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. A Mom

    Who's religion?


    I for one would rather wage a war with the school district than allow it to teach in a manner that conforms to or even references a specific religious view.

    The key is not that it needs to be relevant to religion or ethics, and I've had several teachers in my lifetime exemplify this point, it needs to be relevant to the world children see every day. As in, a child taught about the viscosity of a substance as it relates to chocolate pudding at a young age is much more likely to remember what viscosity is than one who is told to memorize the definition.

    Quit grasping at straws here and leave the incense -> good feeling endorphin -> religious use relations to the Anthropology Professors. And leave the religious teaching to religious schools, there are plenty of them out there.

    -A mother, a chemist, a college graduate & a lifetime agnostic.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  2. lpadron

    laughable. Right. We couldn't possibly do biology unless we accept evolution and its convoluted mysteries.
    How do I get a gig writing this kind idiocy?

    December 15, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  3. Paul J. Watson

    For several years now, I have taught a science class all about religion. I don't mean a social science class. See: http://biology.unm.edu/Biology/pwatson/public_html/RS%202011.html

    December 15, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  4. Itakeit

    I like your article and hope many teachers are following your direction. I think, majority of people are in this category. Scientists and professionals should know both sides, and end users can always have their choices and risks.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  5. thegadfly

    Religion is a proper subject for science. Abnormal psychology, to be exact.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Russell

      Well done.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  6. JT

    I think the student first needs to learn what science and the scientific method is. Then take the myths that make up Christianity and ask the student which one is evidence based science and which one has zero evidence and is therefore not based in reason that any rational person would accept. I think those advocating teaching religion in science class would not want critical thinking taught along side it. They don't want Johnny coming home questioning Noah and the ark, etc.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  7. lost

    Religion is about beliefs and science is about facts. Trying to mix them, or 'make the case' for introducing non-critical thinking in science classes just demonstrates yet again that 'religion' doesn't 'get it'. The last thing science needs is fuzzy, misguided thought processes.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • G D

      Science hopes to be about "facts", but just pick up a 1940s Britannica and you'll see all the facts that are no longer. Science is a progression often based on the wrong facts. Religion is a faith, also based on "facts" that change through time, depending on who the interpretation comes from (the prophet du jour). Both hope to explain where, why & what we are, and to instill moral values on that tapestry. I'm not religious, but I welcome its contribution.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • SAW123

      Science is more than facts, it is about "reason" which may help lead to a better understanding of the facts. Religion is, well... "faith". And you're right, There is little room for faith in science.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  8. Kevin

    "many teachers are afraid to even mention these issues, despite their importance, for fear of losing their jobs." Exactly. Teachers are fearful of teaching science because of the incredible power held in this nation by the religious right. In many ways, we are still in the dark ages.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • John

      I teach math and chemistry in a public high school in North Carolina that has a deeply religious community surrounding it and we teach evolution in biology every single semester. The teachers are not afraid to teach it. Evolution is a huge part of the require cirriculum. We openly discuss many of the issues this author claims are avoided. The author doesn't seem to know what goes on in most of the public primary schools across the country. He teaches at Emory which is a private college founded by Methodists and he thinks his experience is a normal one. Although there are pocket of the extremes in some places, most people are pretty open-minded when it comes to evolution.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • G D

      Well said John, & thanks for your open-minded teaching!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • Itakeit

      For the elementary to high school teachers, I don't think they are afraid of losing their jobs just because mentioning these issues, it's just simply not enough time to have a seminar-based lectures just like Dr Eisen has (he even gives this seminar as a choice too). Once the kids bring home a science assignment home, it is the parents' job to teach their children the core understanding of the universe.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  9. NoNoNo

    I never comment, however I can't resist this time. No No No No No. As a high school science teacher (and have experience teaching college and middle school science) this is is ridiculous. Absolutely should we teaching science in context of students' lives. Absolutely should science be taught as a "process" and not as a body of facts. Absolutely talking about ethics within science and especially biotechnology is important. But putting those ideas in with religion is ridiculous. There is no room for "belief" and "super" natural beings in true science. Saying that they do and putting them on the same plane in something as advanced as college level cellular biology is a terrible idea. It only lends credence to ideas like creationism (or its other name- intelligent design). Creationism has no basis in data and peer-reviewed research. Biology, chemistry, physics have been painstaikingly researched and critiqued over hundreds of years. Keep science in the classroom. Keep religion out. Plain and simple.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • G D

      I had an excellent geology teacher that was born-again. You ask him how these two facets can co-exist, & he says, the Bible is a metaphorical teaching from the Lord, and the dates aren't specific, but the underlying symmetry of nature is a result of all that. The earth can be 4.7 billion years old & God can still be its directing hand. While I don't believe that, I have listened & come to my own conclusion. Shouldn't students be given the same intellectual opportunity?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
  10. Truth Seeker

    Are you F...in NUTS??!!!!! It was the church who persecuted (and even killed) scientists for hundreds of years!!!!

