My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class
Science teachers must make their subject relevant to students' lives by tackling religion and ethics, argues Arri Eisen.
December 15th, 2011
10:48 AM ET

My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class

Editor's note: Arri Eisen, PhD., is professor of pedagogy at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Department of Biology, and Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

A referendum that would have restricted in vitro fertilization in Mississippi, disagreements on the causes of global warming, the question of how to allot health care resources for desperate cases at the beginning or end of life.

Many of today's headlines and hyper-polarized political debates happen at the borders of science and society, especially where science meets ethics and religion.

At the same time, in at what first appears to be in an unrelated domain, President Barack Obama and others call for more and better science education in America to compete in innovation with rising giants India and China. This at a time when American science literacy appears to be decreasing, and even students who like science drop like flies from that pursuit once they hit college and its huge introductory lecture courses.

Is it possible that rethinking the ethical calculus of how we teach science could enhance the pool of future scientists and enrich the quality of conversation around controversial issues?

What’s the connection? Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world. This is a cell and these are its parts; memorize them and their functions. This is the human body and these are the different systems of which it is composed.

Such facts are important, but without a meaningful context (cell functions gone awry can cause cancer; all the body systems talk to each other, so depression can affect your cardiovascular system) such information has little real substance and is poorly retained.

This approach violates the first rule of good teaching: Integrate the information into your students’ lives and worldviews, including those based in religion or ethical systems, and translate it into something they can connect with and use. Science has an especially rich and often fraught role to play in society; if we don’t at least acknowledge this we imply it is unimportant.

Not surprisingly, studies show that when teachers do integrate science knowledge into students' lives, the students learn the science better.

But rather than incentivize teaching innovation that would allow science educators to discuss religion and ethics –- for example, creationism in light of evolution and vice versa, or the scientific and ethical implications of stem cells and in vitro fertilization – many teachers are afraid to even mention these issues, despite their importance, for fear of losing their jobs.

The classic example is the public school biology teacher without tenure who, understandably, finds it much easier to skip any discussion of evolution because of its potential controversial nature. This would be OK except for the small detail that evolution is the fundamental, underlying principle of all biology.

I teach biology at a private university. When I ask students in my cell biology course, “How many of you believe in evolution?” almost all of them raise their hands. When I ask them, “How many of you think something in addition to evolution accounts for humans being on earth as we now exist?” almost all of them raise their hands.

Two inconsistent thoughts coexist without an attempt to reconcile or integrate them. It is this kind of dissonance of fundamental beliefs and science that good education should address and help explore, and certainly not ignore. Only when science educators can proactively engage all societal elephants in the room and illustrate science's relatively limited power will two vitally important things happen:

First, as they are forming their beliefs — whatever they may be — students will be aware of the nature of science and its relation to complex ethical and religious issues. That means they’ll better appreciate different types of evidence and will be more likely to argue from and about that evidence rather than from emotion. Second, more students initially interested in science will continue to pursue it through college because they will better see its value and importance to the big issues and will learn science better.

How to accomplish this? How to break the vicious circle? One way is to frame the benefits differently — economic competition and innovation, national security, improved learning, or more substantial political debate — for different constituencies. For example, perhaps a politically conservative, religious audience might appreciate the importance of good science education through the lens of its importance to the economy or national security.

Another break in the circle is to help teachers learn how to teach science in context more effectively. I often find that simply acknowledging the ethical or religious issue relaxes students; a few others  have explored approaches for better integration of these issues.

In my cell biology course, we investigate the biology and chemistry of a cell surface receptor that helps induce good feelings in us when it binds to a chemical compound found in incense; this may help explain why so many different cultures and religions have independently evolved the use of incense in their ceremonies and rituals.

We discuss the detailed cellular and molecular biology of the research in the context of ritual; the students report this opens a door that’s usually closed between those two sides of their minds. Religious students, who say they often feel their beliefs are ignored or belittled on campus, find this discussion especially welcome and thought-provoking.

High school educators in Wisconsin showed that students who read original texts from Darwin and intelligent-design scholars, and discussing those texts, critically learned evolution better (without rejection of other worldviews) than those taught it in the traditional didactic manner. Teaching potentially controversial science can work if done in an interactive, engaging fashion and in a rich historical and societal context.

Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons for America’s polarized politics and decreasing science literacy and innovation that go beyond just teaching science better. But sometimes a little creative wrestling with and engagement in systems and programs that already exist can make a difference.

Once I offered the opportunity for anyone in the cell biology course to simultaneously take a seminar course focusing on the societal and ethical implications of the biology discussed in the cell course. Half the biology class wanted to enroll in the seminar.

A dozen students — all future scientists and health care workers — wound up in the course, representing seven different religions and traditions, from Christianity to Jainism to Judaism.

