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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. whosaidthat

    Just as soon as a Catholic, Muslim, Atheist, Unitarian, Lutheran, Buddhist, and Hindu can all agree that religion is science and should be included, I will consider it and not one second before. I can't even begin to tell you how bad an idea this is. Personally I would prefer it if people would keep their religious beliefs and views to themselves as I think it infringes on my right to the pursuit of happiness to have people preach at my front door!

    But keep it to yourself and your family. Don't subject others to your faith and mystic beliefs! You want to talk to me, write a peer reviewed paper that stands up to criticism from all beliefs and I will be there as a supporter. Otherwise any substantially advanced technology would appear to be magic (or mystical) and I don't want to hear about it.

    Show me proof!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  2. 2tired2care

    Religion is based on faith. Science is based on facts.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Nelos

      Correction:
      Religion is based on faith
      Science is based on theory

      Neither is wholly based on "fact" just what is "believed" to be fact and in both cases often contested. That is human nature to "believe" in something to that point that they think it's "fact".

      December 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • closetiguana

      Nelos- Christians believed the sun revolved around the earth for the bible told them so. It is no longer believed to be true, thanks to science. Please keep religion from developing minds.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • RNB

      The Bible does not say even once the sun revolves around the earth. It never says it is the center of the universe. Those were the assumptions by people who lived back then. Religion isn't evil, it's the people who make it that way. For many, religion has helped them to find greater meaning in life, just as science has helped you. I do not and will never believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive. For fundamentalists of BOTH sides? Sure. But for rational people? No.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • G.

      Look up the definition of scientific theory, Nelos, before you make yourself sound like an absolute fool to anyone that is partially informed.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  3. GrogInOhio

    "Integrate the information into your students’ lives and worldviews, including those based in religion or ethical systems, "

    The first part makes plenty of sense but the second is absolutely unnecessary. Why in the world would cellular biology need to be taught next door to a class that teaches the earth is 6,000 years old??? Not thanks... This may be the dumbest idea I've seen this year.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Matt

      Religion does not mean teaching science classes in the context of creationism.

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

      @Matt: You're absolutely right because neither religion nor creationism could withstand the harsh light of reality shone upon them by the facts of science. Fantasy always fades when confronted by reality and the truth, unless there is some psychosis involved.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  4. keef

    cnn loves the religious articles

    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Relictus

      Apparently, so do we. =)

      December 15, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  5. Joey

    This is ridiculous. The same argument that the creations makes about the particle that exploded in the big bang, can be made about god. The difference between creationist and "the rest of us," is that we admit, that the big bang is only a theory something creationist will not admit to about their "god theory." "The rest of us" realize there is more to it all than meets the eye, we just don't know yet, what that "something else" may be.

    Creationist using science to explain god - it makes no sense. Do creationist really think we're stupid enough to fall for the argument made in this video? There may very well be a Supreme being, or beings, but not in the sense creationist believe them to be.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Matt

      Just to clarify, Creationism and Intelligent Design are very different.

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

      @Matt: Intelligent Design is a form of Creationism and it is a stinging insult to the intelligence of the readers to claim otherwise.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • RNB

      All in your interpretation. It is NOT the same as fundamentalist Creationism, that much is true. You may look it up if you wish. Intelligent design takes the simple stance that the complexity we see around us and everything in the universe, whether evolution is true or not, had a beginning with the idea of design in mind. I go to college and I know of several scientists who work in the Biology department that, despite their views that evolution is true, also admit that the idea of evolution being set into place from laws created at the beginning of the universe is highly logical as well.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Matt

      Relictus, I am sorry you clumsily group the two together. However, no matter what you think the two represent, they are fundamentally different in many ways. This is not my opinion. The two schools of thought are vastly different, and should be treated as such. To say the two are the same or even similar is a strawman argument and insults the intelligence of the readers on cnn. To attack creationism is much more easier than to attack intelligent design.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Oi

      @Matt: Both are bunk, so your point is moot.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
    • Joe W

      Actually Intelligent Design was created by the Creationists to try to argue against evolution. No more no less

      December 16, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  6. Renee Marie Jones

    Intelligent design scholars? Egad! There is no such thing. A bunch of people screaming meaninless buzzwords, changing their definitions in mid sentence and makeing up stuff as they go along are NOT SCHOLARS. If you are teaching "intelligent design" then you are teaching LIES. STOP IT.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      So please provide some solid empirical proof of these "lies" =)

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

      I agree Creationism is not fact. However Intelligent Design has not been proven or disproven. It is in fact very misleading to state that Intelligent Design is a lie, when in fact it is a hypothesis, or belief that has yet to be proven. This is similar to gravity. WHY gravity works the way it works is only a theory. It has neither been proven on disproven. The LAW of gravity exists, however the workings of gravity are only a theory, or belief.

