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. bob

    This is just another example of the overly religious saying "Why not just teach both sides of the issue and let the children decide?"
    Short answer – because it's called science class and science is based on FACTS or direct observation. Our science teachers have a hard enough time trying to get key concepts across to students without adding in a 30 minute discussion of "well Johnny what do you believe?" that teaches them nothing.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:34 am |
  2. SeanM

    This is just another way to jar in religion in our schools. As a catholic and a lover of all things science I cant stand this argument. This teacher needs his PHD revoked and he can go open yet another evangelical church/school like fake dr hovind .

    December 16, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • greg1466


      December 17, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  3. MW

    I am a cancer research scientist. I love science and I was first exposed to it in catholic school. Looking back I give a lot of credit to those teachers. Although religion was not discussed in science class. Science was discussed in Religion class in a way that did not conflict with Science but in a way that opened up possibility for a God in Science. I realize not everyone gets this opportunity. Fundamentally there is no for religion in science, but there is room for science in religion. I do agree there needs to be more discussion if we are going to improve scientific literacy in this country especially because in this country it is almost like so much of religion attacks scientific principles. I think we can also do better to integrate medicine into biology and chemistry class and t o integrate other real life events, newspaper clippings, current events into science class.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • greg1466

      I'm all for teaching science in religion class. Or more accurately, the scientific method. If we actually did that, maybe religion would finally go away and quit bothering us.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  4. Nate

    You guys really need to read the article, lol. It's not talking about teaching religion as part of the curriculum. It's about relating science to people's world views, including religion, so people can better relate to science and help integrate it into their world view. It's actually an interesting idea. I'm always up for more conversation about it.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:20 am |
    • madscientist

      Interesting perhaps, but it is still wholly inappropriate. Science deals in facts, ethics/morals/religions are societal constructs. We can certainly use science to explain their development, but we should never let them influence the teaching of facts. Don't get me wrong, I am not at all opposed to making science relatable to your average student, I just don't agree that the students' sociopolitical leanings should dictate what gets taught and what doesn't.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • greg1466

      Actually, I;d say you have that exactly backwards. A non-delusional person makes an effort to relate their worldview to facts. As opposed to the religious apologists who try to relate facts to their worldview. I also think that despite all of the assurances to the contrary, this actually IS about teaching religion in science class. The whole gambit of teaching ID in science class because it's not religion failed miserably, so now someone has come up with the idea of teaching "ethics and morals" in science class. And they justify it as okay because they aren't religion. Of course, they'll ultimately claim that religion is where morals come from. It's just the latest wedge.

      December 17, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  5. greg1466

    I absolutely agree that science (and math) should be tied to real life for students. Which is a great argument for why religion should NOT be included as part of a science curriculum, since it has never been demonstrated to have any basis in reality. And while I would agree with the idea of teaching ethics as it applies to career oriented curriculum's, such as medical, biology, even civil engineering, etc, I don't think it is appropriate for K-12 science classes. At that level, the point is to learn the basic concepts. I have no problem with teaching religion in even public schools, provided it's done in the proper place/context. In fact, we do it all the time. We just call it mythology as part of the Social Studies curriculum. You want to put the Abrahamic and other modern religions alongside the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman ones that are classically taught, go right ahead. Just don't try to claim that they have any basis in fact or special claim to truth or higher morality.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:12 am |
    • lb333

      well said!

      December 16, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  6. Jim

    Great! Let's teach Alchemy in Chemistry class too. A real world context can be conveyed in a Science curriculum without using religion.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  7. Wonder No More

    Science = matter, religion = anti-matter. Science + religion=Zero

    December 16, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  8. Jen

    Religion has no place in a science class. Period. Religion is NOT a science.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • Nate

      did you read the article?

      December 16, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Elizabeth

      That is your opinion. My opinion is that truth is essential for students to learn. I don't think the questions can be answered without bringing in the DNA code writer.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:15 am |
    • Minesa99

      But religion is not truth, it's FAITH. Science is based on facts, religion is based on faith. Plain and simple. Leave religion to be taught in churches or religious schools. Besides, what religion do you want them to teach? Do you expect them to teach that Poseidon causes earthquakes? Why not? That was a religious belief too.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  9. TJ

    Ok so I think a lot of People, on both sides, are of the wrong impression of what this article is trying to convey. In America you have a lot of Religious people and a lot of Atheist. Atheist take to the idea of evolution easier than a Religious person. The point of this article (at least from my prospective) is if you include, include being the key word here, religious thought (not teaching religion) in the class, then the religious half would be more open to learning evolution, there for explaining the scientific knowledge in America. I don’t see a problem with this at all. In fact I think it would bring more thought and conversation to the class. Atheist, Christians, Pagans, Jews, and everyone else learn about each others view points and I think this could bring greater respect for each other in the class.
    Myself, I believe in a higher power but I also be leave that the earth is billions of years old and through evolution, this higher power created us. I don’t knock Atheist for believing what they believe. In fact I love talking to Believers and Non-Believers alike. Religious people: Stop shoving your belief down others’ throats and Atheist: Stop trying to do away with religion all together. We all live on this earth together so why do we have to argue? Why can’t we just respect each other instead of bringing each other down?

