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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. ATPMSD

    Religion = Brainwashing. We need to help stop this travesty, not promote it.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:08 am |
  2. zb

    When religion starts teaching science instead of hate you can start talking about religion when teaching science

    December 16, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  3. withoutgod

    I really don't understand why the author feels the need to say things like "without rejection of other worldviews". If a worldview is not consistent with the way the world actually works, it SHOULD be rejected. Science by default rejects worldviews that do not fit the evidence.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • mw

      here, here.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  4. Philip

    If anything will bring Christopher Hitchens back to life, this article should do it.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  5. Nate

    I disagree with the religion part but completely agree with the ethics. My Bio teacher used to do debates, projects, and other things dealing with ethics. But then our school started focusing more on standardized testing and we've lost out on so many things, because an hour and a half of each day has been put aside to practice for the PSSAS. So if we are to focus on ethics, then get rid of standardized testing.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  6. Big Carl

    So now the church feels more then threatened ! So I can see the pope saying. We need to put God in to science because people are starting to see the truth. Hum now we got the churches God particle, A big telescope at a cost of 20mil to look in to space to see God, Come on for over five thousand year the god fearing church murdered anyone who viewed religion as maybe this is made up and science can prove it wrong. Yep just burn them at the stake so all can see don't question the man in the pointy hat and the church.. Talk about Evolution the church has come a long way baby ! There not just going to go away and that's that. Hell no we are back and will put our church in to science so all will see God as the maker of all things. This hole religion thing is about comfort and money they need the masses to pay there bills. So when there numbers dwindle down and people start to really look at how silly this God thing is. The church comes up with a new way to keep the money flowing in.. Well done Pope numme and your followers too.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  7. MarcTTF

    The major problem with religious views vs evolutionary science is that in a world view where the earth was created between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, evolution cannot be true. If it were, we would see things transforming before our eyes. Every generation would be radically different than the previous one, and new species would be popping up on a regular basis. Since we know this is not the case, the only logical conclusion is that the religious world view is flawed and therefor has no place being taught, or even discussed, alongside credible science.

    I’m actually in favor of including some sort of comparative religious teachings in the schools as long as is taught un an un-biased fashion. I think it would be an eye opener for the faithful to see the similarities between the myths of old and their current beliefs. This would obviously never happen because it could lead to people losing their faith, and there is no way the religious parents would allow this sort of open dialog that questions their child’s indoctrinated beliefs.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  8. Colin

    Teaching religion in science class is like teaching astrology in astronomy class or having witch doctorscome in and teach first year med students how to jiggle a chicken over a sick patient.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • MarcTTF

      “jiggle a chicken over a sick patient”

      Thanks Colin, I needed a good laugh.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  9. The Watcher

    A utopian concept better served by philosophy educators rather than science teachers. The universal language of science is mathematics whereas there is no universal language for religion. It is always an interpreted ideology biased by the the objectives of the interpreter.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:01 am |
  10. Rod

    Religion has to die for mankind to live.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • Big Carl

      So True !!

      December 16, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • JMAC

      Really most of modern history has shown that the most egregious crimes aghainst humanity were the ones that advanced purely scientific worldviews. Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Mao.

      Science/ethics./religion all have roles within society.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  11. badcafe

    Scientific studies have a very demonstrable, verifiable (and potentially falsifiable) approach with a systematic history and evolution, which is why it is easier to comprehend and teach. Philosophical and religious studies are more open-ended, amorphous, and thus by construction, neither verifiable nor falsifiable. The two have their own place, and I do not see how one can mix them in a class without confusing the students. Connecting scientific facts with experience is fine, but inserting religious concepts in them, especially in a class that probably has mixed religious beliefs, is meaningless. How do you describe evolution mixed with religion in an objective way, when you have Christians who believe they are headed for heaven, Hindus who believe they will be reincarnated, Muslims who are aiming for jannat, and so on?

    December 16, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  12. Colin

    Can science and religion be friends? Hmmmm, let's see.

    Science – Hello Religion, I'm science. I am about 3,000 years old.

    Religion – Hello Science, I am older than you. As far as we can tell, I go back about 40,000 years or more. There is even evidence that Neanderthals practiced me.

    Science – Really!! How do we know that, religion?

    Religion – Because of you.

    Science – So, religion, what do you do?

    Religion – Well, in the USA, I give comfort to not very smart people by letting them think that a being powerful ennough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies will cause them to live happily ever after in heaven after they die if they follow some rules laid down by farmers and hearders in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

    Science – You're kidding me. They buy that?

    Religion – You'd be surprised. Not only that, but in poorer, less educated parts of the World, I can actually convince people to hit themselves until they bleed, starve themselves, bob in front of a stone wall for hours on end, wade into filthy rivers and, in some cases, to kill other people or even themselves.

    Science – Oh my goodness, I'm not sure I want to be your friend. Do you do any good?

    Religion – I sell a lot of books. And what about you science, what do you do?

    Science – I relieve pain and cure disease, I extend lives, allow travel, communication, and people to understand and control their environment. I allow humans to explore outer space, the bottom of the oceans and subatomic particles. In short, I have allowed humans to live with a degree of knowledge and comfort once never dreamed of.

    Religion – Wow, they buy that?

    Science – No, of course not. Unlike you, I have to deliver. I cannot claim something and avoid skepticism by alleging that it only happens after you die, or that my claim is "beyond understanding" or otherwise exempt from critical analysis or proof.

    Religion – that's gotta su.ck.

    Science – You get used to it. Anyway, I need a friend I can rely on. One of substance, not dreams. One of proof, not spoof and one of intellectual discipline, not flakey promises. I don't think we can be friends. Please go away.

    Religion – now we both know that's not going to happen.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:57 am |
    • Rick

      Awesome! Are there still people out there that think we evolved from apes?????

