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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. Richard Hode

    The very first sentence in this article ("A referendum ...") is an unresolved dependent clause. May I suggest a course in elementary English grammar before trying to tackle more complex issues?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Holden Caufield

      Richard Hode, may I suggest reading beyond the first comma, and once you've done that you'll understand that any sentence will be unresolved if unfinished. I don't understand how you can comment on the complexity of the article without getting past the introduction.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  2. Dan

    French in Spanish class
    Calculus in Wood Shop class
    Geometry in Health class

    The list is endless. Why not just teach Science in Science class? With all of the standardized tests that the kids have to be prepared for they barely do that. I'm so glad my youngest child is almost out of public school. I can only imagine the mess that my grandchildren (if I ever have any) will have to endure.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Rocco P

      I agree, teach science in science class. Unfortunately students are being indoctrined with a worldview/ideology called "Naturalism" - which is a belief in the absoluteness of materialism - outside of matter and energie there is nothing. This ideology alone is allowed. That intellectual fascisim.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Enyinna

    While the idea proposed is excellent, i believe that those implementing it need to take care. The writer sometimes in this article phrases things in a way that says to change the minds of creationists by including the religion in the discussion. Even if i read more into it the article than there is, this from experience seems to be the goal of some teachers. I do believe combining things like science with economics, ethics, religion or society can keep people engaged and interested. however Its not like you need to believe the theory of evolution in order to do biology, that's silly. Believing in creation doesn't mean you believe that water is made from goodness and light instead of 2 hydrogens and 1 oxygen. It shows how little some people truly understand the religious beliefs they disparage.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  4. bluemoondrop

    Meh, meh, meh. How pragmatic. Let the kids have whatever ideas they may have, just infuse them with science so they run off and get a degree (little help with our science infrastructure here, anyone?). I’m sorry our dominantly Christian society has pitted science against any spirituality at all, leaves people feeling like they’re waging a war against science in order to not face an existential crisis (somehow being a monkey just seems so universally unimportant). Don’t get us started on the fear of death and how all that biology stuff doesn’t offer much reassurance. Look, the science classes don’t need to be changed, our religions do. Also, CNN is just trying to get another one of its famously long religion-war comment boards. This article is mostly about ethics. Oh, that’s right, I forgot, only religion/god/something endows us with morality. Mehhh

    December 15, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  5. Bill

    Only if equal time is allocated to discuss the Flying Sphagetti Monster and His noodly greatness.

    Is religion important to people? Yes. Should people have the opportunity to learn about a variety of religious beliefs including (but not limited) to their own? Yes. Should this be taught in Science class? No. But why, if it is percieved as so fundamental to the working of the world? Science seeks to describe the workings of universe but the key to science is HOW we go about doing this. The most important aspect of science is that scientific theories are falsifiable and that supporting experimental data is collected objectively and in a repeatable way. A statement like "all apples are red" is falsifiable because if I find a green apple I've disproven the theory. A statement like "an invisible teacup is orbiting Jupiter" is not falsifiable because there is no demonstratable way to disprove it. If Science allowed the inclusion of non-falsifiable claims then there would be no common basis for discussion amidst people of conflicting viewpoints. If I think a theory is wrong then it should be possible to test it and compare my results with the rest of the scientific community. Faith and religion have their place in the human experience, but they have no place in science. The science classroom should be no different.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I have a question for you, if you truly are a pastafarian: Do you end your prayers by saying "ramen"?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  6. petercha

    I think the author of the article has a point. I personally don't see the conflict between religion and science – I like both quite a bit. Science teaches fact; religion teaches truth. There is room for both in my world. In fact, I think part of the reason we have so many troubles nowadays is because they took prayer and the Bible out of the schools. Children should be taught right from wrong starting at a very early age.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • BR

      This is precisely why the author's proposal is lunacy. Theists like you like to try to make up different meanings for words. Fact vs. Truth. The truth is that compartmentalizing one's understanding of the world into verifyable science and utterly unfalsifyable myth aren't that far from a genuine psychological break.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  7. Daydreamer

