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. Liz

    How about including some science in religion classes instead as that seems the greater need. This article strikes me as a sneaky, underhanded way to try to undermine science. Science investigates and draws conclusions based on facts and changes its conclusions if the facts are proved wrong. Religion is a belief system based on faith in something you can't prove but want to convince others of. Religion has no place in a Science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • George

      God is the only real truth.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Answer

      God is for freaks who do not accept reality.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • lolwut

      Which god? Zeus? Thor? Osiris? Shiva?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • Observer

      The Bible can't even get the ratio pi correct. So much for "the real truth".

      December 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Snow

      George.. Darwin has the only truth.. and you will waste all your time here doing nothing and as everyone become wormfood.. but the only way to salvation is to praise him and spread his word.. praise be to Darwin

      December 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  2. David

    Simply put... if more than one religion can make a "legitimate" claim that one religion is the right religion based on their bible, tora, koran, then NO ONE HAS IT RIGHT!!! NO ONE KNOWS THE ANSWER TO WHO OR WHAT GOD IS, IF IT EXISTS, AND WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE. And why do we focus SO much attention, effort, money, on what happens after death. If we focused on life and what we do with our LIVES we'd be MUCH better off!!! Through a repeatalbe and scientifically provable method we might be able to prove how we came to be, certainly we cannot and will never prove what happens when we die. Or maybe we can and we don't want to publish that we are "food for trees". Anyway, let's find a rational basis, let's find something provable. So many people base their lives and influence the lives of others on an unprovable mythology. How many Jews, Arabs, Christians, etc. have been killed simply in the name of an unprovable religion. We look for certainty in nearly everything we do, prove which car is best to buy, which computer, TV, shoes, airline to fly, but we take such a massively infulential subject (religion) nearly at face value. We forgive people for crimes based on their belief in religion. What if Hitler had been smart enough to catagorize Natzism as a religion? In this day and age we would have let it all happen. No??? Tell me how the Taliban is different... well I'll tell you, because it's "supposedly" founded on religion. It is as oppressive, maybe moreso, than the 3rd Reicht... and concidentally they all want to kill the Jews. Hmmmm... Taliban=3rd Reicht reborn? Someone realized Hitler should have made it a religion and did so. Anyway... the end game here is that we should prove scientifically how we came to be. Otherwise we will always be killing each other and you will have to read emails like these.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  3. LG

    I like how everyone here bashes religion. Let's not forget that some of the very first scientists (who coincidently established some of the fundamentals of modern biology) were religious. Think about Gregor Mendel, Carolus Linneaus (the father of binomial nomenclature). Even Darwin (all you atheists' dream guy) was an agnostic and wrote that a man "can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist." He even described fas such. Lets not forget that evolution was even in the minds of early arabs. “The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable. As a result, they gain advantages over other creatures. [...] The bodies are changing as a result of the internal and external interactions.” Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, 13th Century - sounds a lot like natural selection leading to evolution to me.

    You bash what you do not appreciate, and shame yourselves by bashing those whose beliefs were shared by many of the founders of the basic principles of science. Does that mean that one must have or share their same beliefs, no. But it does mean that as a human being you should respect others. So before all of you Methodological and Ontological Naturalist begin your bashing think of this, religious people are "enslaved" to religion while you are a "slave" to science. Tell me, how is either any different. You say religion is responsible for the evil in the world, and I tell you only as much as science. Was it the religious community that developed the atomic bomb, or the religious who insituted the elimination of the Udesirabels in Nazi Germany)...no it was the scientists such as Einstein and those scientists who sicerely believed in eugenics.

    Point being, you bash someone who is merely trying to bridge a chasm when you yourself are the new inquisition...you see science and religion are common and yet far apart.

    Point being, all of you who claim to be such "highly educated and evolved atheist" who can do nothing but bash need to grow up. There is nothing educated about cutting other's opinions and beliefs down. After all, science will never be able to discount the tenets of religion, nor can religion explain science. The man writing the article was not trying to do either he was saying that we should make our children see science, even in our faith/religion. And if that is what is needed to spark a kid who will go on to cure cancer than I say bravo for mankind. But if all you do is cut sombody down because of their faith then shame on you for cutting someone down because they do not share your beliefs. Believe it or not, YOU CAN BE WRONG! And I capitalize that because many people commenting appear to be the "I'm always right" type.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • JT

      Point being it matters not how you are trying to spin it to get your particular brand of Christianity into a science classroom, it does not belong there anymore than it blongs in a math class.

