Why I invite a creationist to my evolutionary biology class

The encounter gives students a chance to apply newly gained knowledge to a real-world situation and, perhaps more importantly, it models productive discussion among people who disagree with one another, writes Curt Stager

Curt Stager's avatar
Paul Smith’s College
16 May 2024
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Detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam
image credit: iStock/Vieriu Adrian.

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Hans Hollis, an elder with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, recently came to my evolutionary biology class at Paul Smith’s College in northern New York to challenge what my students learned during the semester. But what might be more surprising is that I had invited him to do so. 

The encounter with Hans has been a mainstay of my class over the past three decades, but it’s not to suggest false equivalence between science and religious creationism or to stage the kind of crude shouting match that passes for debate in today’s media. I welcome it because it gives my students a chance to apply their newly gained knowledge to a real-world situation, and – perhaps more importantly – it models productive discussion among people who profoundly disagree with one another. In a world where both science and civility are under assault, my students say they appreciate the chance to better understand how we know what we know (or think we do), how we think and communicate and how to live together on a crowded planet.

This approach to education isn’t for everyone. The instructor must fully understand the science as well as the faith traditions and persuasion techniques that will be rallied against it. It requires of both parties a good-humoured willingness to address the limits of their own knowledge, to invite and study differing viewpoints and to improvise challenging conversations in public. Without such ground rules, things can become unpleasant, as I learned during my graduate studies at Duke University when well-trained creationists challenged my professors to a public debate. The scientists were unprepared, the hostile visitors mopped the floor with them and little of value was learned.

That’s not to say, however, that the experience lacks drama. When Hans argues that humans were divinely created, that Noah’s flood really occurred and that life on earth was divinely created, it is more than a mere academic exercise. For him, the choice to believe or reject these ideas is a matter of eternal life and death. As a result, his carefully crafted lectures carry emotional weight that requires serious consideration by the students who respond when he pauses to invite discussion.

Yes, creationism of this sort is an expression of religion, not science, and US federal law rightly prohibits religious teaching in secular public schools to protect both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It might even be inappropriate for first-year college students, who can be overly confused by conflicting arguments that are delivered with such conviction. I prepare my juniors and seniors well in advance by explaining the purpose and value of the event and give them ample opportunities to practise defending scientific concepts in class. I reassure them that rudeness will not be tolerated  and the dialogue will proceed through an orderly show of hands. Any conflict is limited to opposing ideas, not people. 

Sincerity and trust are key. Hans and I have learned to disagree without being disagreeable through repeated interactions inside and outside class that have built true friendship between us despite our differences. We typically have lunch together with the students after the session and we keep up to date with one another’s families, health issues and travels. I have even attended a service at his Kingdom Hall despite my atheism, much to the amusement of the congregation. 

We want the students to feel comfortable enough to think and speak effectively, so we try to avoid topics, such as sexual orientation, that could make them feel unsafe or angry. When they do arise on rare occasions, we limit the discussion to brief, non-judgemental position statements and move on to other subjects. Nonetheless, mild discomfort is welcomed as a teaching tool. Students often feel frustrated when Hans doesn’t change his mind despite their strongest arguments. What then? When faced with a seemingly incorrigible opponent, do you yell louder? Ridicule them? Kill them? 

Part of the answer lies in an evolutionary process called kin selection, in which genetic connections within a species produce altruistic behaviours that favour relatives over non-relatives. We have inherited those ancient instincts, too, but as humans we can also transcend them by reconfiguring our in-groups to include former outsiders – to select our own kin, as it were. Learning to conduct respectful dialogue with an opponent helps us to recognise that “if my new friend is from that out-group, then they can’t be all bad, either”. Rather than winning an argument, the goal and greater reward then becomes a deeper understanding of humanity that benefits everyone involved.

The world is full of people whose beliefs might seem strange and impervious to reason, but we need not agree on everything in order to coexist as fellow Homo sapiens. And regardless of whether we are divinely created or merely social primates, these conflicted times on Planet Earth require that we learn to coexist if we are to continue to exist at all.

Curt Stager is a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College in northern New York.

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