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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. Aaron

    Don't care and don't need to read... Flat out religion in science is a bad thing. I agree there should be a standards of ethics however there are plenty of ways to achieve such a standards (and quite frankly what is already in place suffices) while leaving some magical sky daddy out of the raw data. The problem is religion THINKS is has all the answers and doesn't where science KNOWS it DOES NOT have all the answers and is in perpetual motion to find them. Religion is evil and has done nothing but held back our species for centuries from achieving extraordinary things.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  2. John

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_6PxnvaySw
    .

    December 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  3. rm

    Dr. Eisen,

    From the home page of the Emory History site:

    "In 1836, when the Cherokee nation still clung to its ancestral lands in the State of Georgia, and Atlanta itself had yet to be born a small band of Methodists in Newton County dedicated themselves to founding a new town and college."

    My question to you: How do ethics and science education come into play when building a university founded by Christians literally on top of the bodies of the people that lived there before you?

    How would the curriculum read? "The cultural effects of western engineering on indian land 101". Or maybe, "River of blood and fluid dynamics – LAB".

    Ethics is a matter of perspective. Science is not. Trying to merge the two undermines your credibility on both fronts.

    rm

    December 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Ben

      Oh really? Evolution is just as much of a leap of faith as Christianity. Have you ever observed one species morphing into another one? I haven't either.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Ben, have you ever studied fossil records? There's a lot of morphing there for your entertaining. Sadly though, this might require some reading and research on your part.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Ken

      I have seen bacteria change genes to evolve antibiotic resistance. I have seen the inverted pelvic layouts of birds and dinosaurs. I have seen genetic drift's impact upon founder mutations. It is a complete fallacy to think that not seeing a dog change into a cow somehow undermines the reality of evolution.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Ben – an isolated population of culex pipiens speciated into culex molestans. We watched it happen.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Kevin

      Evolution is a theory (and no a theory is not something that is less true than a law, dunno why so many people don't understand the difference – laws are purely empirical, e.g. Newtons laws of gravity vs Einstein's theory of relativity). Anyway, there are massive amounts of evidence that support the theory and when new evidence arises the details are subject to review and change. Religion has no such mechanisms. The two are entirely separate; night and day and should be kept that way.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Ben

      All I read here are wild theories about what a fossil MIGHT mean...a bacterium turning into a bacterium...a mosquito turning into a mosquito. Yikes. This earth should be COVERED with intermediate species. Where are they?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Ben – you wrote, and I quote, "Have you ever observed one species morphing into another one?"

      I gave you culex molestans speciating from culex pipiens. Speciation. However, you replied, ".a mosquito turning into a mosquito". Apparently you are ignorant about what speciation is? Surely you don't think "mosquito" is a species, do you?

      By the way, every species that isn't extinct, is intermediate. Again, if you had paid attention in Junior High, you would have know this.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  4. J3sus Sandals

    Uhhh...you don't need religion to connect science to anything. Religion actually serves only to do the opposite. Ever see the movie Jesus Camp? Here's what happens when you mix the two..."global warming isn't real because Jesus wouldn't cook us." Yeah, that's what I want my children to grow up believing. Relegate the hard questions ABOUT religion...for Philosophy class.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  5. Kevin

    Makes no sense. Science and religion aren't the same thing. Would your Sunday sermon involve methods for testing hypotheses? Of course not.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  6. Chad

    Since science is the effort by humans to understand the way by which God "does" it, I think it makes absolute sense.
    The more science progresses the more it will become evident that God (an external cause) is necessary.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • PDEngineer

      This is the definition of hypothesis bias 😀

      December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Chad

      I can't find any definition of "hypothesis bias", you were probably thinking of "confirmation bias"

      "Confirmation bias: (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias[1]) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. " – Wikipedia

      It's a HUGE misconception that only folks that believe in the God of Abraham are guilty of this when in fact everyone is to one degree of another. Non-believing scientists are just as likely to suppress information that points to the existence of God.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • HellBent

      "Non-believing scientists are just as likely to suppress information that points to the existence of God."

      And this 'evidence' would be what, exactly?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Chad

      1. The "discovery" of stasis in the fossil record
      "Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species." – wikipedia

      Honestly, every time I read that I can't stop laughing. Science was so in love with Darwin's gradual mutation and natural selection as a way to "explain away God" that they willfully ignored the plain evidence of the fossil record for almost a 100 years.

