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. Insight

    I am even trying to drive out religion off from my life! He must be a conservative Christian spy

    December 15, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  2. Keith Klamer

    @Bruce At last! We can talk about evidence! Okay, you're on, Bruce! I'll read one of your books/articles on evidence for macroevolution, you read one of mine. And my choice for you to read about the evidence for intelligent design is Michael Behe's "The Edge of Evolution."

    Okay, so what's on my reading list for the evidence of your position that everything in the universe, from the Big Bang to the origin of life on earth, is the result of time plus chance plus natural selection? (And if you give the Multiverse Theory, you have to provide EVIDENCE of it...)

    December 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  3. Rahn

    If you want to bring religion into a science room, bring your evidence that your god exists and then we can talk, otherwise step off your high horse. Bring evidence that ANY god has ever existed. Any at all. Adding delusional and non-critical thinking skills to a science classroom is the stupidest thing anyone could ever come up with. Next thing we know, he's going to start requiring underwater breathing techniques to be taught in swim class. Breathing underwater is just as incompatible as having religion in science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • Atheist4Evr

      Ditto what Rahn said. 🙂

      December 15, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  4. Bob Crock

    Stop brainwashing kids with the religious nonsense! That will eliminate religion in a hurry. Look at Vietnam, where religion was not taught during the Communist era. I believe the number of atheists are around 90%. It really is that simple.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Atheist4Evr

      I was just talking with a friend last night about religious indoctrination. I suggested that the world would have a completely different religious landscape if it were made illegal (all around the world) to indoctrinate children on religion and that only those 18 and up could practice it. Children believe anything you tell them and it becomes a reality to them: e.g. Santa Claus,, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Jesus, etc. Giving children the chance to develop their logic and reason prior to forcing something as misleading as deity-based religion would give them a fighting chance to develop a more realistic view of the world.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Bob Crock

      Definitely. The kids a re a sponge – they have so much to absorb, they have to accept it without discrimination. Teaching nonsense like religion is criminal – it's like giving cocaine to a three year old.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  5. HeavenSent

    Watch out folks. Tom Tom The Tantrum thrower is having another meltdown.

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

      What's wrong, Observer? Not getting enough attention?

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

      Tom Tom,

      I'm still listening. Hope you feel better.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tommie Tom Tom, you babbled:

      "What's wrong, Observer? Not getting enough attention?"

      Answer: I am not Observer.


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

      No Heaven.. you are special..


      December 15, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • sharoom

      It's Raining Men!


      December 15, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      More with the "babbling" and "spewing". Is there anyone less original than HS? Anywhere?

      What a snore your posts are, you gimpy old bat.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  6. George

    Just teach both separately and let kids decide on their own whether or not they believe in a deity. Parents push their youth into believing in what they do. If you grew up in a religious household you were taught to believe in a god. If you grew up in and Atheist household you grew up being taught that there was no god. That's where the animosity between these two side of the argument comes from, a lack of education and options on both sides. Maybe if we balanced religious and scientific views we could actually solve some of the problems in this world, and spread peace.

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

      Bad news for you George.

      Atheists are very rarely raised in atheist households. By and large, they start out as members of a particular religious group, which they later reject after informed investigation. Want some proof? In a Pew study designed to test general religious knowledge (as well as specific knowledge of the Bible), atheists and agnostics beat out every other group. Christians from the South scored the lowest, with many Protestants not even knowing who Martin Luther was.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • Snow

      Finally .. something we can agree upon George.. its keeping religion and education separate..

      December 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • Atheist4Evr

      Agreed, Deadly. I was baptized a Catholic as a child. After my parents split up, I was made to go to various other churches until I was 12. That was when I started asking too many fact-based questions that members of the church could not answer. That was the beginning of my enlightenment that religion is just a series of fairy tales without any tangible proof. Children should not be indoctrinated in religion. It is an adult topic that that should only be made available to adults, in my opinion.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • George

      I blame people not knowing who Martin Luther is on the education system. My high school spent at least a month and a half on the reformation, actual church going has nothing to do with knowing something like that. People need to learn about religion, whether or not it is like peoples beliefs aren't going to go away at the drop of a hat. Education for better acceptance. We shouldn't be telling kids that religion A is correct while everything else is wrong. It follows the same line as making a statement at the begging of a science class that science as it is seen right now is not necessarily correct.