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

      I agree with Renee.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • MegaMagpie

      Matt, not this baloney again!!! For the ten thousandth time, Intelligent design is not a hypothesis. It is creationism dressed up to appear like science and nothing else. Can you give even 1 tiny example of how to test the intelligent design as a hypothesis?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • RNB

      Well, is there any true way you can test evolution in the process and show that animals change into other species? No, unless you had a time machine that could travel into the past and watch it over millions of years. The evidence is interpreted that way, and for the person who advocates intelligent design, the evidence is interpreted according to the fact that the overwhelming complexity and the laws that govern the universe could not have happened by mere chance and had to have some sort of guiding process. Period. It does not state evolution isn't true, in fact many people who believe in intelligent design believe in evolution as well. Just not the fact that all life is all a bunch of meat/water sacks with no design, no intention behind it at all.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Benbens

      @RNB...pretty sure they are studying evolution right now in labs with bacteria. The bacteria populations have genetically mutated over a span of a couple decades. Imagine what could happen in a few billion years.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Matt

      MegaMagPie, I would gladly continue this discussion, but only if you are willing to admit that there are fundamental differences between creationism and intelligent design. I do not wish to argue with someone who is not versed in the basic principles of two distinct ideas. I think creationism is bogus just like most people. However I will not use an illogical conclusion to argue against intelligent design by grouping it with creationism. Again, this is a strawman argument. Creationism has been proven false through potassium-argon isotope dating, which concluded the earth is actually over 4.5 billion years old. This however does not disprove that something else is going on behind the scenes that we cannot currently explain. This is why creationism is false, and why intelligent design is a belief yet to be proven or disproven. Maybe our schools should start with explaining the basic differences of the two ideas, as it is obvious many people confuse the two. If we are going to have an intelligent conversation, people need to know the basics behind what they are attempting to argue.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • G.

      You can't prove or disprove intelligent design – because it's not science. ID guys never admit to that except under oath 😀

      December 16, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • G.

      @Benbens – bacterial are altered in the lab over a several generations – this means BACTERIAL generations, not humans. Evolution of fast growing bacteria used in a lab can be driven over weeks.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  7. ProjectZ

    Teach Religion in Religion class if you want. I went to catholic High school and we had both.....I am now an athiest

    December 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  8. sharky

    I'm going to say no. Now the proper thing would be to teach a major religions class in school, but that will never happen as Atheists would go nuts.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Athe-yest

      really? I'm an atheist. One of the best classes I ever took in high school was a world religions class. In fact, I signed up for it after having taken individual classes studying other religions. In college, I went on to take classes in Christianity and in Buddhism, studying influential teachers, writers, and spiritual/religious leaders in those areas. Some of my favorite classes, taught by some of my favorite teachers. So...what was your point again?

      December 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Relictus

      Atheists tend to know more about religions than you do, sharky. They also tend to have higher levels of education. The church should never have allowed literacy to spread so widely. =)

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

      Really, is that so? Atheists are smarter than the average Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc? Really? So you're saying that less than 10% of the US population is all much smarter than the other 90%? Wow. Ironic how you claim fundamentalists are full of themselves, just look at yourself.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • Seandini

      Are you sure about that? I know more non-believers that are more tolerant to religious beliefs. I have taken a few World Religion classes and always the people who are dropped for being rude or disrespectful are the religious ideologues there to prove why there religion is the best. Non-believers go through life everyday having to hear or be told about something from religion as it is a large part of society. Anyone who thinks morals/ethics only comes from religious doctrine are naive. If we went by the bible, stoning your son to death would be acceptable for disobedience and it would be OK to kill gays, thieves and murderers. Morals/Ethics come from a society. This is why every country and/or state have different standards/laws. Religion tries to guide people to do the right thing most of the time, but the reality is, most people do not follow the religion they claim and usually do what they want for themselves or self interests. The fact this is ignored all the time is why non-believers get frustrated with religious people.

      December 16, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • G.

      @RNB

      Look it up, as education level increases – belief in religion decreases. Note that generally in these studies (which focus on western nations) Judiasm and Buddhism are usually similar to people who consider themselves athiests. Individuals with PhDs are largely non-religious. Yes, higher education does not necessarily mean someone is more intelligent, but at least it's something measurable unlike the Christian Fundamentalists.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  9. us1776

    If you want fairy tales, go to church.

    If you want science, go to class.

    Keep the religious fairy tales out of science class.

    .

    December 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • sharky

      How are they fairy tales?

      December 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • closetiguana

      Do you take the sun revolving around earth as a fact?

      December 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • AdmrlAckbar

      And you have a lot of solid empirical proof to back up this fairytale hypothesis? Or maybe you are just another doofus on the net with an opinion?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • RNB

      What is wrong with you people? It does not say anywhere in the Bible that the sun revolves around the earth. It was interpreted as being that way just as a lot of other things were assumed without the Bible even saying anything on the subject.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Oi

      @RNB: They put Galileo under house arrest for the last years of his life because of just that. See how dangerous the fantasy of religion is?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  10. Nacho1

    Everyone who is anti religion is a dork!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • sharky

      Well no, they actually are not.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • George

      Says the person with the cheesy name.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • BeeZee

      Amazingly tolerant.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Oodoodanoo

      I guess you're proof that not everyone who is a dork is anti-religious.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  11. closetiguana

    The reason why religion isn't taught in science is the same reason it's not taught in history. BECAUSE IT'S NOT REAL!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • sharky

      Ok how is religion not real?

