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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. Richard

    Shiva the god of destruction will like that greatly.

    I would question why the heavily loaded word "Religion" is used. Ethics can be discussed totally without reference to religion at all. Ethics can also be discussed outside of science and should be part of social studies. So no science should not include any discussion of ethics. Science is scince. Ethics is ethics and should be studided. The ethics of science can be discussed in the ethics class, along with all sorts of other ethical questions.

    Religion brings into question, do we go old testament and "an eye for an eye", or new and forgive and love all kinds. Or do we wonder "What would Thor do" which means more thunder, lightening and ale and forget any consequences.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Skippy

    I think many people here are missing the point of the article. He is not stating that religion and ethics should be taught in the science class. What he is stating is that it is possible to teach science while accepting the beliefs of students and not belittling them. For example, he mentions that there is biological evidence that incense can give you a feeling of contentment and happiness. He did not teach students that they should believe in any one religion.

    He is merely giving ideas on how to increase the number of people that go into the sciences by accepting and allowing the fact that a student might be religious as well as allowing students to be critical thinkers and make decisions for themselves. Many people are told that you can not be both religious and a scientist when there exists scientist throughout history that have been able to do just that.

    Why should people have to choose between the two? Religion can not be proved or disproved (in general, not in specific instances) by the scientific method and there is no belief when it comes to science, only theories and proofs.

    And yes, before you ask, I am both religious as well as being a scientist (Mathematician). I don't see a problem with being both. One is provable and the other is not. Ideas exist in math (axioms) that are not provable but are excepted by many because discounting them limits possibilities.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Skippy

      accepted, not excepted in that last sentence.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • tony

      If anyone wants to see the real effect of teaching religion, one only has to to look at the mixture of villainy and stupidity that are the Republicans best picks for leading our country.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  3. Caroline Lawyer

    Am I the only one who feel bad for atheists because they will go to hell ?! 🙂 LOL they will suffer down there and realize their big mistakes

    December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Jeebus

      Where is hell and what is it? When you're done with that....prove it.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Tysic

      Do you realize how empty your threats are? Your sky daddy does not exist, and neither does the hell you are threatening me with.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • closetiguana

      Are you aware that as you read this satan is entering your soul and you too will join us in all the pleasures that your lord satan can offer.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • closetiguana

      Caroline Lawyer- See what happens when you converse with atheists. You're going to hell. Sorry I don't make the rules.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  4. Jess L

    Show me a valid scientific theory that explains how a person can be all human AND all divine, and I'll consider putting it as part of a curriculum. I imagine I'll be waiting a long time. And FYI, kids can be taught morality ethics without religion at the forefront.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • davids1240

      I would like to know what basis those ethics are based on. If there is no God – no natural law. Therefore whats is right for you may not be right for me. If a terrorist wants to blow up buildings, how can I say that is wrong? Therefore, the foundation of ethics breaks down becuase there is no foundation.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  5. Makes Sense

    I can appreciate what the writer is trying to say. The way I look at it many students in the class may have religious beliefs. Science and Religion can coexist if science were to drop its prideful nature. Science can explain many things but it can't explain so much more. Don't turn off prospective Christian scientists by telling them their beliefs are complete baloney and somehow they are less intelligent for believing them. Instead engage them and say okay say there is a God and he works through "natural" forces how does he do it? Get them hungry to learn. Who knows maybe through their learnings you atheists can win a convert. Then again maybe seeing how amazingly complex things can be and really realizing how much we do not know maybe you won't. Either way the child comes out ahead which is the name of the game.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Rodger

      You don't seem to understand the way science works.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Tysic

      Sciences prideful nature? Like the arrogance of believing that you should have evidence to back up claims?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  6. closetiguana

    Next we'll find out that religious groups pressured Grand Canyon National Park not to give any official estimates it's geologic age. America! Marching backward faster and faster.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • André

      Well said.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  7. Jeebus

    This author suggests that in order to improve science education, we water it down with religion. How bout we just improve our teaching methods instead?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  8. Lenny

    To be fair he is suggesting a discussion of religion in science classrooms not the instruction of religion in the classrooms. Of course not everyone is Christian so if you endorse this then be ready to discuss Buddhism, Islam, and Hindu beliefs in addition to the one you prefer.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  9. Jimbo

    College biology teachers should ask "anyone who believes in creationism please raise your hand", anyone who raises their hand should be failed.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  10. really?

