Jesus Hugging Dinosaurs: Talking to Kids about Science…at Church

You may have already seen the above test, given to 4th graders at Blue Ridge Christian Academy in Greenville, SC (as confirmed by Snopes, where you can also see the second page of the test and read the backstory). Yeah, that’s pretty bad.

On the other hand, you’ve got these three amazing teenage girls who won the 2011 Google Science Fair and gave a talk at TEDxWomen.

It is those two juxtaposed images of youth engaging science with which I’m going to start my talk tomorrow at Fuller Seminary’s conference, Talk of God, Talk of Science, which is described thusly:

Every sermon is preached to people who both bear the image of God and live science-shaped lives. Preaching today must be an agent in helping integrate, encourage, and challenge our understandings of how faith and science can be understood together.

The problem is obvious: many teenagers see Christians as anti-science, and this isn’t just because of right-wing fundies. Even centrists — even, gasp, libruls — often don’t know how to talk intelligibly about science from the context of faith. My kids learn about science in school, of course, and they learn about religion in school. This year my middle schoolers have told me about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, all of which they’ve learned about in social studies when studying other countries and cultures.

But they haven’t learned about science in church. Not once that I can think of, and that includes that many churches I’ve attended with them over the past 13 years.

So, I’m asking you, dear readers, how do you think we should talk to youth about science in our communities of faith? Have you seen good examples of this? Have you done it yourself, at home? Drop me a comment with ideas about how we can catalyze healthy conversations about science at church.

And now, a gratuitous image of Jesus hugging a dinosaur:

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  • JoeyS

    Ken Wilson, at Ann Arbor Vineyard, has been working hard to address this. He’s even gone as far as inviting an atheist scientist to deliver the Sunday message about global warming. Here is an article he penned about some of his experiences: http://www.qideas.org/essays/science-and-the-evangelical-mission-in-america.aspx

  • Rob Davis

    My only real “regret” as a parent was that I didn’t teach my kids critical thinking at a much younger age. Of course, they were getting that at school, but they weren’t getting that in any of the church circles we ran in. I think teaching “how to think” is more important than teaching science.

    • Rob Davis

      I also think that teaching kids to better understand the philosophy OF science is as important as teaching the facts.

      But, I don’t know that if you actually taught kids these topics from birth that many would come to any sort of “orthodox” Christian conclusions about anything…

      • Lausten

        Couldn’t agree more. The story of how we figured out how to figure stuff out is a great story, and just having the proper understanding of words like “theory” would end so many pointless arguments.

    • Rob Brink

      The best science IS how to think, or maybe rather, how to find things out. Or put another way, it’s the surprisingly difficult work of forcing yourself to seek and accept ever deeper and more complete truth.

  • http://kevinglenn.podbean.com/ Kevin Glenn

    Thanks, Tony! I’m fortunate to have Richard Carlson, Fuller grad and respected physicist as a member of the church I pastor (he has edited and authored books on the relationship between science and faith). He led a small group last month that helped many of our people understand the difference between Evolution as a legitimate scientfic mechanism, and the philosophy of Naturalism. His most recent work is an article for Fuller’s Theology News and Notes magazine entitled “What About Dinosaurs?” It’s an approach that demonstrates one can take science and the scriptures seriously without having to think Jesus got cozy with a velociraptor.

    Will you publish the speech you’ll give at Fuller?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1336522039 Kenneth Justice

    Tony, when I talk to my children about science I don’t give definitive’s;
    Q. “dad, how old is the earth?”
    A. “I really don’t know, here’s a book by Stephen J. Gould where he postulates it to be X years old, here’s a book by Ross where he says X….etc”

    Where the Evangelical’s go wrong is that they have bought into the lie that if six day creationism isn’t true; then Christianity must not be true.

    I’ve always preferred Francis’s Schaeffer’s approach where he just wasn’t very dogmatic about science, homosexuality, fill in the blank; Preaching the Love of Christ and the Resurrection are more important.

    Have you read Professor Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis?

    Isn’t it funny how one of the foremost hared-core Calvinist Hebrew Theologians of our day clearly teaches that the First Chapter of Genesis appears to be a song/poem and not meant to necessarily be literal…..and practically all of the Calvinists and Conservative Evangelicals ignore Waltke’s commentary.