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

      you, like so many, believe that science and religion have to be separate. They do not. There may, and I say MAY, be a legitimate connection that we have not found yet, scientifically, between god/God and our existance. Yes, most scientists are religious, they are searching for God in life. But haven't found it. Limit science and they NEVER will. But don't be afraid of the answer if it's "there is not God".

      December 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • lolwut

      Science is not evil or good, nor does it have an agenda like religion. Science is an objective way of understanding the natural world. Religion gives otherwise perfectly normal and logical people a reason to hate and discriminate against their fellow man based on what an antiquated texts commands them too. Both sides talk down to each other, all the time, get over it and step down from your pedestal. Religion in it's best light has been a thorn in the progress of science and human civilization. It's fine to be religious, just don't let it touch anything that actually matters.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Troycus

      Prove there is a god then I'll believe what you're saying. If you can't prove it, then what you're saying is a bunch of wind. A lot of people say there is a god and yet, no one has proved it. That's why we have science.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Romas

      Your points are all spoken from a religious point of view which happens to be narrow focused and based on blind faith. Science has none of that and even though many scientists are religious people, they do not intermix their religious beliefs with science fact.
      I myself am not a religious person and find organized religions as perpetrators of intolerance and narrow-mindedness. All impose a "you must believe – because" mandate, many religions do not allow discussion or disagreement. Science advances because of discussion and disagreement, science looks for an answer – religion imposes a dogma.
      You have a right to believe as you desire and that is fine with me; however you do not have a right to impose your viewpoint on others. Don't call those that do not follow your beliefs as ignorant or worse and don't try and make the word atheist be equivalent to a four letter word. Ever hear of Wikka? Probably have, you would refer to it as witchcraft and evil. Howvere it is not, it is the celebration of nature. Maybe as a scientist I would have to be called a wikkan (or warlock) because I find nature to be a wonderful natural environment, one that should be understood and protected.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • LG

      Science has an agenda as well...as far as my statement being narrow minded, I would argue that point. My statement was very broad and accepting of criticisms of both science and religion. Science has an agenda...every experiment used to test a hypothesis has an agenda...to REJECT or FAIL TO REJECT...And, you cannot escape the human bias.This why hypotheses must be testable and falsifiable. No experimenter or researcher will EVER say that their experiment was completely free of bias (if they did they would be lying and you should question not only their experiments, but their intentions as well). For you who say prove their is a GOD, I say prove there isn't. You can't, not one experiment has been designed nor tested in any relevant or peer-reviewed journal. Not one evolutionary paper has said "scientists today tested the hypothesis that God does not exist." You know why? Because you can't. You can't test for the supernatural. Science is LIMITED in its power to explain...any biology, physics, chemistry professor will tell you the same thing. Besides, evolution isnt concerned with how life began....its concerned with progress since L.U.C.A.

      Anyways, no scientists are not apart of wicca, yes they like nature but they are not interested in the wiccan views of nature. And this guy said nothing about imposing views. He was saying let it be part of the classroom discussion. Not to mention the fact that not once did he say any specific religion. As far as atheists being a four letter word – I never said it was one...I merely stated that if you disagree that is your right, but don't cut others down for their own beliefs.

      And as far as no room for discussion in religion...look up the Clergy Letter Project...I have a feeling you will take back your close-minded statement regarding religion being "intolerant, and close-minded itself."

      December 15, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  4. Andy M

    The idea of teaching ethics and religion in science undermines the idea the science is an evidence based system where as religion is a believe based system.The issue is not how we teach science. You can tell high school teachers hundreds of ways to teach a course. Without incentive to change their course material they won't make the change. The steady decline in scientific understanding has more to due with our teachers not being motivated then anything else. Furthermore this idea that we are falling behind in the sciences always directs a misguided blame on high school level education, look at the number of PhDs awarded each year and look at the number of positions available for them. We may be falling behind, but that is because we don't have jobs for credible scientists to take on.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  5. Steven Bulcroft

