What Should Teachers Say to Religious Students Who Doubt Evolution?

From Scientific American:

Origin-of-Species-208x300I’m teaching Darwin again this semester, in two separate courses, and I’m confronted with a familiar dilemma: How should I respond to students who reject evolutionary theory on religious grounds?

…I point out that some religion-bashing Darwinians exaggerate the power of evolutionary theory. For example, Richard Dawkins was wrong–egregiously wrong–when he claimed in his 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker that life “is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it.” Even when bolstered by modern genetics, evolutionary theory does not explain why life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago, or whether life was highly probable, even inevitable, or a once in a universe fluke. The theory doesn’t explain why life, after remaining single-celled for more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms, including one exceedingly strange mammal capable of pondering its own origins. Some prominent thinkers—from philosopher Karl Popper to complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman–have critiqued Darwinism for purely scientific rather than religious reasons. Some of these critics have suggested that natural selection, as conventionally understood, must be supplemented by other processes, such as “self-organization” of simple chemical and biological systems. But so far none of these alternatives has gained much traction. As for proponents of intelligent design, some raise reasonable questions about the limits of biology, but their answers—which invoke some sort of divine intervention–are pathetically inadequate. The theory of evolution by natural selection is arguably the single most profound insight into reality that humanity has ever achieved, and it is supported by overwhelming evidence–mountains of evidence!–from the ever-expanding fossil record to DNA analyses of living species.

These are the sorts of things I tell my students. I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: “Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America’s youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply ‘wrong’ due to a certain scientific explanation.” On the other hand, if I don’t prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I’m not doing my job, am I?

More here.