Students were amazed so many of their peers took religion seriously, and those students tell me that the conversations and debates we had in the course, together with the seminar, resonate to this day. Many say science is now woven together with ethics and religion in their minds; they can’t think about biology without thinking about its meaning in the greater context.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arri Eisen.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Education • Opinion

soundoff (2,297 Responses)
  1. Science

    Free speech helps educate the masses................POLITICIANS too !

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    No god(s) needed or required to graduate from public schools in the US

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    May 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  2. Roisya

    Thanks Roger, I certainly will. I neeoyjd listening to Mr Lennox's reasoning on science and religion in this video. He has a delightful demeanor.The history or evidence of Jesus raising from the dead is a very good point of what the atheist or agnostic needs to try and disprove in the reasoning of our faith. Simple proofs we sometimes overlook. Faith is a gift from God.It does not matter if your a scientist or a grocery clerk,we as believers should be prepared to answer questions like Mr Lennox does so effectively >Thanks again for this website

    April 1, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  3. WASP

    here is the main problem with religion, your bible has all the answers so why search for the truth. science has always been given a hard time by religious leaders because it conflicts with religion. now we have people trying to merge science and religion, sorry folks they don't make good bed mates. keep religion in church and science in the schools.
    @nii: religion teaches anything but tolerance. just look at the different sects, how verbally and physically violent they are to each other. emotional (spiritual) people are not more stable; they are less stable because emotions are like a turrent of water, no direction, no goal they just flow. logical people(scientists and atheists) tend to set a goal and find a path toward that goal. if we run into a problem that can't be explained we ask for help to understand it. that is the essance of science, it's discovering what we don't know. religion is based always on past events.....and the end of the world, and saids that we have all we need to know.

    March 29, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      It is all very well to point out that important scientists, like Louis Pasteur, have been Catholic. More revealing is how many priests have distinguished themselves in the sciences. It turns out, for instance, that the first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Fr. Giambattista Riccioli. The man who has been called the father of Egyptology was Fr. Athanasius Kircher (also called "master of a hundred arts" for the breadth of his knowledge). Fr. Roger Boscovich, who has been described as "the greatest genius that Yugoslavia ever produced," has often been called the father of modern atomic theory.

      July 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  4. Billie Jean

    Love the attempt to slip in religion under the guise of "ethics."

    March 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  5. DreamWeaver

    Ethics and morality vary from one culture to another. How do we stay free when we are given only one viewpoint?

    March 10, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  6. PBEL

    One can be ethical without necessarily being religious. In fact, I agree that any pursuit, whether it be business or scientific, should have some grounding in ethical studies. You only need to read the headlines to see the ethical and moral breaches in all walks of life (and that goes for scientists who who fudge figures as well as business people who fudge balance sheets). But once you go beyond the golden rule, and common sense, humanist discussions of morals and ethics, you run a slippery slope down to religious bias. I frankly believe while there is plenty of need to introduce and reinforce ethics in human endevours, and to have frank, open discussions of these endevours, religion is at its bottom line a matter of faith and, while it can be an individual's guiding influence, it is not something that should be associated with science. I am disheartend by the various psudoscientific justifications that religions use, or worse, the incomprehensible gap between fact-based science and fringe, religion-tainted beliefs such as creationism, or how life is too complex to have occured through evolution, or seeing a stone-age family romping next to a dinosour, or any number of twisted attempts to subvert science to a particular religious viewpoint. I also take exception to the statement "Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world." Many great and future scientist are driven by, or concerned with, how their work will affect humanity.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. Skullvodka

    Religion is a science class makes about as much sense as horoscopes in an astronomy class.

    February 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. Phid

    Some of our basic scientific laws were discovered and explained by Christians ( look it up, starting with Issac Newton). Even Darwin believed in God but got mad at Him because of personal events in his life (or so I have read). Even our basic elementary table owes it's existence to the fact that elements are part of an Ordered System and new ones were found by looking at the logic of their occurring. Religion and atheism are simply based on our Worldview and how we got there.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Skullvodka

      Wow scientists 400 years ago were christian? Yeah, and they didnt know what dna or germs were. Your point is invalid.

      February 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  9. H. (Bart) Vincelette

    For years, I watched in horror as most of the most remarkable, honest, hard working, compassionate, productive, contributing & patriotic; people one could ever hope to know in life & have the privilege of calling friends; die a slow, agonizing, disfiguring & vastly premature death, amidst the muted joy & exaltation of conservative religious groups & individuals. I am a man of science, & have worked for 30 plus years in various areas, including research. I cringe at the thought of introducing any religious influence or ideology into any scientific discipline. I begrudgingly acknowledge that freedom of religion is an essential component of liberty, but it must have checks & balances. Science will tell us what happened & when; always being open to critical thought & changes to our understanding of the world in which we live. It does not endeavor to explain why. Religion should stick to that area of thinking. Despite claims to the contrary, religion has consistently stood in the way of scientific & medical progress. The example of stifling science given through Galileo Galilei, is but the tip of an enormous iceberg.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  10. Atheist

    The problem for the religious is this: you give to a child a TRUE understanding of the natural world, and impart them with a TRULY scientific perspective, and they WILL see that god almost certainly does not exist, and that religion is a fairy tale. Improving science education is the beginning of the end for religion. I will celebrate when humanity rises up to throw off the oppressive weight of religious beliefs, replacing blind belief and supernaturalism with reason, fact, and a real pursuit of truth.

