Why Worry about Evolution? Boundaries, Practices, and Moral Salience in Sunni and Evangelical High Schools

Author(s): Jeffrey Guhin

Source: Guhin, Jeffrey. 2016. “Why Worry about Evolution? Boundaries, Practices, and Moral Salience in Sunni and Evangelical High Schools.” Sociological Theory 34(2): 151-174.

Link: http://stx.sagepub.com/content/34/2/151.abstract

The inclusion of evolution in school curricula has been a major issue in American education for almost a century. But why has this issue in particular created such a stark divide between different factions in the United States, particularly between Evangelical Protestants and the rest of the country? In this study, Jeffrey Guhin argues that this divide is created by key boundaries and practices that exist in Evangelical Protestantism which do not exist in other segments of the population, even among other religiously conservative groups. Using ethnographic data gathered through several months of fieldwork at both conservative Protestant schools and Sunni Muslim schools in the New York City area, Guhin’s paper explores how religious communities create different boundaries based on the beliefs and practices they regard as most morally salient. More broadly, Guhin uses the issue of teaching evolution to examine the larger question of why some issues are more morally salient than others in religious communities.

Background and Research Questions
The main goal of this study is to determine why communities find certain issues more concerning than others—or, in Guhin’s terms, how communities determine which issues have the most moral salience for the group. Guhin argues that an issue’s moral salience is determined by how much the issue conflicts with a group’s key boundaries and key practices. Key boundaries are “exceptionally meaningful” differences between an in-group and an out-group which help insiders to delineate themselves from outsiders. These boundaries affect how insiders think of themselves and those outside the group, as well as insiders’ interactions with outsiders. Some examples of key boundaries include literal interpretation of the Bible for conservative Protestants and gender performance for Muslims. Conservative Protestants use their literal interpretation of the Bible to create a boundary between themselves and non-believers and other Christians. Female behavior and dress, particularly the wearing of the hijab, is maintained as a similar boundary between Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims.

If key boundaries deal with how insiders think of the world, key practices deal with how insiders behave in the world, the specific sorts of activities undertaken by an insider which are different from those undertaken by an outsider. Key practices, according to Guhin, assist in the maintenance of a community’s identity.  Islam holds salat (the completion of ritualized prayers five times per day) as a key practice, while conservative Protestantism considers individual reading and interpretation of scripture in the same light.

Key boundaries and key practices, taken together, help determine issues’ moral salience for a community. By moral salience, Guhin means the power given to issues based on “how individuals and communities order their lives toward a particular vision of the good” (155). Issues become morally salient when they clash with a community’s key boundaries and key practices. The study illustrates this process by contrasting how two conservative religious communities—conservative Protestants and Sunni Muslims—negotiate the issue of teaching evolution. Guhin argues that although neither faith tradition acknowledges evolution as true, evolution is a much bigger concern in conservative Protestant communities because it is dissonant to that community’s key boundary of literal scriptural interpretation. Because evolution is not dissonant to the Islamic community’s key boundary of expectations about gender performance, it has much less moral salience in that community.

Data and Analysis
Guhin gathered his data over an eighteen month period spent at four conservative religious schools in the New York City—two conservative Protestant schools and two Sunni Muslim schools. Each of which was “institutionally committed to creationism” (157), though all schools taught evolution in some capacity in its biology classes to help students prepare for state standardized tests or Advanced Placement exams. Guhin found each school to be a fairly coherent “moral community” which reproduced and maintained the key practices and beliefs of the school’s associated faith tradition. Comparisons between these religious school environments are easy to draw, as both faith traditions value a high level of individual autonomy in believers, identify as a subculture in the United States, and denounce Darwinian evolution as a falsehood. Questionnaires, interviews, and observation were used to learn about teachers and students. Guhin used abductive inquiry to build his theories around his observations.

Guhin found that, despite their similarities, conservative Protestants and Sunni Muslims differ in terms of which practices they considered central. Both communities emphasize the importance of reading scripture and prayer, but the two practices are not considered equally important in both traditions. Daily prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam—one of Guhin’s participants described prayer as “something I need, in the way I need food” (159)—but reading scripture, while important and encouraged, is not considered vital in the same way as prayer. The inverse is true in conservative Protestantism, in which “prayer [is] obviously important, but scripture [is the assurance of salvation” (159), and a love for and knowledge of holy scriptures is considered essential to the faith in a way that prayer is not. Guhin posits that this dissimilarity is caused by differing understandings of the nature of scripture and prayer in these faiths. Conservative Protestantism focuses more on the importance of personal engagement with and interpretation of scriptures at the individual level (albeit within the bounds of Biblical literalism), while Muslims, for the most part, defer to interpretations supported by religious authorities. Because of conservative Protestantism’s emphasis on scripture over prayer, the fact that evolution directly contradicts the creation account given in the scripture is much more of an issue for Protestants than for their Muslim counterparts.

Therefore, these faith communities deal with the issue of evolution in different ways. The Islamic community allows for different flavors of evolutionary theory, including theistic evolution (which posits that a greater power guided the evolutionary process) and distinguishing between micro- and macro-evolution. Also, because of evolution’s lack of moral salience in the Islamic community, belief or disbelief thereof is not an automatic indicator of membership in that community; Guhin states that “even the most conservative of the Islamic studies teachers I encountered at the school… was not willing to call someone un-Islamic for believing in a theistic, non-human evolution” (162). It is important to note, however, that for the most part evolution is not a hot-button topic in this community. It is rarely discussed without prompting, and most members of the community are unconcerned with the issue. In one student’s words, “To be honest… I don’t care about if animals evolved or not. It’s just not something I think about a lot” (162).

The conservative Protestant groups in this study, on the other hand, spend much more time discussing evolution and see it as a major issue both within and outside of their community. One school superintendent involved in the study told a biology teacher that “the most important thing he could do was ensure that all the children learned about creationism” (163). Protestant views on evolution are also typically more black and white than those held in the Muslim community, with evolution and atheism hand-in-hand on one side and creationism and Christianity on the other. Because of the centrality of scripture in this group, the fight against evolution in the classroom has become a symbol of the fight to preserve the Bible’s importance in both their community and society at large. 

Guhin’s article is well-researched and well-reasoned, displaying the author’s process of theory building clearly and convincingly. The article is an excellent example of qualitative research thanks to the author’s judicious inclusion of direct quotes and anecdotes from his field work. One might ask why the author chose the term “gender performance” instead of the more common “gender roles” to describe Sunni Muslims’ key boundary; perhaps the paper would have benefitted from some elaboration on the intended distinction (if any) between those two terms. Some sections of the work to cause the reader to question Guhin’s personal experience with each of the faith traditions evaluated within the study. The paper, like all qualitative projects, would benefit from a short section in which the author speaks reflectively about how his own biography might affect how he processes and presents the facts. This lack of reflexivity, however, is by no means enough of an issue to detract from what is otherwise an excellent study on the effects of key boundaries and practices in religious communities on schools sponsored by those communities.

Keywords: Evolution, Key Boundaries, Key Practices, Moral Salience

Sector: Evangelical Protestant,  Muslim,  Private

Outcomes: Civil and Political,  Cultural Impact,  Religious and Spiritual

Date Posted: 2016-09-06