Students’ religious beliefs are not incompatible with evolution

By Sarah Kate Connor. Mentored and edited by Jacquelyn Beals.

The perceived conflict between science and religion has a long and eventful history in the United States, but there is hope for reconciling these two seemingly feuding worldviews in the classroom, according to a panel discussion held Feb. 20 at the 2022 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting.

“A lot of people, including scientists, misunderstand the nature of science,” said Elizabeth Barnes, assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “They think it’s atheistic, when it’s really agnostic.”

While members of some religions (Buddhism and Judaism, for example) generally accept the theory of evolution, the members of others (Mormonism and Southern Baptists) tend to reject it, according to Jamie Jensen, assistant professor at Brigham Young University. Students whose religions reject evolution typically reject it as well, primarily because they perceive a conflict between the two worldviews.

“Biology instructors tend to think that if we can get [students] to understand the evidence for evolution, then they’ll embrace the theory,” Jensen said, but the reality is more complicated.

For nonreligious students, increased understanding of evolution leads to increased acceptance, and tends to develop at a similar rate, according to a recent study by Barnes and her colleagues. But for religious students, full understanding only results in about 50% acceptance.

However, this trend does not hold for African American students, according to Joseph Graves, professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, ranked in 2021 as the nation’s top historically Black university. “Our students who knew the most about evolution were the ones most likely to reject it,” he said. The students’ responses to a survey conducted by Graves and his colleagues indicated that they rejected evolution because they linked it to sexism and racism.

“That’s simply not true,” Graves said. “Scientific racism in the western world starts in Christian theology.” However, since the church has historically been both a source of oppression and support for African Americans, many students instead blame the biologists who study human evolution.

Though scientists such as Francis Galton, one of the earliest eugenicists, have certainly contributed to racism, many more have been instrumental in dismantling this oppressive mindset. In fact, Graves cited several examples of evolutionary biologists whose work combatted scientific racism, men like Richard Lewington, who found in the 1960s that 85% of human variation occurs within the same ethnic group, not between groups.

How can instructors reach students whose religious backgrounds create a barrier to evolution acceptance? The panelists discussed methods they have found productive in their own teaching and research.

Instructors can engage students of various religious backgrounds by developing and practicing religious cultural competency. “Among [primarily secular] faculty, there is a lot of discomfort in talking about religion in a science classroom,” Barnes said. But by emphasizing that religion and evolution acceptance need not be mutually exclusive, instructors can open a path for students to resolve the two worldviews in their own lives. She also recommended providing students with religious role models in science, examples of people who have melded their scientific and religious worldviews.

Jensen agrees with this approach. “We have a lot of evidence that having a role model who accepts evolution and still belongs to a religious group greatly increases acceptance rates,” she said. One example she suggested is Francis Collins, former director of the NIH, an evangelical Christian who has talked extensively about how his faith and profession intersect. Jensen’s group has created a series of videos featuring conversations between faith leaders and biologists to which non-religious teachers can direct students concerned about the compatibility of their faith with evolution.

“This is also a fundamental diversity, equity, and inclusion issue,” Graves added. Many marginalized groups have higher levels of religiosity, so identifying role models that have multiple intersecting identities is essential. “Many instructors are uncomfortable with showing all aspects of diversity, not just religious identity. That includes race, gender, and sexuality.”

Panelists noted that increasing diversity among instructors is another way to bolster the number of role models available to students. And instructors who already hold their positions can fully commit to an anti-racist approach by attending workshops and reading works by people who do not share their identities.

Continuing efforts are needed to address the conflicts that students perceive between their religious beliefs and the science they encounter in the classroom, but all three panelists have hope for the future. As Jensen said in her closing remarks: “I see science and religion as two complementary ways of finding truth.”

Sarah Kate Connor is a senior at North Carolina State University, where she is double-majoring in genetics and creative writing. She writes for the university’s Biotechnology Program’s blog and will begin graduate coursework in technical communication in fall 2022. Sarah Kate can be reached at

March 2, 2022

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