    That is the most warped logic I've heard since Newt Gingrich's last speech. Yeah, while we're teaching our children facts, let's mix in some fiction so that the facts seem more real to them. Good grief.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  8. Laird Edman

    I don't understand why so many anti-religion folks post on this site. And why so many of the anti-religion posts are so viturperative and, in the end, devoid of good thinking or understanding of these issues. There are many very good reasons for discussing issues of religiious faith for anyone who wants to understand human history, philosophy, philosophy of science, politics, evolution, and, yes, even in discussions of cosmology. So many of these comments seem to come out of naive logical positivistic arguments–arguments long abandoned by decent philosophers of science. Yet even from a position of logical positivism the positions of the adament anti-religion folks here seems to represent something very different from thoughtful engagement with the world of ideas. I am so puzzled by the anger and insult–hardly helpful for anyone. My sincere request–regardless of one's beliefs about religion or God, can folks try to engage in the ideas of the article presented rather than engage in cowardly anonymous rants that are useless in the discussoin of ideas? This goes for the religious rants about people going to hell or being fools as well as the anti-religious rants about idiots (rants which both undermine their very point–the condemning Christian and the mind-dead free-thinker).

    December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Daydreamer

      Look, for us non-religious types we see reality as an important concept. We live in a world that is largely connected through proof: want to drive? prove you can with a drivers license. Get married? Prove it with a marriage license. Die? Prove it with a death certificate. Practice law? Prove it by passing the bar. Be a minister? Well, anyone can be a minister. Yet, when it comes to something as important as what we believe in philosophically, you want us to listen to myths and give them equal consideration. Here's what I can prove about our maker: nothing. So, for someone to say that know what our maker, your god, wants of us, strikes me as wholly unethical.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  9. Rocco P

    "The facts ma'am and just the facts" - The fact is that those who hold to a naturalistic, materialistic worldview and try to palm this off as objective science based only on facts is nonsense!
    In school we learned how after the Big Bang matter can congeal or accrete into planets and stars and galaxies, etc. This a matter of faith, an assumption with no empirical evidence backing it up. In fact computer models by leading astrophycisists demonstrate that it cannot happen
    Abiogenesis - life arising spontaneously from lifeless matter, is also a matter of faith, not empiricially proven or observed. Louis Pasteur, the father of biochemistry said: "Spontaneous gneration is an illusion" I recently spoke with one of Germany's top biochemists and he admitted that new discoveries only reenforce Pasteur's observations.
    In our school textbooks we had illustrations of how fossils are formed– with a dinosaur dying, falling into a lake, slowly descending to the bottom to be covered with sylt and mud to eventually, slowly become a fossil. Baloney! Such a dinosaur would be consumed by bacteria in a fraction of the time it takes to fossilize. This is a fact and yet still such misleading illustrations are re-printed in "science textbooks".
    Scientists used to think that matter plus energy alone, with enough time can organize itself into increasinly complexer forms leading to life. Wrong, it can be proven that without a third factor– information, which can organize matter out of chaos - this upward march toward increased complexity cannot take place.
    All empirical scientific evidence points to intelligence as the only known source for organizing information. Therefore it is not unscientific at all to allow the discussion of God into the science class as a possible source of this organizing information. Kepler, Newton, Max Planck, Pascal, Kelvin, Pasteur, Mendel and a long host of other scientists accepted this and it didn't seem to hinder their scientific initiative in the least!

    December 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • petercha

      Good point, Rocco.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Jim

      Actually, experiments have demonstrated how matter clumps together in a microgravity environment. It's not a matter of faith.

