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. Nick26

    Well the bible does explain where life came from. So maybe religion should be mixed with biology and chemistry.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • Matt

      Except biology and chemistry and physics for that matter know where we came from and where we are headed

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

      Those people also explained that the first women was created from an man's rib. If you accept this as fact, I know of an awesome charity you can send lots of money to.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  2. Reality

    Why Christianity should not be mentioned in the classroom:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, insane, preacher man would do or say?

    December 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  3. VonDoom

    Did people all of a sudden forget that school does teach religion, they just call it mythology.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  4. Dude

    Americans know way too much about science. We really need to cut back on the time spent studying science to spend more time using government funds to teach religion. While we are at it, why not devote 50% of math class to bible study and replace engineering classes with bible study. Reading class will become reading the bible class.

    "If you drop a rock it will fall to the ground, now lets discuss how this relates to Jesus for an hour."

    December 15, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  5. lee s

    I learned all I need to know about religion in History class. Same old, same old.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  6. Read

    I like this idea a lot, as an atheist. Even not believing in religious notions, connecting ideas like this can teach students that lessons and hard, proved facts share at least a little common ground with religion. Though, I disagree with a subtle undertone of the author: ethics and religion can't be clumped into one category. Though the latter may promote the former, they aren't exclusive to one another. But I do believe everything students learn can and ought to be related to one another, and that religious alternatives to potentially touchy issues should be presented, if they help students string new education with prior learning. Eisen isn't talking about completely converting science classes, but just making passing mention of the connection couldn't hurt at all–it seems like it would only benefits students.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  7. McGuffin

    Religion should be taught in social studies classes, not science. There's nothing wrong with teaching religion in schools, but the point of science class is to teach the process of the scientific method and what we've discovered using it. No one says we should include art in math class or science in art class. They are separate subjects. Science is knowledge obtained through the scientific method; philosophy and religion are knowledge obtained through meditating, reflecting, and thinking about the world. They absolutely should ALL be taught in school to broaden a child's experience, presenting children with different answers about the world from different schools of thought. History, philosophy, religion, math, and science are all important to teach, but in separate classes, because they represent different means of arriving at answers.

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

      What religion though? There are roughly 1500 forms of Christianity practiced today let alone everything else. If religion were to be taught, an extra two years of school would probably be required. Nobody who wants religion taught in school really wants to just "teach religion", they want to indoctrinate. You might think this is a dandy idea until say, an Islamic cleric starts teaching Islam to your kids. Not saying anything negative about Islam, just that people for the most part think that their religion is the only correct one and anything else taught to their impressionable little kids would probably cross a line.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
  8. Former Life Science & Physics teacher

    Dear Arri,

    I agree with you that, as teachers, we need to do a better job at being creative in our pedagogy such as finding ways to add context and personal connection to the material. Unfortunately, I believe that this will be a lengthy and arduous journey for teachers. When people are stressed, they tend to revert to their instincts. In this case, the instinct is for teachers to teach how they were taught (e.g. memorization, non-critical thinking, etc.). Being a teacher is the hardest profession on the planet, and it is getting harder. Teachers have to deal with students who do not have such basic skills as respect, discipline, and politeness, because their parents are too busy to be parents. Budgets are dwindling and thus teachers are assigned bloated class sizes. Principals are pressuring teachers for results on standardized testing, etc.

    I also agree with you that religion should be incorporated into the American school system. The problem here is that most Americans believe that religion is synonymous with Christianity. There is almost no tolerance for other belief systems. Perhaps a general religious class that teaches what morality is and how morality permeates through all religions would do wonders for our society.

    In my opinion, the political issue with science in America is due to ignorance. I noticed that very few teachers understand what science is, and therefore very few students are taught what science actually is. Science is a method for formulating models of understanding. These models are constantly reshaped as our understanding ascends to the next level. The understanding comes from observation and copious amounts of experimentation. Dissension also leads to enhanced understanding, but the key is that dissension in science encompasses additional observation and copious amounts of experimentation. We are no longer in the realm of the scientific method when we are talking about what individuals believe to be truth due to logic or emotion.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  9. Ratetat

    Ethics in science–yes. Religion in science–no. Science and religion don't mix. And, the western world has all day Sunday to suck up to religion with Sunday School for children and adult classes plus services. That's enough. Stop trying to wreck science by constantly trying to mix God into it. There is a whole universe from the microsocopic quantum physics to black holes, dark energy, and dark matter macro universe that will remain forever untainted/unchanged by our petty imaginations of God.

