home
RSS
My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class
Science teachers must make their subject relevant to students' lives by tackling religion and ethics, argues Arri Eisen.
December 15th, 2011
10:48 AM ET

My Take: The case for including ethics, religion in science class

Editor's note: Arri Eisen, PhD., is professor of pedagogy at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Department of Biology, and Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.

By Arri Eisen, Special to CNN

A referendum that would have restricted in vitro fertilization in Mississippi, disagreements on the causes of global warming, the question of how to allot health care resources for desperate cases at the beginning or end of life.

Many of today's headlines and hyper-polarized political debates happen at the borders of science and society, especially where science meets ethics and religion.

At the same time, in at what first appears to be in an unrelated domain, President Barack Obama and others call for more and better science education in America to compete in innovation with rising giants India and China. This at a time when American science literacy appears to be decreasing, and even students who like science drop like flies from that pursuit once they hit college and its huge introductory lecture courses.

Is it possible that rethinking the ethical calculus of how we teach science could enhance the pool of future scientists and enrich the quality of conversation around controversial issues?

What’s the connection? Well, from kindergarten on we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world. This is a cell and these are its parts; memorize them and their functions. This is the human body and these are the different systems of which it is composed.

Such facts are important, but without a meaningful context (cell functions gone awry can cause cancer; all the body systems talk to each other, so depression can affect your cardiovascular system) such information has little real substance and is poorly retained.

This approach violates the first rule of good teaching: Integrate the information into your students’ lives and worldviews, including those based in religion or ethical systems, and translate it into something they can connect with and use. Science has an especially rich and often fraught role to play in society; if we don’t at least acknowledge this we imply it is unimportant.

Not surprisingly, studies show that when teachers do integrate science knowledge into students' lives, the students learn the science better.

But rather than incentivize teaching innovation that would allow science educators to discuss religion and ethics –- for example, creationism in light of evolution and vice versa, or the scientific and ethical implications of stem cells and in vitro fertilization – many teachers are afraid to even mention these issues, despite their importance, for fear of losing their jobs.

The classic example is the public school biology teacher without tenure who, understandably, finds it much easier to skip any discussion of evolution because of its potential controversial nature. This would be OK except for the small detail that evolution is the fundamental, underlying principle of all biology.

I teach biology at a private university. When I ask students in my cell biology course, “How many of you believe in evolution?” almost all of them raise their hands. When I ask them, “How many of you think something in addition to evolution accounts for humans being on earth as we now exist?” almost all of them raise their hands.

Two inconsistent thoughts coexist without an attempt to reconcile or integrate them. It is this kind of dissonance of fundamental beliefs and science that good education should address and help explore, and certainly not ignore. Only when science educators can proactively engage all societal elephants in the room and illustrate science's relatively limited power will two vitally important things happen:

First, as they are forming their beliefs — whatever they may be — students will be aware of the nature of science and its relation to complex ethical and religious issues. That means they’ll better appreciate different types of evidence and will be more likely to argue from and about that evidence rather than from emotion. Second, more students initially interested in science will continue to pursue it through college because they will better see its value and importance to the big issues and will learn science better.

How to accomplish this? How to break the vicious circle? One way is to frame the benefits differently — economic competition and innovation, national security, improved learning, or more substantial political debate — for different constituencies. For example, perhaps a politically conservative, religious audience might appreciate the importance of good science education through the lens of its importance to the economy or national security.

Another break in the circle is to help teachers learn how to teach science in context more effectively. I often find that simply acknowledging the ethical or religious issue relaxes students; a few others  have explored approaches for better integration of these issues.

In my cell biology course, we investigate the biology and chemistry of a cell surface receptor that helps induce good feelings in us when it binds to a chemical compound found in incense; this may help explain why so many different cultures and religions have independently evolved the use of incense in their ceremonies and rituals.

