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. Positive

    Leave science class to science and religion education to church or to a religion class. It would be fine to offer an optional class that looks at the world from a religious standpoint that could be taken in addition to (but not in place of) science classes. However, religion has no place in science class.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  2. BR

    No wonder students who dispasionatly examined evolution and intelligent design strengthened their understanding of the former. It would clearly demonstrate the stupifying lack of evidence of the latter. For a science teacher you don't seem to understand the necessity of evidence.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  3. PudninTane

    The problem with this is that teachers/professors may not be well versed enough in the tangential disciplines to do them any justice in explaining the connections to their students. For example, an anatomy teacher may know nothing about cancer or a math teacher may know nothing about economics. Thus, they won't be very effective at relating the connections to the related subject. Also, teachers don't have a lot of extra time to get fluent on the associations.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  4. Observer

    Haven't we already fallen too far behind in science?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  5. Mavennica

    Faith is belief that is not based on proof. Proof is evidence which establishes facts. Therefore, you can't have faith in the Bible and use the Bible as factual evidence at the same time. Once you say the Bible has proof of factual evidence in it, you can no longer have faith in the Bible, because faith is belief in something that has no proof in it.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  6. BR

    Whoa....thought I was looking at Faux News for a minute.

    You keep using the words science and religion together. I don't think they mean what you think they mean.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  7. me

    Want to talk about ethics and science??? First go read some Sam harris, Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins! Science has the capacity to produce/explain ethics in its own right.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  8. Jesus H. Christ

    What "greater context" are you blabbing about? Just because you want to think there is a thing out there making us the world, etc doesn't mean it is greater. The author fails to recognize that religion is not falsifiable which makes it the opposite of proper scientific study.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  9. Jeebus

    Creationism has no place in a science class. Just teach real science in science class. Our children will have a hard enough time competing in the global economy without watering down the science curriculum with religion.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  10. Ed

    I'm all for expanding to include religion. Now which religion would you care to include? I'm sure we're not just talking about the Christian religion because there's a lot more religions out there. So you better have one helluva long schedule available to the students if you're gonna teach about all the different religions...and there are many other religions that are just as credible to their believers as Christianity is to their followers.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  11. Kyle

    The Bible is not Science. Grow up and actually take a Science class and realize that your opinions aren't facts. Belief = opinion. Open a dictionary next time you decide to write an article about trying to combine two completely different subject matters, and look up the word idiot. That's what you are right now. congrats.

    If you want your kids to learn creationism then be a REAL parent and teach them yourself. School is not a daycare.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  12. Matthew Minix

    Sadly, most of you are kind of making his point, in your own strange way, because your anti-religious comments are religiously illiterate, kind of bigoted, and ultimately pretty silly. For whatever reason, you (like many people who continue to practice a religious faith) never progressed in your own understanding of religion above a fourth grade level- and so you insist that religion itself is at a fourth grade level. If you had actually understood it better, you would not accuse all religion of irrationality and seeing it as the greatest evil of the human race.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • me

      Have you learned the things most of the people use to back their hatred for religion? A good portion of these commenters are probably majoring in a science right now, as am I. Come learn some science with us, and understand where we're coming from.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Henry Miller

      Religion isn't the greatest evil of the human race, though it's certainly high on the list, and what's "silly" are all the bits of drivel I hear from religious people about their gods and other nonsense.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      i think you have a point to a degree. I don't think religion should be involved, in the sense of representing a belief system not based on anything even close to the scientific method. But philosophy would be a welcomed addition. There are plenty of insights and theories all based on some sort of logic or reason. Jesus had some interesting philosophies, you could tie that in. But teaching a religion, mainly exclusive religions mind you -you cant be a christian AND a muslim- will prevent the children from perspective, they can get the religious perspective in church, they should get the science perspective in science class. But philosophies are scientific in a way. Greek philosophers theorized the atom, for example. The great thinkers. But I do agree that they can relate science more to our modern lives. We can talk about how it's the study of reality, and no one knows what's going on, people guess, but no one knows, and science is our attempt to figure it out and here's what we've come up with so far

      December 15, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • BR

      Mattew – You'll find that many irreligious people are far better versed in religion as a whole than many of its adherants. Most of the negative comments here (mine included) are citing the fact that science involves setting up hypotheses or models and then setting out to essentially disprove them. This process cannot be done with any god claim that has ever been put forth. There is no well demostrated reason to believe in the existance ANY deity muchless what what their influence and wishes are. Therefore they have no place in a science class. Comparative mythology...sure. There is every bit as much reason and evidence to believe in Zeus.

      The author missed a genuine teaching opportunity when his students raised their hands to the second question of "How many of you think something in addition to evolution..." The only proper response would have been, "What is your evidence?"

      December 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Cason

      Pardon me, ser. The science disagrees with you.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Mavennica

      Because of past abuses heaped on minority populations by pious zealots happily destroying innocent lives in the name of a loving God, religion in America is a heated issue. So many Christians would happily see the Christian version of Sharia law put in place that those of us who remember or have learned about those past religious abuses do our damnedest to keep Christianity, or any other religion, as far away from governing our country as possible.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  13. Mack

    Science is based on reason, rationality, and empirical evidence. Religion is based on speculation, irrational "belief" and faith, which are all defined by the absence of empirical evidence.
    NO! They should not be mixed, especially in a public school classroom.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  14. Rojas

    Oh great, more dilution of the hard studies at school with soft "talk about your feelings" garabage.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  15. Andrew Waber

    I understand the author's point here, but he goes about it in a pretty haphazard way (you could do this for this reason or this for this reason, etc.) This lessens the effectiveness. It's a worthy pursuit, but I think hands-on education in science from elementary through college makes more sense for getting students engaged throughout their school life.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  16. ChesterL

    I went to a small liberal arts college. I took classes on ethics, philosophy, religion, etc. I also took a lot of science classes as well as getting a degree in computer science. I had plenty of exposure to religion in many of my other classes, no need to add more to science classes!!!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  17. adnor

    "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."

    Is this because most, if not all, of your students are christian? And would this be because your university's founder, James W. Fowler, "is a graduate of Duke University and Drew Theological Seminary and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University in Religion and Society"? Sounds to me like your university, while stressing "ethics", has quite a history and background in religion. You're probably not going to get many atheists/agnostics applying to your school.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |

      Thank you adnor! Professor Eisen is obviously trying not to alienate his tuition paying christtian students or their parents (who brainwashed their children with Jesus fairy tales at an early age) by insidiously assimilating religion with science and equating the end result with ethics. He wouldn't want them to leave class en masse, whistling "Amazing Grace" and branding him a heretic, so he resorts to a rather innovative form of pandering to hold their interest and give the illusion of stimulating intellectual discussion. Try this opening line instead professor: Religious belief is symptomatic of a defect in the human psyche, now let's study some scientific facts!

      December 16, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  18. Jesus

    School is for learning. Science Class is to teach children about what we know about ecerything based on facted. Religion has no fact to back it up. It has no place in school at all.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  19. Steve the Goat

    The story of the space ghost and his illegitimate son should never be brought up in a science class outside explaining why such ridiculous fairy tales have no business in forming any policies. Or if you are talking about how the brain of a devout believer shows signs of deformation and just generally being broken. If I had a kid that was in your class and you mentioned god outside saying something like "we are not going to talk about god. this class is about facts" I would demand that you be fired.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  20. closetiguana

    I've never heard the the word "theory" from a religious person regarding their god / gods.

    December 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Observer

      Good point.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • NowtrytoTHINK

      No...you hear the word "belief." You should hear this word more frequently from public school science teachers because real scientists use it all the time.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:05 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.