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

      Seriously, and if children desire to attach cosmic, religious significance to scientific concepts, they are completely free to do so without being explicitly taught anything about religion in science class.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  10. Devesh

    Terrible idea.
    Before kids learn in Science how the physical and biological world is, they will first have to contend with what their credulous fellow beings 'believe' or 'feel' about scientific realities and their implications.
    Please don't taint education. Kids have enough to figure out growing up that they don't need to be confused with this.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  11. Boney Lee

    Religion is just damn useless and destructive.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
  12. El

    To teach creationism as an alternative to evolution (let alone as science) is a canard. There is nothing wrong to teach a course on the ethics, politics or any other social influence on science. Nor is it wrong to teach the influence of science on our politics, ethics or religion -- but these are courses on ethics, politics and theology NOT science. A GOOD scientific education must include study on all aspects of the field – it's history, politics even it's art!
    Your statement that "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" I find offensive - Did the Nazi engineers appreciate the importance of the Final Solution to their efficient design of death camps? Perhaps a course in ethics and religon would help!
    argument that a conservative would be a better scientist if they approached it from a perspective of

    December 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  13. Colin in Florida

    While this professor may have been bright enough to get these concepts across, many of the teachers today have trouble with the basics. I agree we need desperately need to improve science and math education, and making science more interesting is a key part of this (more experiments early on might help, for example), but I think asking the average teacher (not college professor) to handle this is too much, IMO.

    And lets keep in mind that Emory University, while a great school, is a private school affiliated with the Methodist church.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  14. They Do!

    They already do, it is in history under mythology!

    December 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  15. ManEnvisionedGod

    Dear religious people, thank you for cooking up the very existence to your so called gods. Without you where would all these gods and mythical stories be?

    Thank you science, for everything else... Without science how would these religious people (and everybody else too) express their views on the internet, use electricity, live long enough after getting sick so that they can pray to their gods, and I could go on and on...

    If man can think of a way to go to moon, how difficult is it for man to imagine a god, or a monster, or how an alien would look like?

    December 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  16. anon man

    I was religious. I was afraid if I stopped, I'd get morally corrupt. I became a better person.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  17. Nick

    I think it's a good idea. Make science relatable. Discuss its implications. Problems arise in many forms when we treat science as a body of static facts.

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

      But religion is false and has no bearing on ethics! Granted, every science major should take an ethics class, but science class is for science and the scientific method

      December 15, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • Euprax

      Science is the exact opposite of "a body of static facts". Science is constantly undergoing revision as new evidence comes to light. It is religion that is a body of static facts.

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

      You have the six pack going on there but are missing that plastic thing that holds it together. Science that is taught in school is steeped in fact regardless of how much the religious nuts want to disagree with it. If something is still being worked on, the teachers emphasize this because it's how they get future scientists to become interested and find something to explore and work on. How long has the scientific community been working on String Theory while also saying it has yet to be proven? It doesn't need to be made "relatable" (is that even a real word?), one either gets it or they don't. That's just the way it is. It's also perfectly fine to say that it's over your head without having to prove or disprove something. Not everyone who rides the bus needs to drive it too.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • Joe Everybody

      Yes.. lets start by teaching evolution theory in churches..