  • http://kevinglenn.podbean.com/ Kevin Glenn

    Sorry to jump in again…Richard Carlson and I are interested in creating cirriculum for youth groups, and even children’s groups on this issue. We actually applied for a grant from Biologos, but were unsuccessful. We’re still working on it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/derek.m.larson.9 Derek M Larson

    This is something that I have been reflecting on as well as an Episcopal youth minister. I have a friend who is very much involved with the overlap of science and faith who pointed out to me a wonderful resource that I may use in the future. A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Understanding. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but at first glance its pretty impressive. Check it out online here: http://episcopalscience.org/resources/catechism-creation/

  • stephendhood

    As part of our confirmation preparation we spend considerable time discussing science and faith. At least one session is led by a scientist and the youth explore scientists that are/were people of faith, discuss the differences between scientific inquiry and theological inquiry, and I lead a session on the historical relationship between science and faith and why Christians have often resisted scientific inquiry. Thankfully, my faith tradition has a long tradition of embracing scientific inquiry and my particular faith community includes a number of scientists including several academic faculty and a nuclear physicist. Unfortunately, the school system in our community sends mixed messages about scientific inquiry, so I have to spend more time defending scientific inquiry than theological inquiry. I guess this is one of the joys of living in the land of fundamentalists.

  • JoeyS

    Ken Williams, of Ann Arbor Vineyard, has done a lot of work in this area. Here is an article here wrote about some of his experiences: http://www.qideas.org/essays/science-and-the-evangelical-mission-in-america.aspx

  • http://scottxstephens.tumblr.com/ Scott Stephens

    I’m a youth director in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and I talk to the kids in my youth group frequently. Essentially we talk about evolution as a scientific theory that can teach us a lot about how the world has and will develop. Evolution doesn’t pose a threat to these children, but gives them tools to better understand their world. In fact, most of the kids in my youth group are pretty outspoken with their arguments against a more “creationist” view of science.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    The Biologos film “From The Dust” is a great resource: http://biologos.org/resources/from-the-dust

    But I don’t know that we need to talk about science anymore than we need to talk about art or about literature or about politics or about philosophy. Rather, the church should seek an integrative approach (easier said than done) to all of these areas, trying to accurately reflect how these different modes of inquiry and exploration relate to Christian belief.

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  • J-Eastman

    One of the best examples I’ve seen is when Colonial (yes the church of your youth T.) brought in senior project scientist of the Hubble telescope, and Christian, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. It was great to hear an established scientist of her caliber talk about how her faith and research interact. And that it only strengthens her faith the more she learns about how the universe works.

    I think the problem with many fundamental Christians (and I can speak to this as I am a recovering one) is that they just take things too literally. And they get hung up on trying to “prove” that God did this-and-that. They spend way too much time trying to explain everything. My father is a great example. Ask him a question about anything and he can give you an answer from the Bible. Doesn’t matter that it out of context, God said it!

    As the father of a two year old I am certainly going to teach my daughter that God gives us many tools to understand creation — and science is one of them. And if you think about it, we need to take science with a little bit of faith too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ricshewell Ric Shewell

    I fricken love science. I didn’t get a real heavy does of science in college and I’m sad about that. I usually get my fix of science from youtube channels like veritasium, vsause, scishow, minute physics, TEDed, etc. In fact, I use a lot science videos as filler before, after, and between youth events, because they are fascinating! Teens love them, and it doesn’t seem out of the norm in there world. I think whatever we can do to help erase the stigma of Church vs Science is good. Growing up, we would also have other professionals teach the children and share how their field of study informed their understanding of God’s world. We often had scientists and researchers share. Always had the kids blown away.

    It seems to me that modernity did its best to classify and separate fields of study, often putting disciplines at odds with one another needlessly, creating experts who were experts of only a few areas, and pretty much destroy the university student. That’s all breaking down as these artificial categories of disciplines continue to crash into eachother in a beautiful chaotic mess. Schools that try to stave off disciplines that they think are inherently anti-gospel will probably hold on to some constituents for the long haul, but will eventually be irrelevant.

  • Lausten

    I don’t think you can do better than Michael Dowd at thegreatstory.org.
    As for me, I did a parallels of the 6 days of creation to science, populating the earth with animals = precambrian explosion, stuff like that. I would have a lot more trouble doing that today.

