Origins & Design Journal

Let There Be Light: Religious Issues in the Physical Science Classroom

Religious and worldview topics can be successfully integrated into the physical science classroom of public universities, if done correctly. Professor James Eberhart from the University of Colorado shares his experience and offers some suggestions.


James G. Eberhart

If you were to ask science educators at our country’s secular colleges and universities whether religious issues are sometimes relevant in the natural sciences, most would probably reply that perhaps they are relevant in the biological sciences, where we find ethical issues such as those connected with genetic engineering and stem-cell research, and where there is still debate over the creation-evolution controversy.

There are, however, many religious issues that arise very naturally in physical sciences courses, even though they may be somewhat less obvious than those mentioned above. The purpose of this paper is to provide a few illustrations of topics in astronomy, physics, and chemistry where religion or worldview has an impact. Since bringing up these issues in a secular classroom is fraught with risks, some thoughts will be shared on how to discuss this worldview dimension of science without offending students. The results are well worth the effort, for students really enjoy exploring these issues, provided the inquiry is done in an atmosphere where they don’t feel pressured to agree with a particular viewpoint.

My teaching assignments are primarily in chemistry, with occasional forays into courses in physical science, physics, and mathematics. Our students range from upper-division science majors taking highly technical courses, to liberal arts students who want a broad-based introductory course to meet a natural science requirement. The illustrations and suggestions presented here are drawn from experience in these courses.

Worldview and the Scientific Method

Almost all introductory courses in physical science begin with an outline of the scientists’ approach to the study of nature—the scientific method. College students have heard the story many times before, and most of them find the retelling rather boring. However, even the most jaded seem to perk up if the subject is broadened to include the concept of worldview and how it can influence our willingness to accept various theories. A worldview is our personal religious, philosophical, or political lens through which we view the world. Whether we do science, teach science, or study science, we all bring our personal worldview to the endeavor. Harold Brown’s classic provides a scholarly survey of the influences of worldview.[1]

There are also a number of authors who have addressed the effects of current worldviews for a more general audience. David Noebel identifies four Western worldviews: Judeo-Christian (which is theistic), New Age (which is pantheistic), Secular Humanist (which is atheistic), and Marxist-Leninist (which is also atheistic).[2] Nancy Pearcey and Charles Colson define a worldview as an overarching approach to understanding God, the world, and mankind’s relationship to both.[3] They, along with Josh McDowell, also add a fifth worldview to the list, namely, Postmodernism.[4]

Usually, advanced science courses do not begin with the discussion of the scientific method so common to the introductory course. However, worldview issues can still be presented at that time. When I introduce myself to my students on the first day of a new class, I often tell them that I teach science because of the intellectual excitement I experience in attempting to find answers to questions about our natural world—an excitement I hope I can share with them. I also tell them that there are even more important questions than the scientific ones we are about to consider. Pearcey and Colson point out that our worldview is an answer to the fundamental questions that mankind has asked for thousands of years. These questions include: Who are we? Where did we come from? What has gone wrong with our world? And what can we do to fix it? Although these most fundamental of all questions are not ordinarily part of a science course, I like to encourage our students to explore them at some point in their college education.

The Big Bang Theory

A science course is probably not the place for lengthy descriptions of the various worldviews, but it is an ideal setting to explore the effect our personal philosophy has on our reaction to scientific theories. One of the best illustrations is the big bang theory. According to this theory, the space, time, mass, and energy with which we are all so familiar came into existence some 14 billion years ago through an incredible explosion that set our universe on a course of expansion and cooling that continues to this day. This theory is one of the cornerstones of modern cosmology, astronomy, and physics, and is also important in chemistry as the basis for understanding the abundance of the elements.

In this context the big bang theory also provides the chemistry or physics teacher with a possible novel approach to presenting atomic structure. The classical approach to this subject involves subdividing matter further and further, while describing the atomic and subatomic particles encountered at each stage of subdivision. Alternatively, it is now possible to start at the “beginning” of the story and describe a universe initially composed of pure energy (radiation), some of which is transformed into fundamental particles (according to Einstein’s E = mc2) in the lepton and quark families (leptons include electrons), followed by two varieties of quarks condensing into protons and neutrons, which then combine variously to form atomic nuclei, which finally attract a surrounding “cloud” of electrons for the ultimate production of atoms and molecules.

