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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. kude

    maybe it's time we start doing this. Atheists hate other religions, solely because they hate G(g)od(s). Maybe it's time we give kids a chance to decide for themselves what they believe, instead of constantly pushing atheist "God is cr@p" agenda throughout their schooling. I know for a fact that all my teachers are liberals, and almost every lesson, they push what they believed into us. I think, for once, we need change.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • if horses had Gods ...

      Atheist don't hate religion or God(s), we just don't believe in them. Is this too simple to understand or does it just scare you? Keep your hate to yourself please.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Jeebus

      We're sorry that you feel that facts have a liberal bias.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • carlos alvarez

      ok you moron get it straight how the hell can we hate something that does not exist?
      answer that!
      then you hate, allah,zeus,hades, the flying spaghetti monster,tooth fairy... since you don't believe in them.
      its just a myth get over it they all are.
      so my question is how do you hate something you don't believe in?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Jason

      Exactly, give children the right to decide for themselves and stop teaching religion to children younger than 12 years old. Shaping a young mind prior to this is ethically wrong just like you would think of brainwashing!!!!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • BR

      Pushing what they 'believe' into you? Are you attending Penn State? 😉

      December 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  2. Bob B.

    What. What?

    Why are you still writing for CNN?

    Science and religion are mutually exclusive. Steve S. above me explains it very well.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  3. Christine from Minnesota

    The atheist lady who fought for religion being taught in public school got murdered by another atheist... lol atheist against atheist... this proves how idiots these non-believers are!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • George

      Yeah, the Reformation was a peaceful event that atheists could learn from.

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

      So what, then, does the Inquisition prove to you, O self-righteous one?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • TheAgingPhilosopher

      Wow, that's a really close minded and offensive statement. I'm sure no religious people have ever killed each other, right?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Nickell

      Religion has NOTHING to do with science. Society normally pushes us to be logical about things, except with religion. Logic is not only discouraged, but doesn't seem to apply.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Jason

      Or Salem

      December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      yeah...there's no examples of religious people ever killing each other in history. Your attempt at a sentence, and then pointing at others and calling them idiot = classic.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • notreally

      Really? So if I could find one example of a christian murdering another christian then I would have sufficient evidence for all christians being idiots too? Please think about what you're saying before you go making disparaging comments. Besides many of the worlds smartest people have been atheists/agnostic: Carl Sagan, Einstein, Stephen Hawking...

      December 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • ticktockman0

      Spoken like a true genius. I am sure a Christian never murdered another Christian... or anyone else for that matter. And your use of the language is as breathtaking as your logic, Christine.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • JT

      Crazy statements like this reveals what religion can do to the mind. Religion: kills a thinking mind.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  4. carlos alvarez

    religion is NOT a science and should stay away from the science class,
    i don't see any preacher or church saying that science should be taught on sunday, next to the bible.
    science is about questioning everything you know, while religion tells us not to question their answers.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  5. Jason

    Religion should not be taught to children. I am witness to a two year old child saying a prayer prior to eating dinner. This was a child of a good friend of mine, and I could not help but thinking of a situation discribed by I believe Plato. In this scenario two people live in a cave and never see outside. When finally one does see outside the cave and discribes what he sees he is not believed by the other. She will know no other idea but a world with god in it unless she has a strong enough mind to come to her own conclusions. When teaching children religion you close that childs mind to other theological and/ or scientific ideas.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  6. Jim

    Your train left the tracks in the first few paragraphs:\
    "
    Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world."

    Hardly! When you teach how cells work, you teach how the body works. I remember learning the difference between automatic and conscious body functions in 2nd grade, and how breathing is automatic but can be controlled to an extent.. so I tried to see how long I could hold my breath.. sure enough, you can't control it forever!