    December 16, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • Robin

      Very well said, and thank you for saying it!

      December 16, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • Andrew

      I can't really name a single vocal atheist, not Dawkins, Harris, PZ Myers, etc, who actually wants to abolish religion.

      They tend to simply want to convince people that the beliefs are flawed... that's a far cry for advocating the abolishment of it. "It's stupid to eat three big macs every day" does not imply "I want to prevent anyone from eating three big macs daily".

      December 16, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • TJ

      @Andrew: Your right, Im sorry. didnt mean to come off that way.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • The Big Fat One

      Theistic evolution (that a god used evolution to bring humans about) is a cop-out. On one level they see evolution is patently true but on another the old ideas still hang on – thus the compromise.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Elizabeth

      True science has no problem with God.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • Jim

      In my opinion most Atheist's, including myself, don't want to do away with religion. We want a secular society that allows personal beliefs, but does not allow any religious doctrine into the government or schools.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:17 am |
    • TJ

      @ Jim:
      I understand this, and as I told Andrew, I was wrong to state such an opinion. But, for me, when I was growing up had religious thought been brought into the evolution curriculum I would have been open to it a lot sooner. But at the time, like so many other Religious, I felt I was being attacked. So I closed my mind off to it and just blindly believe in what a man on a stage told me. There's a difference between "Teaching religion" and bringing in religious thought.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  10. Robin

    In science class and every other educational subject, morality should absolutely be part of the curriculum! When teaching religion becomes all about presenting various doctrines which directly conflict with solid scientific knowledge then it's no longer suitable as an educational tool. In the main, science and faith do not conflict. The Bible is not wrong, but it is so often misread! The closer we come scientifically to an understanding of the way the world and the universe work, the closer we come to realizing, on our own arrogant terms, the message we were given in scripture. It's about time the circle was completed and mankind can get back to the business of protecting our earth and humanity instead of using scripture against one another! In the classroom and at home-and right now is the best time to start.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • Evan

      The "Bible" is in fact wrong, oh so very wrong. How many languages have these texts been translated through? I'm going to shoot really low and say five, that may not seem like a lot just reading it but think about this. Translating from one language to another is a lot of hard work, two people who don't share any common linguistics could eventually work it out using writing, pictures and other available tools we have today. Even in modern times this is a long, hard and sometimes inaccurate process. Imagine people trying to do this same kind of thing over a thousand years ago, very few could read or write, and could barely speak their own language properly. Imagine how much slang we have today and multiply it and then separate it all into sections. Language back then was nowhere near as cut and dry as it is today. Now lets just say, that the translations went pretty smoothly and we got to English, for times sake. The "scriptures" were picked through by men of the church where these humans decided what was "divine" and what wasn't . My point here is that this book so many people put so much faith and trust in is just that, a book. A book that is in no way what it originally was, it has become a work of man, not a god. Also morals are decided by the individual not taught, no matter how hard society and religion try, some people are going to think for themselves.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:37 am |
    • sharoom

      Why only the Christian holy text and not one from another religion?

      December 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Primewonk

      " The Bible is not wrong"

      So pi really is 3.0?

      Rabbits really do chew their cud?

      December 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. btown

    Screw religion. It has no play in science, no place in ethics.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:45 am |
  12. Happen

    "where science meets ethics and religion." The only meetings religion has taken with science involved torture and murder of the scientists, now we skip the meetings and let every fact dispute religion on it's own. Science is eager to discuss ethics, religion is eager to tell you to do away with yours and follow orders.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:45 am |
  13. M. Callahab

    Oddly, self described religious folks vilify science when in fact science is actually quite simply the effort to understand how the work of the creator works. So science can be understood is the study of creation which is a much more direct way of relating to God und knowing him than reading a book which tells about the experiences of a small tribe of people thousands of years ago and the limited things God told them. Mathematics is the language God used to explain his creation, so get up there on your pulpits and tell your congregations that to know God take math to learn His language and science to study His mind.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:44 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      Finally, someone with an open mind.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:48 am |
    • Andrew

      Somehow I feel that if churches began teaching about vector calculus, four-vectors, tensors, differential equations, manifolds, etc... you'll find church attendance would probably plummet faster than Herman Cain's poll numbers. It's one thing to say 'learn math', but if math is god's language, god invented a pretty damn hard language. Most church goers do not go in order to have their minds challenged by difficult mathematic concepts.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:57 am |
    • Lou Cypher

      Non Sequitur; you seem to understand evolution and philosophy but completely misunderstand religion.

