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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. bluemax77

    Holly crap..!! Not this again. When is this dumb country going to grow up and stop fantasizing over fairytales..? Then perhaps we won't be the brunt of jokes by the rest of the modern world...

    December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  2. Wow

    Nail on the head "WHat". Darwin was a god, he's not infallible and all knowing, he helped START a process and people have been expanding on it ever since. It's not a stagnant bible that cannot be updated as new discoveries are made and new evidence is found. The theory of evolution itself evolves, as it should.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Wow

      *not a god

      December 16, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  3. untestableClaims

    How can a lie such as religion be ethical?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:34 am |
    • someguy

      maybe somebody with a different viewpoint is asking the same question.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  4. someguy

    i don't want to be rash or rude, but I feel like adding religion to science class would only cause more issues. Although I believe in God, there are many who don't, and I respect that. Religion should be covered somewhere, and it usually is during history class, not in depth but enough to allow students to know that it exists and to give them a choice. Some people have very strong feelings about either side of the topic, and bringing those two stark opinions together in one classroom could spark a large fire. I mean, just look at this webpage, its full of arguments. Which reminds me: You guys are the worst problem solvers in the world. This is why America doesn't solve any problems, they are too busy arguing about things that are based on belief. Those of you who have a point to prove, please don't, you're not proving your point, you are only adding to the stereotypical view that you've already accomplished of yourselves. And I mean that for both sides. I mean, do you honestly think you are going to get somebody to see eye to eye with your viewpoint if they have already established one for themselves?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  5. sandalista

    I agree. Lets also introduce the flat Earth therory and the pink unicorn thesis in schools.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  6. Brian

    Our students have enough trouble competing on a global scale. Hobble them with religion and they will fall even farther behind. The Europeans have had two thousand years of experience with religion and they see religion as part of the problem. As far as "ethics" is concerned, why is American religion so riddled with scandals now?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  7. Jason

    Oh, now the afterlife? Let me put it to you this way. If you're right, God will forgive me and let me in. If I'm right...POOF, it's over and I hope you made the best of it here and now. Me, I like surprises.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  8. Rach

    SSG101 perfectly said! Even Darwin knew better, who is an evolutionist to surpass his leader?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • WHat?

      Unlike religion, leaders are surpassed. Newton was a genius on his time, but even the average scientists today has far more scientific knowledge than he did, thanks to his work.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • Pastafarian

      Just because Darwin published the first book on natural selection back in 1859 does not make him the top authority in it., just the first to publish it. Science stops for nobody – not even Darwin.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  9. Li Tai Fang

    Religion has absolutely no place in science.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • HellBent

      I wholeheartedly disagree. Sociologists and anthropologists can make use of evolutionary concepts to demonstrate how religion and various systems of morals came to be. When wanting to see evidence of how man may have invented god, science is the place to go.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  10. Seth

    Wow. This has got to be the most poorly thought out argument for religious indoctrination I have ever read. Religion is not ethics; ask any Catholic altar boy. Ethics is not religion; ask any atheist who volunteers in their community. This is more evidence of the religious right's attempts to water down knowledge with dogma and to make us slide even lower in the world's rankings of expertise of scientific fact. This. Is. Idiocy.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Rach

      lol, so says you. I happen to love believing in God no matter how made up you claim that he is. Plus I've googled enough myself to know (oh yes, I said it, we're all a bunch of googler's) that really, really intelligent people, yeno ones that can actually understand DNA and physics and really, really complicated stuff leave room for growth, change their minds, etc. etc. Evolution does not address origin, even Darwin admits that. I don't get the argument???

      December 16, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • HellBent

      "really, really intelligent people, yeno ones that can actually understand DNA and physics and really, really complicated stuff leave room for growth, change their minds, etc. etc. "

      Yup, you pretty much nailed it. Science is always skeptical. Religion never is. One ask questions, the other says it cannot be questioned.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  11. AtheistDude

    R.I.P Christopher Hitchens

    December 16, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • Tanya

      He is gone like all the others before him. His physical body failed at the last because of biochemistry. He will be missed.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  12. MattS

    religion doesn' t kill people; religious people with guns kill people.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • HellBent

      or planes

      December 16, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • someguy

      or bombs, don't forget bombs

      December 16, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Res_Ipsa

      Yup. We all know Lenin and Stalin and Mao were some of the most religious people in world history. *facepalm due to massive historical knowledge fail by OP*

      December 16, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • Primewonk

      Lenin, Stalin, and Mao did not kill people because they were atheists. They killed people because they were power-mad despots.

