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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. Jeff

    There is no such thing as an "intelligent design scholar". Books by intelligent design advocates have no place alongside actual science.

    That's all that really needs to be said.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  2. ManEnvisionedGod

    Sure, teach religion in science classes as soon as religion leaders start to preach science and evolution to their congregations.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  3. Snow

    Steven Weinberg: "With or without religion, good people will do good things and evil people will do evil things; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion".

    December 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  4. Mopery

    Religion has no place in a science classroom, just as science has no place in a religious classroom. The two are absolutely incompatible.

    Science deals with empirical data, with precise measurements, and with well designed experiments intended to bring about a better understanding of reality as it truly is, not as we want it to be. Scientific discoveries can be verified by anyone who wishes to repeat an experiment, there is no guesswork involved. Science alone describes the universe as it is, and the modern marvels we enjoy today are a product of scientific discoveries made in the last century.

    Religion claims to have absolute knowledge without the need for evidence, in fact any evidence would belittle the idea of faith itself. Religion depends on testimonials, on guilt-tripping people into saying, "Yeah, I agree with that there is a god and I accept him too(because if I didn't you and your goons might hurt me because you're all obviously insane)." Religion depends upon absolutes: absolute obedience, absolute belief, and absolute ignorance. Without the church indoctrinating young children to fear disbelief through the threat of eternal damnation, no intelligent adult could possibly believe any of the nonsensical garbage spewed by preachers.

    Science makes sense of the world, and religion makes no sense at all. Why worship the Judeo-Christian/Muslim tyrant god of the desert, instead of Zeus, or Odin, or Ra, or Ba'al, or Quetzalcoatl, or Jupiter, or Vishnu, or any number of the deities denied by modern religions? How is any one of these gods more real or fake than any of the others?

    December 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  5. DavidW0909

    I find it ironic that Atheists are sitting there claiming they are peaceful, understanding, and open-minded and then turn around and make such horrible statements about anyone that believes in religion. If that isn't hypocrisy I don't know what is. Fact is we don't know how the universe was formed, was the big-bang God saying "let there be light"? No one knows for sure. I wouldn't say I'm highly religious and there are plenty of things I despise about people who say that God is the only way, I have read the Bible and there are plenty of good things to learn from it but in the end it is a book written by men who were more or less manipulated into writing what Rome instructed them to do and I find it very disparaging that many Christians say that they are peaceful and loving but would more or less kill all Muslims because they feel that Muslims would kill them. On the other hand there is plenty of hatred to be doled out by Atheists (attacking Christmas), Muslims (attacking everyone), Agnostics (who knows), Jews (they more or less took Palestine over from the Palestinians after WWII), etc. etc. etc. What do I think, I feel the universe has to be of intelligent design but I really doubt that God would only accept 1/6th of the population into Heaven and send the rest to eternal damnation, more like we all are judged when we die, he created the entire universe with the Big Bang and just let the “chips fall where they land”. Whatever you believe, everyone should be respectful of what others believe PERIOD, try to see past a person’s religious or non-religious beliefs, and we’d ALL, the entire planet, be much better off! AMEN!

    December 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Alias901

      Yes the entire universe popped out of a magic mans hat. There was no big bang or science behind it all. We all descended from two people who magically appeared on earth and humans were riding dinosaurs like Fred Flinstone 6,000 years ago. This needs to be in our science textbooks.

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

      "Fact is we don't know how the universe was formed, was the big-bang God saying "let there be light"?"

      See David, this is one of the problems. Folks who choose to be ignorant about science, coming onto message boards and make claims about science that are just plain wrong.

      Light didn't exist in the early universe. The universe was way to hot and way to dense for light to exist. The universe had to expand and cool for about 300,000 years before there could be "light". Claim that god said, "let there be light" and the universe came to be is just plain wrong.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Because

      Primewonk
      So what was there before the big bang? What caused the big bang?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Because – Time, as we know it, did not begin until the expansion was underway. There is no concept of negative time, time before zero. It's like asking what's North of North. It's nonsensical.

      Perhaps if you got your "sciency" sounding information from real science sources, you would have known this.

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

      Who said anything about "Time as we know it"? It was a simple question. All mass at a single point in space and time. How did it come to exist? Where did it come from?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • Because

      So you don't believe in a spontaneous creation?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Because – thanks to that pesky quantum mechanics, "stuff" pops into existence and out of existence all the time – without cause.

      Again, if you would start getting your science from real science sources, you wouldn't be making these mistakes.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Because

      thanks to that pesky quantum mechanics, "stuff" pops into existence and out of existence all the time – without cause.

      This sounds kind of mystical to me.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Because

      Next your going to tell me that quantum mechanics also allows for multiple universes each of which could have its own laws of physics.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @because –
      Just because you choose to be ignorant, it doesn't mean the rest of us do. And just because you, and those of your ilk, choose to be ignorant, it doesn't give you the right to try and make everyone else ignorant as well.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  6. André

    This writer is crazy. Doesn't he know that religion poisons everything ?
    Why would you poison your classroom ?