    As long my tax dollars are going to public education keep any and all religion out of the school. If you want your kid to learn about magic then pay for them to go to a PRIVATE school.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  11. faith and reason

    This is an excellent article and bravo for speaking up. Unfortunately people are so brainwashed they now think themselves quite knowledgeable when they parrot "keep religion out of the science classroom." Yup, I'm sure we'll see plenty of those comments with little more thought to it then patting oneself on the back for being able to be on the right side of the bandwagon.

    In terms of ethics, at leading universities they indeed teach science and ethics, and there is nothing wrong with connecting ethics to religious beliefs. There is absolutely nothing wrong and would encourage more people to enter science by doing little more than encouraging them to see science in light of their own religious beliefs, and even quoting ethics and morality from Christian ethicists where there is a considerable body of work.

    With specific regards to creationism and evolution, this article makes several great points. One of which is merely listen to the children. It's no coincidence most raise their hand something else is going on. There is. It's high time we end the hypocrisy of the "new atheists" who are really "old materialists." It's hypocrisy that Richard Dawkins preaches keep religion out of the science classroom, yet spends inordinate amounts of time attacking religion which is just his own personal and very poorly thought out belief system. In fact evolution does NOT explain life. The field of abiogenesis is so weak did people even see Richard Dawkins had a contest on his website – he's paying $50,000 for someone who can explain it! What a joke. And don't go lecture me anyone I wage I know more than any poster here. I've met Thomas Cech and I bet you don't even know who he is. Yes, I know all about RNA world theory and self-splicing RNA. It still doesn't explain the system. And as great as natural selection is too, it doesn't account for the extraordinary results of "random" mutation. There is plenty reason to believe in a guiding force. And there is no reason for a science classroom to ban mention of it. Yes, there is less "scientific evidence" for God's hand in creation but it would be more than fine to mention that many people believe a creator has a major hand in creation and design in life.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Voodoo Child

      There is no god. When you die you are done and will rot in the ground, nothing more. Religion is nothing more than mass brainwashing.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Jimbo

      "Yes, there is less "scientific evidence" for God's hand in creation"

      Less? How about zero, ziltch, nothing, nada.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Bozobub

      Once your religious views have *any* scientif standing, sure, I have absolutely no problem teaching Creationism in science classes. Til then, however, sorry, it belongs ionly n philosophy and religion classes. All of your hyperbole, smoke, mirrors, and piles of red herrings will NOT change that.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Bozobub

      *scientific

      December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • really?

      i went to catholic school, i asked my nun teacher if a commandment is not to kill then why did God kill everyone in the flood Noah survived..............i was sent to see the priest who pretty much told me God can do whatever he wants. If so christian GOD is a hypocrite

      December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • LJW

      And how is it exactly that religion explains life? Please provide an actual answer, not something parroted from a religous text. Yes it's true science doesn't have all the answers, and that everything isn't fully explained, but the alternatives have no answers at all. Give me one real answer that religion provides. Verify it. Measure it. Provide irrefutable proof.
      At least science doesn't insist that its interpretation of the world is a sacred cow that can't be assailed without offending someone. That's the big give-away with religion. It proves how weak it is in it's basic premises.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • LJW

      BTW, I've met Thomas Cech too, in grad school at UC Boulder. He's a wonderful guy. As I recall, he disliked all the hub-bub his self-splicing RNAs generated from the people thinking about the primordial soup. Your arrogance is astonishing, eclipsed only by your hypocrisy. You castigate the arrogance of science and then turn around and be arrogant about your childish beleif system. What a f--ing maroon.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  12. oneSTARman

    When SCIENTIFIC METHOD is Used in the Teaching of RELIGION it will be Appropriate for Religion to become part of the Teaching of Science.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  13. cosmo

    Although I vehemently disagree with teaching religion in science class, it is vitally important for scientists and engineers to think about the ethical ramifications of the impact of technological advances. Every time a new technology is developed, it does change society in some way. Trying to determine the negative impact of a technology, and finding a way to mitigate them should be part of the training that all scientists and engineers receive.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  14. Dave

    Asking for religious instruction to be included in a science class, is like asking a skinhead to teach a class on Jewish history.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • The Phist

      But those two things actually exist.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Bozobub

      LOL – People really don't understand metaphors at all, do they? Not a bad comparison at all...

