“We talk about the nature of science versus the nature of religion,” added Barnes. “Questions about the natural world can be answered by science. Questions about purpose, ethics and the existence of God are explored through religion. By acknowledging and discussing the spectrum of viewpoints between religion and evolution, we’ve shown, surprisingly, both religious and non-religious students show a decreased perception of conflict.”

The module also features a section on religious scientists who serve as role models.

Brownell, a neuroscientist who studies education, said old stereotypes that someone can’t be both religious and a biologist need to be discarded. She said these stereotypes may also be a barrier for underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in biology. 

“We can make the argument that there are certain underrepresented minorities in evolutionary biology. For example, in 2011, there were zero PhDs in evolutionary biology awarded to African-Americans. And religious beliefs are strong in the African-American culture,” said Brownell. “If we get rid of the perceived conflict between religion and evolution, we could potentially increase the number of African-American scientists. Science then can be improved by making it more diverse.”

Brownell added that the overarching goal of their research is not to change people’s religious beliefs, as that is an important part of students’ identities. Instead, the evolution teaching module is aimed at increasing acceptance of evolution and debunking the idea that students must choose a side.

For their next step, the researchers are studying how instructors at religious universities teach evolution.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise