What role does religion play in science education? This is a question I have started to ask myself lately.
In my years as a science educator at an aquarium, religion seemed to be a dirty word. It had virtually no place in the institution I worked. Organization leaders shied away from the topic, and educators would roll their eyes if a group of religious home-schooled children were coming to visit.
And yet, research by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums shows that some people visit zoos and aquariums as “spiritual pilgrims” with the specific intent of seeking out contemplative/restorative experiences. According to the Pew Research Center, over 80% of the American population self-reports having a religious affiliation. 80%!
The mission statements of so many zoos and aquariums now involve more than education; there is often a goal to change the attitudes, beliefs, or actions of the visitors to their institutions. Yet these organizations continue to shy away from that which so many people’s value system has been built upon – their religious upbringing or affiliation. It’s as though zoos and aquariums have decided that science and religion are incompatible, “therefore we will pretend that religion doesn’t exist.”
How do these institutions expect to foster change if they are not willing or able to have an open dialogue with their visitors, many of whom clearly have a religious affiliation? How do they expect their visitors to address the internal conflicts that come up when science and religion butt heads?
Members of religious groups ARE opening up the dialogue around faith and the environment. As a Fellow with the organization Greenfaith, I participate with leaders of a variety of religious faiths as we grapple with questions about environmental justice, the definition of stewardship, and clarify the meaning of religious texts and traditions.
This open dialogue among and between members of all faiths is helping to fill the gap that the science education community has ignored. I am heartened to see people come together to create a clearer environmental identity. This is where the free-choice learning is really happening.
To the informal science education community – zoos and aquariums in particular — I say there is a place for religion in science education. Moreover, if your organization really expects to meet the lofty goals of your mission statements, it is imperative to open up a religious dialogue and directly address the religious attitudes and beliefs of your visitors. If you really want to change behavior or instill an environmental ethic, make your institution a relevant force in people’s lives. Foster a truly free choice learning environment by including religion in the conversation.
(Traci Reid is a guest poster to the FCL Blog and a 2013-2014 Greenfaith Fellow.)