    January 24, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Simple-when u read the Bible u will know!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      The fallacy that people educated in an atheist educational system will become atheists. If this were true Catholics will be far more than 1bn. Go aand check with the Russians and Chinese too. Humans are more emotionl than intelligent. The more emotionaly mature(spiritual) the more rational they are.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Christian

      You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe. But the thing is, by believing that there is no God, you are believing in something. More, the nonexistance of something, but nevertheless, still believing. You are sure in your stand and positive without a shadow of a doubt that you are right. I feel the same way about my faith. But the thing that 99% of our population has trouble understanding is that any belief in God is not meant to be a religion. It is meant to be a relationship. I am sure you know how vast our galaxy is and also the galaxy of galaxies. Have you ever seen in firsthand? No one has. Pictures may show it. But how do you know those aren't superimposed? But yet, you still believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that all those stars, and all those suns, and galaxies are all out there, waiting to be discovered. You believe that, correct? So what's the difference with God? Just because you can't see Him, you can't believe in Him? Just because you aren't able to witness His acts of miracles while He is in action? Just because you can put point A and point B together, and think He had nothing to do with it because you didn't hear or see about Him? Humans are created with the instinct to believe and have faith in something, anything. An infant believes his mother, always. I believe that God made you and I for a specific purpose. You believe you are here to uncover truth, or something along those lines. Truth and Faith are on the same side. You still have faith in something. It's probably just easier for you to lean on your own understanding, because you know you won't lie to yourself, or let yourself down. You trust yourself far more than anyone else, and giving your life to an unseen, supernatural Being is the most ridiculous thing you could think of. But if you trusted no human, nothing on this earth to keep you where you are, then where would you be? Yeah...I'm not perfect. I promise, every Christian, including me, struggles with the same things you do, and then some. And we're not good at being Christians most of the time. But the point is, we try, and we have faith. I don't know you, but I hope that you have a wonderful day.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Skullvodka

      It's funny how xtians assume that atheists havent read the bible. It is well known how biblically illiterate so many christians are. So many atheists know the buy-bull very well. That's why they are atheists.

      February 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  11. john bentley

    This guy wants to dumb down science with fairy tales to get more students... Good Job. If we taught real science to kids at home instead of telling them evolution is a myth when they get home from school, we would have more interest. Religious parents are killing science for kids.

    January 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      That is rather rash judgement. China and India are overhauling America even though their people are religious. The problem with American students is laziness and even when motivated lack of challenge. Being religious motivates because u r asked to search for truth to confirm religious experience.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  12. rick

    To Primewonk this is not exactly true the very first verse in the bible "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." so it simply says he created the heaven that means the stars to and every thing else in what we now call the univeres the next verse says the earth was void and without form . This is the sam thing sience says . it was a disk of dust and gas around the sun that had not turned on yet . The days that Moses was talking about where simply blocks of time The morning and the Evening . They had no referance to millons or trillons of years . remember God has been around for ever so if i say 15 trillion years ago God was there

    December 20, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  13. Eric

    We should teach classes about religion in public schools, just don't teach religion. Simple as that.

    December 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  14. Muneef

    Too busy to Pray Five Times?

    3 Questions in the Grave

    December 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  15. Karen

    Prof. You hit the nail right on the head. I work in theology and science from the theology side and see the same need for doing a better job integrating the disciplines. When this is done, the world of wonder opens up and one cannot help but find great enjoyment in the process.

    December 18, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Primewonk

      So Karen, how do you integrate the religious belief that the earth was made 6000 years ago, and was made before any stars, with the fact that the earth is 4.54 billion years old and coalesced 9 billion years after the first stars began fusion?

      December 19, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Muneef

    “God does not change men's condition unless they change their inner selves; and when God wills people to suffer evil [in consequence of their own evil deeds], there is none who could avert it: for they have none who could protect them from Him.” [Qur’an 13:11]

    "Muslim Convert Support Group"
    (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/MuslimConvertSupport/)

    December 18, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  17. D Russell

    It is also interesting to see that by engaging so passionatly in these discussions, creationists themselves are acting like science and not religion is the arbiter of 'ultimate truth'. This is no small point. If this were not true, why would creationists expend so much effort raging against the fact that science and creationism are so clearly at odds? The truth is that unless science validates their beliefs, they will not feel comfortable. Think about the implications of that. Need more faith anyone?

    December 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.