    Perhaps your worldview skews your view on science. What part of religion has any connection with the world around us? none, in my view.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  7. TheAgingPhilosopher

    Religious people are afraid to seek the truth, because they believe that they already have the answers to the important questions. It really saddens me. I used to be religious, but there was a moment in my life where I couldn't get this idea out of my head. I had never seen anything that without a doubt proved by specific beliefs, so what if I was wrong. People are afraid of death, so is it possible that God and heaven were man-made ideas, created to help people cope with the fear of death? To give people the hope of immortality when it's quite possible that our consciousness ends when we die. I think it is.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  8. JNO

    This one is simple guys, evolution = real, creationism = imaginary

    December 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  9. FactChecker

    As long as the religion is follows logic rules, is repeatable in experiments, and explains mysteries of physics and nature, it should be taught in science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Bill

      So, in other words, no.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Thinquer

      The theory of evolution has not been able to be repeated in science experiments. Should we exclude it too until it can be?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      """The theory of evolution has not been able to be repeated in science experiments."""

      Nonsense. That you would say this at all tells us that you know NOTHING about science.

      Do some reading. Get a subscription to DISCOVER magazine or Popular Science and read the articles. We're learning a lot nowadays. You'll be surprised.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • BR

      Thinquer – Check your facts please. http://www.talkorigins.org

      December 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • JT

      The next time you fail to get your annual flu shot and contract that season's EVOLVED strain just pray to jeeeeezus.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  10. BethTX

    Yeah. Good idea. And while we're at it, let's add the Flat Earth theaory. Some !diots still believe in that, too.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Thinquer

    It's the lack of ethics and true spiritual direction that leads Chinese manufacturers to continue to paint children's toys with
    lead and contaminate the supply of milk that has killed their children. They could use a spiritual/ ethical compass that would protect their people from corporate greed. Not just the Chinese, every business class around the world should be taught with an adjunct ethics principles class. Call it religion if you want, I call it a compass and a rudder. -Mom

    December 15, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Bozobub

      Fail. Ethics is NOT equal to religion, sorry, no matter how you thrash about.

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

      Hey Mom- History is rife with examples of religious 'compasses' pointing to every heinous crime imaginable. The bible has numerous examples of these same things being ordered, sanctioned, or directly perpetrated by god so for an instrument of ethical direction its calibration is exceedingly easy to throw off.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  12. Jim

    Are we witnessing the genesis of the next attempt to wedge religion back into the public classroom? I can imagine such distractions resulting in more time being spent on religion than on the science. Even a sub-par teacher can easily find real-world, but non-religious, connections between scents and their impact on the human brain. Teachers FIRST need a better understanding of what they're teaching and second, they should ACCEPT the veracity of what they're teaching. Many teachers are actually fundamentalist Christians and actively reject concepts that contradict their personal beliefs, and so for them, the search for real-world connections that validate the science is personally troubling.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  13. Danish girl

    WHAT religion is not taught in American public schools? I'm surprised! Why do they have "IN GOD WE TRUST" on money and official motto then?!

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

      That was added to the currency in the 50's by religious fanatics. The founding fathers built separation of church and state into the fabric of the country. Look into it.

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

      Danish girl – The answer is the 'red scare' in the 50s. Same hysteria that saddled us with 'under god' in our pledge of allegiance. Our founding fathers fought hard to keep that garbage out of our government and now the irreligious here in the US are having to fight hard to get it back the way it was.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • JT

      Whenever there's a national crisis frightened Christians abolish our consti-tution and force their delusions onto the rest of us in an attempt to appease their sky god to save them.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  14. COlady

    I work with several people who have worked with Dr. Eisen, and I can tell you the in our department I have heard him described as a religious fanatic. That being said: there is science and there is religion. If you want to learn about religion, take a theology class. If you want to learn about Biology, I wouldn't take a class from this guy.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  15. Rod

    I think the point is that science does not speak to some of the core issues of the human inner self. Raw data does not help us to understand who we are, why we are here and how we are to live. These are deeper issues that religion can speak to. And since we insist on thinking about these things and searching for answers, religion thrives in America as it does in the rest of the world, in the university as it does in the rural heartland. Is the universe empty? Is there only matter, or is there more? Are we merely an accident, or is there an underlying reason for life? Even if you don't want anything to do with religion, it is important to at least think about these things - otherwise we are merely bodies walking along the material earth and not human beings with soul (however you define it).

