Vernier Science Education - June 2024


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General Science and Teaching

Dealing with Non-Believers

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Jeff Goldfinger Jeff Goldfinger 165 Points

I have a question about how to deal with students who don't believe in evolution. This issue came up for me this week in one of my master's classes as we explored 'Embodied, Spiritual and Narrative Learning' (Merriam, 2020, Learning in Adulthood, Ch. 8). I relied primarily on Yuval Harari's excellent historical discussion of the 'Tree of Knowledge' mutation (from Sapiens, 2015) to make the case that spirituality is one of many myths that appeared in human psychology only 50,000 years ago.

That led to a debate with one of my fellow students who grew up in a very Christian family and attended only religious schools all the way through her undergraduate degree who is only now coming to grips with the concept of a world older than 6,000 years.

I just didn't know where to go with her without sounding demeaning or dismissive yet still stand my ground as an aethist-engineer.

I've uploaded an extract of my post to help with the context.

Any thoughts?



Michaela Dehli Michaela Dehli 1245 Points

Hi Jeff! 

This is a great question and an issue that can be complicated to deal with. I think the best way to deal with this is to focus on the science. Do not force students to believe in it, focus on the facts and the science. Allow for students to believe what they want to do but continue to focus on the science. I would avoid tearing down this students beliefs and try not to force your own opinions on her as you navigate this difficult topic. There are a lot of great videos that discuss evolution in a non-offensive way on youtube, I would definetly check those out!

I hope this helps!

Michaela Dehli

Matt Bobrowsky Matt Bobrowsky 6410 Points

When someone says that they don't 'believe in evolution,' they usually don't understand what evolution is and how it works. So it's probably good to clarify a few misconceptions about that. You can start with the confusion between the fact and theory of evolution. That species change over time is an observed fact. It is observed both in the lab and in nature. The 'theory' part deals with the mechanisms of evolution, for example, natural selection as an explanation for why species change.

Also, sometimes people refer to Darwin's 1859 book as 'Origin of Species.' But the title is much longer than that, the first part of which is: 'The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection....' Darwin (and others) had observed that new species arose. Then he (and Alfred Wallace) suggested Natural Selection as a theory to explain the appearance of new species. So it's natural selection that is the theory, not the fact of evolution itself.

And, if you understand how evolution works, you realize that it MUST occur. It cannot be avoided.

You might find this article useful regarding teaching evolutionary processes to skeptical students. 

Jeff Goldfinger Jeff Goldfinger 165 Points


That's a brilliantly simplistic distinction I had never heard before. I've listened to many talks from famous atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawerence Krauss) and I don't think I've heard anything as clear from them so thank you.



Matt Bobrowsky Matt Bobrowsky 6410 Points

Jeff, thank you for the kind words.  Sometimes it's also useful to point out that one doesn't need to be an atheist to accept evolution.  In fact, evolution does not involve any rejection of God.  There are many scientists (and others who understand and accept evolution) who are also deeply religious. 


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