    December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  7. hobbes

    This argument, right here, is why our scientific dominance is fading. It's because we allow nutty religious types to control areas they have no business controlling. For instance, integration of abstract concepts into your students world view is NOT a violation of good teaching; rather, it is essential to good teaching. That a TEACHER, of all people, got this so dead wrong should be telling. But then, of course, I read later that he teaches at a private ( read: religious ) university and it all makes sense.

    If we want to reestablish our scientific dominance, we need to recognize religion as the cancer it is to rational thought, and treat it appropriately.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  8. MonkeyMan

    Religion and science don't mix. You can't mix scientific fact with mythical fiction.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  9. The only one

    Teach religion in a class called "Control Mechanisms" and then it works.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  10. fishbuiscuts

    Mixing the two will never work, one real reason is what religion will be used .Since there a few out there and introducing only one will create problems. What will the answer be when other religious groups ask, who made this choice and why was this particular religious group picked. This is only one problem.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  11. ccc

    teach all the major religions. but not in science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  12. Kelly

    In my high school biology class we discussed both evolution and creation. I thought it was very beneficial. It really made the class think and respect other peoples beliefs. I don't understand why many of you who have commented on this article are freaking out. It's not like the school should push one side of the argument, it just provides some contrast. The fact of the matter is religion will not die and neither will science. What is wrong with teaching students both sides of the story for the sake of respect? I see none.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • JT

      That you have to ask this question reveals your high school has failed you and is exactly why religion should not even be mentioned in a science class. See how you are confused between evidence based science and mythology? Thanks for the example and I'm sorry you have been deceived by adults who should've been teaching you critical thinking skills.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Primewonk

      This isn't a debate. There aren't 2 sides to this. There is the theory of evolution. There are no other competing theories for the diversification of life on earth. The whole issue is a sham.

      There are 2 billion Christians on earth. Of that number, there are 1.8 billion, or 90%, who belong to sects whose official position is that there is NO problem with a faith in the Christian version of god and an understanding that evolution is a fact. It is only amongst the fundamentalists that there is a problem. And unfortunately, the majority of the world's fundamentalists are here in the US.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Sigh.

      Really Kel?

      Science is testable, measurable, is built on things like evidence and proof, where religion is mere fantasy. You say there are 'other sides to the story'. Could magical blue frogs have created us? I'm sure that's someone's side to the story. The Christian God (but are catholics included in this? What about mormons). The Islamic god, or should we teach Xenu?

      If we teach about one crackpot idea with no backing evidence, where do we draw the line? By the way, it's hubris on your end thinking YOUR religion should be taught in lieu of others.

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

      Kelly, that is a wonderful question. The reason why both should not be taught or intertwined together is because they are separate topics. For one, one aspect of the definition of science is that it does not deal with the supernatural. Deities are by definition supernatural. A second aspect of the definition is that it must be testable...there is no test for the supernatural. I understand that you want to find 'common ground', but in truth there is none.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Primewonk

      And which creation myth did they teach you? Heck, there are 2 totally different creation myths in the first 2 chapters of Genesis. And there are a thousand additional creation myths out there. Each early tribe, culture, society, etc., had at least one. Your creation myths in Genesis are no more, nor no less, special than any of these thousand other myths. And, all of these myths are mutually exclusive, meaning that no 2 (or more) can be true. The one thing all thousand myths have in common is the evidence they have to support themselves. And that would be zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

      How many of these thousand myths did they teach you in science class?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Charles

      See how you are confused between evidence based science and mythology?

      Can you list evidence supporting evolution?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • Primewonk

      "Can you list evidence supporting evolution?"

      Seriously? Today, the best evidence for evolution is DNA. We could never have found a single fossil, but with DNA, we would still be able to confirm the theory of evolution over and over and over and over...

      December 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Charles

      @Primewonk
      We could never have found a single fossil

      Why not?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ Charles – what I meant is that we have multiple lines of evidence to confirm evolution. Each of these lines, on it's own, confirms the theory of evolution. We don't need a single fossil to confirm the theory of evolution. Likewise, we don't need a molecular DNA analysis to confirm the theory of evolution. And when you combine all these different lines of evidence, it simply adds up to ToE being the single most confirmed theory in all science.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  13. Mike Flowers

    Science builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions. Religion is a static set of assumptions based on "faith".

    December 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • ScienceGuy

      Yes. That is why "social science " is not science at all.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  14. Greg

    I teach an introducory course in evolutionary theory at a state university, and I agree completely with the article. 80-90% of the students entering my class believe in intelligent design. You can't teach that topic as you would another science. I think math professors would quit if 80-90% of their students didn't believe 2+2=4. Or think what physics professors would say if one of their students declared that gravity was just a suggestion. Evolution is a unique subject and has to be dealt with differently. Like the author, I address the controversy head on. Students appreciate making the class relevant to them, and they certainly understand the difference between intelligent design and science after they're done. Without the direct approach, they might never understand that intelligent design is not science.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  15. Audrey

    Intelligent design should not be taught with evolution, period. The risk is that a sympathetic teacher will behave as if Intelligent Design has some sort of scientific credibility. It does not. It is not a viable alternative for evolutionary theory. It is pseudo-science.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  16. Kraig Derstler

    Are you out of your mind? Your suggestion makes as much sense as asking Sarah Palin to lecture about Russian/American relations to the CIA leadership. In both cases, you are introducing silly fantasy into a place that demands uncompromising reality.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  17. Carla

    God created science. Of course it should be combined.

