Creationists in Astronomy Class are Not Fun!
Every semester as part of the general astronomy class I teach it is required that we do a few lectures on the history of astronomy. It is intended that we start all the way back into ancient astronomy and talk about how the people of the time viewed their Earth and their Universe. We talk about how ancient people observed their surroundings and how they deduced in some cases that the Earth was only about as big as the civilization in question had traveled. We also discuss how ancient people believed for quite some time that the Earth was flat.
As an exercise, I have the students break up into groups where they try to come up with pieces of observational evidence that the Earth is indeed a sphere (actually oblate spheroid.) Usually, the students are pretty good about coming up with convincing evidence. They list obvious answers like boats that appear to sink into the horizon, the altitude of stars are different depending on where you are located on Earth, and the obvious pictures from orbit showing the curvature of the Earth. I don’t expect any real problems during this exercise because I know the students know the Earth is a sphere and I am just using this as a way to exercise their critical thinking skills.
One semester I had a problem. I had a student who flat out refused to do the exercise. She complained that this was a brain washing technique used by “you scientists” to try and disprove the bible. I tried very hard not to be too combative as I really do not appreciate being called “you scientist” as if it were some kind of swear word. Instead, I used my stock answer of “I am in no way trying to teach you anything about the bible or trying to purposefully manipulate your beliefs. This is astronomy and in here we learn about astronomy.” The student still refused to be a part of the activity. Since it was not a graded or credited activity I figured I would just let her be stubborn for the moment and when we discussed the activity maybe she would lighten up a little.
Well that would have been nice. As the students listed their evidence she scoffed irritatingly at a few and then without even raising her hand shouted out very loud (paraphrased from what I remember):
“All you people are being brainwashed to think the Earth is a sphere. The Earth is obviously round but it is very flat and all those pieces of evidence are just created by the false prophecies of science.”
Okay, so my students were all very shocked. VERY, VERY, VERY shocked. They looked at the student nervously and before I could gently ask that maybe we should discuss this after class one of her classmates asked is she was on drugs. Well this made things worse and a she literally spat at the other student (it did not hit anyone.) At this point it became a harassment issue between the two students. I intervened as quickly as I could. I told everyone to calm down and relax (I actually had to use my teacher voice!) Luckily, this happened at the end of class and I dismissed the class. I asked both students to hang around after. We had a brief discussion about how we are to maintain an atmosphere of respect in the classroom etc. Tensions were eased and the other student left. However, I kept the “flat Earth” student for a few more minutes of discussion. I carefully explained to her that I was not trying to be rude to her and that my job was not to manipulate her belief system but to introduce her to the concepts of astronomy and science. She said she understood and left. Phew!
A couple of more classes into the semester and things had remained calm. Sadly, they did not stay that way. When discussing the age of the Earth during one lecture I was faced with a very upset student again. However, this time she said nothing during class abut waited until after class to discuss this with me. Her first words began with the word Bible and I knew at that point it was all down hill from there. She explained to me that she refused to believe that the Earth was older than 6,000.0 years old. I told her I wasn’t asking her to believe anything I was telling her about what the scientific evidence points toward. She then asked if this would be on the exam. I told her it would possibly be there and if she wrote 6,000 years it would be incorrect. This infuriated her even more and she said that she would have to talk to her pastor about it. I shrugged and told her that her pastor was an excellent person to discuss religion with but that her astronomy professor (me) is the perfect person to discuss astronomy with two completely different topics. At that point I was done and I shut the conversation down.
The following week as students are shuffling into the classroom my happy little creationist comes in with her Bible. She comes up to the desk and shows me the passages that her pastor has tabbed and underlined for me to use in class. I smiled at her and told her gently that I could not use those in class since this is not a religious institution and by the way it is a science class. She argued for a few minutes that her pastor told her that she was chosen to show the students and me the true path of nature and science. I told her that by separation of church and state in a public school we could not and would not be talking about religion in this course. Finally, she smiled and explained that her pastor had told her if I would not read the passages to the class that she was to go an formally withdraw from the course. I just shrugged and pointed at the door. Quietly, my ordeal was over.
Now here is the problem. You might think I was relieved and excited when she dropped the course. Actually, this is not true. I did not want her to drop the course. I had hoped that as we went through the semester and I got a chance to talk about different astronomical topics that she would learn some critical thinking skills or at the least just some freaking cool facts about the Universe. I didn’t want her to be miserable in the class. I wanted her to have fun with the rest of us because the rest of the students were having a good time.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. This has happened a few more times but generally with better results. At times when I have explained carefully that science is not a faith it is a tool to use to understand how the Universe works and that you don’t believe in science anymore than you believe in a hammer the students generally get it. Those students then understood that I was not telling them what to believe but I was opening them to the ideas of how “stuff” works. I was showing them that there are no magic beans and these are the processes based on current observation and experimentation. So to any prospective creationists who are about to land themselves in my course I say believe whatever your heart desires just understand that science and religion are not the same subject matter. Oh and please do have a little fun learning about the Universe you actually reside in.
Featured Image is a reproduction of the original Flammarion Woodcut, Universum, by Heikenwaelder Hugo.