But how does this theory illustrate the powerful effect of worldview on our scientific judgments? Hugh Ross points out the many cosmological models of the universe that have been considered.[5] Three of the simplest are Einstein’s steady-state model, the big bang model, and the oscillating model (a big bang, followed by a big crunch, and so on).

If we ignore the details of the various worldviews and focus simply on the issue of belief in God, we see the various viewpoints to which each model will appeal. The steady-state model provides a universe of fixed size; one with no beginning and no end, a universe that is about the same today as it has always been. A Creator seems unnecessary in this universe, and the model (although not generally accepted today) appealed in the past to those who did not believe in God. The big bang model is unique in that it proposes a universe with a beginning at some finite time in the past. As a result we can argue that it also suggests the existence of a Beginner. Thus, the big bang appeals to many of those who hold to the Christian and Jewish faiths. The oscillating model suggests a universe that is cyclic in nature. The Hindu religion contains a theology of cycles and repetition, and adherents to that faith would probably be most comfortable with this model.

Ross has noted the long period of resistance by the scientific community to the big bang theory and its “repugnant idea of a beginning,” in spite of the overwhelming evidence supporting the theory.[6] Thus, the big bang theory is an excellent case study of the dramatic effect that worldview can have on the kind of theory we are willing to accept.

It is worth adding that not all Christians accept the approximate age of 14 billion years for the universe that is part of the big bang theory. Christians today are divided into Young-Earth and Old-Earth camps, and thus a science teacher may see opposition toward the big bang theory from Young-Earth Christian students. This attitude appears to come not only from what these students have learned from their pastors, but also from the Young-Earth home school material from which many of them have learned science. The issue will be addressed later of how to present classroom material in a way that doesn’t offend students whose worldview is not compatible with a particular scientific theory.

Environmental Science

Many of the introductory chemistry courses designed for liberal arts students are organized around a consideration of environmental issues. This unifying theme provides an excellent opportunity for discussion of worldviews. Most of our students have read newspaper stories and watched TV news stories on environmental issues such as global warming. The more astute have a sense that there is a strong political dimension to the debates over whether global warming is caused by mankind’s technological activity or is part of a natural temperature cycle similar to many others that our climate has experienced over thousands of years. Many students have already discerned that the former view is more popular among those with a liberal political philosophy, while the latter is more common among political conservatives—again a worldview influence.

Some of our students have also been exposed to the more extreme versions of the Gaia hypothesis, which considers the Earth to be a living entity. The pantheistic or New Age dimension of this view provides a further illustration of how our worldview can shape the kind of scientific theory we accept—sometimes without much regard for the degree of support provided by experimental evidence.

Nuclear Physics and Just War Theory

The study of natural and artificial radioactivity provides an excellent context for discussion of the four fundamental forces in nature and also an exploration of the atomic and subatomic structure of matter. (In an introductory physical science course, this can also be the occasion for a discussion of the big bang theory, rather than at the beginning of the course, where the scientific method and the atomic theory are usually presented.) Discussions of stable and unstable nuclei, the binding energy of the nucleus, radioactivity, fission and fusion, and the nature of radiation, lead naturally to a consideration of the more important applications of this subject, namely, nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

It is unconscionable to discuss the effects produced by the explosion of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, and the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, without also considering the ethics of their use in war. The best-developed ethical theory for moral behavior in wartime is undoubtedly the just war theory of two of the great church fathers, St. Augustine (in his The City of God) and St. Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologica). Michael Novak has provided an excellent summary of just war theory in his book on the nuclear debate.[7]

Although there are seven criteria for a just war, the two usually emphasized by critics of our use of nuclear weapons are: 1) the war must manifest proportionality, that is, the damage to be inflicted and the cost incurred must not constitute a greater evil than the evil to be avoided; and 2) discrimination between combatants and civilians must be maintained in every act of war. Since just war theory is clearly a Christian creation, it is important to present it in the context of that particular worldview and as one of a number of possible ways of approaching the nuclear dilemma.

