home
RSS
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. ashrakay

    There is of course a place for religion in the science class—its place is under the microscope. Just like we have discovered, KLF14 a.k.a., the fat gene, we should search out the "religion" gene and better understand how to control it, and potentially one day free our children from its enslavement.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • tnmtl

      Yes!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  2. mickey1313

    Linking morals ethics with the bible is totally false. There is nothing morally good about the bible, it is a filthy vile work of poorly writen propaganda.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  3. Strange1-2

    With all due respect to Dr. Eisen, his experience with students at Emory will not elicit the same type of response from fundamentalists in the "homeland" and way from the thoughtful university setting. I've been teaching for over 40 years in the community college setting and there are two unmistakable trends: 1) religious positions are becoming so hardened at to discount everything and anything that may or appears to challenge their fundamentalist views and 2) there is an organized and powerful movement in this country to challenge the teaching (and teachers) of anything except fundamentalism. Clearly it can be frustrating, but at this level I've actually had students turn in exams or papers with a statement that they would "rather fail than to participate in something that violated their religious beliefs." And, yes, those students received an F and, from my perspective, that is a failure in more than a grade. Thirty years ago that experience would have been a rare event; today it is commonplace and happens every semester. What is most frightening, however, is that there is a concerted and determined effort by fundamentalists to acquire board positions as well as administrative and faculty positions. It isn't just America's science literacy that is at stake.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  4. John Richardson

    Disgraceful. How about getting some ethics into religion?

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

      !!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • mickey1313

      to true, ethics and religon are mutually exclusive terms, they simply do not go together.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  5. Holy

    Mythology, whether Christian, Hindu, Greek, Norse, or other has no place in a classroom with science.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  6. Future Scientist

    While I can appreciate the author's reasonable attempt to bridge the gap (more like gaping chasm) between the scientifically educated and the anti-science religious fundamentalists in this country, this solution has some major flaws. For one, this assumes that introducing irrelevant information into foundational science courses (i.e., religion and ID) will improve the acceptance of scientific facts in context of texts written 50+ years after the events they claim to chronicle. Intelligent design is not a theory, nor does it have a place in fundamental science education, if even for comparative purposes, because it does not function on the fundamental principles of science. "Creation" cannot be proven, tested, or otherwise credited by any means and should not stand side by side with theories founded on many years of reproducible experiments. If the goal in this suggestion is to depolarize a field of study with a large group so ignorantly polarized from it, why not introduce courses in ethics at an early age to help students think critically about how we evaluate things reasonably or emotionally? The other major flaw that stems from this is that the message from fusing science with religious indoctrination will not lead to a more reasonable scientific community, it will create mass confusion in the fundamental principles underlying scientific thought and create a generation of pseudo-science minded individuals with sloppy understanding and reasoning skills to evaluate future discoveries as unbiased as possible.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • gotri1

      An excellent and thoughtful response to a rather controversial subject. Many thanks for sharing!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  7. Joseph McIver

    Schools should be able to teach religions once Church's lose their tax exempt status. If they want their theories, that mind you have zero scientific backing in a place of education, they should have to help pay for the time the schools take teaching it.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  8. streetsmt

    Science in science courses. Ethics and philosophy in arts classes. People should take both, just not in the same class.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Future Scientist

      Could not agree more. Though I think an introduction to ethics before college would be ideal.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Robb

      Ok... but don't you think that it is important for students at any level to make connections and see the connections? A lot of my favorite college courses revolved around bridging two different types of disciplines together, and it not only made me love science more but it also help me change how I think about problems and help with issues I had with my faith for the better.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Future Scientist

      Robb, his point is not that we shouldn't make connections. Science classes at any level are all about connections between observed phenomena. Whether it be physical properties attributed to mathematical and predictable behaviors, chemical properties governed by that physical world, or living systems influenced by all of the above, the complexity and interrelatedness of topics are certainly covered in these classes. The point here is that ethics, whether that be based solely in philosophy or some religious foundation, is an entire category on its own devoted to connecting and bridging those topics. Your creative design courses such as painting and sculpture don't try to bridge their usefulness in biology, just as science classes should not fill the requirement of another course with the sole purpose of doing so (for my art analogy, the equivalent courses would be structural biology and bioinformatic approaches).

      December 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  9. lalverson

    Religion should be taught only in the home by the parents. It should not be used in the classroom. Ethics should be first shown and reinforced in the home by the parents. Schools and governments should never take the place of parents. God cannot be proven or dis-proven by any means currently known. Science is a method to derive truth thru experimentation and being able to replicate a observed effect. Religion only states "God's Will" for observed effects.

