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. Don

    As long as we are going to present creationism in a study of evolution, I think it would be proper to bring up the flat earth theories as well as the earth-centric view of the solar system. And of course we should probably discuss Shockley's racial theories when discussing DNA and heredity. Perhaps doctors should begin studying "humors" in their medical studies.

    I understand what the author is getting at, and do believe we have a huge problem in this country when over half our population doesn't believe in evolution. I just can't except that any religion at all should be presented in science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  2. Jake

    karloff, you apparently would have benefited greatly from the system he's presenting here. there have been many scientists who not only embraced religion, but were driven to study because of it, e.g. Newton and Galileo. many scholars agree that Jonathan Edwards was and still is the greatest mind to come from the americas–look him up and you'll find a little religion in his thoughts. just be careful in your extreme, emotionally driven commenting.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  3. mike from iowa

    The whole point of science is to try to explain the physical world WITHOUT resorting to attributing it all to some "god". Once you bring god into science, you no longer have science. Bringing God into science is the end of science, it is religion saying "stop trying to say god isn't responsible for everything". And religious people can't stand that, they are brainwashed, and they want everyone else to be brainwashed too.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  4. SokrMom

    This man is an idiot.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  5. Mare0568

    I'm very sorry but my kids don't believe in God and I don't want those theories brought into a discussion with my children either. One is presently a successful college student and one is a Junior in high school. There are places for religion and that is not in a school setting. My children do fairly well in science classes. I just don't see the need or the comparison. My kids are not "confused" in their beliefs as to where our existence came from. Save the religious perspectives for those teaching in a religious setting.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • PCBURGH01

      Im with you. Science is science. It's like trying to incorporate philosophy into math. Get lost religion. Academia is not the place.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  6. sonic10158

    No, it shouldn't. Religion is not science. Religion is religion. Should be separate. If you want to teach religion, have a world religions class

    December 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  7. Bob

    Teach critical thinking in schools. Sure – weave in discussions on religion, whatever. When you begin every class with a prayer, then we've got a problem... this biases "critical thinking" into a tautlogy.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Emmanuel

      “Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing etpory. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write a etpory at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In etpory you are bound to say something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.”

      April 4, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  8. Craig

    Let's begin by teaching Science as it is...knowledge based upon facts established or postulated upon experimental testing. Then, and only then, let's teach people how to integrate that knowledge into their lives. Ethics are appropriate in the application of scientific knowledge, but not in the search for said knowledge...unless, and only unless...the search begins to cross those big gray boundaries.

    For example, when we know how to cure cancer(s) then we can start dealing with the implications of doing so...increasing the aged population, deciding who gets care, etc. Until then, the topic belongs outside the science classroom.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Jacob M

      I don't agree with the notion of teaching ethics once we arrive at a situation when learning it is acutely and immediately necessary. It's also necessary for us to consider the consequences of scientific and technological (and other) advancements before they're potentially integrated into our society.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  9. Warren

    If a teacher isn't teaching Evolution because of fear of repercussions in the community, then the teacher should be replaced. There is no place for Religion being taught in a school in my opinion. You can learn your religion of choice outside of school hours if you wish but the school system should NOT be charged with teaching religion in any form to students, lest it tend to support one over the others – which would absolutely happen in almost every instance I am sure. Now, Ethics, yeah perhaps that should be taught but I am not sure you can teach it without references to religious viewpoints and I think its likely better to avoid it if that's the case. There is enough ignorance in the world already, including Religious teachings inside of Science class would only increase the ignorance and drop us further towards the next dark ages.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  10. ItSOnLyME

    Ethics yes. Religion belongs in the Religion Department, not the Science Department. Religion is hokus-pokus. Science is science.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  11. Sitgreaves

    I have no problem with the discussion of ethical issues in the science classroom. After all, these can be approached from an evolutionary psychology standpoint most of the time and are very relevant to future scientists (and the public at large).
    However, bringing religion proper into the classroom is very misguided. The only place for religion in a science classroom is in a discussion of scientific epistemology and why such ideas are ultimately unapproachable by the scientific method.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Ari

      Anousha jaan, thanks for the great pragrom, I know that you must have spent a lot of time on it.To our dear listeners: I appreciate it if you could give us feedback on each week's pragrom and use this area for this purpose, so that we could deliver better pragroms of more interest to you.

