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Teaching children is a big ask

Youth and Schools Programme Co-ordinator of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion Lizzie Henderson tells Nigel Bovey about the big questions that children ask

Scientists are working hard to try to find out more about the very beginnings of our Universe

Lizzie, what does your work entail? I am a scientist by background, having studied natural sciences at Cambridge University. My team and I meet under-18-year-olds in schools, churches and youth groups to help them explore questions about science and religious faith.

How do you get involved with schools? We send out information telling schools what we can offer and how it fits with the curriculum. Most of our contacts come through a growing network of personal relationships or through enthusiastic teachers spreading the word. We can provide anything from a ten-minute assembly to a full-day workshop. We offer sessions for RE classes, science lessons, Christian Union discussion groups and many other contexts. We can cater for any group between the ages of 3 and 18.

You are based in Cambridge, so do you confine yourself to the immediate area? No, during the past three years or so we have run about 300 sessions for more than 13,000 children and young people all over the UK.

Children can be forthright critics. How do you know that what you are doing is helpful? The best feedback is seeing the students consider and ask questions that they have never been able to before. Some events we take part in provide students with feedback forms. Teachers often tell us that our work has helped to change students’ opinions about, and raise interest in, the relationship between science and religion.

Why do you need to put a case for religion and science? Sadly, everyday culture can give the impression that science and faith are in conflict. Research shows that children pick up on this idea very early on. Despite having many questions about science-faith interactions, lots of children feel they can’t ask their science teacher about God or their RE teacher about science because they think they won’t understand or won’t want to talk about it. With many parents, teachers and pastors feeling unable to explore these topics, children are often left with no opportunity to ask their questions. So, they end up feeling trapped and fill their heads with the idea that God and science can’t go together.

Did you come to faith as a child? Yes, I was brought up in a Christian family and was encouraged from an early age to explore the world, think about it and question it. My parents were great examples of how to be Christians in good and hard times. I decided very early on that askI was going to believe in God, that it was my decision and that faith is what I wanted my life to be about. I’ve always been interested in nature, so a lot of the questions of how science fits with an appreciation of God and an understanding of Christianity came up quite early.

In your work, what questions do children and teenagers ask most often? There is a wide range, including, ‘Miss, is your hair real?’ (It is). They also often want to know about the likes of dinosaurs, Adam and Eve, Creation and suffering. Miss, where do dinosaurs come from? Everything that’s living on Earth, including animals and people, is a bit similar and a bit different from the previous generation. Over time, these differences add up. This process has been at work for more than 3.5 billion years. Dinosaurs were just one group of animals that arose as a result. About 65 million years ago, most of them were wiped out. One group of dinosaurs that is still with us is birds, which, just like every other group of animals, continues to develop over time.

Why aren’t dinosaurs mentioned in the Bible? The Bible mentions lots of animals that people saw around them, but it isn’t trying to list all the animals that were around at the time nor all those that have ever existed. It’s much more concerned with talking about God and his relationship with his creation rather than listing every single thing he made.

Did it really take only six days for God to make everything? Christians have different ideas about this. That is no surprise and it’s OK, because the most important message of the Bible is not how God chose to create the world but who God is and that we can have a relationship with him. How God made the world is secondary to the truth that it was God who made the world. Although it contains many types of literature – biography, history and poetry, for example – the Bible is not a scientific textbook. The early chapters of Genesis are not trying to explain mechanisms the way a science book might. Rather, they contain a profound story that explains the world that people saw around them in a way that related to the other stories they knew about creation, while telling them that God is the sole Creator. In other words, there were not lots of gods doing different things but one God doing everything. A key to understanding the Bible is not only to read it but also to think about how we interpret what we read. For example, why did the writer in Genesis talk about Creation? Was it to explain the science of the Universe (much of which isn’t fully understood now, let alone thousands of years ago) or was it to get across theological truths about who God is and why he created? Exploring how the Bible talks about Creation is fascinating, but I find nothing in Christianity that makes salvation – our ability to have a relationship with God – dependent upon anything other than who God is and how he regards us.