      Butler killed people because of religion.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  13. JG

    We can add religion to science classes when we add science classes to church.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • FunkyMonkey7

      The only thing with that is that we have government owned schools, but not government owned churches

      December 16, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  14. Rationalist

    Just who the hell is this m0r0n? And why the hell does CNN give a forum to someone who should be selling pencils from a cup on some street corner, wearing a cardboard sign that says "the end is near"?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • HellBent

      CNN puts an article about the Higgs Boson in the religion section – it's clear that their only concern is with web traffic, not journalistic or editorial integrity.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  15. snookers

    LOL, using ethics and religion in the same sentence. Such an oxymoron. Nothing wrong with teaching ethical behavior but leave religion out of it please. They are not the same. Rather just the opposite.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  16. Nate

    I support discussion of ETHICS in schools, but not religion, except in a religion course. Religion has no place in a science curriculum. And, yes, you can be an ethical and moral person without being religious.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • FunkyMonkey7

      I believe religion is on the way out, but I don't think faith is.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Robert

      Excellent reply. The inference that religion is a basis or companion to ethics I find as an error. If people wish to find how ethics is developed from religion, I agree, that is a place for religious studies. There is no place for religion in science and it should be painfully obvious that they are oil and water together.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  17. zakr12

    Last time I checked Dr. Martin luther king and Malcom X, RELIGIOUS LEADERS liberated an entire race from oppression. Scientific leaders can't even successfully lead an environmental movement that has decades of solid empirical evidence. So long as education fails to aknowledge religious and social issues, science is stigmatized and its findings will be resented.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • WHat?

      It's easier to lead sheep to the promise land than it is to lead free thinkers who want to discuss the topic.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      that says more about the people judging than the science.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:23 am |
    • FunkyMonkey7

      @WHat?

      Apart from the promised land part, your statement could just as easily be used to describe students studying science.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Ben

      I am confused. Because religious and business groups have successfully opposed environmental movements in the U.S. despite the scientific evidence supporting the environmental movements we should put our trust in those very religious groups? Uhmm...let's turn over child abuse policy to pedophiles because everyone else has not stopped the abuse.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  18. Denver Broncos

    The most inteligent scientests have all been religious, almost all of them Christians. You have Jesus and Christians to thank for the biggest advances.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • Nate

      Go count the number of Jewish Nobel laureates there have been...

      December 16, 2011 at 12:18 am |
    • uhhwhat

      yeah seriously. israel has the highest per capita nobel laureates. well over three times what the US has. whoops...another uneducated assumption...

      December 16, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • WHat?

      Relax, we all knew Tim Tebow would chime in sooner or later. He obviously can't read below where this same statement was refuted.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • Denver Broncos

      Per capita? That's not overall though, now is it. Didn't think so.

      Atheists are idiots.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • Observer

      The Bible talks about talking snakes and unicorns. It didn't even get the ratio pi right. Get serious.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:27 am |
    • Rach

      Well said, Denver! And the church will continue to lead the battle on all fronts. Sorry guys that's just the way our God rolls 🙂 You should get on the winning team before it's too late...

      December 16, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Used_to_be_a_Christian

      Denver Broncos,

      Please list those Scientist.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • Used_to_be_a_Christian

      Rach,

      Your God condones raping women, killing babies and taking slaves. Read the Old Testament. Is that really how you roll?

      December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • HellBent

      "The most inteligent scientests have all been religious,"

      So I guess we're not including the following in the list of most intelligent scientists:
      Einstein
      Hawking
      Dirac
      Pauling
      Sagan
      Watson

      Idiots, all of them.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Jason

      Wrong. I worked at a top research university for almost 20 years, and about 5% of the top scientists and engineers were religious, out of more than 500. There have been several surveys of this topic done by independent groups. Go Google some.

      Next idiot that can't count or only reads Christian publications, please.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:35 am |
    • Copernicus

      Yeah, the church has been great for science.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Primewonk

      Back in the 1500's thru the 1900's the church controlled the universities and colleges. In fact, with some of them, you couldn't even be admitted to the scholl unless you signed an oath to believe what the church said.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. uhhwhat

    "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." – what's with this bias in writing? so it's 'science' vs 'ethics and religion' as if science fights against ethics on a daily basis, and ethics and religion are inherently one and the same? Seems like science has a whole lot to do with trying to cure people and solve their problems, while religion has plenty of ethical concerns with its rigid practice such as the whole pro-life debate and women's rights under tradition Jewish and Islamic law (probably plenty of Christian stupidity to tout here as well). Don't claim that ethics is the sole realm of the religious, as if that's a given.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  20. Davidr

    As I see it, you have to ask yourself: was this article created, or did it evolve? Think on it, and after you answer, consider carefully what you have said. I feel sure that scientists, artists, religious believers and atheists, and all other varieties of people, can agree that there are mysterious depths to be plumbed yet in all walks of life. Teachers need to teach from this standpoint, preachers need to preach from it. We need science teachers to share their wisdom and enthusiasm, we need preachers to share their inspiration and enthusiasm. We all need to preserve our sense of wonder at the idea of who we really are and where we're headed.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:14 am |
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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.