I’d like to introduce a new resource for the Church in that equipping mission for today’s Christian young people; but first, let me give a bit of my own story.
Prepared for the conflict
My amazing parents homeschooled me through eighth grade. I loved the freedom to explore things that I enjoyed; the challenge of tackling subjects well beyond my “official” grade level; and the joy of forming deep relationships with my parents and brothers. We used many high-quality science texts, but in my memory, all of the resources on origins available to us promoted an often-combative Creation Science perspective.
In ninth grade, I went to public high school armed and ready for the fight I had been trained to expect. When my biology teacher taught evolution and required us to write an essay, I hi-jacked the essay topic and turned it into an apologetic for six-day creation. Because I was in “conflict mode,” I was not ready to consider the arguments for evolution, or the possibility that Christians could actually accept it. I stayed on guard for the next three years until I headed off to the less hostile territory of Wheaton College.
As a student in Wheaton’s explicitly Christian environment, I felt a new safety to explore different biblically faithful positions that Christians hold, while at the same time maintaining my commitment to my faith. I majored in English and Secondary Education, and as one of my science requirements I took a class called “Issues in Biology.” My professor’s Christian faith shone through her teaching, and her words have stayed with me to this day: “Jesus is not going to be standing at the gateway of heaven,” she said, “holding a clipboard in his hand and asking, ‘Did you believe in six-day creation? Did you believe in evolution?’ He’s going to be asking the one question that matters: ‘Did you believe in ME?’” Yes! I thought. I agree. My professor then proceeded to surprise me: she was the first person to clearly articulate for me how someone could both believe the Bible and accept evolution. I realized that this— alongside many others—was a secondary issue, and that whatever my position on origins might be, I could have fellowship with Christians who held different positions.
But this particular biology professor had more to say than, “we can all just get along.” I remember her bemoaning a phenomenon that she had observed as a teacher: Christian students, raised in a strict Young Earth Creationist background which only portrayed the weaknesses in evolution, would often lose their faith when confronted with evolutionary theory in its full strength. Having only ever heard one perspective, they hadn’t learned to think critically through different viewpoints. Furthermore, they identified their faith so strongly with Young Earth Creationism, that when science seemed to contradict their understanding of origins, they felt they had to jettison not only their Creationism, but the whole of their Christian faith.
During my training as a high school teacher, I learned another way to understand what was happening in the minds (and lives) of these students using Piaget’s theory of cognitive equilibrium. In simplified form, the theory says that students have a mental construct of how they see the world (called a schema by Piaget); with this schema, they are happy and peaceful—in a state of equilibrium. When they encounter new information, however, they get pushed into an uncomfortable state of disequilibrium. In order to return to equilibrium, they must either assimilate the new information into their existing worldview, or they must accommodate their worldview to fit the new information. Resilient learners and a robust faith can handle such challenges.
But the faith of the students my professor described was different— strong, but brittle; it did not have the resilience that comes through testing. Indeed, in 1644, John Milton described such untested conviction like this: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for...” (from Areopagitica: A speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England). To use Piaget’s terms again, evolution threw these students into a disequilibrium from which they could not recover; they could not assimilate evolution into their Creationist worldview, and they could not or would not accommodate their worldview to fit the scientific evidence—so they floundered.
Training for resilience
In my own roles as a teacher and youth leader, I strive to introduce young people to new ideas that will stretch them—even cause them to lose their equilibrium at first. Too much new information conflicting with students’ pre-existing ideas will mean that they cannot assimilate the new information or accommodate to it. Too little new information will mean that they are not being challenged. Both extremes mean that the student is not learning. What I aim to do is to push them into disequilibrium, but also then provide them with the tools to assimilate/accommodate for themselves, and reach equilibrium again—with a deeper, enriched, and more nuanced worldview.
While this has been my strategy to personally help train up resilient young Christians in classrooms and youth groups, last year, Dr. Ruth Bancewicz (the Test of FAITH Project Leader, contributor to this blog, and fellow member of City Church Cambridge) brought me on board to work on another exciting project. Since then, I have been able to use my passion to provoke young people to think more deeply in my role as author of the Test of FAITH homeschool material.
As it was when I was a homeschooled student myself, the vast majority of homeschool science resources available today focus on the issue of origins, and from a Young Earth Creationist perspective. We have developed the Test of FAITH homeschool course to allow young people to learn about the different perspectives that Christians hold on a wide range of issues. In fact, let me emphasize that less than one-third of this material is about origins! For my part, I have loved the opportunity to delve into other issues of science and faith while developing this course; we think students will also appreciate seeing how a biblical worldview engages with such diverse topics as cosmology, the environment, neurology and the soul, free will and determinism, and bioethics.
Both the broad range of issues addressed in the Test of FAITH curriculum and the approach this curriculum takes to those topics will benefit students in several specific ways:
- Learning about different viewpoints will encourage homeschoolers to think critically through ideas and their consequences.
- Coming in contact with a variety of views will cause students to question why they believe what they believe, and will give them th tools to emerge from that questioning with an even deeper faith in God.
- Showing that Christians can disagree on various secondary issues, yet still remain committed, Bible-based believers, will help diffuse the acrimony that often surrounds science-faith issues.
I still have many questions, and I feel that my journey in understanding how science relates to my faith has just begun. However, Test of FAITH has been a significant marker on my own path, and I hope it will be a milestone for many homeschoolers around the globe, as well.
Science and Christianity: An Introductory Course for Homeschoolers is available for free download at www.testoffaith.com/homeschool. The 3-8 week course is designed for use with the award-winning documentary Test of FAITH: Does science threaten belief in God?
Abigail McFarthing is the author of the new Test of FAITH homeschool course and has worked in education in the US, South Africa, and the UK. A former homeschooler herself, she graduated with highest honors in English and Secondary Education from Wheaton College. She led church youth work for four years, and currently works with young people with learning difficulties. She is also a worship leader and songwriter; you can listen to her album at http://abigailmcfarthing.bandcamp.com