      2. Why does the universe obey laws?
      The one thing that 99% of non-believing scientists will NOT acknowledge, is that science by definition relies on the universe obeying laws, by definition.

      Why? 99% of scientists will tell you that it is an unimportant/stupid question. Really?

      3. Lets talk about the origin of the universe. Lets talk about the precision with which "nothing" needed to explode (rapidly expand really), with "no cause", to create the situation where planets could form and life could be created.

      or not
      scientists don't like to talk about that...

      willfully refusing to address questions that point to something you don't like.. That's precisely what confirmation bias is, right?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Chad

      ""The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils." Stephen Gould

      "Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin's argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life's history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the process we profess to study." Stephen Gould

      "There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths." indeed there is something strange about scientists that refuse to look at all of the data.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • blind faith: religious rigidity

      Cult much?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  7. jew zeus

    religion shall soon see the irony in David versus Goliath if they realy want this.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  8. George

    To "Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel," fix your name. "Arguing" isn't spelled with an "E." I saw you correcting someone's grammar. Figured you needed the help too.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • binky42

      How many times are you going to attack him for a single typo?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  9. Saty

    Science, engineering and technology (including medical) is what the modern world runs on.. Advances piled on top of more advances. Religion? Useless relic from pre-historic days, which "gifts" us with guilt, false promises/hope, wars, and overall irrationality. Guess which we need, which to jettison?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  10. Teacher

    As an educator that teaches science, I would not want the responsibility of teaching creationism. I teach what has been proven by (or speculated) by the scientific community based on facts. There are too many creation stories to be narrow minded and teach one alone. That is what a theology class is for.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Saty

      Don't teach magical fairy tales in science, or for that matter, (in) theology..

      December 15, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • skarphace

      I don't think Arri is talking about teaching creationism in science class, but rather allowing for the discussion of it.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  11. JT

    I have no problem in teaching religion in line with Greek mythology but I do have a problem with indoctrinating children into a religion/cult. But..it has absolutely nothing to do with science or math for that matter. What Christians are really wanting here is to confuse children and make them think that the mythology within Christianity is equal to science in that these myths have withstood the rigors of science. Shame on any Christian who would advocate this dishonest, deceitful sham onto our children.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • howlyn

      To JT- well written. What Christians would like is a "foot in the door." They long to blur the line between science and belief so their belief system is more easily swallowed. Perhaps, it should be mandated that all Christians teach scientific principle in their churches.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  12. Jim Rousch

    Anyone who believes that religionists and scientists can peacefully coexist should read about the Inquisition.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Jim Rousch

      I never said that there was no God. I only stated that science and religion cannot coexist. Read about what the Inquisitors did to scientists and read about what the state of Kansas has in mind.

      Only scientists should teach science.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  13. Concerned

    Um, NO.
    As in DO NOT ADD RELIGION, in ANY capacity, to science class.
    No science class should be teaching anything about religion ( except perhaps how it affects and deludes the human mind).
    Conversely, no religious instruction class has any business making statements in contradiction to known testable facts. In other words, religion needs to go away completely and has no role in critical thinking.

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

      Testable...you mean like the Big Bang Theory? HAHAHAHAHA.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Ben, long before our study of microbes was to a testable level, the theory of germs was postulated. Long before telescopes could test the theory that the earth was not the center of the universe, the theory was presented. Both I might add were met with laughter, derision and even the threat of death.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Ben – the hypothesis of the Big Bang (which was neither big, nor a bang) was that as the singularity expanded it became less dense, and cooled off. If this was what happened, they (the scientists) predicted that we should be able to "see" this cooling background temperature, or radiation.

      Guess what? It was there. Just like the prediction. And the really cool thing, is that you used to be able to "see" it yourself – at least until they did away with analog TV. All you had to do was set the tuner to where there wasn't a station in your area. All that flickering on the screen, and the hiss/pops – that is the Cosmic Background Radiation. The leftover remnants from the Big Bang.

