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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. Aine57

    If creationism is allowed to be taught in public schools, then I demand that quadratic equations, gluons, string theory, and the Krebs cycle be discussed in Sunday School.

    Honestly. Are the science teachers now forced into having discussions of creationism as "science" at some future date going to be forced into debating whether or not gravity exists, whether the earth is flat or round, and whether the sun goes around us or us around it?

    Education in science should be education is science, not religion, Keep religion out of the science class and in church or in theology classes where it belongs. American students are so uninformed about science as it is that we are lagging far behind many developed nations. This trend must be reversed.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
    • SSG101

      This is an ignorant article published to attract website traffic. Religion has no place in the science class. Atheism vs Theism? Perhaps, but not as a focus. The problem is that by and large duh masses don't know (or care) that even Darwin knew that his studies of evolution have nothing to do with the origin of life.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  2. zakman12

    I am a senior Biology student and through my personal experience I have realized that science is largely stigmatized by the populous. The role of scientists is public service; it is not an eccentric discipline for radical thinkers who reside in some strange laboratory. The failure of scientists to entertain these social and political issues in the class room does hinder critical thinking. Both scientists and theologians scoff at each other, both of whom claim to understand the nature of our existence. I have to agree with Eisen, science not facilitating these arguments kills critical thinking in the classroom; as much as close mindedness in a church. Both of which further stigmatizes science to the masses.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  3. Physics

    I study physics, we don't bring up religion because it has no relevance to our work. Ethics yes, it helps direct our research and goals. But you don't need religion to be ethical. The vast majority of physicists I know pay very little attention to the religious views and implication of our work. Our concerns with religion stretch only as far as preparing for situations in which religious advocates look to reduce or restrict our ability to study science. I couldn't care less whether the average person gets miffed by my research, or if they think it's an abomination, or a waste of money. The people with money understand it's importance, the people truly interesting in "finding" good ideas and answers in our world are open enough to logical debate and contribute, to refute or add to our research because it's not about personal beliefs. Those are the only people we really care about, just fyi.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  4. TL@

    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 | -1 |

    Are you willing to take responsibility for his/her life?

    Your choice of words defines the speaker and not the subject.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • Answer

      A moral dilemna question /scenario.

      Let's see – that chicken t-w-a-t bible thumper that lies and spreads hate for the continuation of a doctrine. For me to consider taking responsibility for a sole bible thumper? How about if 1 million or a whole billion of that lot dies of suicide tonight? That I would gladly take responsibility for. I will gladly spend the rest of my life in jail to be a witness that my words bring about the end of such ignorance.

      For one ID-iot – he is well suited to commit his own suicide. He can die alone with his wishful thinking and hate.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • SSG101

      Are you two having an ignorance contest?

      December 16, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • TL@

      Answer

      A moral dilemna question /scenario.

      Let's see – that chicken t-w-a-t bible thumper that lies and spreads hate for the continuation of a doctrine. For me to consider taking responsibility for a sole bible thumper? How about if 1 million or a whole billion of that lot dies of suicide tonight? That I would gladly take responsibility for. I will gladly spend the rest of my life in jail to be a witness that my words bring about the end of such ignorance.

      For one ID-iot – he is well suited to commit his own suicide. He can die alone with his wishful thinking and hate.
      December 16, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |

      Your reason behind this view? Life event?

      December 16, 2011 at 1:53 am |
  5. Mark Hilsen

    Ethics, by all means! But there is no need for magical sky dictator "fathers" to tell us what is right. Keep religion out of it. Science and secular morals are more than sufficient to define the issues, options, and likely ultimate consequences of our scientific inquiries. (Aside: and if religion is allowed, as a respected First Deacon in the Third Reformed Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I WANT MY EQUAL TIME! Arrrrggggghhhhh! Pirates!)

    December 15, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  6. weylguy

    When religion comes to the science class, will any be left sane enough to demand that quantum mechanics be taught in church?

    December 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  7. tony

    Religion can only be taught by the already insane.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  8. SSG101

    What they should teach when teaching evolution is that it doesn't address the origin of life and even Darwin knew that. Creation vs Evolution is a debate for duh masses.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
  9. BK

    That's a great idea when you don't take into account the instructors that will use it as a trojan horse to inplement in their class. Another problem here is that if every single variation of belief is added in, when will they find time to actually teach science? Are we also going to include, for instance, the belief that humans were created/seeded by aliens?

    December 15, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  10. larry

    Instead of trying to for religion into a science class, maybe you should make religion teach science.

    After all, Science is ultimately the search for truth and religion is ultimately the search for belief.

    You made your case. I dismiss it.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
  11. Cat MacLeod

    Yes please teach children ethics and philosophy, it's important but do it in the right context. You don't teach children about Mark Twain in math class. You don't teach children about religion in science class. Grow a brain.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  12. wisdom4u2

    The Lord rebuke you, Answer!!