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

      Oh no, we got another one who thinks organization is indicative of intelligence.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Enyinna

      II agree with your post totally. The problem is the same on both sides. you have religious people that don't study their beliefs, so when opposing viewpoints show up they fall apart and reinforce those opposing viewpoints. on the other hand those that deny religion don't study their beliefs and fall back on the it's science so it must be right. And as a reply mention somewhere here if you have no facts, you just have emotion and then you just start condemning and insulting

      December 15, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Rocco P

      to Jim– One of the newest computer simulations done by a believer in planets forming by natural accretion gives the following frank summary:
      University of California Santa Cruz planetary scientist Erik Asphaug wrote:
      However, too great a turbulence disrupts agglomerates faster than they form….Not only must turbulence be low, but the gas must go away before the growing planetesimals spiral in.... Decoupled [separate] solids spiral towards the Sun at an estimated 1 AU [astronomical unit] per 10–1000 years, so there is not much time!"
      In other words the forces disrupting accretion are greater than any congealing that takes place - and the increases exponentially the larger the body becomes. So it is a matter of faith and unfounded assumption.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • Patrick

      Interesting. You have found a third element to all existence: intelligence! It is not energy, it is not matter (though we know the two are the same in elementary parts), so what is it? Can we see it? Is it tangible? Can we infer it exists from the world around us?

      No? Then why the F are we talking about it. Drivel. Rocco prefers his desires over truth.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • BR

      Let's see...so many appeals to authority, so little time. Even if your fatuous spewings about fossils, abiogenesis, galaxies etc. were true, it would only denote 'something' as yet unexplained. Slapping the term intelligence on it is the height of conjecture and claiming, as most theists do, that you know what is behind it and its thoughts and needs is outright intellectual dishonesty.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  10. Jean Sartre, Milwauke, WI

    Yes, lets get religion more involved with SCIENCE, perhaps we should include comic books too...

    December 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  11. D Russell

    When reading some of the posts here it is imposible not to notice just how democratic Americans are in the way they think; like fish who do not even notice they live in water. Science however is not a democratic process. For example, just because some people think the world is flat (even if there are a lot of them) this does not mean that there is a "debate" on the roundness issue. The scientific evidence that the world is round preponderant. Increasing the number of flat earthers or even teaching flat earth theory it in school still does not mean that there is a "debate". In science, it does not matter what the majority of citizens think. There is no debate in scientifc circles over evolution. For there to be a debate in the scientific sense, those who believe in creation would have to bring supporting evidence to the table for peer review; using the scientific method. They can not changes the rules of evidence or the method or the peer review process. Science is what science is. The preponderance of evidence is clearly on the side of evolution and every new major scientific accomplishment such as the sequencing of the human genome just adds to that body of evidence. It is now much harder to argue that mankind is less than 10,000 years old given we now have the genetic history of mankind going back several hundred thousand years as one of a thousand examples.

    Still, it is amusing that some people think that their is some kind of "debate" on the issue. Perhaps in popular culture – but not in the scientific community. Don't like it? The truth is that your opinion does not matter and without proper evidence – it never will.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  12. SUSIEQ

    NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO
    THERE ARE ENOUGH PROBLEMS CAUSED BY RELIGIONS ALREADY!
    SCIENCE IS JUST THAT – PLEASE – I AM A RETIRED HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE TEACHER
    AND GLAD TO BE – MAKE ME DISCUSS ANY RELIGION – AND I PACK UP AND LEAVE
    UNLESS YOU ALLOW ME TO DISCUSS HOW THE MIDDLE AGES CAME AFTER THE WONDERS OF
    ROME AND GREECE – A CERTAIN RELIGION STARTED THE DARK AGES – PLEASE – NO MORE!!!!!

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  13. Really?

    You can put religion in our science classrooms when we can put science in your churches. Obviously you wouldn't let that happen though; the scientific method and the supernatural don't mix very well

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  14. ChristoInferno

    Religion can be a genuine source of strength for individuals. Equating religion with science, however, is weakening our country. We're becoming a nation of people who take the path of least resistance: don't question, don't investigate, ignore complexity. The answer is always black and white. If it's not in the Bible, it's not true, so I don't have to expend any mental energy on it.

    Stop weakening our children.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  15. Patrick

    This seems to be more about anthropology than religion, given the connections exemplified deal with ritual. I wonder if this article should have just been written about incorporating science in general to all aspects of life, all disciplines. Why stop at religion?