      April 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Jake from Boston

    This is a disgrace. I am in disbelief that CNN would publish something like this. Keep religion out of science. Now and forever. What a pathetic article.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Jake from Boston

      This will be the last CNN article I read. BBC here I come.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • ashrakay


      December 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  13. Ari Thompson

    Add Religion to Science? Oh boy where to start with this one...seriously. Ok then, what should which exact religion? and since we are telling the kids fairy tales about adam and eve, why not throw santa and tooth fairy in as well? and given "creationism" is as mythical as Avatar or Star Wars – why don't we throw a little George Lucas in as well. Hang on – lets get REALLY crazy and throw some Scientology and space alien fiction in as well.

    What a completely asinine idea. The rest of the world, India and China are teaching their kids pure science and math – and the PhD of theology here thinks teaching kids fairy tales is going to help them?

    December 15, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  14. bob

    Are you kidding????? Include magical thinking in a class based on truth?

    December 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  15. Dood

    Catholic monks of old and priests of last century were scientists of their time. There's your mix of religion and science. Gregor Mendel is the father of genetics and Fr. Georges Lemaitre pioneered the Big Bang Theory.

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

      Yet they did not use their religion in making these discoveries or doing the science needed for scientific results.
      So just because they were religious does not endorse religion, it just shows that people can put aside their delusions when they need to get REAL work done instead of mumbling to the insides of their heads.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  16. Blessed Geek

    Please don't contaminate science with religion, vice versa.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  17. matteus

    Science is the discussion of natural phenomena that can be demonstrated. Even evolution is a DeMONSTRABLE phenomenon, not an "unproven" myth.

    Religion is belief in that which cannot be demonstrated. It answers questions science cannot, like "do I have a soul that lives after my body dies?"

    They are complementary systems; while not exclusive, they are not the same.

    Leave faith in religion class and science in science class, the same way a school department does not teach poetry in math class.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  18. Kingfisher

    Teaching children about religion doesn't have to mean teaching them to follow religion. Whether you're a believer or not, it's going to be part of their lives. Keeping them ignorant for fear the exposure will teach them the "wrong" things is medieval.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • apostate

      They have optional comparative religion courses for that, it doesn't belong in the science class.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  19. Dood

    This is why religion and it's myths need to be kept far away from science. Religion is all about blind faith in lies, inconsistencies, fallacies and mysticism. It has done nothing for the world except stifle scientific progress, suppress knowledge and our own understanding of the universe. People who believe in religion are idiots that should be purged from the earth so those of us with scientific minds can actually make the world a better place. Good intentions never built particle accelerators, fusion reactors, electron microscopes or any other piece of scientific equipment.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • CRC

      Well, I see you are quite ignorant and don't know anything about Jesus Christ or how he created all things about 6000 years ago. Enjoy your ignorance and your short little life while I enjoy eternity with my Lord, Saviour and Creator, BTW he created science but you'll never understand that because your are too ignorant.

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

      Well, last week in Andaman islands, last person of a 65000years old tribe dies. CRC, actually those people were created some 59000years before Jesus created Adam and Eve. It's not even funny to think idiots like you coexist in this stupid world..

      December 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Answer

      CRC .. you'll die – and that is all. You want to wrap yourself up in a protective bubble to escape that reality – no one cares.
      Just don't think we'll accept your delusions.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • dwech

      To CRC: you're quite ignorant yourself, guy. Even an agnostic knows there is no statement in the Bible that 'Jesus created the world 6,000 years ago'. Jesus purportedly showed up way after that.

      To the author of the article: teaching religion in science class just isn't needed. It isn't needed in math, language arts, literature or writing, music, physical education, engineering, computer science or any other subject. These school topics, like science, teach knowledge that builds particular skills - of which religion is not.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
    • Snow

      No CRC.. JC was born 2000 yrs ago and then died after a while and became worm food just like everyone else .. haven't you read Darwin's theory.. only through his theory can we see the light.. we should learn to praise him and only him..

      December 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • ashrakay

      CRC is a troll

      December 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  20. Karloff

    How much religion should be in science classes? None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Science deals with reality; religion deals with delusion.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • CRC

      Evolution deals with delusion and nothing else.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Eleftheria i thanatos

      People like CRC scare me. These are the type of people that would eradicate facts from our body of knowledge for stories equivalent to 'The Three Little Pigs.' It's so sad that we discovered the process that lead to our existence, and that some people are still in the dark about our 'creation.'

      December 15, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • achepotle

      if we aren't sure what a word means...like delusion....we can simply google it, then use it in the correct way in our posts...otherwise we may look like fidiots.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Eleftheria i thanatos

      It seems that people can become professors at universities these days by just being able to memorize vast amounts of information, and be able to spit it back out to students. There should also be improved methods in detecting critical thinking skills, so people like this professor do not encourage the loss of prosperity for our nation.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:52 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.