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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. Brandon

    I agree, but for different reason. If you teach both, a rational student will find that Evolution is well-supported while creationism is a lie.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  2. TM

    No. Wrong. Religion does NOT belong in a science curriculum. Ethics is a different matter. While ethics can broadly exist quite well separated and free from religion, the reverse is not true. Asking whether or not something scientifically, or medically, possible should be done when weighed against a "greater good" is exactly the realm of ethics. And it can ALL be explored without the addition the exclusionary blinders inherent in discussions that include religion. There is no other necessary proof of this than the experience of Galileo. We would still be looking at the Moon in ignorance instead of having walked upon it had we allowed religion to overrule science. And the best choice for my health is a private discussion between me and my physician, not my priest.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • catholic engineer

      I agree that when you ill, the doctor is your man rather than your priest. But when your doctory says "there's nothing more I can do. You've got about three months" what then? You're all alone then. What will you ask for? A priest, or someone to read a few lines out of On the Origins of Species? But knowing you're only an organism rather than a person may be all the comfort you'd need.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  3. lithstar61

    Sheep in wolves clothing comes to mind when reading this article. To understand how seemingly intellectually dishonest is Mr Arri Eisen's discussion on religion in science class, please read his essay "Unreasonable Atheists" written July 31, 2009. Don't let him fool you, it appears he is clearly a theist and pro-religion. Religion should be taught at home and science in the classroom, they are mutually exclusive. Being an Athiest doesn't mean you don't respect others right for religious freedom but it also doesn't mean that it should be required teaching in the classroom. Moral foundations and ethics begin at home and stay at home with the family, not the school, state, or federal government.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Woo Woo

      Doesn't look like this guy fooled many people. Typical dishonest theist. The "Intelligent Design" people are so dishonest they will not admit that the "intelligent Designer" is god because this would mean they are plugging a religious view point. Anyone interested in seeing the fraud of Intelligent Design check out the transcript of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial transcript.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Mike

    You don't teach religion in science class you twit.

    You teach religion in a religion class, or you teach it at church.

    The problem is that they don't teach doubt, they teach faith. And faith by their definition means absolution. It contradicts science at its core; the two cannot coexist. Until religion extrapolates to doubt and the comprehension that there are questions that we simply do not have answers to – yet – then the two need to be kept as far apart as possible lest we slip into another dark age, except imagine a dark age with modern technology.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  5. skarphace

    My only reservation to discussing theology in a science class is that it could very well lead to a promotion of one religion over another. If the scientist teaching the class was an Athiest, then I wouldn't have a problem with such discussions because the instructor would be more likely to be objective.

    However, if the teacher was heavily invested in one particular religion (or even heavily invested against one religion like Islam), then I cannot see how the instructor could teach without giving more credence to those ideas which belonged to their faith alone. If this happened, the class would cease to be a science class at all.

    Because of the likelyhood of this self-promotion occurring, I would be against a large scale discussion of religion in a science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  6. Kyle

    Science doesn't need religion or ethics taught along with it, what it needs is a healthy dose of critical thinking, of logic, and argumentation. Scientists are usually logical, but do not know how to communicate that especially in a situation where people disagree.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  7. D

    No!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  8. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    Religion in a science class. Mmmkay... How about adding some French literature, economics, and art history as well?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  9. richard

    As usual, a college professor [i have been one as well as a high school biology teacher] probably hasn't been actively in a high school biology class in the real world for way too long to make such a ridiculous proposal. He should be ashamed by writing such drivel. My experience is that education professors should step back into the real world, where classrooms are overcrowded, under funded, have little or no equipment, and sometimes laughably outdated textbooks. Get a life Arri!

