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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. Portland tony

    All students enrolled in science class are not going to have a particle named after them. But it might be wise to let some students apply scientific principles when looking at non standard theory. It may wake them up.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  2. if horses had Gods ...

    Religion is nothing more than a leftover instinctual coping reaction to the unknown. It has no place in school, let alone science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  3. Joe Rioux

    Idiotic premise. Idiotic story.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  4. jk

    Arguing for more context in science teaching is wise as far as it goes. But creationism "in light" of science is sheer nonsense, not a context. It would be more fruitful, and at least somewhat debatable, to introduce racism into the science classroom as a context. The fact is, supernaturalism has no place in a science classroom because it is unscientific and not real. You are right that we should not avoid teaching that fact, but neither should we gloss it over with goopy relativism about the value of different opinions.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  5. Alex

    We don't need Religion in Science class. Religion is mythology. What we need is Science in Religion classes. It is scary how many people think that we descended from Adam & Eve.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • HA HA HA

      Well, while we're at it,...let's add the study of Myth to PE class.
      Moronic article, moronic writer

      December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • jk

      And even scarier how many people, like this guy, think that religion is a (if not *the*) fount of ethics.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
    • Ben

      jk-

      The ten commandments are descended from Hammurabi's Code which was not religiously based. Ethics have multiple sources.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  6. darrel

    Science is science and should stick to that. Religion is the responsibility of the family and ethics- well that's a tricky one but isn't strictly a science problem. Legislators, lawyers, law enforcement, educators all have ethics problems and questions. Perhaps a strictly ethics program. BUT NOT IN SCIENCE CLASS

    December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  7. HA HA HA

    Well, while we're at it,...let's add the study of Myth to PE class.
    Moronic article

    December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  8. Guitar

    I do believe religion should be taught in school, ALL Religions – including Atheism!! And then just as a 'philosophy/history/mythology' type class. I believe this would help relieve a lot of the misunderstandings, misjudgements, and outright hatred of each other's personal look on life, and perhaps, even maybe, open some minds. Each week would be one specific religion/non-religion, bring in a scholar/expert on that particular religion/non, (no prosthelytizing), simply present the theory and beliefs of that particular group/sect/cult/assembly. Non-threatening – non confrontational. Unfortunately, too many who are closed minded in their particular beliefs would never agree to such a common sense approach. It's their religion only – no room for other's to think differently.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • lolwut

      Atheism is not a religion nor a belief system. It is a default stance in regards to the claim "There is a god/gods." That's pretty much the only thing most atheists have in common.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • BR

      Agreed. (Sorry to pick, but atheism is in no way a religion.)

      December 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  9. lolwut

    "...give kids a chance to decide for themselves what they believe."

    That is a great idea! We can start by forbidding any religious person to indoctrinate their children into their belief system. Fair is fair right? The amount of religious people would be laughable is early childhood indoctrination was not so common

    December 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  10. Jeebus

    The pseudo-science of creationism was invented for one reason only, to undermine science education. The church has always felt threatened by science. This is just they're latest attempt to destroy it.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  11. Brynja

    Science is the poetry of REALITY (R.D.) . Reality in and of itself is such a beautiful and mind blowingly awesome thing that there is no need at all for religion to puke its vomit in the SCIENCE classroom. If a student is unable to come to terms with that fact, they SHOULD drop those courses. They are clearly demonstrating a lack of ability to differentiate fiction from fact. Keep your religion out of our classrooms and we will keep our science out of your churches... oh wait we ALREADY keep our science our of your churches!

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

    Actually, I changed my mind. Sure, teach religion. And then explain how science proves that it's bullsh!t.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • bill

      My thoughts exactly, explain evolution, then say some people think an invisible man in the sky did it, and let that sink in.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  13. really?

    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.............

    December 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Brynja

      you havent been to Tennessee lately I guess. Sick christians did make such a museum.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Ed

      Sadly, there at least two creationism museums that I know of. Diaramas with dinosuars behind Adam and Eve and such. No joke.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Rodger

      Add Kentucky and Texas to states with creationist museums.

      No shocker there

      December 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • really?

      i was talking about on the national mall not some bum F#^* hilbilly town.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  14. Tim

    If students can not resolve the conflict between their faith and science perhaps they shouldn't be scientists. There are plenty of careers that allow one to live without their beliefs being questioned by evidence. The world always needs ditch diggers and hamburger flippers.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  15. really?

    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...............

    December 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  16. Nickell

    Society normally pushes us to be logical, except when dealing with religion. Logic is not only discouraged in religion, but does not apply in any way.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  17. if horses had Gods ...

    Religion as part of the psychology or sociological science curriculum I can see it, but not in an empirical science.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  18. Steve

    Ethics are integral to science, religion is not. Being religious does not equate to maintaining ethics as you suggest. Just look at the GOP for a mountain of evidence showing absolutely no connection between being religious and displaying ethical behaviors.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  19. JFritz

    Beyond a bad idea. There may be a place to discuss religion in the schools, though except as a subject of history, I doubt it. Start down this path and it will never end. Soon the science part will grow smaller and smaller, as the kids argue over the religion part. Honestly, why on earth does more than a cursory mention of evoluton belong in the schools at all? There is so much basic science and math these kids don't know. Seems to this old teacher that today's teachers want to teach whatever interests them, rather than whatever really needs to be taught. Go back to basic science. There have always been kids who are bored by schoolwork, and they don't get the rewards of an education. Time to stop protecting kids from this sad fact.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  20. really?

    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 evolutionist 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..............

    December 15, 2011 at 6:12 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.