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Religion and Science Education

Professor Michael Reiss considers the question,

‘Should Science Educators Deal with the Science/Religion Issue?’

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Professor Michael Reiss: In this article, I begin by examining the nature of science and the nature of religion before looking generally at the ways in which science and religion relate to one another. Finally, I consider some of the pedagogical issues that would need to be considered if the science/religion issue is to be addressed in the classroom.

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Here we give an overview of the article

Professor Reiss feels that there are strong arguments in favour of science educators teaching about the science/religion issue, even though such teaching will make greater demands of them.

‘The principal reason for this is to help students better to learn science.’

The article begins by recognising that any treatment of the science/religion issue requires an appraisal of both the nature of science and the nature of religion.

 

THE NATURE OF SCIENCE

‘This phrase is used as a shorthand for something like ‘how science is done and what sorts of things scientists work on’ (or the practice of science and the knowledge that is derived from that practice).

What do scientists study? How is science done?

The difficulty of answering these questions definitively is illustrated with examples and discussion.

‘Certain things clearly fall under the domain of science – the nature of electricity, the arrangement of atoms into molecules, and human physiology, to give three examples. However, what about the origin of the universe, the behaviour of people in society, decisions about whether we should build nuclear power plants or go for wind power, the appreciation of music and the nature of love, for example? Do these fall under the domain of science?’

‘Individual scientists are passionate about their work and often slow to accept that their cherished ideas are wrong. But science itself is not persuaded by such partiality… time invariably shows which of two alternative scientific theories is nearer the truth. For this reason, scientists are well advised to retain ‘open mindedness’, always being prepared to change their views in the light of new evidence or better explanatory theories, and science itself advances over time. As a result, while some scientific knowledge (‘frontier science’) is contentious, much scientific knowledge can confidently be relied on: it is relatively certain.’

‘Science is concerned with the natural world and with certain elements of the manufactured world – so that, for example, the laws of gravity apply as much to artificial satellites as they do to planets and stars.’

‘Science is concerned with how things are rather than with how they should be. So there is a science of gunpowder and in vitro fertilisation without science telling us whether warfare and test-tube births are good or bad.’

THE NATURE OF RELIGION

The general characteristics of religion are briefly explained within seven dimensions: practical and ritual; experiential and emotional; narrative or mythic; doctrinal and philosophical; ethical and legal; social and institutional; material. Examples of how science can interface with these different religious dimensions are also given.

‘The effects of the practical and ritual dimension are being investigated by scientific studies that examine such things as the efficacy of prayer and the neurological consequences of meditation.’

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION

This section is preceded with mention that use of the singular ‘relationship’, risks the interpretation of there being only one way that the two relate. Michael Reiss identifies two key issues:

‘… one is to do with understandings of reality; the other to do with evidence and authority…most religions hold that reality consists of more than the objective world and many religions give weight to personal and/or (depending on the religion) institutional authority in a way that science generally strives not to.’

Amongst other writers’ positions, Barbour’s four main (accessible) categorisations of the relationship (conflict; independence; dialogue and integration) are set out even-handedly in this section.

 

Following on from this are insightful sections on; Quantum Theory, Chaos Theory and Divine Action; Evolution and Creationism; Genetic Engineering and The Writings of Richard Dawkins.

Before the concluding section, Pedagogical Issues are explored, emphasising a number of studies that have tried to find effective ways of teaching the science/religion issue and re-iterating that:

‘The strongest argument, in my view, for teaching anything about religion in a science class, whether at school, college or university, is if it helps students better to understand science.’

‘Teaching about aspects of religion in science classes could potentially help students better understand the strengths and limitations of the ways in which science is undertaken, the nature of truth claims in science, and the importance of social contexts for science.’

It is recognised here that some science teachers might see obstacles to the successful teaching of science and religion issues:

‘For example, a science teacher might feel that they simply don’t have the expertise to teach effectively about such matters (though my experience and that of others is that initial teacher education and continuing professional development can help address this need), that these matters are better dealt with elsewhere in the curriculum (in some cases co-operation with other subject departments can be fruitful), or that it is impossible to teach objectively about such matters so that one risks indoctrinating one’s students either into or away from a religious faith. In addition, there can be legal restraints on the extent to which religion can be discussed in classes and, more mundanely, there are frequently the constraints of curriculum time.

This section ends with two sub-sections that explore Teaching about controversial issues and Teaching about matters of personal significance and how these two areas can be handled sensitively in the science classroom.

 

In conclusion, Michael Reiss says:

‘I have argued that there are good reasons for students being introduced to aspects of the science/religion issue in science lessons. Such teaching is not easy but done well it can be respectful of students, motivating and fulfilling for them and help them to learn more about the nature and content of science.’

‘At the same time, and finally, a great deal more work could profitably be undertaken in this area. A whole host of research questions suggest themselves. What precisely should be the aims of teaching in this area? Are science/religion issues core or peripheral to science education? What are the best ways of addressing these issues in the science classroom? How much knowledge of religion does a science educator need? How great is the range of religions that might need to be addressed in the science classroom? What initial teacher education and continuing professional development in this area is most effective for science teachers? How much time (if any) should be spent on the science/religion issue and to what extent is the answer to this question dependent on the particular science educator? If the issue is to be addressed, what facets should be considered for different ages of students?’

 

 

 

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