    December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  10. demeter

    I can understand using context in order to teach something to someone that might not otherwise be interested. That is no only fine by me, it's pretty smart. But science is the study of real things. Evolution, Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics – these aren't just stories written in a book and passed down for ages. They are provable. They exist. Religion has absolutely nothing to do with science. It is a trap to think anything otherwise. When I go to church, I don't think about science. I think about life, family, hope. Why do people want to combine the two?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  11. Henry Santana

    Ethics yes, religion no. And to be clear: Religion is not the source of ethics, they just appropriated the notion. Religious people are always trying to present religion as on par with science, it is not. Science deals with questions, experiments, testing and invites critical challenges. Religion deals with magic, questioning doctrine is not allowed.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  12. VonDoom

    Where to start. Initially this article talks about "Science" but the writer focuses on Biology more than anything else. I understand he teaches Biology however "Science" as a subject is quite a bit larger. People can believe that Evolution isn't a proven science when it actually is. Creationism (in the words of Dawkins) is the celebration of ignorance. It's Evolution for the lazy who have no have no basis on the logic or truth to it other than "my pastor and Bible say so". Those few so-called scientists who try to argue Creationism and refute Evolution are about 99.99% non-educated hacks who get their degrees from diploma mills and non-accredited schools. They would argue that the world is flat just by pointing at the horizon and refute everything else.
    Students in this country are already ignorant for the most part when it comes to comparing educational standards world-wide. Teaching something like Creationism over proven, sound and logical science is going to make this drop even lower. Might as well create courses in school that endlessly argue what kind of swallows could carry coconuts.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • darwin`s evolved nads

      Like!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  13. BoldGeorge

    It's interesting to note that as evolution and all non-creationism belief has been taught in our schools, this country (and more so our education system), has been on a downward spiral. And you can't blame Christianity for this (as many do) because religion is not taught in public schools, at least it hasn't been for the past few decades. So, it makes one wonder why our education, and our country as a whole just keeps on tanking.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Woo Woo

      Wow. Evolution is taught in school and this is responsible for the educational system's decline. Not too good at figuring out correlation vs. causation it seems.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • HellBent

      BoldGeorge's definition of decline would be the decline in status of the middle age white male. I say this as a middle aged white male.

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

      Ironic that more secular Northern European and Asian countries that teach science without injecting pseudo-science like intelligent design are killing us in International science tests.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • phred

      But religion is taught by parents, who also drag their kids to church. So, really, you can still blame christianity. Since formal education is not the full extent of learning, what you can't blame is formal education in and of itself.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, for Pete's sake, BG. Do you really not grasp the fact that correlation does not equal causation?

      No, you probably don't. You were too busy reading the Babble.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • BoldGeorge

      Evolution is based in theory, chaos, and chance...kind of what our school system is like. You can critisize my views on why I think ther eis a decline in our educational system and our country's economical and political system, but you are still not giving your opinions as to why that is. I am...but remember, it's opinion. What's yours?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • Frank

      You raise a very pertinent question and a very valid one.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • BoldGeorge

      Frank...thanks, but I think I might be the only one raising a question here. Everyone else is just critisizing my views.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Mark

      Give Galileo a call there BG, maybe Copernicus too, you know you bible belt bozos are really, really really scary!

      December 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  14. Mark

    This is not news nor a news worthy 'opinion', it is typical hypocrite southern Baptist lunacy and fantasy right out of the dark ages insulting those of us who teach "SCIENCE" and live in the 21st century.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  15. Alexander

    A lot of teachers do in fact touch on this subject. However, I think a lot of professors do see it as a bit unnecessary and just takes up time from what the particular course is supposed to be about. Take a class like evolution for instance, they have one semester to teach students what it is, how it happens, and what the mechanisms of it are. If they had to go deep into some type of ethical discussion about creationism you have to cut something else out that is more related to the subject that is supposed to be taught. It's not like they're scared of adding the element to classes, it's just that there isn't room for it. The professor who taught evolution at my college did in fact touch on intelligent design towards the end of the semester, but she couldn't go far into the discussion because that's now what the class is about. Instead they should just implement a course solely for that purpose and not take time away from classes that need to teach some very specific things or the students won't have a fundamental understanding to move forward with.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  16. Woo Woo

    Keep the fairy tales and pseudo-science out of the class room. Why don't we go ahead and teach alchemy in chemistry class while we're at it? Creationist want to bypass the tough rigorous rules science plays by and get a free pass by lobbying to have their garbage forced into public schools. "Intelligent design" is creationism in a lab coat and is nothing but a discredited argument from ignorance. Michele Behe and ID was destroyed in the Dover trial. There are no "intelligent design" scholars (or scientists). This author needs to crack a few books before he writes an article next time.

