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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. Amistavia

    Just goes to show that you can have a PhD and still be an idiot.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Are you saying you have a degree?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • Matt

      Oral Roberts U probably gave him one...

      December 15, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Amistavia

      Alfred. I don't place any value on the opinion of one, such as yourself, who believes without conviction. I don't know what your educational background is, but I'm guessing it doesn't include a course in logic.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  2. Sal

    Why is the janitor from 'Scrubs' writing for CNN?

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

      I JUST LOOKED AND SAW THE RESEMBLANCE!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  3. Bob Crock

    Teaching nonsense like religion to kids is criminal – it's like giving cocaine to a three year old.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Do you give cocaine to three year olds a lot?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  4. Greg

    ... Science involves.. facts.. and theories based on ideas that can be reproduced..

    Religion.. at the heart of it.. is completely faith based. So no.. don't have religion in science class... Because it has no damn place..

    Religion goes in.. Religious studies..

    December 15, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • Kelly

      @Greg Science involves.. facts.. and theories based on ideas that can be reproduced

      So the big bang could be reproduced?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • Observer

      Kelly,

      The mathematics and physics that demonstrate that the universe exploded from a point can be reproduced.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Q

      Furthermore, we can observe the red shift of galaxies moving away in "real time"...

      December 15, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  5. Observer

    Why is it so hard for people on here to act like grown-ups?

    Name-calling and insults just show you are out of FACTS and have nothing left.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  6. Sitnalta

    Here's a thought experiment. Imagine all knowledge in the world was wiped out. All books, all memory, we are reset back to the stone age.

    Christianity would be lost forever. With no bible and nobody to teach it, it would cease to exist (as what happens to all religions eventually.) On the other hand, science would return the same as it is. Because the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, and chemistry do not depend on our belief. They are intrinsic facts of the universe.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Facts created by God.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • Bill

      On the other hand, science would return the same as it is

      No. People/Scientist today are no match for those in the past. We are too dependent on computers etc , Mankind would waste away.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
    • MathStudent

      That is the most stupid thing I've read today Bill. The fact that you think scientists today are worse than those of the past because of computers means that even the mere talk of their activities is beyond you.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  7. Bob Crock

    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.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      That's a crock.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • Kevin

      "That's a crock"

      Actually it's probably true. Religion is endemic with respect to society, it is not intrinsic with respect to human nature.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Check the name of the poster.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  8. If horses had Gods ...

    The only science class religion should be taught in is sociological science.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  9. cz

    Wow. Really bad idea on so many levels.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  10. reasongal

    "Intelligent Design scholars?" I choked on the oxymoron, not sure whether to laugh or cry. Science does not need religion to make it relevant...it is relevant because it reflects the natural world around us! Surely, a course on sociology would be able to address religion in societies and how the natural world influences and is used by them. This is SUCH a stretch.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  11. wisdom4u2

    Answer

    @wisdom4u2

    Finally showing your "true" garbage that you're hiding. That of ID-iots.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    How many would want this hopeless clown for a friend? So Sad : (

    December 15, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      Answer

      You are full of false pride in your own delusions that you know anything.

      A useless ID-iot is still useless. You can test this very premise tonight and go and commit suicide. No one cares for a useless ID-iot spreading the disease of religion.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Again, what is this clown's problem?? Poor thing!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
    • Answer

      You see .. I have told you to fess up to your real "true science". The ID-iots claims.

      We can do this all year round 🙂

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

      On how many pages did you cut and paste your "true science" spiel there wisdom4u?

      Could you tell yourself honestly your brand of true science to the community? Nah – your kind hides behind the labels of falsehood. Pinning you down is a real piece of work, but satisfaction of your kind admitting that you are ID-iots is the best 🙂

      December 15, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      get behind me, satan.....you"re already DEAD! lol

      December 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Answer

      We can go on and on..

      December 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  12. leonid7

    While you're at it, why not teach economics, Latin, and PE in science class as well.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  13. Scott

    How embarrassing for Emory.

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

      Spot on.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
    • Amistavia

      I'll second that.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  14. James

    Any way you slice it, religion is not science. Have a theology class if you must, but religion does not belong in a science class, period. I've always felt that religion is a personal matter. You have the option to attend the church of your choice if you desire to learn about religion and you have the option of private religious schools.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  15. amoralyethighlyethical

    I am disturbed at the shadowy premise that religion spawned ethics. Religion may have spawned morality, but ethics is amoral and exists perfectly well in the absence of any religious dogma. And I say that as an amoral, yet highly ethical carbon blank.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  16. wisdom4u2

    @ Answer ~~~ Believe it or not......not only do I matter, but for some reason, I'm taught that 'you' actually matter...so, you are NOT insulting me one bit.
    However, I do feel sorry for you...you're so mean and full of hopelessness! : (

    December 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • Answer

      You are full of false pride in your own delusions that you know anything.

      A useless ID-iot is still useless. You can test this very premise tonight and go and commit suicide. No one cares for a useless ID-iot spreading the disease of religion.

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

      Answer... I am an atheist and chill bro! We are good peeps, so just chill fellow atheist!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • Answer

      @Matt

      Nah. I'll continue to bash these ID-iots and their stupidity that their "brand" of truth equals anything akin to real science.

      These t-w-a-t-s need to get the facts settled in their own arguments. I don't believe in giving breathing room to idiots and ignorance Matt. Thanks though.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  17. Johnny 5

    Religion is not science! keep it out of the classroom!

    December 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  18. Howard

    Keep religion OUT OF SCHOOL. If you want to teach comparative religion, fine. To me, all organized religions are a complete waste of time. They're cults. You want to pray that tornado goes away, good luck. Don't mix beliefs with facts.

    December 15, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  19. Matt

    Science converges. There’s no American science and Brazilian science and Chinese science – whatever knowledge science elucidates is valid all over the world, because there’s just one science. Religion, on the other hand, diverges. There are more than 38,000 different Christian sects alone, and that number keeps increasing, because when people make stuff up, there’s no way to reach agreement about it
    -reddit user NukeThePope

    December 15, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Q

      Excellent point...

      December 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  20. kelly

    Science is based on proven facts through the course of scientific experiment that proves it to be fact or not. I fail to see how belief in any religion effects the outcome of learning such facts except for disproving the belief you once had. IT'S Science not bible school.

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

      Well stated!!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:05 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.