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In the not-too-distant past, I was teaching a course on cognition and language. One class focused on language and communication in different species. A student later emailed me to ask a number of clarifying and follow-up questions. One of which was "If God wanted animals to communicate, why wouldn't He just have them talk"? This student was an international student from a country where religion is a much more prominent component of public life, so - for lack of a better phrase - I took it as a good faith question that would have been pretty normal back home. I don't think it's my place to put forth my theological views, I don't teach anything close to religion/theology, so I answered the questions that I could and ignored the religious question. Is there a better way to have handled this?

Thanks

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You were correct in not engaging in religious argument in an academic setting. But a valid answer, that is probably acceptable to most people, whatever their faith, is, "I don't know. Your question is outside the realm of science."

If further asked, "What do you believe?", you can say that it is a private matter.

Unfortunately too many religious discussions end up here.

  • If you want, you could go on to address the variant of the question that (perhaps?) does have a scientific answer: why haven't all the different species evolved to communicate in the same way? What are the (dis)advantages to various forms of communication? "This question has religious and scientific aspects. I can't comment on what God might think, but..." – avid Jan 24 at 1:23
  • @avid, unlikely, though, that someone asking the first question would bring up evolution. It has a creationist sort of slant. I'll note that some (fairly) early hominids (Homo Erectus, I think) didn't have the gene that makes language possible. But they seem to have had communication since they were able to cooperate in some advanced (for the time) technology. Making seaworthy watercraft, for example, in the Mediterranean and maybe Asia. – Buffy Jan 24 at 1:33
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My experience with this sort of issue has been in teaching astronomy classes for gen ed students in which we deal with the Big Bang. In this context (which differs somewhat from yours), I think it's a good idea not to completely shut down questions about religion.

  • A student who is a business major may have very little understanding of how science works and how it's different from other ways of knowing things. They only learn this if we give them a chance to see the contrasts by actively discussing them.

  • Shutting down discussion of such issues can seem authoritarian to students. This makes them feel that they are just being told contradictory things by two different authority figures, e.g., their priest and their professor.

  • Many students have mistaken ideas about their own religion's doctrines. E.g., they may believe that the Catholic church opposes the Big Bang theory, denies evolution, or teaches that the soul begins its existence at conception -- none of which is true.

  • Science can be confusing and counterintuitive. It's counterintuitive that humans can evolve from microbes. It's counterintuitive that the Big Bang can be an explosion without a center, and without any preexisting time or space. The risk is that they will see these ideas as absurd on their face, while religious teachings seem to address the same questions in a way that makes more sense.

However, I would not suggest spending a large amount of class time on this sort of thing. After teaching the astronomy class a couple of times, I put together a handout addressing these issues, and I just handed it out without soliciting discussion.

Since you're teaching a subject that naturally touches on evolution, you will probably want to work out some responses for this sort of thing that come off as evidence-based rather than authority-based. For the specific example you give, I would try something like this: "You're asking a question about God, but for the most part, science and religion have separate spheres these days. The scientific question that would be of interest here might be this. If it's an evolutionary advantage to have sophisticated language like human language, then why hasn't such language evolved in all species?" Then you can address this question, which is an interesting question involving evolutionary biology. You can point out that evolution isn't directed toward an end, that some higher molluscs have visual communication systems that do things that ours can't, that not all animals are social, and so on.

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Many secular universities have theology faculty. You can suggest that your students ask them theological questions. This is the same as if I, a physicist, when asked about human perception of sound, suggested that students ask you.

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    The "authority" you send them to might also be a non-academic religious authority. It is likely that they can supply their own, I think. – Buffy Jan 24 at 1:38
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Answer: "I have no idea why you are bringing this up here. Speculations on motivations of hypothetical omnipotent beings are not part of this lecture".

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    I worry a bit that the person asking the original question might take this as insulting. It expresses a certain disdain for their beliefs. It seems quite different from suggesting that religious advice should come from religious authorities. – Buffy Jan 24 at 1:36
  • @Buffy No, it does not express disdain for beliefs. It expresses that religious belief has no place in a scientific lecture. It was not the teacher who transgressed the boundary, it was the student. If re-establishing the boundary hurts his feelings, his/her problem. Unscientific behavior must be clearly named in a science lecture. – Sascha Feb 1 at 10:57

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