      December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  15. ZZZzzzzzzzzz

    "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."

    It IS far easier to skip it with all the creationists with their heads up their bums getting all bent out of shape that women are not created out of a rib bone. They choose their delusions and it's almost better to have no part in it at all. That's one of the HUGE reasons that religion has no place in a science class. It is based on individual FAITH and individual beliefs, NOT based in reality or proven science. Ethics? Yes. Religion? NO. Those are 2 very different things. This is just an opinion piece / end zone run around to try to get religious beliefs into the class room.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  16. Rd

    Please read and understand what is being said here, instead of latching onto a few words and blowing it up out of proportion. He isn't saying they should teach religion. He is saying nothing should be off limits in the debate on ethics for and by the STUDENTS. Learning how to have healthy debates from every angle and every point if view, without acting like an arrogant a$$ might produce a generation who can actually get past the gridlock and get something done.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • The Phist

      Agreed. Remove religion, and the gridlock will be gone. It's held us back for centuries.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  17. Godfrey

    Great ideas here. We should also require medical students to learn voodoo.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Voodoo Child

      Agreed!

      I seriously don't understand how ANYONE can consider religion a science... This is just absurd.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • closetiguana

      It is the world's oldest religion. That's gotta count for something.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  18. joe

    I like my religion separate from school and government please.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  19. Daniel in New Jersey

    1.6% of American Atheists try to avoid anything to do with religion. PLEASE us 90% Americans who believe in God MUST stop them before taking over this One Nation Under God country!

    December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Henry

      If the atheists are trying to 'avoid anything to do with religion' how are they trying to take over your belief system? Aren't they just avoiding it?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Yes, Daniel! Let's whack 'em all with Bibles!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Sam

      Actually, you would be 98.4 % not 90 %. God is the leading cause of death.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • The Phist

      god would have to exist for us to be under it.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Sam

      Oh, and In God we Trust was only adopted in 1956. It wasn't Thomas Jefferson's idea.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      Your 1.6% statistic is way off. We're way more common that that. Unfortunately, many of us hide among you believers because we are well aware of the hate and discrimination we will experience when we state our true worldviews. We still have to earn a living and do all the ordinary things people do, and it gets more difficult when the believers are discriminating against you. What really needs to be taught is epistemology. It can be done with younger children in a simple way and expanded to be more thorough in high school and university courses as they mature.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • really?

      Daniel,

      December 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • really?

      Daniel,
      Ever been to our nations capital? To the national mall? There is a reason there is a museum of natural history, which pretty much is a shrine for the evolution theory. But if you looked around you wouldn't find a museum of Christian Creationism. I can see it now. A wax figure of god, Adam and Eve and what ever other bedtime stories you want to believe in...............Daniel I am an AMERICAN and will FIGHT for my freedom!!!!! Don't TREAD ON ME with your discrimination, hatred, closed mindedness and fairy tales. Thanks. I will assume your age is 40+

      December 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • DsOpinion

      Daniel, I think you might be a moron.

      If only 1.6% of american atheists try to avoid anything to do with religion, then that means that 98.4% of american atheists actively pursue knowledge of religion. Most atheists are more well informed about religion than people that are actually religious. (Source: http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx )

      Also this country was not founded as a religious nation, google the treaty of tripoli, specifically article 11.

      1.6% of American Atheists try to avoid anything to do with religion. PLEASE us 90% Americans who believe in God MUST stop them before taking over this One Nation Under God country!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  20. Jimbo

    No, evolution should be taught without the mention of creationism, period.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
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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.