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. DC

    I wholly disagree with the author. Religion and science view mankind and the universe in such fundamentally different ways that they are polar opposites.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  2. Will

    Totally agree. However, we would also need to integrate science into all religious services to even things out.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  3. Hayley

    See the issue is that this man is older, and while he has a PhD he is interpreting a generation he is not a part of, rather than having a member of the younger generation interpret these trends. This flagrant flaw is most evident when the man states:
    “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. "
    I would say that younger people of my generation, for the most part, believe in a "seed theory". All throughout high school and college, many open just for fun debates about stuff like this have come up. For the most part, people in my generation don't deny fossils and believe in Adam an Eve, but they do believe something created the right conditions for life to occur, such as a god planting the seed (and not a literal seed, just figure of speech seed) of the big bang, because we do not know what created the big bang, I would say these theories could comfortably coexist, and can, in the sense I mentioned, not contradict. So in that sense, I have seen religion and science work together in classrooms.
    Aside from people having to integrate religion and science in their minds, Religion is not scientific, has absolutely no scientific basis at all. Religion does have it's place in schools, it is evident in Philosophy, Social Sciences, and Literatures. Religion and science are oil and water and should not be mixed in schools, but if an individual wishes to do so, they can create their own philosophy or discuss it in a Philosophy lecture, but I don't think valuable classroom time should be wasted on mixing the two. Science lectures need to be about science, and answering relevant student questions, and not about answering philosophical questions.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • nooneknows

      You are just as ignorant as the evangelicals.
      Suggesting that 'god created the seed' of humanity, perhaps even at the big bang, is somehow not in conflict with science is absurd.
      If humanity needs a creator, than so does god, and who created god, and then who created the god-creator... So silly.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  4. Chau Nguyen

    The writer obviously does not understand the fundamental differences between SCIENCE and the METAPHYSICAL.
    You cannot PROVE or DISPROVE religious views. Hence, it is NOT a science.
    Things they teach in science books can be proven and can be debunked.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  5. Predictable

    Religion is frivolous and unneeded. Look at all the past Religions that have gracefully fallen into Myth. The sooner we accept the same fate for out current retard-structures (or belief-structures, as you may know them), the sooner we can begin to truly make something of ourselves.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  6. Saul

    wow i thought i was reading FoxNews for a brief second, this place has gone down the gutter with dumb articles like this.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  7. Roger

    Yeah! Let's encourage delusion!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  8. ashrakay

    Religious people should be scientifically studied so we can better understand how to treat their condition.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  9. Zack

    This sounds like a good idea.. Both science and religion are here to stay, so we need people who are comfortable with both.

    The real distinction that needs to be taught is between actual science and atheism, because that is the one that seems to have been lost in practice. Actual science has a limited, defined scope and is quite interesting/useful. Science is all about mechanism, not purpose- the "how", not the "why" of existence, and can coexist with all the important tenants of the great faiths. The clarification needs to be made between actual science, such as the mechanism of evolution, and the PHILOSOPHY that people like Richard Dawkins try to attach to it.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • lolwut

      Atheism is the default position for anyone who applies the scientific method to their beliefs.

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

      Science is concerned with the HOW and not the WHY. I agree with you on that one. Because science has shown that there isn't a WHY. It just...is. That's the thing that religious folks need to understand. There simply IS NO why.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  10. Latenite

    Science is well suited for describing the physical world, but there's more to reality than what can be seen, felt, or heard. Adding a spiritual element provides a more well-rounded approach for examining the evidence. I'm surprised at how many closed-minded viewpoints have been poasted that don't want anything but science taught in schools. What are you so afraid of?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • LouAz

      What am I afraid of ? CHRISTIANS !!!

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

      Which religion should we teach in SCIENCE class?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • wayne317

      " but there's more to reality than what can be seen, felt, or heard. Adding a spiritual element provides a more well-rounded approach for examining the evidence"

      If it can't be seen, felt or heard, or identfied by any objective means, it isn't science, and has no business in science classes.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • lolwut

      Take a religious studies or spirituality class then. Religion is not science. Period.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • stormchaser1983

      for one reason alone: science is factual. religion is not. to maintain integrity of a science classroom therefore, religion cannot be included. U are free to prove emperically that god exists and i am sure the syllabus will be suitably modified

      December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Dave

      >>Adding a spiritual element provides a more well-rounded approach for examining the evidence.