Classroom Use of the Bible

Is the Bible ever an appropriate source of classroom information? Certainly the Bible should not be used for proselytizing in a secular academic setting. However, there do seem to be situations where its use can add much to a discussion.

Among other things, the Bible is an important historical record. I like to begin my course in materials science with a little history of practical materials. Our ages of history are named after the materials primarily used in each era (the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, etc.). This leads naturally to questions such as when did the use of metals as materials begin? The Bible provides the earliest known reference on practical metallurgy in the Genesis narrative of Tubal-Cain, who is described as being six generations from Cain and “who forged all kinds of tools” (Gen. 4:22, NIV). Thus, Tubal-Cain was probably the first blacksmith or metallurgist.

In addition to holding a wealth of historical information, the Bible contains statements that are clearly relevant to scientific issues. For example, there appear to be references in the Bible to the First and the Second Laws of Thermodynamics. In the Creation account, we read that “by the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing (Gen. 2:2, NIV).” If this statement is interpreted scientifically, it is possible to argue that God completed the creation of energy and as a result the energy of the universe is constant, as postulated in the First Law of Thermodynamics. Furthermore, in the Book of Psalms we read that the heavens and earth “will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded (Ps. 102: 25-26, NIV). The Second Law of Thermodynamics postulates a universe of increasing entropy or disorder—one where natural processes are running down. It is certainly appropriate to refer to the Bible in the classroom when it sheds light on scientific issues.

Respecting the Worldview of Students

The illustrations cited above show ways in which religious or worldview issues can add an exciting dimension to the science classroom. But how can this aspect of science be presented without offending students who hold viewpoints in opposition to those of the teacher?

There are several dictums for dealing with religious, philosophical, or political issues that help in avoiding possible pitfalls. First, it is not the teacher’s job to promote a particular worldview; in fact, it is best if students are unable to discern their teacher’s worldview. Second, it is also not the teacher’s job to determine whether students actually “believe” the theories discussed in class, but rather to simply teach the details of these theories.

Third, in situations where students may disagree with a major theory because of their own worldview, it is important that classroom discussions and examination questions give them an intellectual “out.” Thus, an exam question on the most abundant element in the Universe might be worded as:

1. What element was produced in the largest amount by the big bang explosion?

However, this wording assumes that the big bang is fact, rather than theory. A more neutral way of wording the question is:

2. What element was produced in the largest amount, according to the predictions of the big bang theory?

The second version of this question does not assume that the big bang is fact and simply explores whether the student knows a particular prediction of the theory.

The same kind of approach is essential in exploring ethical issues, such as those raised in just war theory. It is best to avoid asking whether it was right or wrong to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or to insist that such a question be answered in a just-war-theory context. (Questions of that kind put pressure on students to come up with their instructor’s answer.) On the other hand, students should be expected to be familiar with the theory. Thus, they might be asked which of the seven criteria are most relevant to nuclear war, or did our country meet a particular criterion before dropping the bombs?

Popular wisdom suggests that the way to keep our friends is to never talk with them about religion or politics. That advice is probably wise for the classroom, too, if it refers to sharing our religious or political beliefs, or trying to influence others to believe as we do. On the other hand, almost all of us are very much interested in these two topics. This article tries to delineate ways in which we can all become more aware of how our worldview can influence our disposition toward scientific theories. Including this kind of material in a science classroom can provide a valuable insight into how the scientific process really works—provided it is done in a way that respects the worldviews of our students.

References

  1. Harold I. Brown, Perception, Theory, and Commitment: The New Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). [ return to text ]
  2. David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times, abridged edition, (Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, Colorado: Association of Christian Schools International and Summit Ministries, 1995), chapter 1. [ return to text ]
  3. Nancy Pearcey and Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1999), chapter 3. [ return to text ]
  4. Josh D. McDowell. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), chapter 34. [ return to text ]
  5. Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God (Orange, California: Promise, 1991), chapters 6-11. [ return to text ]
  6. Hugh Ross, “The Big Bang Model Refined by Fire,” in Mere Creation, ed. by William A. Dembski (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1998), chapter 15. [ return to text ]
  7. Michael Novak, Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 39. [ return to text ]