    The Intelligent Design hypothesis has never been formed. Until it is and then experiments applied to it, it cannot never be termed science, technically speaking.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Patrick

      "cannot ever", doh.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  16. CosmicC

    Before you trash religion, let's remember that Mendel (father of gentics) was a monk. Newton and Einstein believed in God.
    Science and religion are both methods for describing the universe. Science is based in observable fact, religion is based in faith (by definition, belief without proof). Choose the one that works for you. Me? I can't accept belief without proof.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • ChristoInferno

      Just for the sake of being academic, I have to say I think the "faith" explanation misses the mark. I think the vast majority of people, religious or otherwise, won't simply believe something for the sake of believing it. Very, very few sane people practice faith for faith alone. We practice religion for the same reason we do lots of things in life: they are habits passed down from our parents. We practice religion because we were taught to. If faith alone were really our guiding principle, we'd believe EVERY religion out there. But you seldom hear Christians saying "Faith is so important to me that I believe every word in the Koran."

      December 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • BR

      Einstein purposfully obfuscated his views on religion but it is generally accepted based on his own words that he believed in god only in the manner of Spinoza.

      As for Mendel et al...many of the founding fathers 'believed' that ownership of another human being was acceptible. We don't throw out their outstanding contributions to the world for that fact, but neither do we allow it to be used as justification for contempory slavery.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Josh

      CosmicC,

      Albert Einstein's god was most certainly not the christian god, or anything like it. If you actually read anything that Einstein wrote on the subject, he makes it quite clear that he does not believe in a god that has anything to do with the personal lives of humans. I believe his idea of god was the universe and how beautifully everything is woven together. The way you refer to him as "believing in God" is simply false.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Dean

      Hello Cosmic C,

      Einstein must be rolling over in his grave. Here is a quote from him from later in his life:

      "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly."

      December 16, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  17. Prometheus

    I agree. I also believe we should teach a s e x uality class that covers hom o s e x uality and tolerance. I also think that alchemy should be taught alongside chemistry and magic should be a required topic in association with both electronics and computer science classes.

    But that's just me...

    December 15, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  18. Charles Jarman

    What can you say about a college professor who can't open his dissertation with a complete sentence. Religion and "alternative beliefs," those usually possessed by the illiterates who distance themselves as far from science as possible, have no place in a science class or anywhere in a school system. That brainless crap should be left at the church and go no further.

    Case-in-point. I have heard the most intellectually dead and despairing comments on the radio this week about how the "God Particle" affects religious beliefs. The media came up with that term, not scientists. The Higgs Boson was called the G.......damn particle as it was so hard to find. The search for elementary particles involves no religion at all and is not supposed to.

    So yes, let "them" turn a science class away from an intellectual and challenging exercise into a continuous room of discussion about religion and science. Perhaps it would make no difference anyway as most Americans care more about whether B. Spears is wearing underwear today or not rather than any interest in gaining knowledge. Just consider the people network TV is aimed at–4th grade intellect–and decide for yourself. Too many Americans live their lives through the TV behind locked doors as they are so afraid of all the bad things that are kept out by that door. No wonder our science students are so far behind those in other countries, especially when so called Presidential candidates make it clear they know nothing about science and will go to any means to insure science has zero influence on political policy, especially the environment.

    Why can't religious people have the open mind to find science a tool for explaining how the universe was created and operates instead of a threat to their beliefs as I have always done. The only threats to religion are the extreme hypocrisy of the so called believers and the sadistic and cruel treatment of others because religion tells them to do so.

    Totally disgusted. A scientist for over 40 years despite my father telling me "science is the work of the devil."

    December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • robert

      Wow. I feel sorry for you in your jaded surety. The world must be a very bleak place in which you exist.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  19. leo

    Maybe we should include the study of science in our religious studies classes to even it all out......

    December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  20. Lars

    Religion absolutely should NOT be taught in science class. Religion is not a science. It's mind-boggling as to why this is so hard for evangelicals to understand. Religion should not be taught 'alongside' real science, just like alchemy should not be taught 'alongside' chemistry, and astrology should not be taught 'alongside' astronomy. Hypotheses become scientific theories when they can be confirmed by peer review using repeated successful practical testing and application. It is not fair to allow religion to simply skip the scientific process. You want your religion taught in science class? Form a practical hypothesis, and submit your confirm-able research for review. Good luck.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
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About this blog

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.