January 22, 2015

You Can't Educate People Into Believing in Evolution (Except when you can)

I was raised within a conservative evangelical Christian community. We were independent fundamentalist Baptists, and we were proud of it.

We believed The Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God. That it is the absolute word on moral and social issues. We believed that the world should always be conducted in accordance with its principles.

We were young earth creationists. We believed in a literal seven-day creation cycle, six days of work and a day of rest. We believed that evolution was wrong. Utterly wrong. Inarguably wrong.

These were not views that were challenged in my life. They were utterly supported, on all fronts. I attended a small Christian kindergarten. The literal creation narrative was a consistent theme—there was even a large mural of the Garden of Eden on the wall.

I attended public school for first through sixth grade. Nothing that I learned there contradicted that belief. New information was not introduced.  Seventh and eighth grade saw me attending a small unregulated Christian school run by our church. We used the A Beka curriculum, and this was the first time that I ever encountered the idea of evolution—and it was a caricature of the actual concept. It was a beautiful strawman, elegantly constructed just so that it could be playfully parried and thrust down.

For high school I returned to public school, but my science education was not exactly thorough. We glossed over the idea of evolution in biology, and we never brought it up in any other classes.

Meanwhile, I attended churches that actively encouraged us not to pay attention to evolution. They were bringing in pseudoscientific propaganda, they were hosting youth events to refute the evolution we were being indoctrinated with in school, they were actively encouraging us to learn it for the test, but no more.

All of these forces were undermining my understanding of science in a profound way. You want to know how people can continue to deny global warming and climate change? This is it—it’s a profound campaign that undermines the very foundations of scientific understanding. It purposefully distorts and confuses information so that individuals can easily tear down arguments that don’t really exist.

We laugh at statements like, “How could we have come from monkeys if there are still monkeys?”, but they point to a very real strength of the anti-science movement—they distort the truth so that it seems absolutely absurd to believe in it. Which, in and of itself, is absolutely absurd.

But what can we do about it? A few months ago, a study made waves because it said that you can’t convince people to believe in evolution by arguing it. It’s a fair point—it’s hard to pushback against such incredible forces of opposition.

There’s a problem with blanket statements, though, and that problem is that they lack nuance. The way that the topic has been approached seems to say, “It’s pointless to talk about it. It’s pointless to fight the battle in the classroom.”

One such piece ends on this sentiment:

It seems that most people simply believe what they're going to believe about the metaphysical nature of the universe.

Approaching this topic in such a fashion is short-sighted and naïve. A multi-faceted approach is much more important. Because, you see, there are people like me out there.

It does take a considerable amount of effort to overcome the forces that oppose such understanding—but facts have to be a portion of the conversation. If nothing else, such debates and discussions help provide a basis for future inquiry.

It shouldn’t be the only approach. We can’t rely on it wholly. There do have to be other approaches, and most importantly we do need allies within the evangelical community.

But abandoning the concept of facts entirely? That’s maddeningly naïve. It’s an overreaction that’s not justified by the results of a survey.

There are people out there—people like me—who will respond to facts. Who will wonder and explore and grow through those facts.

Don’t give up on them.

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