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Mark A. Strand
 on June 17, 2020

Opening Up the World of Science for Christian High Schoolers

High school is such a formative time for young people's ideas. How can education impact their opinions on the harmony of science and faith?

a coffee cup sits on top of a Bible, and another person with an open bible sits in the background

High school students are in a unique stage of life.  Most of their opinions reflect the norms of their social and familial setting, and have undergone minimal personalization, despite the fact that many of them have the wherewithal to analyze different viewpoints and articulate personal opinions. Some of them have well-formed personal opinions, which are suppressed by the implicit expectations of those around them, such as their teachers or family members. It is crucial to introduce students in this stage of life to larger questions that they will certainly meet upon leaving home for work or university.

One of the issues that high school students raised in evangelical churches, schools and families struggle with is the doctrine of creation. The creationism movement has used books, videos and conferences to promote Young Earth Creationism (YEC) as the de facto option for evangelical Christians wanting to understand human origins, thus creating some dissonance in the minds of students who encounter conventional understandings of the age of the earth and the process of human origins in school. While experiencing this dissonance is a normal and healthy part of the process of intellectual maturing, there is evidence that this phenomenon is contributing to young people leaving the church.1-3

This is the context which has formed my approach to teaching high school students how to interpret Genesis 1 to 3 with modern scientific understandings in mind (see the full paper here). There were two hypotheses which guided the project reported in this paper. The first was that it is possible to discuss evolution when teaching human origins to young people in an evangelical church with a strong YEC bent without causing extreme conflict. The second was that student’s beliefs about interpretations of Genesis 1-3 and science topics could be enhanced through a six-week course.

two women sitting in a classroom

Student Experiences When Studying Genesis 1-3

Students entered the course with some unconventional opinions about science. For example, students largely believed that Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution in order to justify his atheistic beliefs, human and dinosaur tracks have been discovered in the same rocks, many scientists recognize that evolution is not a very good theory but still support it, radiometric dating is not valid, and there is no evidence for “macroevolution.”  These items form a significant part of the YEC position. Some of the students had mastered this information, but when pressed to explain it, they were unable to give either a scientific or Biblical explanation defending their position. However, it should be noted that by the end of the course, many student’s beliefs about Charles Darwin’s atheistic agenda, the coexistence of human and dinosaur tracks, and skepticism about the evidence for “macroevolution” lessened with time, demonstrating a willingness to change their opinion on those issues.

Student responses also showed confidence in the possibility for interaction between science and faith. For example, they showed openness to integrating knowledge from science and Christian faith—they recognized that science is not the only avenue to reliable information and there are different types of epistemological authority. Students began the course with strong belief that the Bible is a reliable source of scientific information, but by the end of the course the majority of students had changed their minds, reflecting a better understanding of the type of information being conveyed in Genesis 1-3. Belief that anybody who takes the Bible seriously will believe in young earth creationism also declined somewhat by the end of the course.

This project showed that it is possible to help students expand their beliefs about science and interpretations of Genesis 1-3 in a six-week Sunday School course. Student views on some issues changed significantly. Bias against Charles Darwin and modern scientists as being driven by an atheistic motive, and suspicion that science pointing to an old earth is bad science were both reduced. Confidence that science can serve humanity, that science and the Bible address different issues, and that there is room for interaction between science and faith increased. It is surmised that students were willing to change their minds on questions about science and the work of scientists because they were not a direct threat to specific truths of the Bible. 

Commitment to the Bible is commendable, but if taken without reflection, it can lead to a form of bibliolatry. These observations are a reminder of the work that needs to be done to affirm and nurture their devotion to the Bible, while also helping them make that foundation firmer and better able to stand up to the challenges they will face as they move into adulthood.4 And this should be done incrementally, in the same way that spiritual growth occurs, and not imposed upon young men and women as an absolute set of viewpoints that they must accept.

back of a classroom where students are listening to a lecture

Practices and Observations from Sharing in a Church Setting

I am a proponent of a non-confrontational approach to discussing theological differences. I am an equally enthusiastic proponent of taking on our differences in an open way, and within a safe environment. To that end, I would like to share some of the practices I have identified from the experience of teaching science and faith topics to high school students:

10. Different disciplines lean on different approaches to knowledge formation (epistemologies), and these should be considered when teaching topics relating to science and faith. The way of knowing in science is largely materialistic, while the way of knowing in theology is largely based on history and spiritual truths.

9. Scientists need to be cautious when passing judgment on creation doctrines, and theologians should be similarly cautious when evaluating the scientific theory of evolution. Humility is needed on both sides.

8. Respect church leaders and secure their support when introducing potentially controversial topics, such as science and faith, to young people.

7. Inform the parents about what is being taught in advance of the course to minimize controversy and promote multigenerational learning.

6. Create a safe learning atmosphere that is open to everyone’s opinions, as these are very personal and sensitive issues.

5. Seventeen and eighteen-year-old students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone, as they are rapidly approaching living and learning independently of their parents.

4. Students are readier to expand their understanding of science and scientists than they are beliefs about the Bible.

3. Learning begins where the learner is at presently, not where the teacher is presently.  Begin teaching at the place where most of the students are starting from.

2. Convictions about science and faith are formed over decades, not weeks. Therefore, have realistic expectations about the magnitude of the change that can occur in a short period of time. Affirm all evidence of growth, including growth in humility.

1. Teaching youth is as much an activity in pastoral care as it is an intellectual activity. Strive to shepherd their hearts as much as you seek to educate their minds.

Many excellent evangelical churches contain an implicit or explicit commitment to YEC. Most of the members of these churches are more open to revisiting this position than is assumed by proponents of evolutionary creation. As part of their commitment to spiritually nurturing their young people, and preparing them for engaging with wider academic and social understandings of human origins, these churches should be creating safe spaces within which young people can explore and reflect upon their views of important science and faith issues. High school students are in an important stage of spiritual and intellectual formation. Beliefs about the early chapters of Genesis and the relationship between science and faith can be positively influenced through careful and humble teaching.

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About the author

Mark Strand

Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand is a professor in the School of Pharmacy at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND, where he teaches and conducts research in chronic disease epidemiology. Strand holds the BS in biology (Luther College, 1985), MS in cell and developmental biology (University of Minnesota, 1991) and PhD in health and behavioral science (UC-Denver, 2004). He also serves as an elder in his local church.