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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. Geoff

    I do think the concept of a required 'philosophy of science' or 'theory of knowledge' course is a good one, even for high school students.
    I'm not sure if you can really combine it with existing classes to really go in depth enough, but a separate, one semester course could be very beneficial.

    I'm pretty sure that most schools don't have that part of their curriculum, don't think they have time for such classes, or think it's above their students level.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  2. Jason

    Introducing religion into science courses to make it easier to understand is akin to throwing mud into a pool to make the water clearer.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Physicist

      The physical theories of evolution and creation were easier to understand with my religious background.

      I don't think this is a factor of me being smart, it is just a factor of having a religion that actually makes sense.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Dave

      Religion that makes sense is a contradiction in terms.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Physicist

      don't make ignorant statements.
      you have no clue what i am referring to, why on earth do you think you can judge it?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • Dave

      Ignorant statements? Like the one you made claiming you can scientifically back up all "christian" principles? I'm still waiting for you to do that one.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Physicist

      we know perfectly well that light propagates through media depending on the atomic structure, and thus there are substances and materials which fully exist, but are not detectable with our limited senses. Just because you can't see God doesn't mean he isn't there (I am not suggesting he is sitting near any of us, just saying that we have such limited ability to detect that it is pointless to try)

      December 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Logic

      hey "Physicist" . .you're not a physicist. I don't care if you're they guy that opens the first useful wormhole. You're not a scientist. You're a stupid hayseed until you drop the creationism.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • Physicist

      It was hardly ignorant of me to state something that I have studied all my life.
      You on the other hand, took a single sentence and decided that you could guess my intentions and beliefs.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Physicist

      Logic:
      A) use logic
      B) grow up

      December 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  3. Joe

    Science is how we explain the world and universe we live in. Religion, any religion, was a way people explained things before science. Now religion could be used to control how people behave with morals and ethics and such so we are not just animals walking around on instinct. We need to make Science more interesting for kids to learn, but also teach them how to be civilized human beings. That can be accomplished with or without religion. They may have changed theory's of expansion and contraction of the universe, just like the Romans and Greeks had 10 different Gods to Christianity, Buddism, etc, having one God, which differs in all religions, so who is right?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Physicist

      Science can't exist without religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • PulTab

      Science can't exist without religion? Why not?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Seriously ...

      "Sicence can't exist without religion"??? Anything can exist without religion; few things can exist with religion. I am thinking you're applying your emotional need for religion to the world around you. Please stop projecting, it hampers my freedom.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Physicist

      The big bang 'theory' is absolutely the best scientific 'theory' out there. The only reason it si not a law is because we can't undoubtedly substantiate it.
      The flaw is that the bang had to come from somewhere, and there is no way that science could ever explain why an energetic release of that magnitude would spontaneously happen.
      God=light=energy==>mass=us

      December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Physicist

      all knowledge seems to hamper your freedom

      December 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Bill

    Never happen, because so-called open-minded people, who willingly allow (and even encourage) their children to seek out new ways of thinking, suddenly recoil in horror if religion, or even the hint of religion, is mentioned. How DARE you try to brain wash my child! I won't allow my child to be taught your "fiction" (only the fiction of popular modern day authors, like L Ron Hubbard) or your fables (though Aesop is perfectly okay). Take your false god away from us! (yeah, instead, we're going to worship our money, our cars, and our ipods).

    December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Physicist

      best post on this article!!!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • LivingInReality

      Religion is the opposite of science. Teaching religion in a science class is as foolish as teaching science in a religion class. Teaching about all major world-influencing religions in humanities/social/cultural studies classes is highly appropriate, and should be mandatory. I agree that lessons on science should make connections that students can relate to (in fact, ALL subjects should be taught this way). But science class should not attempt to connect to their religious selves - it should be taught in a way that relates to practical experiences that the kids go through on the playground, walking to school, eating, etc.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • LivingInReality