    I think religion needs to figure out how to come to science, reasonably and respectfully, not demanding that it accept the leaps of faith or believe the anecdotal evidence.

  • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

    Comments about critical thinking and good scholarship are important – but they’re just half the story. Christians have – with varying degrees of puritanical revulsion – long embraced literature, fine art, music as means of touching the divine. All too often enlightenment thinking, however, got the cold shoulder. Medical science may be a partial exception.

    So though I didn’t enjoy his book much, I’m wholeheartedly behind Michael Dowd’s *rejoicing* in the work of the creator *in* evolution. I want to like Louie Giglio’s breathless video tours of the wonders of creation likewise (but his tour of the cosmos was strong on big distances and silent on big periods of time, which seemed intellectually dishonest). We who get to study science at an advanced level have a tremendous privilege of being able to see immense beauty there; not as something in opposition to faith, but wholly and fully part of it. Would that there were more ways to share that, and inspire rising generations to get stuck into it because it’s really, really good.

  • Sven2547

    Since I was very little, I sorted the things I read into three categories: fiction, nonfiction, and the-stuff-they-taught-us-at-Sunday-school, which sounded a lot like fiction, but they told me it was true. Trying to reconcile that third category into the other two was a primary factor for me turning away from religion.

    I’m not saying this to be a snarky atheist lurker, I’m saying this because Tony’s right: failing to address this issue makes Christianity look bad, and outright denial of science makes Christianity look worse.

  • Andrew

    A few months ago,Colonial Church hosted events with the wonderful NASA scientist Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. She gave two very interesting and enlightening seminars on her work on the Hubble Telescope, the nature of the universe, and how she believes that her work in science and faith are two very interconnected things.
    It is possible for these topics to be taught and discussed in the church setting. I hope that in the future, there will be more opportunities for the congregation to learn like this.

  • LHD

    seriously? haha! That looks like the textbooks we used as a kid, only minus the tests.

  • Sarah Bigwood

    Took my teenagers to Boulder last summer where we did environmental studies and theology. Visited NOAA (sadly they were surprised to see us) used Paul and theology of reconciliation to talk about our faith that week. Mystery became a central theme. Both science and religion deal with God’s incredible gift if mystery!

  • Freeman Hunt

    We emphasize to our children that the natural world is part of general revelation, and science helps us to find out more about it. Exploring science is exploring the awesome creativity of God. I can’t relate to the Science Versus Religion mentality on either side.

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  • Rob Brink

    I talk science in my sermons, but I think you’re right. I don’t think we talk about it with the kids. That’s a rotten double standard. I sense a science Sunday coming on!

  • GeaugaGirl017

    Please consider some of the great resources that Answers In Genesis has to offer. I have a masters degree from a secular university and very much appreciate the real science that AIG does in this area of creation science.

  • RichardLW

    I can’t mix the two as there is no science in the bible. How can you compare the two, one mythological and one that can be studied under rigorous lab conditions.

  • Troy Boyle

    Science and religion are incompatible, because religion is fiction. The mental gymnastics that “liberal” Christians and those of other faiths are required to perform in order to maintain some uneasy internal coexistence is a waste of time. Science is not a philosophy or a dogma in which one has to “believe.” It is a method for discovering truth. Follow the method, and falsehoods are exposed and discarded. Religious faiths are not a method. They are dogmas, sets of “received (invented)” wisdom that explain the origins and purpose of human life from a pre-technological perspective. It is also used to dictate behaviors arbitrarily deemed “good” and “bad” by the particular sect or dogma in question.

    • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

      “Science and religion are incompatible, because religion is fiction.”

      So science is incompatible with fiction? Shakespeare and Dickens are out the window because they are fiction? (Not that I think religion is fiction–but you apparently start with an assumption that, if it’s fiction, science cancels it out. I can’t agree with that. I can get something out of reading Proust, and I can get something out of reading Newton. Different things, of course, but I don’t know why I have to choose between them. )

      “The mental gymnastics that “liberal” Christians and those of other faiths are required to perform in order to maintain some uneasy internal coexistence is a waste of time.”

      What mental gynmastics? On the whole they deal with pretty distinct areas of life.

