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. If horses had Gods ...

    How 'bout we just add Alien seeding of earth to science classes? There's more evidence of that AND astronomy is a solid scientific field of study.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  2. Reality

    Why Christianity should be restricted to courses on fiction and semi-fictional writing;

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, insane, preacher man would do or say?

    December 16, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      Your mistake lies in your worldview. You have never witnessed a miracle and you have been taught that miracles can not happen. Therefore your worldview is that miracles can not happen. You are making judgements based on your worldview, not fact.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • TV

      I think you are cherry picking like the "religious" right does with science. JC had a lot of good things to say too. As many people have pointed out, one can use the bible to justify any point of view or deed from doing good through slavery to murder. We have no proof that JC did not did not do them, just what was written in a book, so lets ignore that. What about his teachings, do they help one (may or may not be you) help lead happier lives. If so, what is so wrong with that?

      December 16, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Reality

      The gifts of Free Will and Future belong to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, god (if one even exists) is not able to alter life and miriacle requests/prayers will not be answered. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variabiliy/randomness of Nature.

      So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows and bowing to Mecca five times a day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the commandments of your religion or any good rules of living as gracious and good human beings

      December 16, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • .........

      all reality bull sh should be removed hit report abuse on all his posts.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  3. Appalled

    Science is about belief based upon demonstrated fact. Scientists adjust their beliefs as new evidence is brought forward. You will never hear a scientist tell you that you will burn in Hell because you don't think like they do.
    Religion is about beliefs in the absence of fact. When confronted with evidence that should modify their beliefs, the religious reaction has historically been to denounce and attack (re: The Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the list goes on and on).

    How about we do this: don't promote religion in public schools and science in church? Sound fair?

    December 16, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • TV

      Maybe, but there are people at NASA telling us that we better have anti-asteroid technology that we should be developing now, or we could face extinction at any moment... Of course we should pay them billions to develop this. Is this really all that different from the Catholic church selling forgiveness?

      December 16, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • sharoom

      That's only because Earth has been hit with large asteroids that have caused mass extinctions in the past and it's statistically certain another one will pass the trajectory of Earth sometime in the future. Astronomers don't make this claim based on whimsy.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  4. John

    Science is the constant prevention of extinction and religion merely the promise of life after it.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  5. Hence21

    Here is my slippery slope whit this whole issue. Since some christians do not believe in evolution, it dose not get taught in school. So dose that mean that since some Muslims do not believe in equal rights for women, should we not allow our daughters to go to school with our boys? Where dose the appeasement to religious beliefs stop, we already force our kids to acknowledge god in the pledge of allegiance, are we now going to force them to believe in creationism because we want to avoid conflict? We need to take a stand, religion freedom also means we have the freedom to be religionless. Stop forcing every one to accept JESUS!!

    December 16, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      Well, I am one Christian that agrees with you. Nearly everything Jesus taught was about personal choices, not being forced to do something by law.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:59 am |
  6. Neil Friedman

    Science, by definition is a state of knowing as distinguished from ignorance and misunderstanding. To know something means to perceive fit directly, to have direct cognition of the thing that is known. I surprise myself, agreeing ,in a way with the author . If we applied the "tools' and methods" of scientific inquiry to, religion and philosophy just as the y are utilized to explore the deepest secrets of the "material" world wouldn't this add to our understanding of , who we are , where we live and how things came to be? What Mr. Eisen is proposing could lead to , our children gaining a greater understanding of the world they live in and the people they share it with. BY giving our children the skills and the tools they need to make more informed decision is a good thing. Having spent 25 years in the classroom, the most important thing I learned about children is that,the more things we give them to ponder, the further they will allow their minds to wander. . . And if Mr. Eisen wants to call this course of study Science, then why not. Wouldn't that be an admission that , regardless of what it is that we want to know in our search to know it we are doing science?

