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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. F..Religion

    Is this guy serious????

    "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..."

    Ah....ya....the second statement has NOTHING to do with the first other than being science fiction.....please stop trying to brainwash childern with religion...im so sick and tired of these people trying to connect religion to science....if it was science...it would be mathematic, proven and not FICTION...get over it....religion is 2000 year old technology and does not belong todays sociaty...it will eventually be extinct.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  2. FSM

    I look forward to the day when Pastafarian beliefs are taught to the youth in school. They must all learn of the sad fact that global warming is caused by a lack of pirates.
    Pasta be upon you,
    RaMen!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • silliness

      Blessed be His noodly appendage! Woe to the unbelievers! Ramen!!!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  3. srichey

    Mythology and science? Still not seeing the connection.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  4. Ray

    Science and religion, at least theistic religion, are apples and orange. Keep 'em separate. To commingle them in one class dilutes both.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • No Mythology in Science Class

      Theistic religion.......isn't that a bit redudant? Unles you insinuate that athiesm is a religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • nooneknows

      Nah, he just seems to think that monotheism is superior to polytheism when, in fact, they are equally ridiculous.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
  5. hokihi

    Teaching Ethics: OK (I taught ethics in a university setting–business schools–for 9 years without talking about religion other than telling kids we can teach ethics without religion)

    Teaching Religion: Not necessary. Which religion are you going to teach? Which creationist message did you want to teach "along side of" evolution? I am guessing you were suggesting we teach Good Ole Testament creationism. No?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  6. Jason

    By the way, 11% of the country is atheist and that doesn't include the agnostics. If you removed the atheists or if the religious got their way and had us all killed, all of the Hospitals, Universities, Colleges, as well as mostly all of technological experts Such as Bill Gates would be gone and this country would be over run with disease, famine, and stupidity.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • cestlavie3

      The last word in your paragraph pretty much defines your thought process.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  7. No Mythology in Science Class

    I’m glad Arrl Elsen thinks that cellular metabolism isn’t relative to anything in the world, which coincidentally, is the opinion that I have of hack journalists. Perhaps scientific literacy is on the decline because people like Arrl insist on inserting mythology into a science class.
    Religion and science cannot coexist due to the nature of religion. Why ask any science students if they think that something “in addition to evolution accounts for human beings” without the important follow up question: “WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE OF SUCH A FORCE”

    You, Arrl, just want to create scientists who will perpetuate the pseudo-science of “intelligent design”
    Incense is a religious offering.

    Im so glad that you poison minds for a living, in the classroom and on CNN’s website. You are a hack teacher and a hack journalist for inserting your diatribe into a place where it doesn’t belong.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  8. yash

    It made my day that all we have on this page is a logical and not emotional discussion and that there is not one comment on someone trying to convert me back to faith without any evidence and trying to save me from going to hell.
    Obviously i agree. Once you know what evolution and science is - you see it all around you, and the more you observe the more you believe and you can never go back to religion again. In the least-Not the same ways you were before. Once you understand science ... any religion oriented discussion cannot be a threat anymore. Thank you all.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  9. sam

    first you point out that cancer makes cellular biology relevant, and then you claim the first rule of teaching is to integrate these things into the student's lives.

    so basically you are saying we need to give kids cancer?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  10. Kevin

    Tell you what, you keep religion out of the schools and we'll keep logic out of the churches, ok?

    December 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Laurie

      LOVE IT! as a FORMER christian (born again) I love your REASON! I embrace IT, instead of "the cross"!!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  11. DD

    Why not skip to the chase & teach ethical religion? LOL.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  12. Drevan

    Giving science context is very important. I completely agree with that, but adding religion provides no benefit to the learning. Religion (faith) = made up explanations, Science (empirical) = based on evidence. With religion, anybody can say anything and that can be their faith, and no one can question it because absolutely no evidence is required to support it. Religion would only twist science classes, which is not what America needs.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  13. Keith

    No thanks.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • John B

      Just No from me. Keep the thanks.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  14. BuckeyeJim

    Should we be discussing what books one can read in 2nd grade reading class?
    Or the morality of subtracting 1 from 70?
    If we do this we'll have to hire all of our engineers from India.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  15. NoEfingWay

    This is to all of you who sympathize with the author. Allowing religion in any way, regardless of nuance, is a slippery, slippery slope. It's hard enough for our kids to get a decent science education. Please, just stop.

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

      So you are saying that you don't trust your children to make up their own decisions about the world around them if given all of the information available to us instead of just selected information? If they studied religion together with science and came to the decision to start following a spiritual path, would that really be so bad?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  16. Adrian

    Science isn't in the business of proving or disproving God. This was one of the first things they taught us in college Geology. I applaud Arri Eisen for writing this. I found it very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks!

    December 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • No Mythology in Science Class

      Science isn't in the business of proving or dispriving god, but it has certainly disproven the creation accounts of christianity.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  17. nooneknows

    You think high school students are going to openly admit in a class that they are atheist or agnostic?
    What, are you nuts? Don't you know that atheists are probably more vilified than gays? You want them to be bullied?

    I think most intelligent people, in high school or out, know religion is a farce but society prevents being open about it.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • mnsman

      depends where you're from. The urban/suburban areas i'm from no one really gives a damn if you're athiest.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  18. skarphace

    Even though I am an Athiest, I agree with this author as long as the focus is not on any one specific religion. Whether or not you believe in "intelligent design" or "life after death" does not matter: there are still many applicable connections to make between science and religion.

    When I took Chemistry in college, just by coincidence, I also took World Religions at the same time. At the same time that Chemistry was used to show us that there is very little true matter in the universe, but rather mostly magnetic and gravitational forces, we were also studying Hinduism.

    Hinduists believe that the physical world is not real; the spiritual world is real and the physical world is just a place that bored spirits created to have something to do (kind of like the rpg video games of today). Now, don't get me wrong: I don't believe the Hinduist version of origin is true. However, I couldn't help but be impressed that the Hindus came up with a theory that the physical world is fake thousands of years before electron microscopes show that the vast majority of what we think to be "physical matter" is actually not.

    My point? Just that I took these classes over a decade ago, and they are among the only non-computer courses (which was my degree) that I remember very much about. Therefore, the author has a point: making relavent connections between topics leads to better retention of both subjects.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • yash

      I come from a Hindu culture, but I am not impressed. Although they came to conclusions that seem consistent with science (although they are not) – they came to the conclusions by chance , not by scientific means. I can just put down some numbers and win a lottery- but the win was neither scientific nor an act of God-– its just by chance that you say something ( and hinduism says a lot) and then you try to prove it true in the real world-– like in your example with the electrons. The hindus were not talking of electrons.. believe me

      December 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  19. Byrd

    If you can't put your religion away long enough to learn something about the wonders of the sciences, then you have a real problem. It is said that to everything there is a season – I know I read or heard it somewhere – but if you inject religion into everything you do, then you're really not following the particular teaching, now are you? Instead, you're simply being selective. – something of which cults are always accused.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  20. silliness

    Today's not April 1, is it? Is this meant to be serious? I could maybe see saying something about ethics, but as far as I can see the world's major religions are far from good examples of ethical or moral behavior.

    December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • NoEfingWay

      Bingo!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:36 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.