    December 15, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Answer

      Bible pushers should give their honest answer to the questions raised to comments.

      What is the "true science" once again?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      "The Lord rebuke you!"

      December 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • Matt

      You 2 really just need to sleep together and get this religious se xual tension over with LMAO!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm |
    • Answer

      @Matt

      LOL.. the thing is these bible pushers do not like it up the rear. I force it pretty hard for them to handle.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      LOL, Matt...not funny though. : )

      December 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • Matt

      @Answer... TMI bro, TMI... LOL

      December 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • Answer

      @wisdom4u

      Well what is the "true science" once again?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      @ answer/demonic jerk

      I command you to stop in Jesus name. I hold the blood of Jesus against you. The blood of Jesus has defeated you.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
    • Answer

      @wisdom4u

      Not a chance. I am the eternal devil. Your fiction has no place in this reality.

      Just answer that one question and I will leave you – your kind are pretty stupid and always lie. That can never solve the world's problems. Your kind are the problem as already recorded herein the blogs. Everyone can see your kind's evasive mannerism. Your kind are doom to repeat your folly til you fess up.

      December 15, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
  13. Miss Demeanor

    You wouldn't advocate using a science classroom to teach fairy-tales, surely. Science is a discipline that is built on observable facts. You want to change the entire world of science to accomodate religious dogma? Which dogma? One that refuses to say 'we don't know' and relaces it with "our invisible friend is either angry or pleased with us? Or would you replace it with the 'official' religion of the US? We don't have one. Our founders had good reasons for not recognizing or promoting one... zealous fools who would try to hijack the country and rework it to suit THEIR beliefs. No thanks.

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

      Did you even read the article? Or just the headline?

      December 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • domal domal

      To Miss Demeanor,
      Im sorry some religious ppl wont listen to you when you tried and explain something to them according to science. I know religious ppl can be hard to deal with because i think they let their emotions or desires race ahead of their thoughts or let their emotions or wants decide what is and isnt true.
      I believe in science, in its nature to search out understand and know the truth and its functionality i also believe in Jesus Christ. According to the bible the truth and the Word of God are the same. i don't believe in evolution, because it doesn't make sense, especially after spending time learning about engineering and the nature of things. Nothing happens by chance, I have never seen a cake make itself no matter if the ingredients where in the same bowl on the stove or spread out all over the house. Nor have I seen a house construct itself or put all the important beams and supports or wires in the right places. From my study of computer programming and the complexities of life, it doesn't make sense for something vastly more complex then what i just mentioned build itself, if a simple piece of paper cant even turn itself into a paper airplane no matter how many millions of years it sat on my table. The theory of evolution is excalty that a theory it is not a law or proven, its more like and educated guess. I personally think they both should be discussed in schools.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  14. Garrick Greathouse

    Where is Arri Eisen getting these facts from? Steven Novella should be writing this article because he's a medical doctor, not a professor of being a professor.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  15. steve

    problem is – you give the religious whackos an inch, they take a mile.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  16. jamesnyc

    Why don't you have a class in the evolution of religion instead and separately (at first)? How the religious philosophies espoused actually existed millenia before Christianity and even before Moses or Abraham? How so many of the rituals and holidays were ripped off from the pagan rites of the Egyption, Persia,Greek and Roman Empires as well as the worshippers of Mithras, or the writing of Zoroaster?
    Why don't you have a class that tells about the atrocities that were done or are being done in the name of religion just for the sake of greed and power?
    Please leave science separate religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
  17. Jessica

    Meanwhile in India and China.... students take calculus, organic chemistry and college level biology while still in high school. Stop arguing about religion in schools. Even if we did agree to incorporate more religion no one would agree on which one. Lets focus on improving science classes in general, encouraging and challenging the brightest kids instead of always waiting for the slowest ones to catch up and we might get ahead in the sciences in the US. Not everyone is going to be a scientist, the ones that want more religion can seek it out on their own or pursue religious studies in college. I would have rather taken advanced chemistry in high school than listen to my biology teacher generalize about Genesis from the Bible, we can go to church or temple or mosque for that.

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

    So we need to teach Jesus in the middle of Science... just like India and China?

    They seem to be making progress in the field of Science just fine with lessons on how and why we're all going to hell.

    Notice how Arri Eisen makes a bunch of claims without sighting any sources that would prove his point?

    December 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  19. ThatOne

    I'd love to see the reaction of someone suggesting that legitimate science be taught in church.

    December 15, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  20. tallulah13

    The only thing that needs to be said about religion in a science class is this:

    "Science is based on always questioning what you know. Religion is based on never questioning what you're told. If you think that the universe was created by a god, be prepared to show the supportable evidence that supports this theory. No one has ever done so. If you insist on a theory that is unprovable, perhaps you're in the wrong class."

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

      You go girl!

      December 15, 2011 at 11:41 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.