    December 16, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  7. YEPthat'sME

    I think the majority of atheists have Borderline Personality Disorder.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:43 am |
    • Eric G

      Thank you for your thoughts. I hope that you understand that what you think is irrelevant. What matters is what you can prove through verifiable evidence.

      Perhaps a better avenue for your contemplation would be finding a way to provide verifiable evidence that your god exists. By doing so, you eliminate the need to speculate on the mental stability of those who disagree with your world view.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Appalled

      Actually, athiests are just as off-base as the religious devout. The devout believe firmly in God without supporting evidence. Likewise, athiests believe there is no God without supporting evidence. IMO, a true scientist is an agnostic.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:04 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      @Appalled I completely agree with you. I freely acknowledge that God may not exist, however I choose to believe that he does. I live my life based on what Jesus taught, but I will never tell someone they are going to hell. The most I will tell someone is that God will judge them after their death.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • El Flaco

      You may have a point. I'm an atheist and I live in El Paso, just a few miles from the Mexican border. It has certainly influenced my personality. The wife and I had Mexican food last night.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • YEPthat'sME

      @ Eric... You made an assumption about me. I did not mention anything about what I believe or do not believe.

      Borderlines have a fear of abandonment. Many atheists believed in God or a supreme being at some time during their lives. These particular atheists lost faith because they felt abandoned by God–their prayers went unanswered. MOST atheists have limited insight (typical of a Borderline); whereas, there are some, who I feel are true atheists and who have loads of insight. A true atheist is one who is insightful and is not angry or bothered when others choose to integrate the belief of God or a supreme being into their lives. Those atheists with little insight, become defensive and angry whenever a fellow human discusses how their faith has enhanced their lives; there's no "shoving religion down" anyone's throat. It is simply the personality traits of these particular atheists–those who feel they have been abandoned. A true atheist, you know, the kind who are steadfast in what they believe and who are insightful, are open for discussing faith-based beliefs and are able to extend respect of others beliefs.

      There are also many Christians who share borderline traits. Anyone who lacks insight, who becomes angry and defensive, and feels the need to be "right" in everything concerning religion, spirituality, life, or whatever; generally have some sort of personality disorder. Unfortunately, those who are the most obnoxious and vocal about their beliefs are the ones that generally ruin the reputations of those who are most respectful of others beliefs and have valuable insight. Thanks to those who have ruined the reputation of certain belief systems, we may only get a rare glimpse of appropriate civil behavior.

      December 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  8. Colin

    Prayer should not only be allowed in scool, but should be MANDATORY in science class – in the following circu.mstances.

    We set up a very simple physics or chemistry experiment. Say, a strip of blue litmus paper with a test tube of an acidic solution poised above it. We have all the students in class pray to god that it will not turn red when the test tube is upended and the acid pours on it. We then upturn the test tube and see what happens.

    It will, of course, turn red.

    We do this experiment every day, sometimes substi.tuting red litmus paper for blue litmus paper and an alkali solution for the acid solution – with the appropriate change in the prayer. We can also do other simple experiments – two identical poles of a magnet always being repulsive, with the students praying that they will attract.

    We do these experiments every day of every year for their entire high school experience, with the children praying each day that the result will be different. As we know, their prayers to their gods will fail every day of every week of every year. Every single time, without doubt and 100% guaranteed.

    After a few months of repeated failures, the students are invited to bring along their priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and other religious authority figures to lead their prayers. They can all pray, chant, implore and bob to their various sky-deities that the litmus paper does not turn red. We can also bring in some gulf War veterans who lost limbs, and they can pray for their regrowth.

    We even have special “open” days where they are invited to bring along the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dalia Lama, head of the Orthodox Church, the USA’s most sacred rabbi etc., etc. to join their prayers.

    As we know, their prayers to their various gods will still fail every day of every week of every year. Every single time, without doubt and 100% guaranteed. A couple of practical realities we would have to guard are the occasional “flop” where, for example, a bad batch of acid has been delivered and the litmus paper does not change color (we don’t want anybody to claim that a prayer was answered) or intentional sabotage by those with a religious agenda, but that is no different to the risks of any other science experiment.

