Teaching science at a Christian school.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 August

And a side-rant about the anti-science fears running through Christendom.

Years ago I taught the science classes at a Christian junior high school. Just for a year. Mainly ’cause the other teachers in our program didn’t wanna, and I had two classes free in my schedule. So those classes became Science 6, and Science 7/8.

I’m not a scientist. My field is the social sciences—history, civics, economics. I also have a degree in theology, so of course I can teach bible. I find science interesting, but I’m no expert. But since I had the summer recess to prepare, I had to get familiar with what I’d be teaching. So first I read through the California state standards. Then I got hold of our textbooks.

Great horny toads.

I’m not talking about their condition, which was bad. If you’re running a school, never, ever, EVER buy paperback textbooks for the children. I don’t care how much money you saved; in the long run, you cost yourself way more. We had these books maybe five years. They were thrashed. I had just enough sixth-grade textbooks, but nowhere near enough seventh-grade books. (I wasn’t gonna bother with the eighth-grade books. Our eighth graders still needed to go through the seventh-grade material. The previous year’s science teacher spent more time preaching at the kids than teaching, so they knew nothing anyway.)

I am in fact speaking of their content. The books came from a popular Christian textbook publishing house in Florida. I don’t know whether they matched Florida’s state standards for intermediate school science. They didn’t California’s. I realized I was gonna have to pull in quite a lot of supplemental stuff.

The other part of the problem: They weren’t about actual science anyway. They were about nature trivia and astronomy trivia. Nothing about how to prove your hypothesis through experimentation. Y’know, actual science.

In fact a full sixth of the books were all about young-earth creationism, and why good Christians weren’t allowed to believe in anything else. Apparently ancient and medieval scientists were all good Christians, but godless atheists like Charles Darwin had convinced science to become anti-bible, which clearly teaches God made the universe in a literal week.

I’m an old-earth creationist myself. But even if the books taught my view, I still wouldn’t wanna waste two months of the school year on the subject.

Mixed in with all this non-science were whole paragraphs and pages which consisted of odes to God: Nature is great, and so is God for creating nature. Lots of bible verses, used as pull quotes, which the authors figured were appropriate to the subject at hand. But most of ’em totally out of context.

Not completely useless, but pretty close. So I went to the vice principal to inform him on the situation, and what I was gonna do about it.

He was a little surprised. None of the previous teachers had voiced any of my concerns. He himself had taught from the eighth-grade book, some years before. He didn’t see the problem.

“It’s the California standards,” I pointed out. Our previous science teachers weren’t paying attention to state standards. They didn’t know ’em. They simply followed the teacher’s manuals. And this was why our kids kept failing the science section of the STAR tests every year—to the bewilderment of our principals, many of whom figured the public schools must’ve taught so much about evolution, it skewed the results.

I wasn’t asking him to buy new books; I was simply making him aware of the problem. I knew I’d have to come up with other resources, and work around the books.

“Okay,” he shrugged, “work with what you got.”

So I did. I took a few things from the books, but the bulk of what I taught in my classes came from my encyclopedias, various science websites, and me. I stuck to the state standards, and I taught science. Real science: Hypotheses and experiments.

Invariably problems arose.

Not what they paid for.

The biggest one was I didn’t bother to give the kids textbooks. I didn’t have enough to go around—and figured it wouldn’t matter, ’cause I wasn’t gonna use them very often. And if I did, I’d make photocopies.

But the parents wanted their kids to have books. They paid a bundle to put their kids in a private Christian school; they expected their money would include books. Not all the parents had gone to college, and knew what textbooks cost. And even those who had, probably had no idea children’s texts regularly cost as much as college texts. Still, what kind of school doesn’t use textbooks? How can the kids learn anything if they don’t have books?

I get the concern, and don’t blame ’em for wanting books. I just wanted to give the kids books they’d actually use. ’Cause I wasn’t gonna use the books much, and there’s no point in handing them a book we’d seldom open.

In the end, the parents complained so much to the principal, he ordered me to just give the kids a book. Didn’t matter if I’d rarely use them; the parents wanted books, so give ’em what they wanted. So I did. By that point, enough seventh graders had left the school so I could actually provide tattered books to every kid. Just barely though. I think one of ’em had to put up with a book without a cover.