    You and others like you are just afraid that the truth about religion will finally come out and people will start to abandon it for good!

    December 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  11. Avdin

    the author is right. Bringing up controversial issues helps you remember the topic better, plus it helps you to understand both sides of the argument so that you can informatively choose a side, instead of simply relying on your feelings.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  12. Carla

    For all the atheists out there, I have some advice for you. If you want to be taken seriously, you may want to stop calling people names. It completely turns people off to any dialogue you may have had otherwise. Plus, calling people names gets you zero respect. I have no respect for people who can't have a peaceful conversation. I could understand if I was posting comments about sinners burning in hell like some of the other "Christians" like to do. By all means, negativity creates a hostile environment. But I'm not trying to be hostile. If you think you are right, state your case. In my life's experience, I've often found that the people most wrong about a subject are those that scream the loudest. Think about that before you start posting your negativity.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do you think I care whether you're "turned off" by the truth, you nimrod? I don't give a rat's behind whether you like what I or any other agnostic or atheist writes.

      Get bent.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Carla

      More hostility. Terrific.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      More stupidity from Carla the c* nt. Magnificent.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Carla

      Thank you, sir.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • JT

      If you want to be taken seriously stop with dropping your load of non-evidence based beliefs as if it were equal to facts that were arrived at via rigorous testing and peer reviewing publications. You are attempting to argue with rational people who use reason and do not subscribe to iron age myths.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Before you start posting your negativity." Ahahahhha. What a load.

      Really, Carla, do you weigh 300 lb and have warts on your azz?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Carla

      I'm being rational as well. As you can see, rationality doesn't seem to work on people who enjoy being pieces of crap like Tom Tom the piper's rectum. Good riddance to that miserable idiot. I hope it gets run over by a bus.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "But I'm not trying to be hostile."


      You don't have to try, Carla. You're just naturally talented.

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

      I will not call you any names. I will however make it clear that religion has done nothing but harm to the advancement of the human race. It is responsible for the majority of deaths and killing throughout history. It is the constant push by religious leaders and the mass suspension of logic and reason that has kept the US from advancing at the same rate as the rest of the world. For example, to still push the idea that man was created by some all powerful being and from that one man a woman was made. Then from that single pair of humans sprang forth the entire human race from one end of the earth to another is beyond logical explanation We know for a fact that if there was that much inbreeding we would not have become what we are now. Just because most people believe in a so called god does not make it true. Once all people (or most) thought the world to be flat. Is that true? They thought that the earth was the center of the universe, is that true? NO. So just because you still believe in fables and fairy tales does not make them true. Science is based on FACT not fiction and the ignorance that is required to be a true follower of religion is counter productive to our future and the sooner you and other like you see this the better for man kind!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ooooh, I'm HURT. How WILL I endure Carla's censure and disapproval???! Woe is me! I've been dissed by freakin' idiot! Boo hoo hoooooooo! My red candy heart is broken. Waaaaahhhhh.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Observer

      Tom Tom,

      Carla may be wrong about other things,but your lack of civility and respect is an embarassment to those who substantially agree with the position you have. Why not carry on a conversation like a grown-up? If all you have to offer is insults, it just shows you have NOTHING else to offer. Don't take your frustrations out on people who aren't part of whatever is causing you such anger.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • JT

      No, you're not being rational. You've yet to present one piece of evidence of your bronze age god. FYI...quoting from your bronze age text is not evidence. Also, voices in your head or "heart" is not evidence of a god either but could mean that you are suffering from a psychosis.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Observer impostor, you can suck my hind t it.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • Observer

      Tom Tom,


      December 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Fake troll Observer, eat sh ite.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When you learn how to spell "embarrassment", troll, you can pretend to be as intelligent as the real Observer. Until then, repeat third grade as needed, ass wipe.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • Observer

      Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son,

      Sorry to ruin my image with you, but I am the real Observer and that was my real typo. I've talked to you before about what a waste it is for you to ruin your points by acting like a juvenile. You certainly won't win any points in arguments until you display maturity.

      Looks like you'll have to find someone else you can have respect for. Sorry.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      The "goalpost" thing will be so far over Carla's head it'll barely ruffle her permed hairdo.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Kiss my butt, Observer. What possible interest would I or any sentient being have in any 'reputation' here, a place populated by morons, fakes, and trolls?

      I couldn't care less what you think of me or my posts, no matter who you are. Don't like what I write? Screw you. Don't read it.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And while you're at it, Observer, kiss Carla's hiney, why don't you?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
    • Observer

      Tom, Tom,

      I'm sure you feel better by yelling at people, but there are better ways to relieve your anger at the world. You have worthwhile things to say but we both know that no one listens to anyone yelling anything other than "Help" or "Fire". Yell all you want, but when you want to convince people you know what you are talking about, you'll have to chill a bit.

