University of São Paulo: Religion is not the single most important factor for acceptance of the theory of evolution in schools

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The religion plays a less important role in the acceptance of the theory of evolution in schools, shows a study by USP researchers carried out from the analysis of information from a database that brings together about 5,500 Brazilian and Italian students. “Broader sociocultural aspects [such as the social perception of science and socioeconomic issues] , which include religion, have greater weight for understanding the theme”, reports to Jornal da USP professor Nelio Bizzo, from the Faculty of Education (FE) at USP and coordinator of the Center for Research in Education, Dissemination and Epistemology of Biological Evolution Charles Darwin (EDEVO-Darwin).

Theory of evolution is a body of knowledge that explains and interprets evolutionary phenomena on planet Earth. For Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), evolution occurs through natural selection, which leads to a gradual change in the characteristics of individuals. Darwin was an important British naturalist and was known for his great contribution to the understanding of evolution and for his work The Evolution of Species. .

“Although this concept is important for the understanding of subjects related to the different areas of biological sciences, the difficulty of understanding the subject is enormous, especially in schools”, says Bizzo. In Brazil, evolution knowledge is generally offered to students at the end of high school, unlike what happens in Italy, which begins before the age of ten. “Topics covering the main theorists [Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck] and subjects that permeate religious dogmas and creationist conceptions have generated several confrontations between students and teachers who have religious beliefs”, he says.

The new analyzes showed that levels of acceptance of biological evolution among Brazilian Catholic students are closer to Brazilian Evangelicals than they are to Italian Catholics. “We observed that the nationality of the students is more decisive than the religion itself for the acceptance of evolution”, says the researcher. The study Acceptance of evolution by high school students: Is religion the key factor? was published in Plos One on the 19th of September.

Some factors can act as obstacles to the acceptance of the theory of evolution: religion, lack of openness to experience and lack of understanding of the nature of science – Photo: Reproduction/Youtube
To carry out the study, the authors created an “intercultural index”, in which the difference between the opinions (acceptance or rejection of the evolutionary theory) of Catholic Italians and Catholic Brazilians and of these with evangelical Brazilians was quantified. The term evangelical represents the universe of non-Catholic Christians considered by Brazilian society as Protestants, consisting of historical Protestants, Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals.

Acceptance of evolution was measured based on five statements relating to the theory of evolution, the age of the Earth, the fossil record, common ancestry, and the origin of human beings. For the statement “Different organisms may have a common ancestor”, for example, the difference in acceptance was nine times greater between Italian and Brazilian Catholics than between Brazilian Catholics and Evangelicals. “The pattern was repeated with the other questions”, says Bizzo.

According to Leonardo A. Luvison Araújo, a postdoctoral researcher at FE and one of the authors of the article, “although the research has not explored issues such as the educational system of countries, there are other variables recognized as relevant by researchers with regard to acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, such as the socioeconomic level of students, family cultural capital and attitudes towards scientific knowledge by society in general”, he says. The results generated by the database “contradict previous research that pointed to religion as the single most important factor for the acceptance of evolution”, says Araújo.

The research that generated the database, whose information was analyzed more recently by Professor Bizzo’s team, was carried out in 2014 with Brazilian and Italian students and was part of the doctoral thesis by Graciela Oliveira, from FE. The original data collection was carried out concurrently in Brazil and Italy, through Italian partners led by researcher Giuseppe Pellegrini, from the Observa Institute, Science in Society, in the city of Vicenza, another co-author of the article.

religion and science
The idea of ​​biological evolution is not accepted by many people around the world. Some factors may act as obstacles to acceptance of the theory, such as religion, lack of openness to experience and misunderstanding of the nature of science, reports the article.

While the strength of the association between acceptance of evolution and non-scientific factors varies across studies, it is often assumed that resistance to acceptance is the by-product of a religious basis. Some studies are even more specific and try to associate the acceptance of evolution with religious affiliations.

In this scenario, the objective of the work was to explore the strength of associations between nationality, religion and acceptance of evolution by students using multiple correspondence analyzes and statistical tools from two different countries: Brazil, considered the country with the highest number of Roman Catholics in the world (but which has been losing hegemony in recent decades with the continuous rise of Protestants); and Italy, considered the hub of Roman Catholicism. They follow the same basic Vatican regulations, which include explicit views on
biological evolution and a non-literal interpretation of sacred texts. However, there are profound sociocultural differences due to many complex factors, including education.

It should also be considered that, in the last three decades, there has been a significant increase in the creationist movement in Brazil, and research carried out here has already shown that this movement has influenced young science teachers.

student profile
The students who participated in the survey were of approximately the same age group, with an average age of 15 years and, after applying the exclusion criteria, 3,881 people were eligible to participate in the survey.

There was a slight difference in the gender ratio in the two countries, as girls outnumbered boys in Brazil (55%) and Italy (52%). A high proportion of Brazilian religious students (56%) declared themselves to be Catholic and 12% of them declared not to follow any religion.

The largest non-Catholic Christian group was Pentecostals (21%) and the number of Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and Anglicans was low, less than 1%. Other religions added up to 13%.

In Italy, 67% of students declared to follow the Catholic Church and 22% said they did not follow any religion or philosophy. Of those interviewed, 3% were non-Catholic Christians and another 3.5% were of other religions.

New analyzes of this database bring us a clearer definition of what it means to “accept evolution” from a philosophical point of view and that religious formation is not the most important aspect of resistance to evolutionary theory, say the researchers.

For Araújo, “religion and science are not on the same plane of knowledge and, therefore, should not overlap. Teachers play a fundamental role in bringing students closer to scientific knowledge. Therefore, investing in initial and continuing teacher training so that they have a deeper reflection on the relationship between science and religion could be a great strategy.”

New perspectives
According to the authors, these results open new interpretive perspectives and provide a better understanding of attitudes towards the theory of evolution.

Bizzo proposes a review of methods for obtaining sensitive information involving religious issues in schools. “It is important to guarantee the anonymity of those who express opinions on certain topics.” He remembers a survey in which students did not write their names and the questions were printed on paper. “We obtained higher-than-expected levels of acceptance of evolution, even among students who declared themselves to be evangelicals,” he reports.

Araújo also indicates that concepts related to evolutionary theory, such as the study of geological time, are included in the curriculum from the beginning of elementary school, as in Italy , and that they become mandatory. In Brazil, at the time of data collection, some of these concepts were generally studied at the end of high school.

At the end of the article, the authors say it’s important to keep in mind that the picture presented in the study is just a picture, as values ​​are changing very quickly, even in religious settings. “For example, the level of acceptance of evolution has improved in members of some conservative Christian denominations whose teachings are informed by cultural barriers to evolution. Unfortunately, the shift can also be seen in the opposite direction, with conservative anti-evolution groups and religious denominations showing an influence across the world, including Brazil,” they write.

For Araújo, “religion and science are not on the same plane of knowledge and, therefore, should not overlap. Teachers play a fundamental role in bringing students closer to scientific knowledge. Therefore, investing in initial and continuing teacher training so that they have a deeper reflection on the relationship between science and religion could be a great strategy”, he concludes.

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