This is how I like to "worship" these days: at the altar of science, with an Oregon craft beer, fries, and a hempburger at hand.
I don't drink beer very often. But, man, Gilgamesh's Hopscotch (on the right) really rocks.
Beer has come a long way from the not-so-good old days of Budweieser and Schlitz, which my high school friends and I would consume with regularity even though it tasted like shit. The Hopscotch I drank last night was like fine wine, comparatively.
But I digress...
The speaker at this month's Science Night was Jason Niedermeyer, a biology teacher at South Salem High School who talked about how Darwin would teach evolution. It was easy to see why Niedermeyer won the 2010 National Association of Biology Teachers “Evolution Education Award.”
He could make any science subject interesting. With or without beer.
My wife and I hugely enjoyed Niedermeyer's PowerPoint aided talk. His basic point was that we can learn from other animal species about how to teach young humans. Or any humans, really. Abstractions are, well, abstract. They don't grab us like metaphors, stories, and hands-on doing does.
For example, he noted that often biology teachers try to explain Deep Time by -- strangely -- time. Meaning, they will say that if we think of the 4.5 billion year history of Earth as a day, then humans came along a few seconds before midnight (can't remember exact figure).
Niedermeyer, though, prefers a spatial analogy. He said that if you spread both arms wide, then human existence is equivalent to the width of a slight scratching of a nail file across a fingernail. Cool!
Early on in his talk came the only statement that made me think, "Huh? That can't be right." It was when he said that science demands evidence, yet religion and science aren't necessarily at odds. When the Q&A time came, my wife told me, "You should ask him what he meant about religion and science co-existing."
I stood up and said something like: "You told us that science requires evidence, but it is compatible with religion. I'm wondering what claim of religion can be backed up by evidence. It doesn't seem to me that science and religion are similar in that regard."
Niedermeyer's response made sense. Pretty much. Especially from an evolutionary standpoint.
What I grasped, and echoed back to him after he gave me his reply to my question, is that he differentiates (1) religion as a cultural institution and (2) religion as a means of understanding reality. That is, religions endure because they meet certain human needs, not because they promulgate truths about the universe.
Put differently: religions truly are able to meet human needs for reassurance, meaning, feeling like we belong, ritualistic behavior, and such. But only science is able to learn what is true about the laws of nature, how life evolved on Earth, history of the universe, and such.
So religions appeal to people, even though their view of reality is seriously flawed. Niedermeyer had nothing good to say about creationism, obviously, decrying attempts in certain misguided states to mandate the teaching of Biblical fantasy stories along with the scientific facts of evolution.
His attitude toward teaching evolution was reflected in an anecdote about meeting Richard Dawkins at a conference. Dawkins is a noted biologist, as well as an avid religion-basher. The subject of how to handle religious students who deny evolution came up.
Dawkins said something like "Kick them out of the classroom!"
Niedermeyer, though, feels this is a horrible way to change an uninformed youthful mind. He takes a softer, gentler approach, seeking to engage students in examining their beliefs about how life on Earth came to be as it is.
I agree with him, even though I have some Dawkins'ish tendencies myself. After all, I don't believe we humans have free will. I accept the seeming reality of determinism. Causes and effects rule, even if they often are so complex and difficult to fathom, it is impossible to predict what will happen.
Especially when it comes to the hugely complex human brain. Students, like all of us, come to a learning situation with certain mindsets formed by countless genetic and experiential influences. Teaching requires exposing them to new experiences, new information, new ways of looking at the world.
Kicking them out of the classroom if they have a creationist worldview is an experience, but not one that is likely to bring them to an understanding of evolution.
So I think Niedermeyer is right: biology teachers should recognize the appeal of religious beliefs, even as they show their students how evolution is a much better way of explaining life on Earth than creationism.