    Personally I think that God and science are allot closer than we currently understand but I also believe that only a parent can show and teach faith. Church can show you what the bible says, that is the parts that the church say are right. Since the bible has not had any real revisions since (reportedly) since it writing it world view is rather limited and stagnate.

    Science asks "How" not "Why". A parent should be able to provide a "why".

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

      Yeah, good luck with that. Are you saying that parents shoudl actually be responsible for their children and not the government or government workers (ie. educators)?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • lolwut

      No one knows the ultimate "why" and there probably isn't one. To suggest that some religion/belief system has some sort of extra insight into "why" the universe and everything within it currently exist is just plain moronic.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  10. sharoom

    I really disagree with this author. All he has described is a bioethics class, not a science class, and if you want to take a bioethics class, they are already there. I think the only way to remedy the disconnect between students and biology is to provide more hands-on opportunities in the classroom (i.e. a simple lab setup with bench space). Science is a discipline of observation and when I was a student, it was really boring to just sit in a class and have someone "describe" to me what a cell looks like. I concede that this is necessary for introducing what a cell is, but I will tell you that I became much more interested in the subject when I could actually see and manipulate the cell under a microscope. Besides, a lot of the time spent in science is fiddling around with the tools and instruments. Giving students an early start on this with hands-on projects will be much more beneficial.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  11. matt

    Ridiculous. You want religion? Go to a church. Keep that nonsense out of science!!

    December 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Jon the Atheist

      I agree with Matt

      December 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      I agree with Jon.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  12. mike from iowa

    The best thing would be to ban religion from the planet. Religion is a mental disease which has been ruining life for thousands of years. It is as insane as beleiving in tooth fairies, or that the Earth is the center of the universe. All religion divides. Religion enables dictatorships and death. Nothing good comes out of religion. The Catholics Church supported Nazi War Criminals, and it hordes art and treasures that belong to mankind. END RELIGION NOW.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Jake

      Spoken like a true person who stands against persecution.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Eddy

      Religion ruled the dark ages. Science is what enlightened us. The two are incompatible. However, both were created by man in an attempt to find answers about our universe and our own existence. Religion failed in this endeavor miserably while science succeeded to a a certain degree. Bringing religion to science only serves to pollute the science and hinders its ability to progress forward. Keep it separate.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  13. Casey

    trust me God is already in schools and talked about all of the time,if you base you life on the science of man then you are just foolish.

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

      So you don't take any medicine when you are sick? Do you believe in the Internet created by science? lol.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Yea, complaining about science on the Internet is kind of strange. But hey, why bring logic into this conversation? We're having so much fun!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • mickey1313

      if you have faith in the magic of thiesm then you are just stupid.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  14. E=MC2

    I can understand some peoples reservations of allowing the discussion of religion to come into the science class room, yet by definition, science yearns to look at ALL possibilities no matter how crazy they may seem. You can look at "religion" two ways; a natural part of the universe in which a creator or a designer made all that we see or you can look at it as a way in which mankind has dealt with the unknown. If it is indeed an evolutionary social adaptation in order to deal with the reality of death and the unexplained, than it is good. If it is real than we should not deny it. The answer is, we dont know. Theoretical physics today tells us that there is so much more "out there" than either our minds or even scientific instrumentation can detect. There is a fundamental fact and that is we exist, there is "stuff". Where did it come from? Energy! Where did the energy come from? The answer is, we may never know, yet it does exist. Theoretical physics today believes that there are 11 dimensions and possibly 10 to the 500th dimensions! therefore, it is believed parallel universe do exist. If they do, then there are "realities" out there that may be right in front of us, yet we may never be able to see or communicate with it. Physics has also proven that fundemental particles can be tangled together in such a way that affecting one here on earth would instantaneous affect it's other tangled pair on the other side of the universe without ANY link between them. This theory was proven in an experiment on the Canary Islands. My point, we think we know so much and therefore "god" cannot exist, when in fact there is so much we do not really know, they have theorized, that proposes the possibility that another reality can exist outside our ability to see or detect. When we link real science with historical and archeological evidence, the possibility that Christ existed and could do and be where it is said He is, is in FACT possible. To exclude this possibility is actually naive and short sighted. For disclosure, I am a research scientist at one of the largest research centers in the world and I believe my rational is based on science, not ignorance.

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

      To argue from ignorance and supposition without any factual support is to be the worst kind of religious idiot.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      "...yet by definition, science yearns to look at ALL possibilities no matter how crazy they may seem..." THAT IS COMPLETELY INCORRECT.