We discuss the detailed cellular and molecular biology of the research in the context of ritual; the students report this opens a door that’s usually closed between those two sides of their minds. Religious students, who say they often feel their beliefs are ignored or belittled on campus, find this discussion especially welcome and thought-provoking.

High school educators in Wisconsin showed that students who read original texts from Darwin and intelligent-design scholars, and discussing those texts, critically learned evolution better (without rejection of other worldviews) than those taught it in the traditional didactic manner. Teaching potentially controversial science can work if done in an interactive, engaging fashion and in a rich historical and societal context.

Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons for America’s polarized politics and decreasing science literacy and innovation that go beyond just teaching science better. But sometimes a little creative wrestling with and engagement in systems and programs that already exist can make a difference.

Once I offered the opportunity for anyone in the cell biology course to simultaneously take a seminar course focusing on the societal and ethical implications of the biology discussed in the cell course. Half the biology class wanted to enroll in the seminar.

A dozen students — all future scientists and health care workers — wound up in the course, representing seven different religions and traditions, from Christianity to Jainism to Judaism.

Students were amazed so many of their peers took religion seriously, and those students tell me that the conversations and debates we had in the course, together with the seminar, resonate to this day. Many say science is now woven together with ethics and religion in their minds; they can’t think about biology without thinking about its meaning in the greater context.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arri Eisen.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Education • Opinion

soundoff (2,297 Responses)
  1. Roberto Miranda

    Science classroom is no place for religious dogma and fantasy tales
    if you want your kids to learn how god created your world send hem to church

    December 15, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bob Crock

      Actually, you don't. Don't even expose your kids to religious brainwashing until they reach adulthood. By then, hopefully, they will have learned some critical thinking. Religion would cease to exist.

      Look at the old Communist states, where religion was not tought to kids. The number of religious people is almost nothing (except for a few old timers).

      December 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • My name is none of your beeswax

      And pay for it out of your own damn pocket! Yeah! You don't get public money for your religious education! Vouchers are just an attempt to sneak around the 1st Amendment! I'm talking to you, religious nuts! Science is not the place for it.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  2. Alfred

    What is your deal, professor? Where do you stand? What are you trying to teach? You think things overlap that much?

    December 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  3. Bob Crock

    eligion is akin to being on drugs. It's delusion, pure and simple. You can hardly expect a drunk to drive a car without an accident. That's what we have in this world – a bunch of lunatics running around killing each other, arguing which one of them is less of a loony. They all are. And they are driving this world to extinction. How do you prevent a drunk from driving? A good start might be to take his driver's license away from him. Let's ban religion!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  4. ELH

    Science cannot "prove' gravity. Gravity just is. Religion cannot 'prove' God. God just is. As a scientist, I cannot disprove the existence of God. As a theologist, I cannot prove God exists.

    As a scientist, I believe the apple falls to the ground due to gravity. I cannot 'see' gravity, but I believe it is there. Actually, science invented gravity to help explain such phenomena as an apple falling or a moon orbiting a planet or a planet orbiting a sun.

    As a theologist, I believe in a God. I cannot see God, but I believe He is there. Religion invented God to help explain the inexplicable.

    Stop arguing about science and religion. They both exist and are necessary.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Matt

      Ummm... I doubt you are a scientist with that explanation of gravity... That was horrendous...

      December 15, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bob Crock

      Dude, it's simple. Just use your brain.

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

      i am dumbfounded.