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

      We're already teaching fake history, and other myths like terrorism, global warming, etc. etc. School is BS. Mainstream science is a joke, and operates more like a religious cult today than actual application of the scientific method. Going around ranting about the Big Bang Theory is no different than ranting about a God creating the universe. Neither has more or less weight. People just choose what makes them most comfortable. Some people are disturbed by the idea of intelligent design. Some people are disturbed about life being a random mess. None of us know the truth,

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

      Bill,

      "None of us know the truth,"

      Good advice. Now take your own advice the next time you rant about global warming and terrorism.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Woo Woo

      Bill, one view – science, is backed up by evidence, testing, prediction, and falsifiability. The other, religion – is made up and has no verifiable evidence. The weight is on the side that has the evidence. So yes, evolution and the big bang have more weight than "the Holy Ghost spoke to me".

      December 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Peter Grenader

      Hey Bill – sounds like you would support teaching conspiracy theory over anything else.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  17. richard

    since science is not ruled by dogma, falsehoods, and it's afraid to ask tough questions about nearly everything [nothing is sacred], perhaps we should add science to religious classes...

    December 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  18. jew zeus

    Science is a process of comparing the best most understood factual information that can be evaluated threw algebra an calculus under the terms of theory and law.
    Religion is not.
    The laws of science are based on proven facts.
    The theory of science is based on popularized reliable information that has a steady economic or political advantage for the empirical system of weights measures and energy's.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  19. Lukewarm

    I may be wrong here, but I thought theology was the study of religion which as biology is the study of animals, chemistry is the study of well chemicals. Pathology is the study of the human body and astrology is the study of outer space and all it's content. In my oppinion, creatuib should be taught in theology and sunday school, evolution should be taught in biology class and the big bang should be taught in astonomy & geology class. In my experience the bible only gives a generalization of what happened. It doesn't account for dinasaour and neanderthal bones. In order to teach creation in a science class you would have to show some sort of proof of the exsistance of this so called creater outside of saying it was told in a book. With evolution there are fossols of very simulare creatures living thousands of years apart yet not simutaniously. Even with gravity we can drop a penny and it falls not float. In sunday school I learned that God said let there be light and there was light. No real explination on HOW god created light. Just that he said it so it happened. The laws of thermal dynamic and wave lengths give me more information on how light exsists then a passage in Genisis that say's God said it be so. I do not discredit Creation but I just have not seen enough evidence to support it as of yet. When I have more see more evidence showing that creation is a truer picture then I will give it more credit. But even as ithat stands, I am not sure that there was a beginning (big bang) perhaps the universe just always exsisted. I need to research more on that aspect.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  20. D

    To seperate the empirical scineces from Theology and Philosophy are fine in so far as they ar scholastic disciplnes but of course the entire purpose of a true education, that is a liberal education as it has been understood in Western Civilization is to make people more fully Human. Students then are to incorporate all knowledge in to themselves and then be transformed by this truth, o become more fully true...
    Recall the old dictum "beware the man of one book." There have been those who have not lived in the truth, they studied one subject with great precision and magnanimity but lost track of the truth in its entireity under other subjects.

    For example, the Nazi Doctors who did horrifying experiments on human beings. They were great scientists, but lost track of ethics, human anthropology, and truth in its totality and therefore they were not even great scientists or doctors...

    Empirical Science can be isolated for disciplinary reasons but never apart from the context of a broader college tht has its goal to form students in all truth.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
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About this blog

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.