      Go ahead. Trash me again now. I expect it. Hope you feel better.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, please. Do you think I give a damn whether you or any other muttonhead on here "listens" to me or not? Do you think there's some sort of "reputation" I feel the need to create or uphold for myself? You're delusional. I have a life. I don't need your approval or that of any other faceless, anonymous boob to complete my world.

      Get a clue, dude. This is a joke. Not real. Not important. Not even a blip on the radar of my life. It's like knitting. I can do it with little effort and less thought than it takes to clean a litter box. Do you really think it matters?


      December 15, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Now, go put on your nighty and have your milk and cookies. You'll sleep just fine knowing you've imparted your wisdom to some poor mortal you think needs your assistance.

      Rest easy knowing you're just like the Lone Ranger.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  13. Russell

    What a piece of garbage this essay is. I can't believe that this guy is actually a faculty member at a major university. It is full of straw man arguments, non-sequitors, and nonsensical babbling. The faculty at Emory, if they are in fact literate, should do something about this.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  14. Rob

    Well thought out argument. Offer to put science in religious studies (i.e. Sunday sermons, bible study, etc.) then we will talk

    December 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  15. Matt K

    I agree that students need a deeper understanding of scientific issues and how they are debated in modern society, but how about we teach ethics and philosophy in ethics and philosophy class, not in science class?

    Science class is about the teaching of scientific principles and methods. It's not about meta-science like the philosophy of science or the issues between science and religion. Save that for classes explicitly designed for those things. Otherwise, it's just a distraction to the class.

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

      yes, but we need more integration. this article isn't just about religion and ethics in science, it is about improving education by improving retention, understanding and a desire to learn. This is at its very best when you are taught to integrate.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  16. Oodoodanoo

    In return, will we be allowed to teach evolution in churches?

    No? Hypocrite.

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

      Many of us know that evolution is just another of God's creations. I see no problem with this.

      December 15, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • lost

      Good comback!

      December 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Most of us"? Most of who? Most of you idiots?

      Yeah, that's a great "comeback".

      December 15, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Snow

      Try proposing that in your next church meeting.. see what happens.. I am sure an ardent follower will also "feel the love" for that! just like those interracial couple in KY..

      December 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Carla's just plain ugly. Not physically, but mentally.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • sybaris

      Right Carla, religion requires moving the goalposts in order to survive.

      I know several christians who will mime what you said but stop short at "human evolution".

      They'll get there one of these days and teaching religion right along with science just might do the trick cause after all, religion does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  17. The only one

    Religion: "I have now entered the science class! I am awesome!"
    Science: "You are illogical, you make no sense, and there's no proof in all that you are."
    Religion: "That's not true, God created everything, what we say is God's will. That is all the proof we need. You cannot prove that there is no God, because you are a non-believer, so he won't show himself to you anyways."
    Science: "... That's a circular argument, not evidence. We noticed that the Earth is round, the planets revolve around the sun and not the earth, that the planet is billions of years old and not thousands, and much more."
    Religion: "Yes, yes, that is a tired argument. And we heard all this many times over long before your scientific community heard it. Besides, it was not our faith that was wrong, it was the interpretation of those that repeated our lord's brilliant words that were in error, because we are not as great as he."
    Science: "Wait, you heard this before we did? When?"
    Religion: "Oh, many times over from people who thought they were better than the lord's teachings. Of course, you didn't hear it because we burned them. And then we burned the next guy that said the same. We like fires."
    Science: "........ come to think of it, destruction and religion flow hand and hand together with you guys. Even your own god in human form died a horrible way. So what's that all about?"
    Religion: Well the old God was destructive and such, so we wanted a new take on his love since the fear was in place. We made him human, he lived and did miracles, taught love, and then was killed by the enemies. It was very tragic."
    Science: "But you brought him back, right?"
    Religion: "God can never truly die, and of course, because people love sequels! :D"
    Science: "I... give up..." >.<

    Moral of the story: Science attempts to explain, while religion covers up, is full of itself, and is utterly ridiculous.

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

      Edwin said it well earlier. the point of the article is that :"putting THINKING back in science, even if in a religious context, is an exceedingly GOOD idea."

      December 15, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  18. lori

    Gawd no! that is a horrible idea. Does anyone teach the science method during bible study? I think not.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:44 pm |

    Can't argue with trying to better teach science by incorporating things kids can relate to, but im still not seeing how religion is appropriately incorporated in science class. I wish he'd have given a more specific example.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  20. Edwin

    So... students who critically read about Darwinism and Intelligent Design end up understanding more science?

    The key here is "critically read" - not intelligent design, and not even darwinism. We dummy down EVERYTHING in school because we no longer reward excellence and because we are no longer willing to give failing grades even when deserved.

    Putting religion in science is, in my honest opinion, a bad idea. But putting THINKING back in science, even if in a religious context, is an exceedingly GOOD idea.

    December 15, 2011 at 9:42 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.