      Somehow I forgot I was responding to your post in my last reply. You think L Ron Hubbard is associated with scientific thought, or is followed by science, or is in any way associated with science? He was a science FICTION writer, and a founder of a RELIGION. Scientology is just another in the long list of religions, but it named itself after science in the hopes of recruiting a few more unenlightened folks. The fact that you would introduce L Ron Hubbard into the conversation suggests a great deal about your ignorance on the subject of science.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Physicist

      you seem to have missed the point.
      reread please.
      take it home ifyou have to.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  5. Kevin

    I've always felt that we should teach students about society's relationship with science - only one example is evolution vs. Creationism - and such a course could discuss Creationism in that context. But Christian evangelicals want more. They want Creationism taught as a co-equal alternative to evolution, and they want only their version of creation taught, not those of other religions. Arri's suggestion has the seeds of a good idea, but it will not satisfy evangelicals.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  6. Physicist

    Science can't exist without religion. All the controversy comes from ignorance. The two fit perfectly together and when people try and disassociate them is when confusion starts. I have strong faith in all relevant Christian principles, and I can back them up with scientific evidence, any semi-functional mind could...

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

      Ok, factually and scientifically back up the concept of Hell, the idea that eating shrimp is an abomination, the biblical instruction to murder disobedient children, and the reality of an afterlife. I'll wait.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Dave

      Still waiting.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Physicist

      factually substantiate the fact that he big bang was a huge blast of energy that randomly exploded. (especially considering the fact that God is defined as light, and light=energy)
      run the numbers on cellular combination in atmospheric settings and tell me that "one in a 'very large number'" is a evidence of spontaneous evolution.
      God's hand was in everything.
      As far as hell: evangelicals have blown that way out of proportion and it, as you probably belive it to be, is absolutely false. There is a much more rational and logical argument, which does include life after death, but does not include fire and brimstone.
      Don't be a nuisance.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Heretic

      What evidence is that, a picture of a Crocoduck? Clinging to a belief that has been so completely shown to be a fallacy only undermines any argument for creation as stated in the bible. For christianity to survive it must evolve and the book must take into account new evidence that discredits it's arguments. Loudly proclaiming that carbon dating is flawed and that the earth is @6,000 years old only shows irrational thinking in the face of contradictory evidence.

      Just like all the lifeforms that inhabit our planet religion must evolve to suit it's environment or perish. I would be fine with the later.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Physicist

      religion doesn't need to evolve, we just need to better understand it. People that truly understand it don't claim that the earth is 6000 years old.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  7. skeptic2

    I wonder how many teachers of religion in parochial schools would also consider teaching the principles and practices of science as an equal part of their lesson plans. Not likely, I'll bet..

    December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  8. Paul

    The difference between science and religion is, science is predictable and verifiable. Religion is not. Religion is a belief, not a fact. You cannot say what God is going to do, but you can calculate how much of an element will remain after a chemical reaction. If you want to teach religion, fine... but you have to teach all points of view instead of just a select few, and you have to teach that it's not proven.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  9. Dave

    Only if we can start teaching evolution in church.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Physicist

      I'm mormon, and I learned about evolution at a private, religious, mormon university, not in my public California high school.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      My church does but we are Unitarian Universalists and hold science in very high esteem.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Dave

      Sure you did.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  10. Mike

    There is no conflict between science and religion. Science is the study of God's work.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Dave

      Um, no. Science is the study of reality, so that we don't have to attribute things to the work of any mythic being. And if there's no conflict, why has religion always tried to crush science and education?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • ExChristian

      riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. or not

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

      Amen. And the futile effort to explain it. It is fun, and it agrees well thus far, but science is far behind religion on understanding the world.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Dave

      Make up your mind, phony "physicist". First you said you could scientifically back up the "buy-BS", now you claim that trying is futile.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Physicist

      it is amazing that the only scientist in this discussion is a)being ridiculed and b) being called phony.