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

      Sigh, are you really comparing gravity and God? The salient difference is that gravity is testable. Me having to be dead serious in this post completely saddens me.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Omg

      ***facepalm***

      December 15, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • sharoom

      And also, religion invented God? You're not even a genuine religious nut, just a nut in general. Gah!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  5. John robbit

    This is a pretty meaningless argument. Basically the author is saying because science intersects with morals, society, and other aspects of human life, religion should be included. If this were the case then, religion should be included in all subjects, because some aspects of every subject have some interaction with morals, policy, and society. This is silly. We have subjects because it serves the purposes of ensuring that educators can teach the area of their expertise and that students could gain a focused understanding of the basic aspects of the subject. You teach science in science class because the science teacher is qualified to teach science, not Balkans politics or Paulian theology, and because we expect students to actually learn science in science class, not spend the time debating the pros and cons of stem cell research.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Lou

      Very well said! Thank you!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  6. wisdom4u2

    ah...Sorry, you are badly mistaken! Don’t think for one second that the Bible doesn’t mention ‘numbers’, as in ‘math’, as in ‘equations’. One reason is…anyone could misinterpret the Bible’s written ‘word’; but we, who know how mathematics work, know that no one can misinterpret the numeracy of the Bible. Numeric’s is the same in any language….producing only one ‘true’ answer….only misinterpreted by mo rons : )

    December 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Answer

      Same crap, cut and paste to ID-iot banter..

      What a crock.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Your bible calculates pi as 3.0. Other tribes in the area at that time already had pi worked out to 22/7.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      *shaking my head* The dumbness of some people....where do they all come from??

      December 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @Primalwonk ~~~~ "...only misinterpreted by mo rons"
      Thanks for proving my point!!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:52 pm |
  7. John rob

    This is a pretty meaningless argument. Basically the author is saying because science intersects with morals, society, and other aspects of human life, religion should be included. If this were the case then, religion should be included in all subjects, because some aspects of every subject have some interaction with morals, policy, and society. This is silly. We have subjects because it serves the purposes of ensuring that educators can teach the area of their expertise and that students could gain a focused understanding of the basic aspects of the subject. You teach science in science class because the science teacher is qualified to teach science, not Balkans politics or Paulian theology, and because we expect students to actually learn science in science class, not spend the time debating the pros and cons of stem cell research.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
  8. Geoff Perlman

    Science is absolutely relevant in kids lives. Many find science fascinating because they are surrounded by a world whose operations they don't understand. Science explains how these things work. Of your not every student will find science interesting no matter how well it's taught. Science is based on facts. Religion/faith is the belief without facts. It has NO PLACE in a scientific discussion. I can understand why religious students might feel ignored on a typical university campus but to discuss religion as if it has any meaning with regards to science is a disgrace to science.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • rachel

      I agree.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  9. Bob Crock

    It's beyond me that we tolerate provably delusional (religious) idiots that make rules for the rest of us. It's like having a bunch of drug addicts, high on mushrooms, making decisions on things vital to the nation of 360 million people. Incredible!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  10. james s

    but we are all missing the bigger picture here. none will agree to everything so we will all stay separated no matter what evidence either side says they can bring, their opposite will say it is a lie. can't we all just agree to disagree because the only way to know who was right is when we can't brag about it.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  11. Brian

    I am OK with this as long as we can also teach science in the religion classes. Seems only fair, right?
    BD

    December 15, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • rachel

      good answer.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  12. Mopery

    Ok class, in order to prove that the cardiovascular system is a direct link to the divine, we will require a volunteer to be sacrificed to Quetzalcoatl. The lucky volunterr will have their heart ritually torn out of your chest by my assistant, Mr. Jones, as I recite the magic phrases which will ensure that the San Andreas faultline will remain calm for another year.

    Any volunteeers? No?

    Well then, I'll just have to choose one of you...hmm, how about YOU! Come forward please. You should be honored. Your sacrifice will enable our entire state to have a productive year. Don't be scared, it's only religion, side by side with science! You remember platetectonic theory don't you? Well, it turns out that Queztalcoatl is the God of faultlines, so this is absolutely necessary. Don't worry, we'll send your parents a note at the end of the day and they will be SO proud of what you've done. Now, step up to the altar...