      “Science is not a philosophy or a dogma in which one has to “believe.” It is a method for discovering truth.”

      Of course it is. And it’s a wonderful thing. But it only works for certain kinds of truth. Physics, chemistry, geology. It can’t tell us what’s right or what’s wrong. Won’t tell anyone who to marry, how to deal with an unhappy child, what political party to support, what’s important in life and what isn’t.

      “Follow the method, and falsehoods are exposed and discarded.”

      Some can be and some can’t. You need to be realistic about what science can prove and what it needs to admit is out of its competence (just as religion should). Have you read the third part of Gulliver’s Travels? The Voyage to Laputa? It’s a nice satire on the idea that science can be a complete way of life. Of course it’s fiction….

      “Religious faiths are not a method.”

      So how do you explain Methodists? (But seriously folks: many religions, perhaps all, make available methods for better apprehending the transcendental, though those various methods, such as meditation, prayer, liturgy, devotion, service, and the like, which are of course, quite distinct from the scientific method, but have been found useful by the mass of mankind.)

      “They are dogmas, sets of “received (invented)” wisdom that explain the origins and purpose of human life from a pre-technological perspective.”

      Most religions include dogmas, part of a larger way of life proposed. No, they can’t be established like the Pythagorean theorem, or the uncertainty principle, but neither mathematics nor quantum physics has much to tell us about how to live. And I’m not sure how technology has made us more capable of addressing the issues that Homer, Plato, Jesus, Augustine, or Francis faced. Cell phones and fast cars only take one so far.

      “It is also used to dictate behaviors arbitrarily deemed “good” and “bad” by the particular sect or dogma in question.”

      Yes, ethics are almost always a part of the religious life. But if by “arbitrary,” you mean, “not supported by the scientific method,” then, yes, all ethics–yours, mine, Gandhi’s, Hitler’s–are “arbitrary.” I have trouble, however, really accepting that you honestly believe that right or wrong can be demonstrated with the same certitude as, say, the laws of general relativity, or that, on the other hand, you think that right and wrong are illusions which we should scrap with religion and fiction.

      • Troy Boyle

        The reason that science cannot explain the transcendent is that there is no such thing as transcendence. There is only the ever-expanding sphere of knowledge. Religion doesn’t explain the unknown, it merely occupies it with “fancy” until it is explained through inquiry.

        • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

          “there is no such thing as transcendence.”

          I certainly can’t in a blog post convince you of your own experience of the transcendental–subjectivity, solidarity, freedom, love, temporality, concern, anxiety, guilt. If you want a reasoned, non-religious exposition of its necessity as the presupposition and ground of science, I would point you to Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” If you want a religious exposition, I would reccommend Rahner’s “Foundations of Christian Faith.” But I understand that life is short, and there isn’t time to pursue everything.

          “There is only the ever-expanding sphere of knowledge.”

          It’s that “only” that I have a problem with. I have probably spent as much time pursuing knowledge as anything, and not for any material good it has done me, but for the sheer joy of knowing. The acquisition of scientific knowledge constitutes a glorious part of the human story. But it is only a part.

          • Troy Boyle

            Oh! An expert. And your assumption that I’m unfamiliar with those works and have not previously read them is based upon what? Arrogance? Fear? There isn’t anything to transcend. We are what we are. That we confuse ‘belief’ for knowledge is our greatest failing.

            ANY belief is indefensible. We need to move past it. Luckily, this is happening. You seem to think that’s a bad thing. But beliefs and faith have been the driving force behind all of the most destructive genocides and wars in history. A post-religious world will be a better world. Take the Bible. Anyone who READS that filth cover to cover (instead of only nodding your heads to the happy parts) is more likely to be an atheist. The Bible is the best tool atheism ever had.

            Read the story about the 42 children killed by bears that your petty, malicious god sent when they mocked a bald man. Read the part concerning and really THINK about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and David’s atrocities. The men, women and children blithely slain in the name of God. The god of the Judeo Christian Bible is the most evil, capricious, childish, bloody murderer in all fiction.

            • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

              “Oh! An expert.”

              Certainly not. Neither cleric nor academic. An amateur, through and through.

              “Take the Bible. Anyone who READS that filth cover to cover (instead of only nodding your heads to the happy parts) is more likely to be an atheist.”