    I'm sorry but if science knowledge is decreasing in the US I don't see how introducing religion (non science) into the teaching of science is going to improve the situation. Religion is a rigid philosophy that mostly does not change with new information. Science on the other hand changes with new information or proof. Philosophy is the place to discuss religion not science class. The argument that teachers are "afraid" to discuss evolution is just more evidence that the religious zealots have created an atmosphere hostile to science, bringing religion into science class is more catering to the loud noises made by these zealots.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • Sarah


      December 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  6. LogicalNewYork

    makes me so thankful that our country's government ensured that nonsense like this would not be taught in our schools.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • LogicalNewYork


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

    How exactly do you propose to do experiments on your invisible people? Science is not about "belief" in this theory or that theory – do you ask students if they "believe" in cell theory or the law of gravity – of course not! Theories are based on massive amounts of supporting evidence from many different fields, not "belief."

    December 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  8. mitch

    As a non-believer of religious teaching and rituals, I find it difficult to put religion and science into the same category. Science is based on facts, truth, proof, and so on. Religion is based on speculation, writings, laws, and so on. Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings. Science helps you keep an open mind to pure facts with proven conclusions. Religion is allegory. They have no place in the same room or building, especially public schools.. For I don't know how many centuries, religions around the world say the universe is empty with every habitable planet is there for humanity, which is an extremely closed-minded way of looking at it. Most of them said Earth (or the sun) is the exact center point of the universe, which is consistently being proven wrong with the discovery of new galaxies all the time. The basis of one (or many) immortal being(s) doesn't seem like a fun way of living. A supreme being? If I went to an alien world whose inhabitants are that of a caveman-like society with a lighter, I would be worshipped as a supreme being with the capability of creating fire with my hands. You cannot say magic and science are two different things, for every technological breakthrough we make, we get closer to performing magic with it. Are the new recently declassified laser guns capable of setting trees on fire and melting skin any different than someone who can shoot a beam of fire from their hands any different? NO! Same results... Open your mind and stop these postings, Ned Flanders.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  9. Cpac54

    If modern day Religion cannot, or refuses to adapt and modify beliefs based on current scientific understanding, then modern day Religion deserves to die. The worldviews of writers from 2000 years ago being taught as FACT in a modern classroom? That's laughable.

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

      Spoiler: it can't, and it doesn't

      December 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  10. Mike

    Leave us sane, rational people alone!!! How do you conduct exact experiments in science and relate it ethics or religion? Please, STOP.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  11. Conrad Miller

    This whole argument is based in the assumption that only religion can provide a moral compass, which, for someone supposedly promoting a balanced and cooperative approach, is rather blindered and narrow-minded. Can you not conceive of morality without religion?

    December 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  12. CM

    Good call. America is already falling rapidly behind the rest of the modern world in math and science, so let's tell our kids science is a joke and trick of the devil... that should help our future economy!

    December 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  13. Cpac54

    I think they have it backwards... perhaps they should start teaching Science in Religion Classes.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • LogicalNewYork

      haha: The Physics of How Jesus Rose From the Dead. awesome lol

      December 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Snow

      that is the only way to attain balance.. 🙂

      December 15, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  14. mike from iowa

    Science is the act of explaining the physical world without resorting to a "god". Injecting religoin into science is the outcome of religious people who are driven to force their insance beliefs on everyone else. Science isn't some "thing", it is merely the practice of not explaing everything with "god does it all, he is the reason why". Period. That's all science is. So you can't inject religion into science. Period. Just tolerate some people (scientists) not believing in god, okay?

    December 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  15. jim james

    Arri Eisen part of the Insane Clown Posse ? " Science a body of information NOT RELEVANT TO ANYTHING ON EARTH" ??? HOLY sh**t batman....!!!

    December 15, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • thereisnogod

      his yamaka must be on too tight...

      December 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  16. Elwood

    I don't know where you went to school, but we certainly didn't just get facts to memorize in my science classes in grade school, highschool, college, and grad school. There's no need to include religion to demonstrate how science relates to our everyday lives. That sounds like an excuse for poor science teaching.
    As a professor I ALWAYS discuss applications of science relevant to our everyday lives. Science is not religion, religion is not science. They don't belong in the same class. Would you include how to cook a casserole in a class on calculus?!?

