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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. Mike

    If we want the rest of the world to over-take the United States in science, faster than it already is, then by all means, add religion to science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  2. Aelia

    Most of the people posting comments here are examples of what this article criticises and proposes a remedy to: those who take a standpoint (religious or scientific, take your pick) and act like donkeys. You are missing the point. I took a class somewhat similar to the ones this article discusses, and found it fascinating. Science and religion can intermingle. I'm a fairly devout Christian, and I believe in evolution. I just believe that God helped it along a bit. If the crazy fanatics in both areas (no offense intended) shut up and listened to what others are saying, the world would be easier to live in. Gee whiz.

    And atheists, you're welcome to not believe in God, but please don't interceed on conversations unrelated to you with comments about our "magic space genie". Go talk to the other atheists.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Mike

      Why do you accept evolution, and deny the account of creation by God creating Adam and Eve? I mean, there's a whole chapter dedicated to the creation of the world.

      And if you don't believe in Adam and Eve, what was the point of God sending his own son to die?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • CosmicC

      That's an FSM, thank you very much.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • wayne317

      "I just believe that God helped it along a bit."

      Where and when did God help "it" along? Why would it even need too? That makes no sense at all.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • PC

      "Don't intercede on conversations that aren't related to you"... A) Where is your tolerance, where you are uninterested in even engaging the topic, & B) if YOU only want to talk to people who believe like you, go to church, that's what its for.

      People need to start realizing a religion is an elective activity. Its basically the world's largest book clubs. You do it on your own time with like minded people. If your going to teach about religion on the taxpayer, teach THAT.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Temp

      "And atheists, you're welcome to not believe in God, but please don't interceed on conversations unrelated to you with comments about our "magic space genie". Go talk to the other atheists."

      Spoken like a typical divisive, arrogant, self righteous "christian". I'm sure you feel so persecuted when evil people try to take away your ability to oppress others.. Must make you so angry when gays are happy and women have rights and others can believe in their fairy tales and not yours.. *sniff*sniff* you poor thing!

      Don't you let that wall of separation stand in YOUR way!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • BeeZee

      Whose religion are we going to intermingle? Christianity, Paganism? The African's who came to the state during the slave trade had religion as well. What about Native beliefs? What religion are you talking about?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Dean

      Aelia said: And atheists, you're welcome to not believe in God, but please don't interceed on conversations unrelated to you with comments about our "magic space genie". Go talk to the other atheists.

      Hello Aelia,
      Are you serious? Go talk to other atheists because religious discussions are "unrelated" to non – believers? As if religion and the destruction it has caused and continues to cause doesn't affect non – believers like myself as well. You and your delusional buddies with your magic invisible friend had better get used to one reality. Non – believers have as much of a right to state our opinions about religious matters that effect our societies and our security as do believers. We have joined the conversation, whether religious people like you like it or not.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:15 am |
  3. PC

    The public school system has an obligation to remain absolutely neutral in regards to religion, & therefore to stick to teaching FACTS, & FACTS ONLY. If the children want fairy tales, don't screw up a kid's head on the taxpayer dollar, let the parents do it at home.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  4. Deep North

    And a humongous explosion, billions of years ago......created Order throughout the universe?????

    December 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • El_Smusso

      yes... I´m sorry but its more believable than a merciless god that you have to satisfy with obedience... hehe... its crazy surf man.

      December 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Dan

      Well, yes.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Derangedcowbrain

      Actually, at the point of the Big Bang the Universe was much more orderly, in keeping witht he Law of Entropy. The order has only decreased since then.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Deep North

      Perfect example how Dan and Smusso exhibit Faith in a subject matter.....because there is no way you can go back hundreds of billions of years and prove it!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • wayne317

      Mircrowave background radiation is evidence of the big bang. If it's not, why isn it there? Genesis made it very clear it had no clue why it's there, by not mentioning it at all.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Patrick

      What Order? Why do you think it was created with the Big Bang?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • PC