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

      So, which one of the many mythologies would you suggest teaching?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Walter

      Science doesn't claim to answer those questions. It just claims to put the best explanation possible for phenomenon based on repeated observations. Religion (or faith) seeks to explain that which can not be explained through observation and to give meaning to the explained. They are not polar opposites. However, the boundaries of each have been arbitrarily set and people seem to be fighting over where one begins and the other ends rather than what they are.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Jim

      "science does not speak to some of the core issues of the human inner self" And so if you're a student in search of the latter, study theology.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Bozobub

      And we DO think about and discuss these things, in RELIGION, ETHICS, and PHILOSOPHY classes.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • sw

      thank you. but i believe your in the wrong class...philosophy is down the hall. good luck with your answers ending in a question mark

      December 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  16. Ichiban

    Which religion will be taught? What writings will be used? What gods will be discussed? All, you say? Surely, you jest. Now, if you wish to discuss spirituality, let the subject begin.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  17. NY JEW

    Atheism = NAZI. Atheists try to cause war on religion, that's exactly what Hitler thought. Shame on godless people SHAME SHAME!

    December 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • COlady

      Are you really this ignorant, or just a troll?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • carlos alvarez

      what the hell are you talking about, Hitler was a devout catholic, no wars have been fought in the name of Darwin, it's all in the name of god, next time get your facts straight you ignoramus.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • JakeAZ

      We try to cause war on religion? What does that even mean exactly? We are a small minority anyway, why do you feel so threatened? Religious people act atheists are forming an army to destroy all the churches. I just went to work and came home and read the news. Life goes on. Get a life.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Jeff Williams

      Troll.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • BR

      (to the tune of Monty Python's "Spam")

      Troll, troll, troll, troll
      Troll, troll, troll, troll
      Troll, troll, troll, troll

      December 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  18. bible thumper

    I say lets teach science in religion class and call it even

    December 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • carlos alvarez

      lol yeah.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Chris

    Science educates. Religion misleads. The reason we teach the world is round in geography, is because it's true. We teach evolution in Biology because it's true. The only reason to mention fully functioning multicellular life suddenly appearing from thin air, is to explain to the students why it's not possible.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  20. Steve S.

    This is why America is unable to compete with India and China. Science by definition deals with things that can be proven or disproven. Things that can be tested. Religion deals with faith, things that can't be tested or proven.

    The fact that some don't understand this distinction shows how far we have fallen in science education in America.

    It is why Americans spend billions on homeopathy, acupuncture, magnetic bands, crystals and naturalistic cures. Things that have been proven via the scientific method not work. Instead they are marketed and sold on faith with no proof by individuals who haven't ever had a logic or reason class in school.

    If we want to improve science education, we should require a basic logic/reason class to graduate from high school. Mixing matters of faith with science class will only serve to turn science class and the country into a theocracy. A slow decline into an Iran type country, only with a different religion.

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

      I disagree wholly with the author's inital premise that "we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world." Not any of the effective science teachers (myself included) that I have interacted with over the last 30+ years. Teaching science is most effective when its relevance to the world is interwoven with the discussion of scientific principles...here is a theory, here is a principle, how is it manifested in real world examples. How better to assist students with visualization of scientific theory, than by giving them phenomenological examples that they can see, feel, sense, etc..

      December 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Teddy

      Steve,

      There is one large logical fallacy in your argument: beliefs do have proofs. They just don't have scientific proofs. We have been conditioned by the scientific method to only consider certain concepts "proven" when they meet certain standards that are scientific in nature such as falsible, repeatable phenomenon, that can be observed, quantified, and published about. However, life is broader than this narrow definition of proof. For example, when we fall in love, there are proofs that someone else loves us, but they wouldn't meet the standards of scientific proof. How does one "prove" that they love their spouse? There are proofs, but they don't come in labortories and test tubes. They come through experiences of concern for one another, the little attentions that one pays to other, working to provide for one another, etc. Religion and ethics are similar. They deal with a different area of life that is beyond the scope of what is traditionally termed "proof." By reducing science education strictly to what is "provable" alienates it further from life where most of what we deal with has nothing to do with those narrow definitions. Perhaps more people would be interested in science education if it was broadened to deal with things like the ethics of nuclear power or the economic disparity created by genetically modified foods. I'm just saying.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:07 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.