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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. Ed K.

    I grew up in a rationalist, atheistic home, where "Science", not "God", was preeminent. My father was a dedicated immunologist who utterly disregarded religion, and considered it the stuff of inferior minds. If there were unanswered questions, he would assure us, Science would eventually find the solutions. "Scientific Socialism", the end-point and goal of the whole evolutionary process, was that world political system that would propel man onward to new and unknown heights of glory. That entire ideological superstructure upon which my life had been built fell to pieces during the iconoclasm of the Sixties. I rang the doorbell desperately of the last option I would ever have pursued: "God", who answered with consummate kindness. Divine love, I came to realize, is the unifying theme of the Universe which underlies the order and magnificence which so captivates our minds!

    December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • captain america

      That sounds real stupid. Thanks for putting that out there and ruining our evenings.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Truth

      A poor lost soul. I'm sorry for your weakness.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • ashrakay

      I envy your upbringing, but I'm sorry for your impatience. I suspect your parents would love you anyway, even if it's not "Divine" love.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • JT

      Oh, you grew up in the sixties. That certainly explains your rambling. You should've laid off the shrooms.

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

      You describe a generic "god", which frankly isn't very interesting. It's not pertinent to discussions either of science (which requires fact) or religion (which requires specific dogma, doctrine, and/or scripture). Now if you want to step it up a notch and pick a god that is well described, such as Yehweh, Jesus, Thor, Zeus, or Shiva, then maybe there is somewhere to go with the discussion beyond talking about your pschological binky.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  2. MK54

    Science involves thoughful hypothesis followed by experimental testing. Religion is people just making things up to fill gaps in their understanding. The don't belong together.

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

    skarphace wrote, "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."

    No. This is wrong. None of the thousand different creation myths we're found so far is a theory. None of them are even a hypothesis. All of them are religious mythology.

    The study of evolution is not the study of first life. That is the field of abiogenesis. Different fields in different domains. One is biology. One is chemistry.

    Also, in science, we don't "prove" things. Science explains things. Proofs are for maths and ethanol..

    Of course, if you had paid attention in high school science class, you would have known this.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  4. Matt

    What is the point of the headline and the article in the first place? Just to create outrage? Religion is not science. There is a science to morality, but science is not defined by morality. Arri Eisen is just another useless-ass PhD trying to assert his ridiculous opinion on a populace that sorely needs more science and less religion.

    Religion and morality are not the same. Morality comes from responsibility and wisdom, not parabolic nonsense like, " the lord giveth and the lord taketh away". Stupid. Just stupid.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • ashrakay

      To CNN, it's not an article until you've found a way to tie it to religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  5. TJ

    While I think that there real world application of science in the high school era is lacking in America, introducing religion (any type) sounds like a mistake. What is needed is a real world application for all science courses; Chemistry, Physics, & Biology (among the other associated disciplines). Bringing religion into a classroom where observation is key (knowing that faith requires accepting the unobserved) seems to bring a larger disconnect within the curriculum. The better solution is pay teachers better (and protect them from over-zealous parents), require better education for teachers, and up the standards for these courses in high school.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  6. What

    LIBERAL ARTS?!?!?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • nrog

      I'm pretty sure you don't know what the term means.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  7. nrog

    There is no problem discussing religion in science class. The problem arises when we pretend the two are equivalent. Science is about evidence and about examining that evidence with the scientific method. Religion is about faith, and since faith by definition is belief without evidence, by definition it is not science. If an idea postulated by a theist has supporting evidence that can be examined using the scientific method, then that idea ceases to be religion and falls squarely under the definition of science.

    As a science teacher I would have no fear of discussing creationism in a biology class, provided I could make it clear that it has no evidence supporting it, and provided I would be able to discuss how the scientific method rules it out. I would indeed invite students to present any evidence they have or refute any couter evidence if they good, because by shining this kind of light on the subject, the answer would become obvious to anyone without a closed mind. If people want to continue to believe it anyway, that's strictly their business.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  8. risky

    My cousin goes to a christian school. I still remember when she was 5 years old; she came home and told my 4 year old sister, "you're going to hell because you don't listen to me." Ahh religion, where would we be without you.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Cancer Boy

      We'd have a cure for cancer.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  9. Truth

    This boils my blood. Religion has NO place in the likes of intelligent advancement. Teaching dogma, ignorance, and anger is a ridiculous proposition. Religion shuns questioning of theories, whereas REAL science (that didn't originate from a santa-clause style story book) encourages it. Why would religion have a place in the classroom? Unless you're the Westboro Baptist Church or the Taliban, don't brainwash these would-be intelligent kids with some "friend in the sky" nonsense.