      But Ben, if you had paid attention in basic science class in High School, you would have already known this.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  14. John

    This is a fantastic article. I found interesting the fact that many students believe in evolution and something else –

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

      And it's "accept" evolution. You wouldn't say believe in gravity would you? Leprachauns, gods and fairies are things one "believes" in.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Jdm

      But the problem is he didn't say what the students thought had a hand in making humans as we exist today along with evolution. Who says they think it's GOD? Some most likely do, but there are other things that could have helped that process.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  15. blind faith: religious rigidity

    Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, even though the extremo religious people would disagree. Scientists (at least any real one that actually has a career publishing their quality biological research) acknowledge that a "god" is possible (anything is possible), even in the form of a bearded man in the sky (though highly unlikely and on par with the likelihood of flying pink elephants). The difference between a scientific approach and a religious approach to explaining the world is that the religious view has been distorted by the ignorant into a view that is mutually exclusive from science. Only the religious are so rigid in their views.

    This view is plain wrong. Science IS proving the existence of a god, just not the archaic view of god as a being in the form of a human, in the sky, with a beard.

    God is all around us (energy, which is all we are), and when we just replace the word "god" with "universe" and you now have a view that is based off of evidence, and is inclusive of religion. Humans need to get away from the archaic views of god. When we die, yeas we go to a "heaven", just not the heaven on clouds in the sky that archaic scripture would lead the ignorant into believing; rather, our energy goes back into the pool of energy known as the UNIVERSE.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • skarphace

      Well, the only way you can say that the word "God" could also be used in place of the word "Universe" is if you believed that the universe was aware of itself. This theory is based on faith, not religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • skarphace

      "This idea is based on faith, not science", is what I meant to say.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  16. binky42

    The rest of the industrialized world is already beating us in science education, and they aren't mingling religion into their science lessons. Maybe we should take some tips from the countries that are doing it right, and keep evangelicals out of the classroom. I went to Christian schools, and they NEVER mentioned creationism in science class. It was restricted to theology, where it belonged.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  17. skarphace

    Many of you are stating that there is no connection between the study of evolution and the study of creationism. I disagree. Both are the study of our origin and neither theory is without holes. Even if it were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that humans evolved from another physical form, evolution still cannot explain the existance of the very first spark of life.

    There had to be a beginning: a point where life did not exist before and did exist after. Evolution cannot explain this because you cannot evolve a living organism from something that was not alive (or, at the very least, science cannot support this theory). Therefore, how did life begin? This question provides one link between science and religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • binky42

      Creationism isn't a study of anything. It is in a single book in the Bible, Genesis, and even that has conflicting accounts.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • skarphace

      binky: don't get me wrong. I was not referring to the Christian version of creationism. I was talking about creationism as a whole as it is discussed in all religions.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Paul

      Creationism is not a theory. It's not testable and those who believe in it are unable to change their beliefs. To consider it an alternative to science is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • skarphace

      Paul: don't twist my words. I never referred to creationism as a theory. When I mentioned "theory" I was talking about the very first spark of life. The theory of evolution cannot explain this occurance. This is what I was saying.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  18. Capercorn

    Speaking as a Roman Catholic myself, who wholeheartedly accepts the scientific account, I have to disagree completely with Prof. Eisen:

    Natural science has always been, and should remain, a discipline founded on positivist methodological naturalism. Mentioning any form of philosophy [be it ethics, metaphysics, or religion] has no place in any strictly science classroom.

    At the same time, I see no problem with classes that discuss relations between the sciences and the humanities. Their interplay does serve a major role in shaping the worldviews of scientists, as sociological data has shown time and time again.

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

      I think that studying the relations between the sciences and the humanities is exactly what Arri is proposing. He did not say that he taught religion in his biology class, merely that he gave the students the ability to take another course that discussed these relations.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  19. NoEfingWay

    It's okay that science doesn't have all the answers. That's what makes it work!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • blind faith: religious rigidity

      Yes!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  20. simmer ppl

    Why all the hate against religion? it just a form of spirituality which we all have, we all believe in something. Some people's belief just manifest in a traditional form of religion. But seriously, mature comments people.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • binky42

      Why all the hate against science? It's something the entire universe has in common.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • ReligionIs4Dolts

      Sure. We can't explain everything so let's just resort to stone age invention of an invisible man in the sky to explain away all the inexplicable! BS! I would rather keep searching for cause after cause...and causes for those causes....until we know all we can know.....instead of having to believe in magic!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • JT

      The "hate" against religion is not religion itself but when it sticks its nose where it does not belong. Keep you religion out of our public schools, courthouses and politics. You Christians in your tax-exempt churches stay on your side of the wall that separates church and state.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • ashrakay

      The war against religion is a war for the future of mankind. It's bound to get a little messy. Some people just can't accept that people who believe in fairy tales deserve a seat at the adult table.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:26 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.