published Monday, May 27th, 2013

2 professors launch science center in heart of Scopes country

This July 20, 1925 black-and-white handout photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution shows William Jennings Bryan, seated at left, being interrogated by Clarence Seward Darrow, during the trial of State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, July 20, 1925.
This July 20, 1925 black-and-white handout photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution shows William Jennings Bryan, seated at left, being interrogated by Clarence Seward Darrow, during the trial of State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, July 20, 1925.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Poll
Does science conflict with your religious beliefs?

POLL ON SCIENCE AND RELIGION

Does science have a positive effect on society?

84 percent of the general public says yes.

81 percent of evangelical Protestants say yes.

83 percent of Catholics say yes.

Does science sometimes conflict with your own religious beliefs?

36 percent of the general public says yes.

49 percent of evangelicals say yes.

44 percent of Catholics say yes.

16 percent of unaffiliated say yes.

Source: Pew Research Center, Public Opinion on Science and Religion in the United States, 2009

WHAT WE BELIEVE

According to a 2009 Pew Research Center poll:

* 87 percent of scientists believe that humans evolved over time due to natural processes.

* 32 percent of the general public believes that humans evolved over time due to natural processes.

* 2 percent of scientists believe that humans existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

* 31 percent of the general public believes that humans existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

Source: Pew Research Center, Public Opinion on Science and Religion in the United States, 2009

Dr. Todd Wood and Dr. Roger Sanders only have to drive half a mile down the road to be reminded of just how rooted and tense the battle between science and belief can be.

Just a few minutes from their offices stands the courthouse where one of the greatest battles in that saga played out: The Scopes "Monkey Trial." The subject of the 1925 court case was a teacher accused of violating state law by teaching evolution in a public school, but it became a battle between theology and modernism.

Depending on how different people interpret that case, it was a battle for truth, or the moment when Christians doomed their future credibility in science education.

For years, Wood and Sanders have taught science at Bryan College, the school named after the winning Christian prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan.

But the two aren't interested in digging deeper trenches between science and faith. While the conflict has become more political and emotional over the years, they say hostility is unnecessary.

Amidst budget cuts, Wood and Sanders were let go from Bryan College. But that gave them a chance to confront what they say is a persistent problem among Christian college students: an aversion to careers in the sciences. By the time students graduate from high school, Wood says, they have made up their minds against the option.

The two say they have long been concerned with the "hostility of Christians toward scientists, scientists toward Christians, and Christians toward other Christians."

Wood and Sanders are starting a nonprofit, the Core Academy of Science, to encourage Christians -- primarily high school students -- to consider going into the field.

Both say they have wrestled with integrating their passion for science with their faith. Both grew up in fundamentalist churches that denounced scientists, but both were drawn to the subject.

"I just kept hearing from people in church that 'All scientists are atheists. You shouldn't go into science,'" said Sanders. "But I loved science. I loved learning about nature. Science is a wonderful way to understand creation. I think it's a shame that Christians shy away from it."

Beyond evolution

Wood is well known among those who track the debate between science and religion, said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution and climate science.

Wood has written eloquently about how Christians should pursue serious science, he said. Still, Rosenau expects Wood's academy to have a creationist perspective. Creationism is the belief that life and the universe were the creation of God.

"It will be interesting to see what comes of it," said Rosenau. "I hope they could help bring a more sympathetic and open conversation about topics like evolution. There is a view that evangelicals need to reject evolution."

The Internet-based "academy" is not actually a school. It does not provide assessments or grades, just lessons and curriculum. The two visualize the program being used primarily by home-schooling families who are hesitant to tackle complicated scientific subjects themselves.

Wood, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and Sanders, who has one in botany, say they are creationists. But they also believe evolution has played an important role in developing species and differentiating life forms.

But it's not just the issue of origins that Christians get hung up on, they say; it's also ethically complex fields like genetics, stem cell research and reproductive technology.

"These are all sorts of issues that feed into this mistrust and hostility between Christians and science," Wood said. "And as a result there has been a retreat of Christians from science."

Larger battle

The majority of self-declared Christian science curriculum takes an automatically defensive stance, they say, focusing on addressing controversy instead of teaching methods and tenets. That is where they hope to fill in the gap -- to explore more of the gray instead of adhering to the black and white.

Both know there are those in their field who would be indignant at their philosophy. In Tennessee, the controversy over how to teach origins and science did not stop with the Scopes trial.

Just last year, critics scoffed and conservative Christians cheered as the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that would require public school teachers to address creationism as an alternative origins theory if a student brought it up.

The American Civil Liberties Unions blasted the bill, stating: "School science curricula already foster students' critical thinking skills; and the 'weaknesses' that proponents of the bill hope teachers will discuss are recycled claims -- consistently and resoundingly rejected by scientists -- that have been made for years by creationism and intelligent design advocates."

After the bill passed, Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, told Reuters News Service, "With all the emphasis now on science, math and technology, this seems like a real step backward."

But Wood and Sanders aren't interested in rhetorical sparring over the issue.

"Christians do get stuck on particular issues, and they tend to see those issues as a culture war, this narrative of conflict. Christians on one side and scientists on another," said Wood. "You can have a calmness and confidence in your faith and still be a good scientist. And we need to be willing to be fair and honest and admit where we may have made mistakes over the years. It's part of being a limited human being."

Global scope

The organization has its own board and is not affiliated with Bryan College. Though it is based on the college's campus, everything is virtual. Because of that, the two hope to have an international reach. For their first class, they have 166 people signed up from the United States, Europe and Africa.

That's a class on origins discussing both creation and evolution, which both say has drummed up plenty of interest.

But they also want to get past that topic and teach traditional science subjects: chemistry, biology, physical sciences, earth sciences. Sanders wants to teach a course on the wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians.

The curriculum eventually will run from middle to high school, and they also will have lectures geared to Christian high school science teachers to help parse out issues in faith and science.

And they plan to have a history class on the Scopes trial. Given everything that they're trying to address where they're located -- that one seemed like a no-brainer.

Staff writer Joan Garrett contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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