      I fail students like you every day

      December 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  11. bob

    Science is proven fact. Religion is a book. The two should never, ever meet, especially in school. In fact, I can't even believe the writer of this blog is even suggesting such a thing. Teach your kids your religion at home. The school has NO BUSINESS teaching kids about ANY religion. Sure, have an ethics class – but do NOT bring religion into it.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • OGR99

      With all respect- Where do ethics come from?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Logic

      Ethics comes from the human mind. Just like religion. There were codes of behavior long before the bible and the koran. So was it Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Shiva, Krishna, Vishna, Zeus, or the tooth fairy that invented ethics if thats your argument? I mean which religion is truly responsible for moral behavior if that is its source? I mean clearly only one of them is right and there are so many. . .why are there so many?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Physicist

      religion is not the source of moral behavior.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  12. Tom E

    No! The notion that ethics is needed in science as some sort of checks and balance is absurd. This idiotic idea could be applied to any other curriculum – journalism, math, writing, history...! You name it and some Group of Believers will find some way to apply it to all curricula – and to no good for the lessons or the students.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  13. The Broilermaster

    Your understanding of what science is and how science works is apparently non-existent. You are a disgrace to PhD's everywhere.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  14. PulTab

    The minute they start teaching religion in my kids science classes, is the minute I start looking for another school for them.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  15. Loenore H. Dvorkin

    Ethics should be taught at home, by the parents. Religion ( = mythology) MUST be left out of science classes unless we are prepared to see the quality of our science education fall even further behind that provided in other countries. Wake up, people! Get up off your knees, and think for yourselves! Religion is utterly stupid and degrading, not worthy of a modern, educated human being. Why allow yourself to be a slave to this outmoded way of thinking?

    December 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  16. mike

    Here's something to ponder ...

    Little kids version: Saint Nicolas lives in northpole and knows every single kids nice or naughty.

    Gullible adults version: God lives in the clouds and knows EVERY man, woman's thoughts and actions of EVERY second.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • OGR99

      Consider this:

      How do you get something from nothing. And what started the whole thing in the first place?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  17. Jonathan

    Nah, you teach whatever you want in your public schools. We'll stick to actual observational science in ours.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  18. agb

    "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."

    You have the same dichotomous view that creationists have, with the expectation that the students raising their hands should be mutually exclusive. These questions address completely different yet compatible domains. Religion and science should inform each other, just not at the same level.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Jason

    "I teach biology at a private university" – Should be pretty clear why your students are interested. Science literacy is falling because we allow people to continue to associate religion in any context with Science. Science is in all ways unrelated to religion.The connections that do exist are made by those trying to disprove science in the name of religion. Science is not a philosophy, it is a methodology. You can discuss Science in context of religious beliefs, but science does not need religion to exist.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Funny how actual scientific methods and assumptions actually got their start in Christianity.

      How again are they totally unrelated?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • ButterSquash

      @ Jonathan

      Really, they were started in Christianity? More like with the Greeks. I guess your religious science class didn't teach you that either.

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

      There is a long history of the church persecuting scientists. Pick up a history book. Science is a result of a break from the church. The church NEVER supported science, because science replaces belief with fact, and the church survives on belief.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Physicist

      they coexist perfectly well.
      The catholic church fought science because it was too busy stealing money from its members. Please don't apply that to all religion, although I do agree that it is tru of the vast, vast majority.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Jonathan

      @Buttersuash and Paul:

      Actual scientific method did not start with the greeks. Only belief in a logical and constistant creator would allow a methodology to emerge and allow us to study the universe. The greeks believed in chaotic and destructive gods, little better than man but much, much more powerful. What progrss they made was, at best, from benficial accidents. There is a reason that the march of technology literally exploded during the so called 'dark ages' when the spread of Christianity gained momentum.

      @Paul

      Persecution of scientists has no relevance on where the basis of scientific method is concerned. Most persecution is caused and maintained by twisted and evil men who have much to lose and a basis of power to maintain. Christianity never calls for someone to be persecuted or mistreated. Perhaps the only place you will find this is in the old testament where God laid down the laws to seperate his chosen people from the rest of the world.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  20. Jeff in San Diego

    Science is the only religion where differences are sorted out by proof rather than war. Give me rational thought over "faith" anyday.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • OGR99

      Science does not always follow the evidence. Evolution is not settled science.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.