      December 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • McGuffin

      Science doesn't need any notions of God to make it relatable. If anything, I would think throwing God into it would make science less relatable by attaching it to things we can't even observe. Science is fun on its own – there are a lot of cool things in this world (that God created perhaps?), so you can show them to kids and then explain how they work. What we need instead are teachers who are good enough and who enjoy science themselves to present it to kids as something fascinating instead of as a chore. Kids are hardwired to learn and ask "why?" All we have to do is tell them what we know instead of providing some political BS about how maybe we're completely ignorant and Jesus made the sodium burst into flames when it touched the water with magic.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  18. Oi

    Here we go again. Another religion freak fretting about the march forward of science and the ever increasing reality that his religious beliefs are, well, a complete joke. Interesting how people react when their religious dogma gets debunked and becomes irrelevant. Creationism? What a load of horsehockey. Just a failed attempt to avoid reality and the truth – a myth is a myth no matter how you try to reinvent it.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
    • McGuffin

      This is the opposite tack of the religious freaks and it's just as flawed. There's no reason a person can't continue to believe in God if he so desires as we find out more and more about how the universe works. Science and religion are not in conflict. Science studies the universe as it is and answers the question of "how." It doesn't attempt to answer the question of "why," if that is indeed even a valid question. If anything, the sudden creation of the universe in the big bang and the order of speciation in evolution actually fit Genesis remarkably well. Take that how you will.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  19. wisdom4u2

    @ Answer ~~~
    I know who you are…..you’re that stinking Beelzebud!!

    "Then I summoned Beelzeboul to appear before me again. When he was seated, I thought it appropriate to ask him, 'Why are you alone Prince of the Demons?' He replied, 'Because I am the only one left of the heavenly angels (who fell). I was the highest-ranking angel in heaven, the one called Beelzeboul. There is also accompanied me another ungodly (angel) whom God cut off and now, imprisoned here, he holds in his power the race of those bound by me in Tartarus. He is being nurtured in the Red Sea; when he is ready, he will come in triumph."

    "I said to him, 'What are your activities?' He replied, 'I bring destruction by means of tyrants; I cause the demons to be worshiped alongside men; and I arouse desire in holy men and select priests. I bring about jealousies and murders in a country, and I instigate wars." – TSol 6:1-4

    But I pled the Blood over me and mine….you have already been defeated over 2,000 years ago….you have no teeth!!

    December 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
    • Answer

      You are quite right. I am the devil. I enjoy the facts that reality holds me in this earth. That I am human and have form 🙂

      While you ID-iots are plain ignorant and attach such ridiculous labels to a mere person to brand them in your hate.
      Your kind are so full of delusions – it's just plain hilarious to see. Do try harder.

      So once again – what is that "true science" bit you were on about?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @answer/beelzebub ~~~~
      Yes, I know....you speak of death....but you're the one who should fear!
      "O prince Satan, author of death and head of all pride, thou oughtest first to have sought out matter of evil in this Jesus: Wherefore didst thou adventure without cause to crucify him unjustly against whom thou foundest no blame, and to bring into our realm the innocent and righteous one, and to lose the guilty and the ungodly and unrighteous of the whole world? And when Hell had spoken thus unto Satan the prince, then said the King of glory unto Hell: Satan the prince shall be in thy power unto all ages in the stead of Adam and his children, even those that are my righteous ones" – Gospel of Nicodemus VII (XXIII)

      December 15, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
    • Answer

      Ahh useless quotes and threats.

      I foresaw your posting style (like all good atheists do) – predict your lunacy – and I have not read even the slightest of your crap.
      Hence this quick retort 🙂

      Enjoy the pleasure of me not reading your bible crap.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      The Lord rebukes you, Answer!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Answer

      The lord of magic? Oh yah – I love magic.

      It can always make morons like you go insane with more bible quotes. The lord of magic gave me special powers to predict your kinds moronic ways.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Answer

      So bible pusher are you going to give the community the 411 on your "true science" yet?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
  20. britt

    Take an Evolutionary Biology class and your mind will be opened to a whole new viewpoint on how biology really works and even how we work. I do think religion should be taught, but together not sure. But every student should be required to take a religion and an evolutionary biology, since they are such huge points in our world today. Religion does have facts in it just like science from the fossils and recording found. So you might could combine these classes because of how they are researched.

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

      Religion does have facts in it? Certainly nothing of significance. The Red Sea parted? It did not. Immaculate conception? Give me a break! Jesus rising from the dead after 3 days? I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you at a good price.

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

      Religion is myth not fact.

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

      Myths often have an origin in fact, people.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
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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.