Ethos Education

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Are matters of fact and matters of faith mutually exclusive?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Consider the similarities and differences between Christianity and science.
  • Understand some of the reasons for believing (or not believing) in the existence of God.
  • Knowledge of the ways in which, according to believers, God can be known.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on a number of common factual misconceptions.
  • Reflect upon the difficulty of adjusting preconceptions in the light of evidence to the contrary.
  • Analyse the different demands of faith and fact, and the relationship between those two ways of understanding the world.
  • Analyse the relationship between science and faith.
  • Reflect upon a selection of quotes, and discuss questions about science and faith that are prompted by those quotes.
  • Analyse a number of questions to identify whether they are in nature scientific, theological or both.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a letter to a newspaper complaining about bias, either towards faith and against science, or vice versa.

STARTER:

Ask the students to take part in a true or false quiz. Read some or all of the following statements, asking students to indicate whether they believe the statement to be true or to be false. However many statements you choose to use, get the students to make their guesses for all of them before revealing any of the answers.

True or false:

  • Sushi is raw fish. (False: not all sushi includes raw fish. The word ‘sushi’ literally means ‘sour rice’ and is a reference to the vinegared rice commonly used in sushi.
  • The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space (false: none of the Apollo astronauts reported seeing it, and it is barely visible to Earth-orbiting astronauts. By contrast, city lights are easily visible on the night-side of Earth from orbit.
  • Vomiting was a common feature of ancient Roman dining (false: the vomitorium was an entranceway for people to enter or exit a stadium, not a special room for the purging of food).
  • Adults in medieval England expected only to live to the age of around 30 years (false: the average life-expectancy was 30, but that figure was heavily influenced by the high infant mortality rate. Someone who reached adulthood could reasonably expect to live into their 60s.
  • Viking helmets featured animal horns (false: the common image of horned Viking helmets only dates back to an 1876 production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle).
  • The American Declaration of Independence was signed on 4th July 1776 (false: the final wording was agreed on that date, the actual document was not signed until 2nd August 1776).
  • Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial ambition was fuelled by his below-average height (false: although Napoleon’s height is often listed as 5’ 2”, this is in French feet, which corresponds to approximately 5’ 7” or 1.69metres. Napoleon was slightly above the average height for a Frenchman of his time.
  • According to accepted theories of aviation, bumblebees should be incapable of flight (false: a French entomologist Antoine Magnan proposed this to be the case, but subsequently realised that his conclusion was based on flawed techniques and retracted it.)

Ask if any of the students were surprised by any of the answers. In particular, ask if any of the students had previously heard that any of the false statements were true. Point out that each statement reflected a commonly held belief and is often reported as being true, despite actually being false. Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about people’s relationship to facts and evidence in matters of faith.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from the film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lionsgate, 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) a scientist specialising in fish, has been called to a meeting with the representative of a wealthy Yemenese Sheikh who wants to start a salmon fishing project in his native country. Dr Jones is highly sceptical about the plausibility of such a project. Ask the students to pay particular attention to whether or not the evidence supports his assumptions.

  • Start time: 0.10.14 (beginning of chapter 23 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.13.24
  • Clip length: 3 minutes and 10 seconds

The clip starts with Alfred Jones sitting in a reception area at a large, modern office building. The first line is Harriet Chetwood-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching him and asking, ‘Dr Jones?’ The clip ends with Jones leaving the office and Harriet walking away giggling.

Ask the students why they think Dr Jones was so certain that the Sheikh’s plan couldn’t work? Draw out that his professional expertise had led him to make a number of assumptions. Ask them how Dr Jones responded to Harriet addressing his concerns one-by-one. Draw out that he seemed reluctant to alter his assumptions in the face of new evidence. Ask the students whether they can remember an instance where they found it hard to process new information that contradicted a strongly-held view of their own.

Introduce a second clip from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the Sheikh’s challenge to Alfred’s description of himself as ‘a facts and figures man’.

  • Start time: 0.31.44 (beginning of chapter 23 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.34.27
  • Clip length: 2 minutes and 43 seconds

The clip starts with Alfred dressed for dinner in the Sheikh’s stately home in Scotland. The first line is Alfred saying, ‘Miss Chetwood-Talbot’. The clip ends with the Sheikh responding to Alfred’s addition to the toast, saying, ‘and science’.

Ask the students whether they think Alfred and the Sheikh are as far apart in their worldviews as Alfred seems to think. What are the differences between faith and science? Alfred prides himself on being ‘a facts and figures man’, but as the Sheikh points out, in some areas of his life he acts in a way that is hard to explain in rational, ‘facts and figures’ terms. What does this suggest about the relationship between science and faith?

Ask the students whether they think there is any overlap between science and faith? Divide the class into small groups and give each group one set of question cards. You will need to photocopy the handout sheet and cut the cards up for each group, unless you trust the students to cut their own cards. The group’s task is to consider each of the questions in turn and try to decide:

  • Which are scientific questions (i.e. questions which, in principle, scientific inquiry can produce an answer for)
  • Which are theological questions (i.e. questions which are of special interest to Christianity?)
  • Which have scientific and theological aspects (i.e. questions which fit into both of the above categories)

Note that the groups’ task is not to answer the questions on the cards, but to say whether the questions are best answered by scientists, Christians, or both.

Each group should present their conclusions visually (the simplest solution would be a table with three columns; more interesting would be a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles).

To provide some differentiation, students in groups that finish quickly should choose one or two questions from each category and write a paragraph on each to explain why these questions were assigned to a particular category.

Take feedback and compare the answers of the different groups. If there is any disagreement as to which category any questions belong, let the students discuss the matter as a class. Even if there is no disagreement, ask students to explain their reasoning.

Reiterate that although some people – including both Christians and scientists – see Christianity and science as being locked in combat with no common ground, they are in fact asking different kinds of questions about life. Science is concerned with mechanisms; Christianity is more concerned with meanings and relationships. Most Christians who are scientists have no difficulty reconciling their faith and their work because they understand them to be complementary rather than contradictory.

Students could be referred to the following two articles for further reading:

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to write a letter to a newspaper complaining about either a report on a religious matter or on a scientific matter, where the journalist failed to acknowledge the other dimension of the debate (failing to acknowledge a faith point of view in a science article, or failing to acknowledge the place of science in a religious article). Students should demonstrate their understanding of the relationship between the two and the different ways in which each approach has value in helping people to determine truth and reality.

YOU WILL NEED:

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