      Science is the act of trying to understand the physical world WITHOUT ATTRIBUTING IT TO SOME "God". Once you assign nature to a god, then all understanding ceases. Science, by definition, is the scientific method, not just considering any possibiliy. You reason a hypothesis, then perform experiments until you prove the hyypothesis wrong or right.

      E=MC2 has no clue other than seeking some reasoning to confound science.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      I see where you're coming from, E. For me, it boils down to the question. If you ask me, "Do you believe God exists?" I would have to say "I do not know." But if you were to ask me if I worship a God, I would say "No, absolutely not." Does that make me an atheist or an agnostic? Or does it make me someone who recognizes that we know more than we did, but also recognizes that we still don't know much at all?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • mickey1313

      absince of evidance is evidance of absince, and in all of humanity there has never been a single piece of proof for god, thus he is a delusion.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • sharoom

      I think most atheists take the label "atheist" not in opposition to the possibility of some greater power, but as opposition to the organized Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The predominant concept of God on this planet is defined by those three religions. For me, if there is some sort of God out there, then God is nothing like the religions have described.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  15. Frank

    Are people that dumb to not realize that ethics/religion is a part of life whether in the field of science or otherwise.

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

      Eisen is right on!

      December 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Observer

      Music is a part of life too, but we don't need it taught in a math class.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • E=MC2

      unfortunately, they are because of the affect of the elite media which questions everything and believes it's view of the world is correct despite the common sense of the ordinary man.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  16. longtooth

    Trying to bring together science and religion is like mixing oil and water.

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

      This is because you either have a wrong understanding about religion or science..or even both

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

      Since the "science" in the Bible is mostly wrong, there's no reason to put the Bible into a science class.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  17. KM

    I didn't even want to read this. I just want to say, idiots like this guy are the reason my kids don't attend public or religious schools. Morons insist on pushing fairy tales where science is available.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  18. mike from iowa

    How about if we introduce science into church? Let's teach Darwin and Davinci to church students so they get a balanced view and not just brainwashing.

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

      You are actually very foolish

      December 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      Casey, what is that? Okay, you are an Orangutang. Which is probably not far from the truth. Think for yourself much, Casey?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • E=MC2

      In fact science has been a large part of the "church" Who was responsible for the genesis of genetics? Gregor Mendle, a monk! In so many ways, the church has been very instrumental in science. Unfortunately, man is fallible and obstacles to mans thoughts need to be over come. To say the church or more specifically Christianity is a hindrence to science is wrong. Man is, not God.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • sharoom

      Using Gregor Mendel as an argument for religion benefiting science is really silly to me. Scientists respect Gregor Mendel for his methodologies and experiments into inheritance, and could care less about whether he believed in God.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  19. ETS

    I'd be ok with bringing the subject of god's existence into the classroom. After all, the idea of a divine force creating all life on Earth rests firmly within the realm of science. If the instructors were able to use science and logic to compare evolution with creationism then I think we'd be able to make some real progress towards creating a better world (one without silly thoughts of divine creation and other such nonsense).
    What would not be ok is the teaching of religion in a science class. Like other readers have already mentioned, religion belongs in a religion class setting. Arri may be attempting to sound reasoned, but I think that he may have theistic motives. Kind of a lame article really.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  20. mike from iowa

    Science is the act of examining the physical world and trying to explain it's behavior well enough to understand how to take control of the physical world. Religion is the practice of NOT trying to understand the physical world, in favor of believing some "god" controls everything. The idea of introducing religion into Science is oxymoronic. In reality, those with the mental disease of religion just cannot stand it that any group of people deny their stupid ludicrous beliefs.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Sandy Cluz

      Trutfully, scientists freak me out : LETS MAKE ARTIFICIAL LIFE, WE WERE FROM ORGANISMS FROM THE SEA, WHUPDEE DOO! WE SHOULDNT MARY FOR LOVE, WE SHOULD MARY TO REPRODUCE.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • luffy

      @mike from iowa
      you cannot include the word "scientific" in definition of science.
      and unless you covered all existing beliefs out there to judge whether they are false or not you have the right to remain silent and keep your ill understanding to your self

      December 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • mike from iowa

      @luffy, A) I didn't use the word scientific in my definition, and B) you just don't get it, do you? Attributing nature to a god is the one avenue that is not science. it can't be tested, verified, proven or anything.

      You're free to have your own opinion, I don't go telling you to be silent. What, are you afraid of a contrary opinion, one that you know is right and that you're wrong? It is in the nature of Religion to try to silence anyone who does not subscribe to it. So I am not surprised you uteer what you did.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • mickey1313

      @sandy, um you need to calm down, and stop being so f-ing stupid.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44
Advertisement
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.