    In this manner, prayer can “put up or shut up.” It is preferable to me that we expose the children to prayer in their formative years and let them see for themselves how utterly worthless it is, rather than try to keep prayer from them. The constant radio silence from above and the stoic indifference with which their prayers are met every day will help the students understand:

    (i) that there is no god listening and that praying is a futile exercise when the results can REALLY be tested;

    (ii) the complete superiority of the scientific method over religious supersti.tions, as science accurately predicts the results of each experiment every time;

    (iii) the silliness of still believing in Bronze Age sky-fairies in the 21st Century;

    (iii) the frailties of their religious leaders as they scurry for excuses –“god won’t be tested”, “god moves in mysterious ways” etc; and

    (iv) the weakness of human nature as the religious right moves to shut the experiments down.

    Tex Governor Rick Perry is correct. Children would learn a lot from praying in school.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • TV

      I think you missed the point.

      I think the author is pointing out that people have multiple sides to them and that teachers should take that into account to produce a well rounded individual. Many people want to be well rounded. I went to engineering school, but was "forced" to take art and music classes and I am thankful for it. Other students thought it was a complete waste of time, their money and time, instead we should focus only on related topics. If your agree with them, I suggest you listen to Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford.

      We are not all so easily compartmentalized, kids especially need to be given information and taught about a variety of things and how they might potentially fit together. We attend a Unitarian "church" where more than half the people are humanists and atheists. One wonders why they even bother to come to a place called a church. But, we are humans, not machines (as much as I would like to think so sometimes), we need people, community, friends, etc. Learning science in isolation takes away from what it means to be human. Life is not black/white always shades of gray. Navigating the shades of gray is not science, but an art form.

      I'll get off my high horse and roll around in the mud now, thanks!

      I would have to say that from seeing how most "religious" people behave, hard to find much correlation between religion and ethics.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  9. BioTeacher

    Mix which religion? They all call for something different! Why don't you just let science FACT and RESEARCH BASED THEORY stay in the classroom? I thought there was supposed to be separation of church and state anyway. I have my views and share them with students IF they ask. I do not denounce the way anyone believes. All I ask them to do is listen to facts and what research is looking at.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  10. Crane

    This proposal is really scary. Please keep normative thinking away from science. I don't ask religious foremen to address quantum physics in their sermons, either. That's called: ball park.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  11. khif2012

    Religion isn't science they shouldn't be mixed that stupid. By that logic we should mix PE and Art, Home ec and English. That's stupid. STUPID

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

    If you can't put your religion away long enough to learn something about the wonders of the sciences, then you have a real problem. It is said that to everything there is a season – I know I read or heard it somewhere – but if you inject religion into everything you do, then you're really not following the particular teaching, now are you? Instead, you're simply being selective – something of which cults are always accused of by fundamentalists.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  13. Enlightened

    Yet another attempt to justify inserting religion into education. Get your religion from church; get your education from school. Get your meat from a butcher; get your milk from a milkman (okay, there are no more butchers or milkmen, but you get the pictiure). There is absolutely no need to have moral or ethical discussions in science in order to make science relevant. We don't hjave moral or ethical discussions about integral calculus or geometry, and we don't need it in science. Keep your faith; I'll keep my science. They are not interchangeable and one is not necessary to justify the other (or verify it!).

    December 16, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • AGeek

      I'm ok with touching on ethics in science class. Ethics != religion. Whomever couples those two needs a good beatdown.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  14. Chris

    I am science teacher in public schools. In my opinion, ethics is an important topic for science as is making connections in the students' lives. I think it is important to realize that discussing religion in school is different from preaching religion. As long as all major views are addressed, it is a look into our society and history. However, science and religion are very separate. The main difference being that scientific theories can be proven wrong. When religion is introduced into science class, students take it as science. Religion cannot cloud science or we will fail to advance our knowledge at the rate we can a need.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • TV