      People really don't know who Martin Luther is? Having been raised in a Lutheran household that makes me very sad.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  7. Fantasies

    Doctor of Hocus Pocus

    December 15, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  8. Kevin

    "My degree is doctorate, my Iq tests are genius, nad I rest my case about secularists being hateful."

    Uh huh.

    "The existence of A.A.'s on asteroids only implies that life might exist in space. "

    No it doesn't, genius. Amino acids and other complex organic molecules are not exclusively formed by life. With the exception of one or two amino acids, they are all able to form abiotically under a variety of conditions.

    "The laws of thermodynamics do require that for the big bang to have happened, it must have been acted on by an outside force."

    Sorry, genius, that's not true either. If the origin of the big bang was a singularity, similar to a black hole, then the laws of thermodynamics does not apply, because the singularity is, in effect, a single particle.

    "But when anyone does they are not being truel Christian"

    Hey genius, that's the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Mr. Nussman

      Kevin, there are plenty of dimensions to go around when looking for a cause to the Big Bang. Get a few dimensional "branes" to collide and foam up under pressure and voila! An expanding universe. While there may have been an initial point of contact, the energy may not have all been concentrated there due to possible density limitations. It might have been a function of dimensional limits in relation to the 5-dimensional radius of the impact point – necessitating an expansion with full energy until the 5-d radius of the brane energy matched the radius of our expanding universe radius whereupon the pure energy form stopped injecting pure energy – which left the expansion to continue without added energy.
      As the energy "coasted" and condensed into quarks, the rest of the energy was likely in all wavelengths whose properties may have even helped determine the fact that infra-red is heat. That heat later red-shifted down and became our microwave background radiation.
      Thus matter condensed out of that massive influx of dimensional energy and all the EM wavelets went in all directions as the universe expanded with more quantum foam we know as the space-time continuum. Hydrogen and helium and possibly a random and very sparing scattering of other elements would have been everywhere. Fluxuations in the quantum foam would now show up as larger bubbles in the foam. We can see the bare remnants of these bubbles between galaxies.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  9. J

    The vatican fully embraces science, why cant science embrace a little? They dont have to oppose each other.

    I think religion should have a bigger place in school, ten years ago I would have never said such a thing but i do think its unfortunate that it gets so left out. I myself am not religious and nor were my parents, as I have become an adult i realize how much I did not know about human history based on my lack of knowledge of relgious history.
    One commenter said maybe they should teach to warn kids about it, which is just such the wrong idea. There are easy things to poke fun of in religion, as well as a lot of irrational fear when it comes to the cultish religious groups. These are things athiests love to use as arguments to support their need to create a movement of lack-of-movements. But in reality I think the bulk of religion in peoples lives plays a very rational and passive role. Teach it, and teach the different philosophies of it.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Bob Crock

      Not. Religion is not based on reason, logic, evidence, facts, and probability. What is it based on? Not much at all – the only thing that remains is creative story writing. But JK Rowling and others are so much better at it!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  10. ??? guy

    Q is correct your case does not take into account that ethics has nothing to do with science class. Infact i'm quite surprised that you would even suggest polarizing the school with religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  11. james greene

    science and religeon should be seperate to maintain credibility . religeon is a believe in systom . science is a proven tangable fact system . one is the antiehicess of the other . b4 a scientific statemenr becomes law it has to be , must be repatable over and over . religeon is a fath belive in system . that in it's self says it is folklore . which originated with the neanderthals around 100k years ago . if things are real , tangable you dont need to have a fath about it . in a very short time human life will not need to die . the distortions that cause death are understood . in 150 yrs the normal life span of humans will be 350 years . those in denial of science dont change a thing . the more we learn about genetics the faster we can learn . smarts begats smarts . full genetic information is now here of the mammoth is known , in a year or 3 one will be brouht bsck to life after 1000 years of frozen death . only facts can do this .

