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. Mad Panda

    What the F? This is funny. If you teach religion in science class please change the name to "religion and science" because the 2 have nothing in common. When the conclusion that there is (likely) a god can be reached through logic and reason then feel free to add it to science class.

    Keep in mind that changes to scientific theory based on new evidence happen every day and it is considered progress. Religion doesnt work that way.-you would have to have evidence in the first place.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  2. Evan

    The argument is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that religion is equal to ethics. Religion is separate from and, in some cases, contrary to ethics. What must be taught in science classes is ethics, not religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Mad Panda


      December 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  3. HGP

    Once again someone is equating religion with ethics. This time, it's even a self-proclaimed teacher. Not sure if I would be ok with him teaching my kids anything about science, religion, or ethics. Ethics do not come from religion. I don't know who (well, probably the catholic church in the west) started that nonsense but the FACT (scientific, not religious) is that ethics and religion are not the same thing, and one does not come from the other. There are many political, historical, and yes, even scientific why we have the moral and ethical views we have today. Every now and again, someone from a pew shouted a few of them at us, mostly on Sundays. But they didn't originate there. Case in point: We hold women as equals to men, we don't sell our daughters into slavery anymore, and we don't stone people to death for lying.... although we probably should go to that one for politicians 🙂 Anyway, since I think with just a couple of logical statements I've just demolished your falsehood and primary premise of why we should have religion in science class, why not go back to the drawing board and come up with some logical, useful reasons other than trying to separate people and their own ideas again...?!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  4. Brandon

    "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)... " If science is based on observation and fact (hence why there are laws), why does "Intelligent Design" even come into play? Non-Overlapping Magisteria Authority (NOMA) is what should be pushed in ALL SCHOOL, regardless of level. To define NOMA (from wikipedia): ... "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)." There should be no debate about a theory that uses religion, and by extenstion, faith (which is not empirical), to try and explain the origins of humanity or any species. Evolution has been the accepted theory, since it can be observed empirically. It would be a disservice to teach anyone such a obviously flawed theory. My big question: Is evolution vs. intelligent design a debate they are having in India, China or Europe? I highly doubt it. Teach what needs teaching, not some hair-brained idea that was meant to politically charge education. BTW, I learned about NOMA in a private Catholic college where the priests introduced this idea to us.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  5. Clyde

    Wonderful ideal, stupid idea. What Eisen is doing in a college cell biology class to weave ethics and personal context into biology sounds like a great idea (at least as described by him). However, suggesting that religion be woven into science courses at the secondary and elementary school level in a similar fashion is grossly naive. The 35% over zealous fundamentalists who deny evolution and believe that the earth is the center of the universe, would just love to invade the science classroom and unfortunately too many high/elementary school teachers and school boards would be willing to give them the keys.
    In addition, Eisen should distinguish between teaching ethics versus religion. Ethics is frequently taught in conjunction with science as it should be. Incorporating religion into a science course is a totally different matter and should be left to specialized courses at the college level in an environment protected from the political extremists.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  6. tffl

    "[...] students who read original texts from Darwin and intelligent-design scholars [...] critically learned evolution better (without rejection of other worldviews) [...]. " I don't know what it means to "learn evolution" while at the same time ""without rejection of other worldviews" – assuming "other worldviews" means things like creationism, then if they actually learn how evolution works and what evidence supports it, they _should_ reject those other worldviews, or they didn't learn anything.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. Jimbo

    Where are all the bleeding heart evangelicals? Usually they are out in full force on these types of articles. I want to see more people make fools of themselves trying to convince me of evidence of a great flood and all this other voodoo science.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  8. Predictable

    This article is a testament to what's wrong with our system of supposed Journalism.

    Something so hideously moronic should never be given the light of day on the front page of any major news organization. CNN should be ashamed of itself.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • André

      Well said !

      December 15, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  9. Daniel

    I am presuming the religion they speak of would be one of westernized background. In this case, we should not. Science is about proof. There is no proof except for historically altered dogma that can stabilize western religions. Religion is something that is based in faith, with no real proof except for a personal belief. There is nothing that can extensively back up any western religion.