      December 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • closetiguana

      OK clarification: Stories contained in religion i.e Noah collecting animals for an ark, great flood etc

      December 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • closetiguana

      sharky- You knew what I meant

      December 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • George

      Religion is real enough but God is not.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  12. Nathan

    How about no.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  13. us1776

    Religion is the worst thing to ever happen to the human race.

    .

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Nacho1

      Along with your brain.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • sharky

      No the human race is the worse thing to happen to the human race. Removing religion won't improve matters.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • George

      Me thinks you struck a nerve with Mr. Cheesy

      December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • RNB

      HUMANS are the worse thing to happen to the human race, not religion. WE do terrible things to each other, religion is just one crutch that humans use to somehow justify their actions, even though most of their actions do in fact go against the religion's tenants... All communist states in history have been staunchly atheist, and were they successes? NO. They killed millions of their own people and persecuted those who held any religious beliefs at all. Look up the Soviet Union. The KGB enforced a state atheist policy that terrorized millions. Or are you just going to ignore this?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • clearfog

      What about rap music.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Seandini

      Good example RNB lol. Communist countries have and will never be atheist countries. You are going off the assumption that a government that FORCES you to follow THERE RELIGIOUS PERSON/CONTROLLER is somehow atheist, yet this is completely untrue. Communist countries have holidays for there present leaders just like other "worldly" religions. I do love the fact that you cleverly decided to forget about a 1000 years of persecution from Christian/Catholic rule of the world. What exactly do you think the Dark ages were about follow by the Renaissance. What do you think what happened in Africa, The Americas and Australia was all about to the Natives? Become like us(christian) or perish. That sounds so much more humanitarian then communist regimes!

      December 16, 2011 at 3:14 am |
  14. PJ Chesterfield

    Doesn't anyone know how to use the word "fraught" anymore?

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Oodoodanoo

      Sure: "Dat beer's got a lotta fraught on top."

      December 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  15. kurtinco

    I've got a better idea. Why don't we teach science as part of every sermon delivered by so called people of faith?

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • RNB

      Why don't both sides teach about the other side in an effort to perhaps learn more? Religion and science are not mutually exclusive, and it is only when we learn this as a people that we will create a better world. It's fundamentalism on BOTH sides that ruins any union from happening.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Dr. Dan

      why do we have to talk about sides. There are many religions in the world, they all claim things and are not mutually exclusive. Then there is the body of knowledge we describe as science which provides a different, and not necessarily mutually exclusive way of looking at the world. There are no "camps" fighting a war over this issue. Just individuals, some more ignorant and less accepting than others.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  16. Aesop

    Ethics & science, philosophy of science, fine, there are many ethical and philosophical issues in science that could/should be mentioned and discussed. But religion is not ethics.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  17. Hemp Is a Native Plant

    Faith is the enemy of reason. Teach religion, but not in a science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  18. JP

    There is nothing scientific about religion. If anything, ethics and religion should be taught in history class, where you learn time and time again that it's one gigantic mistake.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • sharky

      Science and religion are rather twined together. It does not mean I want either taught in the same class.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Relictus

      Ethics is a topic separate from religion. It's a shame that Ethics are not taught in class.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  19. William Demuth

    My take is you are an idiot.

    Why not add astrology?

    Science is NOT relative, and religion is BULLS@@T.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  20. Marcia

    This guy has it backwards the religion/ myth of choice should be the ones trying to fit into the modern world by teaching where they intersect with science. Science is like the old Dragnet show " The facts ma'm and just the facts" How you want to bend them is your problem not the whole school age population who may or may not agree with you on religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Matt

      Science = (1cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 egg bake 375 for 30 minutes = cookies ) You still need a baker....

      December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Observer

      Matt,

      Even if you "need a baker", that's no proof that the "baker" is God. It could be the result of a cooking class by a group of teenage zombies.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Noocrat

      "Science = (1cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 egg bake 375 for 30 minutes = cookies ) You still need a baker...."

      The need of a creator or a beginning is a very human concept, derived from our mortal minds. Ironically most religious people have no problem whatsoever believing god has always existed and always will exist. So your argument falls down, by your own argument a god would need a creator.

      For all we know there could've been an incomprehensible amounts of matter and anti-matter adrift in a void for all eternity that one "day" collided and initiated the big bang. Or the creation and destruction of the universe itself could be a cyclical/yoyo process of big bangs and big crunches.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • RNB

      "For all we know there could've been an incomprehensible amounts of matter and anti-matter adrift in a void for all eternity that one "day" collided and initiated the big bang. Or the creation and destruction of the universe itself could be a cyclical/yoyo process of big bangs and big crunches."

      Then why do Atheists like to assert the "fact" that all life and a whole universe full of specific laws and rules is nothing more than sacks of meat and water that came from a pile of goo on a hot rock a long long time ago and got "smarter" to make us today? That everything is just an "accident" no doubt about it? If you say "for all we know" then how can you say that you know for sure?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:17 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.