      Actually it doesn't. It contaminates the process by introducing implausible imaginary notions, esp. "purpose" or "design", into the mix. Science is not easily done, and remaining objective in one's thinking is paramount.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  11. Jim

    Opinoin: Add SCIENCE to Churches.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • ashrakay


      December 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  12. Jeebus

    Teaching pseudo-science in science class just waters it down.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  13. Anne

    'Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world'

    Then you are not doing a very good job at teaching.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  14. Sumerau

    Religion is a personal belief, it's an individuals faith in (choose your own God) that cannot be proven and should not be questioned. Science is the pursuit of truth, of questioning everything and finding provable facts. Combining the two in a classroom would be merely a step to please one church or another and a step backwards!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  15. donnie

    Religion and science have nothing to do with each other. This is an attempt to indoctrinate and control people. The same thing religion has always done. Keep the church out of the classroom just like knowledge has been kept out of religion.

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

      Oh, please. I think you need to consider that you might just be a bigot. Did you even *read* the article before forming your opinion?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @John, being a bigot doesn't mean someone is wrong. It's actually pretty easy to feel superior to religious people. It doesn't mean the the foundation of such a feeling is incorrect.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  16. nooneknows

    Which religions will be included? Just the major ones with the most followers? Maybe just the ones that include kids in the class? If there is one Wiccan, will you teach that? How about Greek and Roman mythology? It's out of favor now, but didn't used to be. This is so ridiculous, and really and truly pointless.
    Science is about what is known to be real; religion is about what is unreal and made up. There is no connection here.

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

      tru dat.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  17. Will

    Im sorry, as a christian I do not want any religion taught in my school for any purpose other than teaching what religion is as a whole and its impact on cultures. I do not want it in science class because faith and religion is not science. I also am worried with the over 30,000 official denominations in the US alone, I fear which version of the "scripture" is told. That is why I will never want Church and State (in this instance school but also government) to ever be placed together, because It may take off ok, but eventually someone will demand that only their version be the main version. People need to understand that there is not just Christian religion anymore. They are many forms and many different opinions over what is Christian. If we all believe the exact same way then it would be different. That is what makes this country so great.

    And Again religion is not a science, and therefore has no place being taught in science class. Religion helps people to be good to others, give morals for a society, and helps explains what we can not explain (until science comes along and explains them). Science does not destroy religion, it only helps to explain those things that we are ignorant of. Imagine what the world would be like if we still believed that Lightning was directly being tossed at you by Gods, and that you had to sacrifice animals to keep you safe.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • stormchaser1983

      great points, small correcction: 'until science comes along and disproves religion', not explains religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel

      Religion makes up explanations for things not discovered yet. When they discover them, the religious say "never mind". If you took an Anthropology course, you would know where "morality" comes from. It's not god. Religion is slowly going out of style, as it is replaced by science. It's ok to say "we don't know yet", rather than make up things to explain the unexplained.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  18. RAY

    religion has made us stupid enough already.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  19. LouAz

    If and only if . . . the Student(s) does not spend the first 18 years of his life being bludgeoned with fear of this, that, or the other "god". You fill his head with mush, and then expect me to empty it in a 3 month course about "thinking". The premise is as absurd as the projected outcome. Quit terrifying little children with you god of death !

    December 15, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  20. Evolution Historian

    This author is just trying to justify his own existence. Look at his area of specialization. The truth, however, is that high school students are not perpared to debate these issues at all. Even in my HST 104 lectures at a major university, the students are unable to comprehend how the ideas of Empedocles, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Diderot, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Charles Darwin relate to evolution and intelligent design.

    You can explain till you are blue in the face that Aristotle, Cicero, Newton, and Voltaire believed in design, but the vast majority of students still will not remember on the exam that chance is what separates Darwin's theory of natural selection from design. These issues are even difficult for a lot of American graduate students because Americans remain so religious. There is just no way that that the average high school student is prepared to participate in such discussions

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

      Apparently the same applies to most adults as well.

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

      So we'll just let everyone not understand these issues or to discuss such issues intelligently, as happens already. Great. By the way: if you just forget the names and talk about the content, its a lot less intimidating.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:14 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.