      To paraphrase Stephen Hawking, science has made the need to invoke a god unnecessary. Replies like this one are a perfect example of what _insufficient_ scientific education combined with the water-muddying effect of religious teachings will do to people. They are unable to grasp that something so amazing as the "creation" of the universe, or the Goldilocks situation necessary for the evolution for life, are able to happen without an intervening hand.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • PleaseUseLogic

      Actually, the universe as a whole (closed system) has been converted to greater physical disorder. In an extraordinarily small portion of it, as with all other systems, there has been greater order or some small components that are powered by other sources. That's just basic thermodynamics. Closed systems = greater disorder over time. Open systems can go in any direction, statistically, and can be manipulated when you inject energy from outside sources.... such as a star. By your misconception of physics, building a house would violate thermodynamics.
      Also, it's all about stochastic models, number, time and statistics. Example: The chances of me shooting the hole out of a Cheerio target from a mile away with my 7mag is extraordinarily small. However, if there are 100 billion people each firing 60 rounds per minute for 24hrs a day over the course of 1 billion years, then the chances that the target will be hit at least once (it just takes one) becomes quite probable.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  5. El_Smusso

    Religion should be kept out of schools... exept for pure historical facts.
    Creationism shouldn´t even be mentioned. It has no scientific hold whatsoever.
    Educate with facts please, not mumbo jumbo...

    December 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  6. JJJ

    Why not teach science in religion class??

    December 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • BeeZee

      Great Idea!

      December 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  7. Mike

    In principle, it is a good approach to address ethical issues in science. But let's be clear, the notion of any religious doctrine being a "competing theory" to the theories derived through evidence gathering and scientific investigation should be thrown out the window. We can help students understand different belief systems and how they relate to the science, but the classroom is no place for espousing religious philosophy. Leave that for the Sunday schools.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  8. STLDan

    Tell you what how about we teach science in religion class and debunk a whole lot about what religions teach as fact. Now that sounds like a good idea to me. Also lets not even think about the rights and beliefs of athiests, those godless heathens shouldn't count right? GIVE ME A BREAK!!! You need to go live in Iran or some other theocracy...this my freind is a DEMOCRACY

    December 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  9. Mark from Canada

    When they start teaching science in churches and doing an honest job of it, then I might support this kind of idea.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  10. Travis

    "illustrate science's relatively limited power" This comment made me laugh. Relatively limited power, like increasing life expectancy by 60 years over the past few centuries, curing polio, small pox, in many cases cancer, flight, space flight, transportation, agriculture, communications, etc., etc., etc.

    I'm sure Religion has been much more effective in the past three centuries, but I have been deprived of an education polluted with religion and am ignorant of Religion's feats.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  11. Terry Moore

    By all means, discuss ethics and science...Leave religion out of this. Religion is a private matter, not a public discourse. Keep religion private. With the multiple denominations, the multiple beliefs, the infinity of positions, religion clearly lies in a realm all to its own : Don't mix that realm with the world we live in.
    We should nbot need religion to organize our behaviors. Ethics are fine. We should not need religion to tell us how to think : Science and the scientific method are fine.
    Religion belongs to the heart. Keep it there.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  12. KMBR

    Not only no, but HELL NO! Just what we need – another way for religious nuts to try to cram their views on the rest of us!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Katie

    Science is based on fact. It is overwhelmingly accepted by the experts in that scientific field to be true, not just because they feel like it, but because of a vigorous adherence to the scientific method that only allows for absolute proof. Yes the religious and societal implications of science is very interesting. Take a bioethics course. The example about cell structure and why many religions burn incense.... that can be summed up by "people like nice smells," and no mention of religion has to ever come into play. Stop trying to force beliefs upon people.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • padawan

      um. NO.
      As a scientist, I am forced to stand up against this common fallacy. Science is NOT Fact. Inherent in scientific reasoning is the ACCEPTANCE that everything we think CAN BE WRONG.
      Our Facts are our best guesses, nothing more, no absolute TRUTH. We're pretty darn sure about some of them (e.g. Gravity, natural selection). But these are only scientific ideas because they are open to modification should new evidence be found.
      DOGMA is the declaration of fact, science is the assertion of best-guesses based on all the available observations and logical reasoning.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Derangedcowbrain

      To help Padawan a bit here, actually our scientific Theories are based on fact. Theories are not best guesses. Theories result from proof that all the evidence we have at the moment points to this specific outcome. Science, then, is based on Theories. (I will not make the next logical leap here though.)

