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. Nate

    Oh yeah, let's add discussion of religion to science courses, because there's nothing that gets glazed over or skipped because there's so much information.

    Here's what I suggest:
    Offer a separate class (like the author's seminar) that explores the intersection between science and religion. Make it elective, and have it co-taught by both a scholar in religion and a scientist. Such a course could include writings by Stephen Jay Gould, examining religious texts, and reading original scientific works about evolution, sedimentation and continental drift, and labs focused on observing phenomena that are at the core of these sorts of disputes.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • guest

      no..let's create a separate department called Mythology 100. There is no intersection between science and religion other than eventually most religious questions will be explained by science...it has never been the other way around. It is no wonder why kids today are in to vampire TV plots .

      December 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • nooneknows

      What Nate suggests is a reasonable elective course for college, but absolutely inappropriate for high school, even if an elective.
      Religion has no place in public schools. Period.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  2. Unknown

    Here's a better idea, leave science to the scientists and religion to the clergy.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  3. Tallgrass05

    "...critically learned evolution better (without rejection of other worldviews)..."

    If they had learned evolution properly then they would reject other worldviews like creationism. There are many ways good teachers incorporate their subject matter into everyday life and make it relevant to students, but without the watering down by introducing religion. Science is a harsh mistress, as it should be.

    One does not "believe" in evolution. If you're really educating your students, you're teaching them to critically examine the evidence from many different fields of science. It has nothing to do with "believing".

    December 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • guest

      @ tallgrass ....well said!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  4. Primewonk

    Ray wrote, "Can you explain the evolution of vision?"

    Sure. Perhaps if you had paid attention in Junior High science class, you could too.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  5. Jtwrenn

    Many of the comments in these forums seem to highlight the ideas of this article...while they are attempting to detract from it. Science and religion have nothing to do with each other directly but we argue about it constantly. This article says stop hiding it in school. We should show people that they are not incompatible, and that they do not have to hate each other. Then maybe the next generation won't be as silly as this one. Put science in a social context..and whether we like it or not religion and morality (two different but highly intertwined things) are a major part of society...and just maybe you will pull some people from the fringes of both extremes a bit more toward a center.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • binky42

      Religion is becoming less and less a part of society.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • nooneknows

      Science and religion absolutely are incompatible.
      Science is based on knowledge and fact; religion is based on magic and mythology.
      A delusion shared by millions is still just that – a delusion.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  6. binky42

    I don't even need to read this article to know what a pile of crap it is. Looking at the majority of the voting public, I think there is a bigger need to include SCIENCE classes in church!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  7. ReligionIs4Dolts

    The author of this OPINION piece needs to read some Richard Dawkins, Douglas Adams, Nietzche, to name but a few!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts


      December 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • binky42

      Maybe he should start with the dictionary and look up "science"

      December 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel

      Come on. He lives in the Bible Belt. What did you expect ?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  8. krishna

    scientific religion like Hinduism yes. all other religions are just pure dogma.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  9. Sunshine

    The author, a biology teacher, makes a great case. Whether or not the topics are discussed in the science classroom or some other related class, somewhere during the education process students need to be engaged with how our scientific knowledge fits in to the "bigger questions" and values and beliefs that we, as human beings, have - our religious beliefs (many top scientists are motivated by their religious faith to pursue scientific study, by the way), history, and values, and the questions of "why" we explore and how we should and shouldn't use science and technology. I'm a scientist and I definitely see the need for science not to be taught in isolation of how it meshes with the other, deeper convictions we as human beings have.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Cancer Boy

      The bigger question is why did god give me cancer?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • binky42

      For many people there is no bigger picture. Our kids are already falling behind in science, so why fill these classes with more fluff?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel

      He didn't. Sorry. God is a myth.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • George

      You mean ARGUING? Might want to check your spelling next time.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • guest

      @ sunshine...you are NOT a science teacher. It his hard enough to teach quality science. Now, instead of advancing scientific methodology( the ONLY thing that has advanced us out of the dark ages) ,you want to go back to explaining "things that go bump in the night" using mythology. You are in the wrong department and are doing a disservice to your students. SHAME on you!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  10. Rick

    This has to be the stupidest idea yet. When will you people STOP trying to push religion in schools?? And then you wonder why non-believers find you folks so hard to put up with.You want to know where you can teach religion?? How about in churches? There's plenty around and after all, isn't that what they are meant for? Sheesh.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  11. JT