    Let's be honest, the only reason why kids aren't interested in doing well in school anymore is because America has softened up. The sciences help weed out the kids who are going to do something with their lives vs. the ones who are going to sit in Zuccotti Park and complain about things. I'm all for getting kids more interested – but it's not with religion (ugh, even the word kills me inside a little), it's with real-world results. Please, stop spreading lies. This isn't supposed to be Fox News, it's CNN.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  10. Observer

    No problem if he wants to set up classes on comparative religions. Okay with you Christians?

    December 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  11. captain america

    I'm willing to bet that 75% of you each have the last 36 copies of auto trader sitting in your living rooms.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  12. HellBent

    Maybe we should also be teaching math in English class and geography during gym.

    Sigh.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Tr1Xen

      LOL I know, right?!

      December 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • scruffy

      well said.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • interdisciplinary education

      Actually I attend an elite small liberal arts college in the Northeast where one of the best courses is a freshman introductory course on the mathematics of art. The course is taken by a lot of kids who did not have a love for math in high school but gain a true interest in math via the interesting course. I think there is something to be said for interdisciplinary education.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
  13. Mark Herbert

    We do teach religion in science classes. The science of sociology and psychology examine it all the time. Ethics is part of the scientific process of good research as well. The reconciliation of religion and science is up to the person once they have been presented with the information. The conclusions of how things inter-work has to be made by the individual. If you tell them how you think they interact you may shut down their ability to think and reason for themselves. Having doubts and trying to find answers for them is part of the critical thinking process. If anything teach them that process and leave the what if discussions to circles outside the classroom.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  14. ashrakay

    Studies have shown that much like cigarette smoking addiction, religious brainwashing is much more effective if introduced at a younger age before higher reasoning functions develop. For this reason alone, religion should not be introduced in any classroom situation.

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

      Then we should stop teaching kids about evolution. Any reasonable creature would realize how ludicrous it is. Even Darwin admitted it was hogwash. Where are all of the intermediate species that should be roaming the earth? Earth should be littered with them.

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

      @Ben, either you intentionally left off the rest of Darwin's quote, or you never fully read his work. Darwin never said his work was hogwash. Clear and blatant troll.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Observer

      Ben,

      So is it smarter to believe in talking snakes, unicorns, and how the earth could stop spinning 1,000 mph with no effects?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Adam

      Ben-

      You haven;t got a clue as to how evolution works. Just an idea of how you think it should work. Go read The Greatest Show on Earth by Dawkins and perhaps you will begin to understand. Thank you. That is all.

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

      Ben, go back to staring blankly at Fox News, you unthinking moron. You clearly know nothing about the most basic tenets of evolution, because if you did, you would know that (1) there is no such thing as an 'intermediate species', fool, and (2) Darwin NEVER renounced his own teachings. He gave half-hearted, untrue statements that seemed ambiguous after religious zealots such as yourself threatened his life because the radical truths that he was uncovering were exposing their religious delusions as the ridiculous fantasies that they are.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Ben, you assume "we" aren't all actually the intermediate species. Do you think about these things before you say them or are you just winging it?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • scruffy

      i have a degree in biology and anthropology and work in science and from everything i've ever learned...evolution is real, my man. vestigiality is all around you. i'm not going to question your beliefs (to each their own) but i would just say first do some research on some different species and see the changes that have occurred...then make your argument.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  15. ZzwilhelmzZ

    worst idea since social security and welfare

    December 15, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  16. Ben

    Darwin: "To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberrations, could have been formed by natural selection seems, I frankly confess, absurd in the highest degree."

    December 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Observer

      Even by buying your argument, you offer no proof of the existence of God from the Bible.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • lolwut

      nice job quote mining Darwin there.

      The rest of that quote, "Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory."

      Go troll somewhere else.