      Probably true of your religion, but I don't think you should make generalizations like that.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  15. Suz

    I do believe in God, but, it is my conception of God, not someone elses. My idea should never appear in a science class. It is a conception, a hope, dream, wish, gut feeling, may even be a fairy tale, call it what you wish, but, its mine to hold. Keep religion and spirituality out of a science, they are not science.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  16. AGeek

    What scares me more is this guy is a *teacher of teachers*. Holy crap, pal. If you were any further to the right, you'd be wrapping clear around to the other side. Tell you what .. you focus on the mechanics and let those of us who aren't brainwashed focus on the content.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • TV

      Left brained persons like yourself is exactly the reason he has written this article. Did you even read the article? From what I understand of the article most "normal" people have multiple worldviews and can hold them without exploding. We should use this to help people understand/learn about each other, science and our beliefs better. I think you need to read "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess".

      December 16, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • AGeek

      TV, yes, I read the article. Flip it around. Teach science in a religion class. See what happens. Science is fact-based. Religion is belief/faith-based. You mix the two and you're doing *everyone* a disservice.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • TV

      I would have to agree, we should teach science in "religion" classes. Science is based on best known facts, you have to acknowledge that "known facts" change as we learn more about nature. If you disagree, go look up how the disease Malaria got its name. Similarly, true religion (IMHO), should change and evolve, help us change and evolve, become better humans. I'm not talking about the stuff that is written in a book and held as the TRUTH, and held to be valid forever and ever.

      Being an engineer and a manager (not the pointy haired type, I hope), I will say that people that have multiple interests are better employees, more fun to be around and easier to deal with. The narrow types have blinders on and its their way or the highway. We usually show them the door and the way to the highway. People have many, many different sides to them and can hold conflicting beliefs and survive. The mystery of being human, what a joy to behold.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  17. G.

    Wait, so the only way to make science relevant to people is making it permanently intertwined with religion in their minds? Did this article really refer to "intelligent design" as being a SCIENCE (even if it was a "controversial science")? While religion may be one way to connect science to people's lives, it certainly isn't the only one and there are definitely ways more well suited to a classroom that don't involve presenting absolutely unscientific information. Why does a discussion of sensory reception require talk of religious rituals to make it relevant? Part of what I do as a scientist is try to get children excited about and involved in sciences from a young age – which is what will really impact the future of science education in this country. Before people get to college, even high school many have this solid impression that science is something that isn't within the grasp of most – people have ideas of who can be a scientist, what scientists are like that aren't necessarily true.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  18. David J

    If this happens, i can see another dark ages coming about... Religion with science is exactly why it happened the first time. have we not learned from our mistakes? Besides, why incorporate something thats been proven fake by logical means into the exact culture that deemed it false?

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

      C'mon, folks. Read the article. It's not about adding creationism to the classroom but about discussing the role of science in religion. Nowhere in here does it say to teach creationism or any fruitcake ideas. It says that many students believe that stuff and by acknowledging that students may have these ideas, it's easier o give the students the wormwood.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • AGeek

      Hal, leaving it out says *everything* that needs to be said about religion and science. Leave religion out of it. Science is fact-based, religion is belief/faith-based. You can't even make the same argument for other subjects. Music has a math, science, and history component. Art has science, math, and history. Religion has history. That's it. There's no science in it. ..and vice-versa. I don't care if someone is religious or not ..that's not my position. I'm simply saying religion has *NO* role in science. If you try and apply science to history, you'll get a very large failure so I wouldn't recommend that direction either.

      December 16, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  19. AGeek

    Add religion to science class just as soon as they start accepting science fact in church/temple/mosque/etc. In other words, you may be a PhD, Mr. Eisen, but that doesn't prevent you from being an ignoramus.

    December 16, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  20. opting234

    you don't mix them in school. you educate people and let them decide for themselves. whatever your view, there is one important point... it's called SCIENCE class. have a separate religion class if you want, but science is just that... SCIENCE!

    December 16, 2011 at 7:18 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.