    As a child I was forced to church, to study one book, and have no opinion. These are antiquated ideals. Religion nurtures our fears and does not speak of actual proven truths. This country is falling apart under the guise of a centralized "religious" sect that uses these fears to "herd" believers. The Declaration of Independence says "God", not Jesus, or Mohammed, or any one central figure. God is many things to many people. We should really just learn about our own fundamental natures and let that be outside the educational classroom.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  10. 4th Eagle of the Apocolypse

    Religion is a belief and science is based on what can be observed and measured. These two should not be mixed. Bad idea.

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

      Amen Brotha

      December 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  11. Joe

    Is this a serious article? He cant really be arguing for religion in science classes, can he? In 2011??

    December 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • André

      He's a moron.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  12. Bad Decision

    I completely disagree with this article... obviously the guy raises a good point about teachers needing to find a way to better teach the students. It's a difficult job, but as he said, if the teacher can find a way to make it apart of their real lives, then it may become more interesting and easier to remember/comprehend.
    Introducing a fairy tale would NOT improve the people learn this.
    For example, his question for his students, if something more than evolution was at work there. How could everyone not agree? Evolution is a theory, and scientists certainly haven't found all the answers, so it could very well be that there is something more than just evolution. In NO WAY does that mean that God is the answer... that simplifies things too much. If people became content with saying evolution works, but god fills in the holes... we would be screwed...

    December 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Mad Panda

      Agreed. If he is looking for a way to better tie the real world to science so that students grasp and retain better, why not choose something neutral and not contradictory to the very thing that you are trying to teach.

      For example, all of the labs that I did in science class where i got to see what I was learning...this guy is trying way to hard to get religion into places it doesnt belong.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  13. T3chsupport

    Alright. Let's start by teaching them Islam. Unless by 'religion', you of course mean Christianity.

    Keep religion where it belongs – in church, where kids only have to go if their parents drag them, and not forcing it on people with varying other beliefs. It is irrelevant in a science classroom. How about I come to your Sunday school for your youngest victim and teach them all about how Jesus probably wasn't really the person we think he was, and how our ancestors rose from the oceans like every other species, and how closely related we are to chimps, and how the concept of your god is highly illogical, and why.

    No? Didn't think so.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Daniel

      Amen Brotha...im serious

      December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  14. dina

    Religion is based on opinions of many sorts.If you are in that sect, you believe those a opinions. Science is based on fact. It is time people start learning facts and not the mythical opinions of religion which prove nothing but give people false hope for something better. It would be better to improve scientific study to improve the world and to infuse students with this fact, that science changes things.Religion makes people think something has changed when it has not.Religion is myth made by humans to control other humans.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  15. Aezel

    Bringing up intelligent design in a science classroom in the context of "look, this is what it is, and science rejects it because it isn't science." is fine with me. Bringing up intelligent design as if it is some sort of credible alternative is absolutely not okay. It's NOT SCIENCE. Do you teach Spanish in English class? No.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  16. Rob

    Terrible, terrible, terrible idea. This insistence on god and religion is a prime reason the U.S. is falling behind other countries and why we've become a laughing stock. I can think of another region of the world where religion and religious instruction gets such attention and the last thing this country wants to do is emulate the Muslim world. Get your religious instruction at church or a private school.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  17. Hamoodi

    I guess all of the schools would teach CHRISTIANITY and JUDAISM. hmm why is that?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
  18. IceT

    Actually I believe we need to teach religion in science class, what a great way to teach kids what it really is ... a conglomeration of ancient rituals & fears. We can learn our way out of this with a few history, evolution & human psychology lessons.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  19. NoEfingWay

    Perhaps you are lost, Arri Eisen. Fox News is that way-–>

    How many times must the courts laugh religion out of our public schools? Enough already!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Dennis

      lets do an experiment. fill two beakers full of water. put a bunson burner under one and light it. have the class pray that the other will boil. that's the difference between science and religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  20. Matt M

    I don't think most of you read the article, but yes, religion should probably not be in our science classes because of the fundamental differences between the scientific method and "belief" and "faith". I also agree that we're to sensitive about what can even be discussed - here he mentions the scientific explanations for the functions of incense and relates that to religions that practice its use. I have no problem with the inclusion of real-life scenarios because that's what science is there for - to understand and predict our surroundings. But again, tying religion and ethics is again a BS move. Yes, there should be (and are) classes on BioEthics and no, it doesn't have a freaking thing to do with religion. Religion didn't invent ethics and ethics can exist without using religion as a crutch.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:20 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.