    December 15, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • Clayton

      Only if you wanted to examine the possible heat transfer equations or something like that.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  17. mike from iowa

    Dear Religious People, if you don't believe in the scientific method, that is your perogative. Meanwhile, don't try to push your insane beliefs into everyone else's life. You are so scared of the truth exposing your pathetic beliefe system that you try to censor and stifle that truth. Why don't you all move to Iran and be with your brothers, where you can experience what life is like when you let religion take-over.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Labas

      Stop trying to mindlessly insult a whole group of people. And by the way, sure, I agree that the universe was started by the big bang, but who put the big bang in place? there are so many things in the world that science cannot explain. How can science explain the paranormal. Any answers?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Argueing with George is like shooting fish in a barrel

      They actually do believe in it. When they get sick, they go to the doctor, and get antibiotics. When they need it, they have operations. They just don't like to talk about it.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  18. CRC

    If Darwin was so smart how come he has no scientific data to back up his claims? It is all about delusion.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Observer

      If God exists, why is there no irrefutable proof?

      Try again.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • jim james

      so which fairy tale do you hold as "the truth" ?

      December 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Eleftheria i thanatos

      Yes. We should teach that juggling piglets while intoxicated with alcohol will get you riches in the present and in the future, and even after you die. Additionally, people must be taught that if they do not juggle these animals a certain way, the pig gods will not bless them–the procedure must be done perfectly to please the porcine masters.

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

      The theory of evolution is the single most confirmed theory in all science. The folks who study gravity wish they had 1/10th the evidence for their theory as the folks who study evolution.

      By the way, evolution has mountains of evidence and facts to support itself. And I mean literal mountains.

      Why is it that the folks who choose to be ignorant about science are the ones who come onto message boards and denigrate science?

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

      The religious retards' answer to the overwhelming evidence factor in the sciences is simply this: "I am a simple person."

      By choosing to stay in this mode of being – you define your ignorance against knowledge.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Clayton

      Darwin merely pointed out the apparent relations between sub-species amongst some animals living in separate habitats.
      He made some educated guesses and did not say much beyond that. It is the ignorant people who don't read about him who have been told to hate him because others built upon his work and gradually formed our very firm science of evolutionary biology which happens to prove, as a side effect, that most aspects of religion that brush against this area in their texts, to be clearly untrue and inaccurate, not to mention contradictory and clearly fabricated after other sciences, such as math, physics, engineering, anthropology, chemistry, astronomy and all the others are used to analyze what is written in every religious text.
      Darwin was just a guy with a hobby who discovered a few curious facts, made some educated guesses and was a Christian his whole life. He wasn't setting out to disprove the Bible. He just wanted to understand the world that he thought his "god" had provided for everyone. That's it. Give the man a break.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • JT

      Sometimes I whished the Internet was not so anonymous for I wonder if such extreme ignorant comments would ever get posted. But then again, some folks get all their info from only their pastor and proudly displays their lack of basic education.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • VonDoom

      Actually he did. It's why his work is so monumental. If you've ever explored his work you'd see this so it's probably safe to assume you haven't. I bet you're also the kind of person who can critique a movie without seeing it or a book without reading it, tell if a restaurant is horrible without eating there, etc, I wish I had that level of telepathy.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  19. John Bouy

    This guy is a total anal orifis! He is totally ignorant of what science is and what it is about. I am a 35 year electrical engineer who could't find a job in my old age. Went back to college to be re-trained to teach High school Physics. My experiemce has been that college Education and pedagogy professors are very full of it, and very full of them selves! ...and thatgoes double for the Deen of the Education department. Unfortunately these college officials have gained control of many state teacher certifictaion programs. This is a travisty. Ultra right wing Neo-cons like this guy are a great danger to our country and to the education of our children

    December 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Dan O'Sullivan

      I completely agree with you, but you really need to learn how to spell.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  20. JonPeter

    Teach religion in philosophy class, it has no business being taught in science or math classes...

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

      Religion has no business in a philosophy class either - philosophy is too rational.

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

      Better yet, set up a class in Comparative Religions.

      December 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • JT

      I think it should be taught along with Greek Mythology.

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

      Religion is mythology that is "in use." It is not a science or a philosophy. It is a mythological construct. It has no basis in reality.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:06 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.