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

      Science created god.. and we forgot.. that is our downfall..

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

      Sure! How about we include courses on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny too! Why not? They have as much credibility behind their stories as the mythical being in the sky who's pulling the strings of – every – single – human – being on the planet.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Carla

      Was there a Bible written about santa or the easter bunny? I don't think so. Why do hateful, spiteful atheists feel the need to be miserable and try to drag others into their misery? Just because you don't believe God is real doesn't mean you're the expert. Try reading a Bible, it might open your eyes. Until then you're going to be blind to what's all around us.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Carla, Really? I missed that part of the bible. On which day did god create science?

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

      Spiteful zealots more like it. Every day sciences encroach and devour your silly beliefs. We will kill every last driblet of religion when it is all over.

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

      Carla,

      It's likely that atheists and agnostics know more about the Bible than Christians.

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

      Carla, you should take your own advice and try reading the origin of species.. maybe you will get something out of it and finally get to open your eyes and appreciate the world.. we should be building temples for Darwin and not some pseudo god from thousands of years ago

      December 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Carla

      ash – The creation is in Genesis. Very first book of Genesis.

      Answer – You can't kill God.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Snow

      Carla.. the Origin of species is one book that answers all your questions..

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

      @Carla

      Your god doesn't exist to begin with.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Carla

      Snow, I don't discount evolution. It is in God's plan.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Carla

      Answer, prove God does not exist.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • Answer

      Carla

      "Answer, prove God does not exist."

      Again – another moron zealot asking the very stupidest request. You idiots all do the same routine and still not even one of you fruitcakes will ever get the FACT that you can not prove a negative.

      Stupidity like yours knows no bounds. Retards.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • Snow

      Simple.. the best guess bible makes for age of earth is 6000 yrs.. but we keep finding bones that are millions or years old.. can only mean bible is wrong.. which means it is a work of fiction.. all aspects of it including "god"!

      December 15, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Answer

      Carla –

      Do the idiots of your kind always hold meetings to establish this one premise that you ALL have to type [this one sentence] out to everyone in all kinds of forums?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Carla

      Thanks for calling me names everyone. It really makes your case seem that much more believable. Excellent job.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Carla, the problem is that you purposefully choose to be ignorant about science in general, and evolution in particular. You don't understand the lexicon. You don't understand the scientific method.

      Yet, you come onto an internet message board, and demonstrate that ignorance. You then get upset when you are called on that ignorance.

      Sorry.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • ashrakay

      @Carla, the creation story in the bible is no more science than is any other story. Science is a method by which we observe, hypothesize and verify things which exist in the physical world. To address some of your other issues: I have read the bible many times as I grew up in a christian home. It is full of murder, hate, ra-pe, in-cest, and slavery and is part of the reason I feel very happy to be free of the religious world. Also, can you disprove the existence of Zeus or fairies? This is the product of your argument. The burden of proof rests upon the person making a claim, otherwise you must also accept the validity of any claim that you cannot disprove.

      December 16, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  18. NT

    "science's relatively limited power"!? Arri Eisen is a fool. Science is the most powerful tool we have.

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

      and lasers.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • Bill

      A tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose. .....Science in and of itself is none of these.......

      Science would seem more to be a tool box.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  19. shawn

    separation of church and state. if you are advocating teaching religion in science classes, then teaching science in church or other theological courses must go hand in hand as well.

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

      So where do you get thisi seperation of church and state stuff?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Primewonk

      "So where do you get thisi seperation of church and state stuff?"

      From the 1st amendment. The const itution means whatever SCOTUS says it means. It has since Marbury v Madison (1803). SCOTUS, through their rulings and writings has stated that we indeed do have a separation of church and state.

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

      So you agree with all rulings of SCOTUS?

      December 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ me – nope. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. But you have to get dressed for them all.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  20. whynot

    I'm all for good science! Now evelotuon is a religion per se, so has no business in science classes!

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

      Absolute fail.

      Your kind wants to make everyone believe that. Label, distort, twist and plain lying won't get religion any more consideration in our present days.

      Your crap religious doctrine and spins will soon die out. We are thankful for that.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Tom from Atlanta

      LMAO!!!

      December 15, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Bill from Atlanta

      Answer

      Absolute fail.

      Your kind wants to make everyone believe that. Label, distort, twist and plain lying won't get religion any more consideration in our present days.

      Your crap religious doctrine and spins will soon die out. We are thankful for that.

      Not even sure what this crap means.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Why is it that the folks who purposefully choose to be ignorant about science, come onto message boards and demonstrate that ignorance for all to see?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:11 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.