Were Adam and Eve real people? I’m not sure if we will ever find a definite answer. It’s interesting to note the Hebrew words used: ‘Adam’ is derived from the Hebrew word for ‘earth’, and ‘Eve’ means ‘breathe’ or ‘life’. So, the language emphasises the idea of humanity being a part of God’s creation, rather than names of specific individuals. Science shows that humanity doesn’t descend from a single couple living a few thousand years ago, and the Bible doesn’t teach that. But it is possible that the Bible is referring to a real Adam and Eve among the people around at the time who represent the whole of humankind. Whether or not they refer to specific people, the Adam and Eve accounts are used to represent a wider issue – why do people do bad things? They are central to the story of ‘the Fall’, which tries to explain how and why people choose to reject God’s best and try to ‘do it on their own’. The main point of what the Bible says about Adam and Eve is that we all do bad things because humankind rebels against God. We all have to deal with this sin thing, and Jesus is the one person who can put it right. 

How did the world get here? Most scientists agree that the Universe began with the big bang. The general idea is that about 13.7 billion years ago all the matter in the Universe was concentrated in a hot, dense, tiny point which began to expand quickly, releasing lots of energy and beginning the processes that shaped all the matter, space and time we know today. As things expanded and cooled down a bit, small particles formed and began to swirl around and collapse into each other, eventually forming stars. Stars are very hot and have so much energy that they form bigger chemical elements. Many of these stars eventually explode into big clouds of gas and dust which crash into other bits that are flying around space and form more stars. Sometimes the gas and dust that form stars also form planets around it. On at least one planet, Earth, there was a combination of chemicals that led to life. Life became self-propagating and we ended up with the Earth that we have today. 

Did somebody start the big bang, like lighting a firework? Scientists are working hard to try to find out more about the very beginnings of our Universe. They can describe the start of everything to within a tiny fraction of a second from the beginning. There are things that scientists don’t yet know, but it would be wrong to explain the things that we don’t yet know by saying that it was when God was at work. There are two reasons for this. First, if we say that God is simply the answer to all the things we don’t know – filling in the gaps of our knowledge – then the more that we discover through science, the less we need God in our picture of the Universe. Secondly, God is bigger and more wonderful than someone who simply lights a firework and then stands back to watch the display. The Bible says that God is not only the Creator but also the sustainer of creation – he keeps things going. God is not a spectator; he is deeply involved in life and the Universe. 

How can you prove that God exists? People often say that science proves things – such as that the world is round and that gravity makes objects fall to the ground. But scientists don’t really talk about things being ‘proved’; they talk about having a current theory or a ‘best possible explanation'. A theory starts with an idea called a hypothesis. Scientists then look for evidence that the idea is correct. If there is enough strong evidence that helps them believe the hypothesis is true, then it becomes a theory. If, later, new evidence is found that the theory is not correct, then scientists change it. In fact, we all work this way. For example, think of the act of sitting on a chair. Over the years, we’ve each observed and gathered information about chairs. We know that their purpose is to support a person’s weight. We look at a particular chair, and based on the evidence we’ve collected about chairs, we work out whether it will do what it was made to do. We then reach a point where we commit ourselves to sitting in that chair. The difference between this evidence-based Universedecision and the one about science is that we consider different kinds of evidence. Science is what it is because we only use one, very specific kind of testable evidence. That makes it very powerful but also very limited. It can answer only specific questions that can be answered by that kind of evidence. For other questions, we use lots of different kinds of evidence. Choosing to believe or not to believe in God is a similar process. We can gather evidence from different areas – such as the Bible stories, how well history supports the Bible, accounts of other people’s experience or looking at the beauty of the world around us – and conclude, on the basis of the evidence, whether or not we think God exists and, if he does, what he is like. 

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