              Arguably. Though I’ve read the whole thing through, in both Hebrew and Greek, and continue to do so, and it hasn’t yet had that effect.

              You yourself appear to read the bible more literally than the avowed literalists. In fact it’s the most traditional Christians, not your “liberals,” who primarily read the tales you most abhor allegorically.

              But, to your central point, that we must have done with “beliefs,” I don’t see how one lives without them. Your atheism is obviously a belief. Your conviction that the universe is a realm of unbroken lawful efficient causality is a belief. Your contempt for Christianity stems from beliefs. These things motivate what you do. They work the same way in all of us. We can suspend assent to any given proposition. But we cannot help but choose what we will do in the next hour. And what we choose will reflect what we believe, even if we choose to sit still in a room.

              • Troy Boyle

                Which parts are allegorical? The ones we decide are, situationally, depending on the year and the socio-political climate. Nice. Cherry-pickers.

                Certainly I have beliefs. I believe in things for which there is evidence. Evidence PRECEDES belief. Religion is belief in the absence of evidence. It is irrational. I have no more contempt for Christianity than I have for Leprechauns, Zeus, Thor, Tinkerbell, Spider-man or Beowulf. They are fictions. Stories. What I have contempt for is anyone believing that ANY of them are real.

                Once that belief takes hold, there are accompanying behaviors, dogmas, in-group and out-group behaviors and all manner of religio-centric friction. It is best dispensed with and dispensed quickly.

                • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

                  “Which parts are allegorical?”

                  I think part of the answer lies in the difference between ordinary and religious literature. Religious literature tends to take a central role in a community. Once it is “canonized,” it becomes the subject of study, meditation, prayer, commentary, dispute, collation, comparison, paraphrase and translation. Over the centuries this body of reflection, and the life of the community lived in accord with it, can be called “tradition.” And that is where most of us look, explicitly or implicity, for how to read the scriptures.

                  So, when you start talking about, say, the story of the prophet and the boys and the bear, that’s not exactly going to be the shocking eye-opener you might expect. It’s a peripheral story, far from any church’s central proclamation. As a matter of fact very few of us, however devout, sick bears on our kids when they get a little out of control. I suppose there’s a sophisticated hermeneutical justification for that, but most of us wouldn’t care.

                  “Once that belief takes hold, there are accompanying behaviors, dogmas, in-group and out-group behaviors and all manner of religio-centric friction.”

                  I don’t disagree with you on that. It is, in fact, almost a necessary corrolary to the doctrine of original sin. Where I disagree in in the implication that that sort of dynamic is somehow unique to, or worse in, the field of religion.

                  This year I’ve started re-reading Thucydides’ HIstory of the Peloponesian War. One of the reasons for reading the ancients is to get a sense of a society entirely free from Christian influence. And Thucydides writes his history almost entirely free from religious considerations. There’s very little fighting in it, but quite a bit of discussion. It’s the rational pursuit of self-interest among very intelligent men. And it leads to the same carnage.

    • CurtisMSP

      Are you saying scientists claim there is no value in reading fiction?

      • Troy Boyle

        Not at all. But its best to know when you’re reading it. You shouldn’t mistake “Dune” for a history book. You shouldn’t mistake the Bible for a “divinely inspired” handbook on living properly.

        • CurtisMSP

          Those who think the Bible is a divinely-inspired history book are a small fraction of all people of faith. Although they are, at times, the most noisy. You can’t discredit all religions by discrediting a small fringe group that holds a position contrary to the historic practice of religion in the world.

          • Troy Boyle

            No, but I can discredit all religions for maintaining a belief in non-phenomenological make-believe in the face of mountains of evidence that none of it is real. Epicurus’ criticism still holds:

            “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

            Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

            Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

            Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

            Christians usually point to the “Fallen” state of Man and “Free Will” as modifiers that allow for a capricious, malevolent-seeming god, but I’m not talking about outcomes of human agency. The proven inefficacy of intercessory prayer is a good one. Also the inability of any god to prevent tsunamis/tornadoes/earthquakes that indiscriminately kill the pious and “evil,” old and young, babies, etc.

            It is baffling to me that religious folks, and I’m talking any religion whatsoever, maintain belief in the face of a complete lack of overt phenomena of any kind. The Emperor has no clothes.


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