      Religion is about social control, and getting other people to do what you want them to do.
      It has little to do with science or philosophy, except to put each to nefarious purposes as opportunity permits.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:00 am |
  14. drew

    this guy is a moron. religion has no place in science. we already have philosophy classes. let's be smart about this. the reason idiots don't believe in evolution is because of the time it takes them to grasp a scientific concept seems like the slow process of evolution. OWNED. it's so sad that these religious nuts are grasping at anything to maintain their stupid ideas in the common thread of the public domain. "religion is truth and science is a lie" evolves to where we are now "religion is truth and so is science" to hopefully soon "religion? science" suck it.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:36 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      And your post is exactly what he was talking about. Without the ability to discuss things like this, science becomes just a bunch of boring facts for some people. Also, it doesn't help your cause any by calling religious people idiots. Stop being fearful of what you don't understand. If a science teacher firmly believes in science over religion, they should have no problem discussing with the students why they believe this.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:46 am |
    • xen1313

      Here's something to think about, if Scientists were paid NFL wages, I'd bet every poor kid with a dream of a better life would understand math and science, and you wouldn't need religion to "inspire" them. Seriously, we need to readjust our thinking. In this day and age, so what if you can run a 4.10 100 yd dash, how is that more valuable then someone who is trying to cure cancer? The issue really is that science is boring to those that don't want to understand, or are happy with how the sunday school lessons explained everything. Give gradutes first round draft pick salaries, and I'm pretty sure that we will be leading the nation in science and math within 5 years.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:29 am |
  15. Mike

    Religion has utterly no place in science class. The Bible (as well as books of other religions) conflict directly with scientific observation. The earth was not made in seven days approximatly 4,000 years ago. Man did not coexist with the dinosaurs. All the world's animals did not fit onto a single boat. And no flood ever covered the entire surface of the planet.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:35 am |
  16. Hilikus00

    It's a good point. If you try to fight religion with science, all too often you are going to get the rejection of science. Rejection of science leads us to the place we're at now. Whatever it takes...teach it.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:35 am |
  17. Herpy McDerp

    It's funny when idiots say "hurr durr, science is just a religion, scientists have faith, derp." Science is what made the computer you are using to show your stupidity to the whole world.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:29 am |
    • OffworldExpress

      Science WITH observation is fact. When someone refers to science as faith, it's because scientists are applying observations to the unobservable – e.g. the origins of life. That, by definition, is faith.

      December 16, 2011 at 6:01 am |
  18. fred

    An excellent idea. Religion should be allowed in science classes, as soon as science is regularly taught in churches.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:24 am |
  19. Brian

    I understand his point and he's not completely off his rocker. He's NOT advocating religion, merely suggesting that we attempt to have an honest discourse about how religion influences science and vice versa. But I still don't like it. To many it would somehow validate that religion belongs in the same sphere as science or are on a level playing field. The religious right would smell blood and I don't want that can of worms opened (well, opened any further).

    December 16, 2011 at 5:13 am |
    • Brian

      PS – I would like to add that in an ideal world or setting, it could be done. And would, in fact, be something that I'd enjoy. But in reality, it's simply too volatile of a topic to be done in the manner which the author is suggesting. Some tend to think that science and religion are at odds, but that has more to do with people's opinion than the true natures of science and religion.

      December 16, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  20. Doc Ock

    Science in Science classes! Leave religion to the philosophy classes, world religions, ethnic studies etc. Relativity, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology are a part of the physical universe.
    You cannot test "God" you can't measure the likelyhood of one religion's belief as being "real" as compared to another. It's like asking "How many angles can stand on the head of a pin?" There is no way to measure that. Keep religion out of science classes and all public schools in general.
    For those who say religion is valid over science then please stop using your computers, cell phones, apple products, satellite TV and Radio, listening to weather reports, watching TV, listening to radio, receiving modern medical treatment....all of these things came out of study that was declared heresy by religious leaders at various points in our history. It seems the only religious folks not hypocritical about science are the Amish. what does that say I wonder.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • Pierre

      I think what he means is this:
      Teaching creationism is easy. It will take about 5 minutes.
      1. Several people around the world believe that their several different gods were responsible for creating the universe in several different ways.
      2. Since these seperate and different views cannot be tested this is all we can teach in the science class.
      3. Spend the rest of the year on science which can be tested and the real world impact such as evolution

      December 16, 2011 at 6:31 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.