Teaching Evolution to Students of Faith: An Interview with Sara Brownell and Elizabeth Barnes


Scientific American’s August 2018 issue included an article, “Bringing Darwin Back,” which chronicles the battles over evolution teaching in American schools since the 1920s and the very recent movement to teach evolution in a way that addresses, rather than ignores, the concerns of religious students. Freelance journalist Adam Piore profiles a Christian biology teacher in a small Georgia town in her efforts to reduce tensions among her students over evolution. In a community that emphatically rejects evolution, her sense of isolation is heartbreaking and all too familiar to many readers of BioLogos.

I was dismayed that the article didn’t mention BioLogos and our resources designed to support educators of Christian students, but I was pleased to see several friends of BioLogos featured. Among them was Dr. Lee Meadows, associate professor of science education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who spoke at the 2017 BioLogos conference and who serves on an advisory panel for a BioLogos education project. Also quoted was Dr. David Wilcox, Professor Emeritus at Eastern University, who received a BioLogos grant for scholarship on human uniqueness.

Featured significantly in the article was the work of my friends Drs. Sara Brownell and Elizabeth (“Liz”) Barnes. Sara leads the Biology Education Research Lab at Arizona State University, where Liz is a post-doctoral fellow. Over the past several years Sara and Liz have published seminal work exploring how students’ perceived conflict between religion and evolution might change depending on different instructional practices and contexts. Their findings empirically validate many of the practices we at BioLogos have long employed for reducing perceived conflicts between science and Christian faith. These practices include acknowledging the sense of conflict, introducing role models who are scientists of faith, and showing the range of positions that Christians can take on origins.

I recently connected with Sara and Liz to find out more about their research and thoughts on effective science teaching. Below is the interview.

Kathryn Applegate: Sara, for full disclosure to our readers, I should say that that we’ve been good friends for a long time, and were even roommates during grad school. I remember many late-night discussions about evolution and faith during those early years. What made you want to study evolution education professionally? What led you to explore the role of religion in student understanding and acceptance of evolution?

Sara Brownell: Although I have always been broadly interested in evolution and religion, my academic interest in it stemmed from having Liz join my research lab as a graduate student almost five years ago. She came in with a really strong interest in improving evolution education.  I had been doing research that examined the experience of students with different social identities—such as gender—in the undergraduate biology classroom, but had not done any work on religious identity as a social identity. However, religious identity is often the main factor for why a student does not accept evolution. After a series of conversations with Liz, it became clear that we shared an interest in tackling the problem of student rejection of evolution by helping college biology instructors adopt a more inclusive teaching philosophy.

Kathryn Applegate: Liz, your work in Sara’s lab has focused on the experiences of Judeo-Christian students in college biology classrooms, and you’ve also studied the beliefs and practices of biology professors. What trends have you observed in each group? Is there a disconnect between students and faculty when it comes to religion?

Liz Barnes: One of the first things we noticed when we started studying both instructors teaching evolution and their students was that there was a difference between them in terms of their religious beliefs. Biology professors who are teaching evolution, at least at secular institutions, were predominantly not religious while the majority of their students identified as Christians. This may not be relevant for the majority of college education, but when teaching evolution if students perceive that the majority of their professors are atheists, that might send the message that they have to be an atheist to learn and accept evolution.

When interviewing Judeo-Christian students about their experiences learning evolution our suspicions were confirmed. These students said that they knew biology professors were mostly secular and they perceived professors would have negative attitudes towards religion, even before they actually started their college classes. In college, students reported that biology instructors were sometimes insensitive to their religious beliefs, which made it harder for them to learn and accept evolution. Interestingly, some students assumed professors took a conflict stance on religion and evolution unless the professor explicitly said that evolution and religion could be compatible.

Kathryn Applegate: Some Christians fear that college professors are out to destroy the faith of their religious students (Exhibit A: God’s Not Dead, a film made by and for Christians). Does your research suggest this is the reality, or do many biology professors just not know how to address the concerns of religious students?

Liz Barnes: We know both from our research and the popular media that there are “militant atheist” biologists who say they want to rid students of their religious beliefs. However, our research and the research of others also shows that these individuals are a small group of loud voices. The majority of scientists are not “out to destroy” religion and in fact almost 25% of biologists say that they believe in a higher power themselves. However, what we have found is biology instructors are often misguided as to the best way to address students’ religious beliefs.

Many of them take the approach of avoiding the topic altogether and this is often well intentioned; the instructors do not want to make anyone uncomfortable so they do not address religion at all when teaching evolution. Unfortunately, we know that students already come in to class feeling uncomfortable, and avoiding the topic of religion often is a silent confirmation to students that religion and evolution cannot be compatible. So, in order to effectively teach students evolution, we need instructors to engage with students in a positive way about the relationship between religion and evolution.

Kathryn Applegate: You’ve studied how professors at Christian colleges teach evolution and demonstrated that their “cultural competence” helps students of faith understand and accept evolution. What does cultural competence entail when it comes to faith? If you could wave a magic wand and get all biology teachers to adopt one (or two) new practices, what would it be?