The first hurdle, however, was the first month. I spent it teaching the kids introductory logic. You know, how to determine whether a proposition is true or false. Basic syllogisms. Basic logical fallacies. I was getting ’em ready to write hypotheses.

But most of the parents had never taken logic before, and had no clue what I was teaching. Immediately they began to act like their own angst-ridden junior highers: “What do they need to learn this for?” Since they didn’t know it, they didn’t see why their kids needed to know it.

If you’ve ever wondered why American kids so often suck at math and science, look no further than their parents. That’s where their kids’ bad attitude comes from. Their attitude regularly gets in their kids’ way.

Okay, the parents didn’t care so much about logic. Fine. I kept the kids interested by telling them, “You realize if you learn logic, you’ll never lose an argument.” That kept ’em studying.

Yeah, what I didn’t tell them was the reason they’d never lose an argument: They’d analyze their own arguments, realize they hadn’t a leg to stand on, and wouldn’t bother to make that argument in the first place. I did also warn them that humans aren’t logical: When an irrational person simply hates your conclusion, it doesn’t matter how brilliant an argument you have. As we all know from politics and apologetics, that’s how real life works. But hey, in science you’ll never lose an argument. (Assuming scientists aren’t being irrational. They are human, after all.)

As a result, most of the kids did just fine with the logic portion of the class. And for fun, I taught one of those logic lessons to my fourth graders another year—who picked up the principles right away, and asked for more. “Man,” I told ’em, “you guys are smarter than my junior highers.” (Probably ’cause they weren’t rendered totally bonkers by pubescent hormones.) The fourth graders loved that. But I digress.

“But the bible says…”

So one morning, I made an off-the-cuff comment about the earth being 4 billion years old. Wouldn’t you know, one of the boys objected.

HE. “The bible says it’s only thousands of years old.”
ME. “The bible says no such thing.”
HE. [getting out his bible] “It says right here…”
ME. “What verse are you reading?”
HE. “It’s not a verse. It’s in the notes. 4004BC.”
ME. “Notes aren’t bible.”
HE. “Well, why’s it in the notes?”
ME. “Very good question. It’s because of an Irish archbishop named James Ussher, who tried to figure out when the earth was created by adding up all the lifespans of the patriarchs. He didn’t realize, though, that the bible’s genealogies tend to skip less important guys. Compare Matthew with 1 Chronicles sometime; Matthew left a whole lot of guys out of Jesus’s ancestors. But after Ussher did all the adding, he came up with 4004BC. October 22nd. About six in the evening.” [Class giggles at the “six in the evening” bit.]
HE. “Where’d he get October 22nd?”
ME. “I know, right? What verse was he reading? You want a bible verse though? Go to Genesis 1.1. What’s it say?”
HE. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
ME. “How much time took place between ‘In the beginning’ and when God said ‘Let there be light?’”
HE. “It happened on the same day.”
ME. “Is that what it says?”
HE. [checking his bible] “Well it looks like…”
ME. “Is that what it says? We’re reading it literally now.”
HE. “…No.”
ME. “So how much time could’ve taken place between those two events? A day? A year? Four million years? Four billion?”
HE. [hesitatingly] “Maybe.”
ME. “You know there are stars out there, billions of light years away.”
HE. “Yeah.”
ME. “That means it took billions of years for the light to get from there to here.”
HE. [realizing] “Yeah.”
ME. “Seems the heavens are way older than some 6,000 years or so.”
ANOTHER BOY. [without raising his hand] “But maybe when God created those stars, he also created the light beams all the way to earth so we could see them.”
ME.There’s a good hypothesis. Now, can you prove it?”
OTHER BOY. “Yeah! First you take a warp-drive powered ship…” [Class laughs.]
ME. “No; you can’t prove a hypothesis with an imaginary spaceship. You have a theory. And science works with theories all the time. But let’s step away from science a moment: You figure the universe only looks billions of years old, ’cause God did something to make us think it looks older. Now, you know your bible. Does God do that? Would a good God create a universe with tricks and lies built into it?”
ME. “Wouldn’t be good, would he?”
ME. “Bible commentaries can be wrong. I should know. I’ve written some. But I’ve also looked into a telescope, and my eyeballs tell me 4004BC must be wrong. So tell you what: Skip the commentaries and read this part.” [Pointing to the biblical text] “If you find it talking about science at all, let me know.”