    December 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  13. R.Williams

    Teach real world applications of science, but don't put religion in it. Religion doesn't deal with facts, which is what science does, as a biology teacher should know. Ethics can be taught as a separate class, but make sure it is the ethics of society, not skewed towards an untenable and arbitrary belief system.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  14. John

    or Kevin.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  15. Sean

    As everyone else has said; the discussion about ethics and science is fine. But this article seems to equate the two, they are not the same. Drawing parallels to the students everyday life is fine, but religion and ethics are not a good parallel. There are plenty of liberal arts classes that can address those issues for the students who are struggling with the the social impacts of the science they are studying.

    I have to say that this is just more religiosity being injected where it doesn't belong.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  16. Matt

    Science is a mechanism for finding the unknown. Religion is putting a supernatural power behind the unknown. Religion and science are inherently opposed to one another and science will always win, because science thrives on truth. Also, ethics and religion are NOT mutually exclusive. I cannot believe that in 2011, we STILL have to debate about this...

    December 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
  17. jaymay

    I am a deeply religious person (I'd say 'Christian' but it's been given a dirty name by hateful pseudofaithful political zealots who do NOT represent most Christians), and I have never understood the conflict. Science class should include science. Period. I do not want religion in any form in public schools. Once it's allowed in, the question then becomes, WHOSE version of WHAT religion? Best just to leave it where it belongs – in the privacy of one's home.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • rachel

      that's the first objective thing i have heard a religious person say in a long time. hats off.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  18. Bob Crock

    "Atheists" believe in reason and logic, and using tools such as evidence, facts, and probability. The inevitable conclusion is that religion, god etc. is a cultural construct and nothing else.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  19. Avdin

    be careful what you believe about science. science is a sticky business. As Richard Feynman (Noble Prize winner in Physics) once put it: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
    He was right. Science does not usually progress by leaps and bounds of discoveries, but rather by modifying or down right dispoving the best ideas proposed so far. Science has a long way to go. It often seems to contradict itself (there are over 40 scientific theories about the Higgs Boson). Science also has its limits as a way of knowing.
    You should always approach science with a grain of critical skepticism. The best scientists do. Otherwise they would be out of a job.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
    • sharoom

      Please tell me you would at least consider more heavily the recommendation of an expert than someone who isn't.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • james

      Well said. Facts are nother more than temporary truths.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Avdin

      Oh definitely. In fact that is the beauty of science. The more respected you are the more your views will be analysed and critiqued. However, a true expert knows his own ignorance. I find it very amusing how many people on these forums quote science as their bible. We forget that at one time science did not believe in evolution either.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      Exactly and that's why religion is not science, becasue religion is never changed, religious people are not willing to put their believe to the test and toss it away should it proof wrong. Another reason why religion has no business in a science class.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:55 am |
  20. Bruce

    I got down to the part of raising hands on the question: “How many of you think something in addition to evolution accounts for humans being on earth as we now exist?” Would not a critical approach to science reply to that answer with something like "Well, there is ample evidence of evolution; what evidence can any of you put forward to justify your hands being up?" That should put the matter to rest right there, and allow the class to focus on SCIENCE.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • TheOnlyWay

      Not so fast...what started the big bang? How do you start something from nothing? Can we really explain the how humans and complex world (of which so far we can find nothing even close in the known universe) came to be be from a massive explosion.
      Can a completely random event like the big bang ever explain the human genome?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      Educate yourself on String Theory. So far that's the best bet we have today to explain what possibly came before the big bang and how the universe came "out of nothing". Also, if you assume that only god could create the universe out of nothing the question remains, where did god come from. If your answer is "he existed eternally" you accept the possibility that time had no beginning and no end which is exactly what String Theory attempts to introduce to physics.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Q

      Ultimate origins aside, evolution explains the human genome quite nicely. Not just the good stuff, but the bad, the ugly and the weird (e.g. like how we ended up with a broken gene for egg yolk protein).

      December 16, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • Primewonk

      @TheOnlyWay –

      Why do you confound cosmology, abiogenesis, and evolution? And why do think the Big Bang was an explosion?

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

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.