    I think what you are saying is that some people can't find meaning in life unless they concoct some grand supernatural magic that makes them feel extra special, removed and above all other life on Earth. That's really sad and I feel sorry for all who require this delusion. You have a right to delude yourself in this manner but you do not have the right to diminish science and progress simply because observed evidence and proven facts threaten your delusion.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  12. ReligionIs4Dolts

    BS! Keep religion OUT of science classes! The two are completely incompatible!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  13. Bring it On

    I do think Genesis science should be looked at more closely, and if that has to happen in the classroom, then so be it. For example: Bring out in the open and pose the question to the students. Exactly where in Syria did Noah find..... mating pairs for North American Moose?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Primewonk

      I want to see math and physics taught using the biblical value of pi being 3.0.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  14. Wabbajack

    Ethics? Yes. Religion? Absolutely not.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  15. Geezer

    You've got to be kidding. If I want my kid to learn about fairy tales I can do that. I don't need the school to do that.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Give Me A Break

      Mother goose, Aesop, and Grimm, do a pretty good job as well.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • BPollutin

      That's exactly what I was thinking. The fact that this guy can even write such garbage, then CNN publishes it to their website, shows exactly what's wrong with this country. It's because Science isn't appreciate by our society. It's not respected either. 90% of people would rather watch a brain-dead show about a dysfunctional Kardashian family or a bunch of guys running around in matching tights, tackling each other. We're raising our kids to look up to the wrong people...that's why we're losing our scientists. Implementing religion into a science curriculum is like inserting Harry Potter into History class.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  16. Give Me A Break

    Absolutely not, period. No argument, no debate.

    You want to teach religion, fine, do it in a religion class, end of discussion.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Teach Evolution in Church

      I don't mind teaching science and Religion in the same class, but call the class Science Fiction

      December 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  17. nooneknows

    My pink unicorn created the universe. My church is the church of the pink unicorn. It's true because I had a vision.
    Will you please teach your students about this?
    It is just as valid [and provable] as any other religion, and just as relevant to science.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  18. Bob

    Wow, this guy could not be more wrong.

    Why not teach science to support nationalism then.....or wait I think that we tried that once.

    Lying never works.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  19. Gethetruth

    Here is a teacher who teaches biology but believes in religion or what ?
    The author says "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."

    By the time kids learn science they are already brainwashed by their religious parents at home!!
    This is the fundamental reason for thinking that there is "something else" that is "an intelligent creature" that made humans (more) smarter ! Why don't you ask the next logical question and that is why do they believe "there is something else" and who told them about it. Your whole argument for teaching religion in science class is based on a lack of clear thinking on your part. I do agree that ethics needs to be thought in science class, ethics has nothing to do with religion and god. Ethics is about being human = an evolutionary form that is intelligent enough to know what is good and bad for it and its biological relatives and the environment it shares.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • GotTheTruth

      I am one of those religious parents "brainwashing" my children about God. When I am not brainwashing my children I operate electronics engineering business and create products that I sell. I use components that are fruit of labor of hundreds of thousands of talented people and I still can't create anything that comes close to anything living. I see how how everything in the universe is dying, species disappearing by hundreds and no sign of intelligent creation happening by chance. Of course, you could argue that because you didn't see the process of creation, there was no creator. Using the same logic you could conclude that because you didn't see how the pyramids were built, they are just evolved rocks... First law of thermodynamics states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only change forms. You are just a form of energy trapped for a moment in a body made of recycled dirt. Whether you believe or not you will move on and meet your creator. I wish you good luck...

      December 16, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  20. Hot Snake

    Hey you know what else we should do? We should teach cooking in Math class. That'd be fun for American kids right? How about texting in English class? Or TV watching in gym class? All of these would be excellent additions to the curriculum. Hell, let's not teach science at all. Let's just teach kids to sit around play on their phones and check Facebook. That would be much more appropriate no? If we are going to destroy any intellectual integrity that our "test based" education system has left by teaching religious nonsense as science; then why don't we go all the way and destroy ALL intellectual integrity! Who's with me?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Gethetruth

      Your Hot and right !!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • nooneknows

      Perhaps we can study crackpot conspiracy theories [as if they had validity] in history class.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel

      It's "you're hot", I see you didn't pay attention in English either.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • George

      Really? And "argueing" is now a word? Might want to check YOUR English.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:19 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.