Liz: Cultural competence is really the ability to be able to effectively communicate with someone who might have experienced a different culture or belief system than you. Christian university instructors, because they are coming from the same background and belief systems as their students, gave us insight into how instructors who do not share that religious background with their students might be able to become more culturally competent.

Two very simple and easy practices that instructors teaching evolution at Christian universities use and that research shows could help students become more comfortable with evolution are: (1) show students examples of religious biologists and religious leaders who accept evolution, optimally from a variety of religious denominations, and (2) simply acknowledge that some students may experience a conflict between their religious beliefs and evolution but that they can maintain their religious beliefs without having to reject evolution. If every instructor teaching evolution for the next five years incorporated those two simple practices, I would be willing to bet we would start to see these students becoming more excited about and accepting of evolution.

Kathryn Applegate: Your research has focused on college-level biology instruction. Do you think the practices you’ve identified would hold for high school instruction also? Like Christian college professors, science teachers at private Christian schools (at least those with support from their administration!) can be very intentional about helping students integrate evolution and faith, but what can a public school teacher do?

Liz: Yes, I do think these practices would be effective for high school students because both high school and college students experience the same conflict between their religious beliefs and evolution. However, the barriers for getting instructors to use these practices in high school will be different from the barriers college instructors face. High school instructors tend to have a religious culture and background that is more similar to their students than college instructors, but they tend to be less knowledgeable about evolution. So instead of not being experienced enough with religion to relate to their students like college instructors might be, the high school teachers may be experiencing unresolved conflict between their own religious beliefs and evolution, and this can lead to them avoiding the topic of evolution altogether when teaching biology.

Indeed research confirms that a significant portion of high school biology teachers are anxious about their ability to teach evolution, and many still entertain special creationism as an alternative scientific theory to evolution.

Among those high school teachers who do not have a conflict with their religious beliefs and evolution, many of them still do not feel confident enough in their knowledge about evolution to teach the subject in any depth. So, you could see how adding an even brief discussion about students’ religious beliefs to this anxiety might seem too much for them. While using culturally competent practices would be good for high school instructors, their knowledge of evolution is the more pressing barrier to their teaching evolution effectively.

Additionally, there is a common misconception among both high school and college instructors that it is against the rules to have any discussion about religion in a public education setting, and often I hear instructors refer to the “separation of church and state” when they say this. However, the fact that we teach entire courses on world religions in public colleges shows how this is not true. Further, to properly teach the nature of science we often have to discuss other methods of knowledge acquisition, such as religion and philosophy, in order to distinguish what is and what is not science. With regard to using culturally competent practices, teaching about the different stances that religions have about evolution and showing examples of religious individuals with diverse opinions about evolution is certainly not in violation of the separation of church and state as long as the instructor is teaching evolution as a valid and well supported scientific theory.

Kathryn Applegate: Many people might assume that your research is motivated by personal religious faith. Care to discuss your personal beliefs and how your experiences have shaped your research?

Sara: Neither Liz nor I consider ourselves religious. Although I grew up religious, I am no longer religious. Often people assume that this research is driven by my own ideology and it is.  However, it’s not driven by my religious ideology but rather my belief that instructors need to create classroom communities that are welcoming and inclusive of all students regardless of their backgrounds and belief systems. This doesn’t mean that I am an advocate for “teaching the controversy” [the approach urged by Intelligent Design advocates] or that I think that instructors at public institutions should teach religion in science classrooms. However, instructors—particularly instructors who are not religious—should be respectful of the fact that many of their students are religious and may be struggling to reconcile their beliefs with evolution.

Kathryn Applegate: What’s next from the Brownell Lab on this topic?

Sara: We are happy to announce that we just received funding from the National Science Foundation to expand this work! We have plans to test the effectiveness of these culturally competent teaching strategies for different instructors at different types of institutions across the country. We have plans for what will be the largest study on these practices to date, which will hopefully give us greater insights into what we should recommend for evolution instructors to help religious students accept evolution.

Kathryn Applegate: Congratulations! That’s very exciting. We look forward to hearing the results of this new work. Thanks to you both for taking part in this interview. It’s been a pleasure.


Kathryn Applegate
About the Author

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate is Resources Editor at BioLogos. While working on her PhD in computational cell biology at The Scripps Research Institute (La Jolla, CA), she felt a strong sense of calling to help build bridges between the church and the scientific community. In 2010, she joined the BioLogos staff where she has the privilege of writing, speaking, and working with a wide variety of scholars and educators to develop new resources aimed at science/faith integration. Kathryn co-edited with Jim Stump How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity Press, 2016) and curates the BioLogos Common Questions. As Project Leader for INTEGRATE, Kathryn is excited about the potential for BioLogos to equip parents and teachers to raise up the next generation of Christian students who approach science with wonder, curiosity, perseverance, and wisdom. Kathryn, her husband Brent, and their two young children live in Grand Rapids, MI, where they are helping to plant a new Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) church.