      It is not fair (or remotely correct) to say science is a guessing game. It's all based on fact. Once one fact counters what a theory alludes to, the theory is no more. It may be tossed out, it may be revamped. But no matter what, we base our theories on the facts we have.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • padawan

      I like the cowbrain here. I did not mean to minimize the empirical nature of modern Theories. I only wished to offer that those theories MUST BE open to change based on new observations.

      The scientific body of knowledge GROWS organically. Non-science is STUCK in a particular historical interpretation. To ever state as a scientist that "X is the Truth" without acknowledging that * from your statistical analysis is doing a disservice to the scientific method.

      Uncertainty is baked into science. Unfortunately, John Q Public is uncomfortable with uncertainty and ignores that it is fundamental to scence and it's OK to not have the absolute answer.

      (I'm a meteorologist, btw. 🙂

      December 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  14. Caroline

    This article made me not want to go to Emory.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  15. Merrin Of Giles

    Science and Religion are two very different animals that cannot co-exist in the same space. The contradict each other. Throw ethics into the mix and you have something akin to anti-matter just waiting to destroy everything. Science : The way we understand the world and universe at large by what we can actually measure, test, see, feel, hear and taste. Religion : Based soley on what you believe, or have been taught to believe, ergo....pure faith. What ever people believe, they should do so with the utmost conviction. Unwavering loyalty to that ideal which they intend to follow. You cannot merge the two. They are seperate. Each with it's own ideaologies and beliefs. Pick one and stick to your guns. Just use common sense when you preach otherwise you will sound like some nut job that was just let out of the asylum. To each their own.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  16. paul

    since when did cnn start employing people who cannot even read the first amendment?

    this article is a waste of computer battery life.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • John

      The First Amendment states that government shall not prohibit the exercise of religion or respect an establishment of religion. The second law I just mentioned is called the Establishment Clause, and pretty much means that the government can't declare a national religion, nor can the government specially accomodate any religion over any other. The First Amendment has nothing to do with the separation of church and state, which is a theory put forth by Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists. The separation of church and state is not law; the Establishment Clause is.

      The government and religion cannot be completely separate, as the government must serve religious citizens and deal with aspects of their lives that concern religion. Also, while the government is secular, the people who comprise its body may not be. As long as those officers do not hold one religion in higher respect than others, or make laws prohibiting the free exercise of other religions, there is nothing unnatural or completely wrong with some intermingling of church and state. It is bound to happen.

      Yes, I'm aware that our government may respect certain religions more than others, and I'm also aware that political correctness is running amok. I'm not defending either of those things, just to get that out of the way.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  17. krishna

    ethics yes. religion no. keep religion to churches, temples, mosques and to the internet

    December 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  18. Nicholas

    Wait... did you mean you think Religion should be taught in Science class or did you mean "your" religion should be taught in Science class? Would you be ok if your child's science class combined Science and Hinduism teachings? If not please explain yourself?

    December 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  19. Iconoclast

    Yes! Let's teach "Religion as a Mental Illness" In science class. That would be helpful.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Will

    Funny, Creationism is not science so why should it be in science class? I am not apposed to discussing competing views but if the teacher were to call creationism false in the eyes of no empirical evidence then the whole class would stop the teacher would be fired and possible death threats.

    While I can appreciate how logical and reasonable this article seems to be it does not take into account the closed minded individuals that will not allow anyone to disagree with them. Ignorance of the unknown leads to isolation in some sort of faith based system. Be that delusions of massive conspiracy or belief in a deity.

    Until we as a society remove the voice of the vocal few who demand their world views be the only views this is a moot issue.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 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.