Belief is not enough

On preaching to the unconverted

Henry Schreiber 13 May 2007

When she first heard me teach evolution, she wanted to sit down with me and save my soul

As a psychologist who teaches a heavily Darwinian undergraduate Animal Behavior course in east Texas, I am frequently involved in conflict. Up to ninety per cent of the students who sit in my classes are teenaged biblical literalists, so it goes without saying that they believe in Creationism.

I think a university is like a chicken that mistakes a pebble for a grain of corn. Sometimes the pebble passes through the chicken unchanged, but sometimes it grinds against other pebbles in the chicken’s muscular gizzard long enough to be given a new shape. That is what a good university education does. If you find your true place in the chicken, you can be completely and forever changed before you are plopped out. But people do not necessarily lose their faith during their university years. Just as a pebble can pass through a chicken unchanged, you may emerge from the University unscathed by the exposure to scholarly discipline.

Students, even conscientious students, become bored with my lectures. Their attention in class drifts and my precious discourse is distorted, twisted in their ears. But they learn enough to pass. They graduate. They go away. Years go by. Then, like monsters killed too early in horror movie scripts, they come back as alumni. They come through my office door. They think I am not working when I am obviously reading, thinking and writing. They sit down and say something hideously ignorant and utterly wrong. Then they make the dreaded attribution. They tell me they heard it in my lecture, they will never forget it, and they thank me profusely for this poisonous morsel of misunderstanding and, yes, very tasty it was, too.

Thus came to my door a good sweet shining alumna, the daughter of a Baptist minister, an angel of the church, to haunt me ever after. Her preface was that when she first heard me teach evolution, she wanted to go home, get her Bible and sit down with me to save my soul.

“But now,” she said, “I believe in evolution too. That’s what I came to tell you.”

She smiled, eyes searching my face for approval. She was so innocent, yet I knew her awful curse had pierced my heart like an ice-pick. My self-respect seeped from the wound until I became a dry, hollow professorial husk.

My student made a content-level shift in her thinking but not the overarching shift. “Believing in evolution” is an abominable non-sequitur. It reveals that the speaker doesn’t grasp the most fundamental aspect of science. Beliefs have to do with faith, and faith has to do with religious things, unseen but believed. In contrast, science is about constructing models of the natural world without recourse to anything unseen or supernatural. Believing and evolution do not go together in the same sentence. Evolution is not a metaphysical or religious truth in which one professes faith; it is just the representation that best fits and explains what is presently known about the natural world.

But I have the utmost respect for this student. It was I who had failed her by not lifting her above the morass of believing onto the solid strata of believing and thinking, and knowing the difference between the two. It haunts me to fail this way, but it happens all the time.

That’s why I keep my office door closed.