      December 16, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • Engineer

      Yes, and they're called scientists.

      December 16, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  13. bill

    The premise of this article ...."we often teach science as a body of information not relevant to anything going on in the world." was not my experience. Science is about questions, religion is about answers and I fail to see how mixing the two will produce more graduate engineers. For those of you who say this article is not about mixing science and religion, you might want to question that.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • Criag Holm

      Enriching the teaching of science by introducing religious discussion is like enriching a football game by having plumbing supplies strewn across the field. Certainly the subjects of religion and science overlap in discussions of origins, why things are the way they are. Science is an investigative tool. The teaching of science is the process of teaching what the scientific method is, how it is used and what we've learned from it. Religion is philosophy. I have no problem with various religions being taught in schools if it is treated in the manner of a comparative philosophy course. The introduction of God in the discussion of DNA for example, serves no purpose other than to distract attention from the teachings about DNA.

      It's interesting to note that in Christianity, God employs scientific methods to determine who gets into heaven. Test subjects (people) are provided any number of opportunities to repent their sins and follow Jesus. Those that do get into heaven. Those that don't go to hell. In other words, those who are able to meet specific criteria survive and the rest die off. Perhaps going to heaven is the next step in Human Evolution.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  14. Robert

    As an atheist I can assure you that ethics can be taught without religion. I'm not an immoral person, nor are any of my friends. It's a false assumption that morallity cannot exist outside religion or that we need religion to keep us in line. I think religion provides comfort and peace of mind for those who need it. That's fine with me so long as I'm not forced to believe or adhere to it.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Primewonk

      From my perspective, most atheists are more moral than theists. We do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do. We don't need a magical sky daddy threatening eternal torture in order to be good.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Chuck

    Religion has many positive aspects – especially for community and well being. However, the lightly veiled meaning of the article and most responses is they see this as Christianity. Religion has many forms. To treat religion fairly for all concerned, you'd have to cover many different ones. Religion should be taught by religious scholars and the clergy (meant generically), not science teachers. It's hypocritical and typically western to think that the Bible and Christianity are the basis of everything. I'm an active member of a church but do not believe a lot of what the Bible is purported to say and am not really sure any of it's factual. So what? But thats my choice. Don't force religious beliefs on students – and that's what would happen. Christians, as well meaning as they are, can be the most hypocritical and intolerant of all the religious groups. The end result would be a hostile environment for non-Christians in classrooms.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  16. Dale Jackaman

    There is no place in education for beliefs that have no basis in fact. Faith is not about truth or fact, it's about the human brain's unfortunate ability to believe in things that just don't exist. Religion? Not in my kid's school, not ever.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:49 am |
    • Daniel

      So what would you rather have then? Kids that may believe in a higher power which possibly conflicts with the science of evolution remain quiet in class? Fall behind because they are having serious doubts about the facts that are being taught in class. Then when those kids go home and talk to their parents, who may not have any background or knowledge in science/biology, get even more facts wrong? I say just let the intro course to biology and evolution include the creationism theory (just as evolution is a theory), that way kids can come to their own conclusions on it and understand that maybe their thoughts on god and evolution can go hand in hand rather than having to pick one theory or the other.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • withoutgod

      Daniel, this is a sad argument. A "theory" does not mean what it does when used casually. The "Theory of Evolution" is supported by vast amounts of evidence. Ever notice how bacteria strains develop resistance to anti-biotics? Evolution.

      Creationism is not a theory. By definition, nothing that is "faith based" can be considered a "theory" in scientific terms, as it has no evidence to support it. One can dream up any idea they like, but if they want it to be accepted as truth, they need to find verifiable, consistent evidence to support it. Until then it should be treated with appropriate criticism.

      There is also a theory of gravity, but somehow I'm guessing you accept this "theory" as it is reinforced by the fact that you don't fall off of the earth.

      Kids should be taught what is true, not myths created by primitive sheep herders.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Daniel

      @withoutgod – I understand that your point (though if you're going to use bacteria strains you might want to say the difference between micro-evolution and macro-evolution). However I cannot understand why religion cannot be part of the discussion in science classes since, while it may not be a true theory, it does play a very large role in the world as far as peoples beliefs are concerned. I was merely pointing out the fact that if you cannot find something that can connect evolution and theology, then you are going to have some people reject evolution altogether. If my biology teacher had not expressed her belief on how god could still play a role in the universe with the existence of evolution, I'm not quite sure how my beliefs would have turned out. I could have either denied the existence of god and accepted evolution, or I could have just denied macro-evolution and accepted that god put us and all animals on this planet.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  17. Steve

    Funny right now scientists are looking for the "God particle" at the Hadron Collider. This is certainly not going to be unlearned from the human psyche (religion). This article wishes to stop alienation of students with questions that can contradict established scientific thought. The study of beliefs and belief systems, how the human mind relates or not relates is more the concern introducing religion is not the answer you will need to introduce all.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • sharoom

      The Higgs boson was not coined the "God particle" by scientists. It was first humorously called the "God-d.amned particle" because it was so elusive to find, but someone in the media changed the name to make it more sensational.

      December 16, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  18. TheFatherofLies

    Ethics yes, religion no.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • Mirosal

      Remember, philosophy is all about asking life's questions that you may never find the answer to. Religion is all about THEIR answers that you may NEVER question. Without asking questions, how does one learn?

      December 16, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  19. TJ

    "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."

    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 6:42 am |
  20. Kevin

    I disagree with the author...
    While It can be said that both science and religion are about the search for truth the reality is much different. Never in my life (39 years) have I seen religion used for anything other than fear, control and ultimately power over others. On the other hand, Science has freed the world from oppressive governments and added to the health and economic well being of everyone.

    December 16, 2011 at 6:37 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.