    December 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Bob Crock

      Religion is not based on reason, logic, evidence, facts, and probability. What is it based on? Not much at all – the only thing that remains is creative story writing. But JK Rowling and others are so much better at it!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  12. Doug

    I highly disagree. I see no reason to cut out material from my astronomy class in order to point out how the current understanding of the field contrasts with creationism. The field is already so large that I have plenty of trouble trying to squeeze it al in. I don't need to bother with trying to cram irrelevant material in.

    Also, please stop referring to it as "Science class." The term "science" is extremely broad in its meaning, and certain kinds of science are very different from other kinds. Even if the author had a point (which I don't grant), there's no way that this would hold for all of the very different disciplines that make up "science."

    December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  13. iamdeadlyserious

    Better idea: add some science into religion.

    Or just a little rational thought.

    Heck, I'll settle for making them all read the holy texts of the other religions before they get to speak about their faith openly.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Atheist4Evr

      Here here!

      December 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  14. Rahn

    I made a comment and yet I don't see it here. Are my comments being censored ?

    December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • Atheist4Evr

      "God did it."

      December 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  15. Alfred

    Actually, I wonder how you earned your PhD?!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Matt

      The same place Bachmann got her JD... Oral Roberts lol

      December 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
  16. HeavenSent

    A few scriptures about anger for those of you unable to cope with reality:

    Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret-it leads only to evil (Psalm 37:8).

    A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult (Proverbs 12:16).

    Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).


    December 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You know what, HS, and Observer? What angers me is people like you. Why don't you just shut it and mind your own business for a change?

      December 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Tommmie Tantrum, you babbled:

      "You know what, HS, and Observer? What angers me is people like you. Why don't you just shut it and mind your own business for a change?"

      Answer: Just as you have stated so eloquently, I will say what I wish. First Amendment right. Have you heard of the First Amendment? If you do not like it, you are free to go back to wallowing in hatred alone and leave all these good people out of it. Beside, no one really cares what you want anyway.


      December 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Snow

      More than anger, you have intolerance Heaven.. and that is not healthy.. you will face intolerance everywhere and your blood pressure will shoot up..

      take my advice and turn away from the life of sin with bible.. turn to the love of Darwin and embrace the message for you in the pages of origin of species.. You have after all evolved from a common ancestor as a Monkey.. don't become like one..

      It is for your good


      December 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • Snow

      Oh I care for you HeavenSent.. I really do think you have evolved specially for the good of all humans.. don't waste your life on this imaginary god.. embrace the one true one in Darwin.. I am sure he will forgive you. well, he wouldn't really care coz he's worm food now..but if he did, he would totally forgive you.

      Turn from the life of servitude to that deceiving god!

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

      Snow, you spewed:

      "More than anger, you have intolerance Heaven.. and that is not healthy.. you will face intolerance everywhere and your blood pressure will shoot up..

      take my advice and turn away from the life of sin with bible.. turn to the love of Darwin and embrace the message for you in the pages of origin of species.. You have after all evolved from a common ancestor as a Monkey.. don't become like one..

      It is for your good


      Answer: There is no medical evidence to support your claim about intolerance increasing blood pressure. There is on the other hand plenty of medical evidence that supports the theory that anger can increase blood pressure. Please cite your sources in your rebuttal.


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

      forgot to sign..


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

      aggressive debating with people who won't listen to you will cause Anger.. which causes frustration .. which causes BP to shoot up.. Don't give in to those urges.. find love in the one true Darwin..


      December 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Stuck for a verb yet again, genius? Can you not find your thesaurus? Really, you boob, find some synonyms for "babble" and "spew", you bore. You're as dull as dishwater.