But they didn’t. ’Cause it doesn’t. The bible’s about God, not science.

Casting doubts on bad theology. And bad science.

This discussion is the very sort of thing which puts certain Christians into a panic attack. They believe the bible’s our authority for everything. Not just God and salvation; everything. Science included. Since the bible never discusses human evolution, if evolution is true, it means—for them—the bible isn’t.

But they’re not truly defending the bible. They’re defending their particular spin on the bible. I find the bible holds up to scrutiny—and their spin doesn’t. But since they don’t realize there’s a difference between their spin and the bible, when their spin falls apart, they panic and think Christianity, the bible, God, everything has collapsed on ’em. Best to just blame science and close their minds.

Hence, too many Christians fear science. For no reason. And to our great harm: When nearly every scientist insists we need to act now to prevent climate change, we still have loads of Christians in the United States who don’t believe in science, and therefore don’t take the scientists seriously. Because I pollute, it affects the weather? Ridiculous. I can’t be so mighty. (Even though God himself admits we kinda are. Ge 11.6)

So when our Christian school offered science classes, I suspect a lot of parents were worried I might teach ’em real science. Not science trivia, like we find in Christian textbooks: The real thing. How to question reality. How to create experiments which confirm how reality works. Their great fear is I might teach their kids to question the bible—really their spin on the bible.

And y’know, that’s precisely what I teach. Because I don’t fear the truth. I’m not worried, deep down, that science will undo everything I believe, and I’ll find God’s not really there. I met God. If science undoes anything, it’ll undo all my wrong beliefs about God. But God’s still there. Truth’s our friend, not our foe. So is science.

As I said, the bible holds up. Science doesn’t touch it. ’Cause it’s a whole different field anyway: Science doesn’t explain whether God exists, can’t confirm whether Jesus rose from the dead, can’t determine whether we answer to our Creator. Science can’t even detect the spirit, much less have anything useful to say about it. (I know; there’s that urban legend that when we die, we lose 21 grams, don’t know why, and Christians figure that’s how much a spirit weighs. Spirit isn’t matter, so right there we know that’s a silly explanation. But some of us Christians are so desperate for explanations, we’ll embrace silly ones.)

We don’t apply the rules of science to theology. Nor do we apply the rules of theology to science. They don’t overlap. Try it, and you get either get the farce of young-earth creationists, or the farce of materialist atheism disguised as “rational Christianity.”

True, certain scientists have made statements about God, the bible, and spirit. ’Cause they’re human; of course they’d have an opinion, as do we all. Thing is, their opinion tends to really be based on their own religious beliefs. They might be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or what have you—and no surprise, their “scientific view of God” conveniently happens to resemble their religion’s view. Same with scientists who are nontheist. There’s a whole lot of confirmation bias in these hypotheses. Question all of them.

When scientists are truly functioning as scientists, they need to put aside their bias and produce an experiment which confirms what they claim. Like whether prayer has any influence over whether sick people get better. Or whether people who believe in morals behave any more moral. But all scientists can really do is observe, and report statistics. There are no devices which measure spirit. That’s ultimately the flaw in every hypothesis: They can’t measure the one thing they most wanna measure.

In the meanwhile, Christians need to get involved in the sciences: Learn science and how it works. Learn it’s okay to question everything scientists say, ’cause that is how science works. And challenge scientists when they’re being immoral: “Don’t infect those men with syphilis without their knowledge.” Or “Don’t cut open that dog without anesthesia.” Those aren’t hypothetical situations: Scientists did those things, ’cause not enough Christians were around to object. There are plenty of moral issues in the sciences, and moral people need to weigh in, and warn scientists away from evil. Stop isolating ourselves from it, and join the conversation.