Evolution, Science, and Religion

This post is written by BEACON’s Education Director Louise Mead

Evolution, Science, and Religion chapter in its entirety is available here.

I am an evolutionary biologist by training, and currently the Education Director at BEACON. I am also heading into my tenth year of teaching an online course titled “Teaching Evolution” for the NTEN program at Montana State University. These various roles often place me at the intersection of exciting research in evolutionary biology and the educational challenges that can be associated with teaching evolution. Perhaps because I was brought up in a Catholic tradition, I’ve always been interested in exploring ways people seek to integrate the domains of science and religion/spirituality with their experiences learning about evolution. For me, when I first learned about Darwin’s ideas about evolution in ninth-grade biology, it was as though the natural world, and even human nature, finally made sense. A course with Dr. Lynn Margulis on environmental evolution altered my entire relationship with science, allowing me to see the dynamic and tentative nature of scientific information. A new awareness of how science worked led me to pursue research, and a PhD in evolutionary biology, with Drs. Stephen Tilley and Laura Katz, studying the patterns and processes of speciation in a group of salamanders.

Experiences over the years led me to continue exploring spiritual questions and attempting to connect these questions and experiences with my understanding of the biological world. Over time, however, I realized these attempts to integrate supernatural explanations with science were unsatisfactory. Most of these ideas, when brought before a scientific framework of evidence-based reasoning, fell apart. Hence, the more I looked for connection, the more I realized the importance of keeping these realms separate. Religious/spiritual journeys are, by their very nature, personal and subjective. And while I have a personal scientific journey as well, scientific information is public, accumulates through a very specific process, is testable, and, perhaps most importantly, seeks to provide natural explanations for natural phenomena. I’d argue that any attempt to devise supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, or suggest science can validate or invalidate religious beliefs in general, diminishes both science and religion. Yet it is clear from polls about acceptance of evolution that many people need to find a way to accommodate these two ways of understanding.

Recently I was asked to write a chapter that explores the relationship between science and religion for an Evolution textbook. The result is a paper in which I explore how people’s worldviews influence both their understanding and acceptance of evolution. Hopefully, this exploration will provide an opportunity for students taking an Evolution course to engage in dialogue about the nature and process of science and how it is and/or is not compatible with religion. The chapter in its entirety is available here.

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