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

      Snow, you babbled:

      "aggressive debating with people who won't listen to you will cause Anger.. which causes frustration .. which causes BP to shoot up.. Don't give in to those urges.. find love in the one true Darwin..


      Answer: I am not aggressively debating. I am stating facts and nothing more.


      December 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
    • Snow

      Debating does not mean just quarreling Heaven.. Stating your facts and opinons in response to others opinions is also typically called Debating.. And Debating overly leads you to the dark side Heaven.. protect yourself.. embrace the love of darwin and pick up his book.. save yourself


      December 15, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Snow, you spewed more nonsense:

      "Debating does not mean just quarreling Heaven.. Stating your facts and opinons in response to others opinions is also typically called Debating.. And Debating overly leads you to the dark side Heaven.. protect yourself.. embrace the love of darwin and pick up his book.. save yourself


      Answer: Incorrect.

      If you wish to "care" for anyone and their blood pressure due to anger, you should preach to your best friend Tommie Tantrum as she has become increasingly aggressive over the past few weeks. I am perfectly happy.


      December 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • Snow

      People living on an island think the entire world is just their Island, Heaven. You had been living under the deceptive cloud of your god.. overcome it.. get over the hurdle.. the whole world of science is in front of your eyes.. all you need to do is pick up the good Darwin's book and open your eyes.. Save yourself from suffering for the rest of your life..


      December 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. Atheist4Evr

    Point blank: Religion provides NO scientific evidence for anything it claims, ergo it cannot be a part of any science curriculum. If the churches demand it be taught in school, teach it as a history class where all religions and their philosophies and fairy tale nonsense are explained ad nauseum. But trying to make religion a part of any science class is like trying to implement creative writing in a calculus curriculum.

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

      Exactly. These are two completely separate disciplines. Philosophy deals with ethics and morality. Science is empirical. Period. I don't care how many letters the author has after his name, this is a ludicrous idea.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
  18. Zappnin

    Interesting idea. Let's start having logic and scientific thinking as core courses taught in fundamentalist Christian Churches.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  19. Q

    The author misses a very basic point. Creationism and its offspring, ID, are legally (as of Kitzmiller) religious concepts and not scientific concepts. Science, at its heart is a study of mechanisms, and as creationism/ID do not have observable/testable mechanisms, the explanations they provide will always fail to those natural mechanisms which are observable/testable. Even if comparing/contrasting the two would provide a better understanding of the strength of evolutionary theory's scientific underpinnings, this would invariably come at the expense of a denigration of a religious belief, something our Const-tution prohibits within a State body. The separation of church and state is there to protect religious beliefs as much as it is there to prevent using government resources to promote them.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  20. jj

    OK, quick. WHOSE religion? Whose ethics? It's easy to like this article – if you believe it's about your religion and belief system. But what if it isn't. Will you still be comfortable?
    And when your family goes to church this week, will they be spending time hearing about science? How bout math?
    How 'bout you just keep your religion to yourself, and pull your head out of that orifice. YOUR religion isn't any more special, sacred or 'right' than mine, or any other religion. We all have our beliefs, and no two people believe the exact same things.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • sharoom

      I support the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be in the classroom.

      December 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • Steve

      I'm totally on board with our caution about hegemony of a single mainstream religion. But I think the author makes an important claim about the role of ethics and religion (multiple religions, as he claims in his seminar) in society... and the relationship of THAT dynamic to the enterprise of science. I read this article not as an apology for placing science and religion on equal footing for explaining physical phenonena (they're clearly not), but as an ackonwledgement of the social context in which we find ourselves. Do we ignore fundamentialist leanings in the classroom, or do we accept that some students come from a social set that places strong value on religion and give them some tools to inject science into that conversation? As an atheist and scientist, I am tempted by the former, but I see the potential for gain in the latter. An open mind is the key to good science... and perhaps if "they" don't manifest it, "we" still can, to the benefit of all.

      Peace 🙂

      December 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
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
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.