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

      The key word is SEEMS absurd. He went on to say that it really isn't absurd:

      …If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

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

      So? I don't call religion science, and have no interest in proving it to anybody. But you call evolution science. Science needs to be observable and reproducible. You can't do that with evolution.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • HellBent

      And Einstein thought that quantum mechanics was hogwash initially. Just because Darwin initially postulate the theory doesn't mean he got it all correct.

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

      Emphasis on "seems". Before proof, everything seems to be unexplainable. Thus we have science. Religion does not bother with explanations, it just jumps right to the conlcusion.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • sdp

      Why don't you intelligent design types every finish this quote? You know, with the part where the aforementioned text is shown to be a rhetorical device, and Darwin goes on to describe exactly how the eye could have been evolved through natural selection?

      I guess that would defeat your goals though, wouldn't it?

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

      Yeah, troll much? Way to selectively quote Darwin. I've also selectively gathered things you've posted. Ben said "evolution... is... proof..."

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

      The amount of evidence supporting the theory of evolution is overwhelming. It is the foundation of our understanding of modern biology. This theory not only passes the test of rigorous peer review by experts across several independent fields of study, it is more universally agreed upon than germ theory of the theory of gravity. Review all of the evidence and you will conclude that the term "belief in evolution" makes no sense, as it is an observable fact.

      December 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Adam

      Ben-

      Evolution is observable. Look up the peppered moth or the Lenski E. Coli experiment.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @sdp, it's like how they selectively read the bible and leave out the parts where god commands the murder of women and children.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Nick

      Your argument that evolution doesn't count as science because its not observable shows how profoundly simple-minded you really are. I guess electrons don't exist either....Go get the special services you need, there is funding for that sort of thing.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • nrog

      Ben, evolution of readily observable, so your contention is wrong. Adaption in the wild is observable merely by looking. Adaptation under controlled conditions can be predicted and then observed.

      Perhaps you mean speciation? But speciation works on a much longer timescale than your miserable 100 years of life so you have never seen it. But it doesn't need to be observed in order to be valid. It only needs to be observable in principle.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Ben – you got caught in typical creationist lie. I wonder when you will apologize?

      December 16, 2011 at 7:51 am |
  17. Jay

    keep your religion in church and science in the lab and classroom.

    We all know how well galileo fared with the religious zealots "helping" his research.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • ZzwilhelmzZ

      you are my new hero

      December 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  18. Ben

    Darwin: "There are two or three millions of species on earth, sufficient field, one might think, for observation, but it may be said today that in spite of all the efforts of trained observers, not one change of species is on record."

    December 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Jay

      Darwin did not have access to the resources we have today, and fyi you, the human are physically and mentally evolving as an animal – just look t the physical differences of our own species based on generations of habitation in certain locations, our skin, physique, eye color, body structure have adapted to conform to our natural environs.

      Your baby toe is a good example, that sucker is going to continue tog et smaller till it's gone. just a tiny useless nub. just like that ovoid resting on your shoulders. 😛

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

      Explain the fossils found that resemble both ape and man and are purely neither. Were they from the ark?

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

      "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you, This is not a message of hate - this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor." –Pat Robertson

      December 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Observer

      How many of the 2 or 3 million species were paired up on the ark? Kind of crowded, don't you think?

      December 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Adam

      Was my puggle on the ark? I'm pretty sure they didn't exist 40 years ago.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @achepotle, HA!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • ashrakay

      And please explain how Noah got all of the animals back to their perfect ecosystems. Did he have a special boat to break through the ice to get the penguins back to Antarctica?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • nrog

      Evolution is everywhere if you have eyes to see. You are hanging your hopes on speciation, but species is only a convenient taxonomy, and in any case the evidence is rigth in front of your face in the geologic record. Look at the record and as you go back in time you see species come and go, and later species clearly related to their predecessors, and the further back you go you will find fewer species, and simpler, and ultimately none.

      Also, two plus two equals four.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  19. achepotle

    Why not simply arrest openly religious people...send them to literal reeducation camps....for as long as it takes....

    December 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  20. Flappy

    If you incorporate religion into a science class then it is no longer a science class. Sometimes more benefit is gained by challenging a world view rather than catering to preexisting notions. If you really believe all you need to know is a magic man in the sky will grant all your wishes then you might as well hand in all your computers, cars, iPhones, ipads and every other product of technology and move to an Amish commune.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:43 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.