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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. Sven from Sweden

    Being from Sweden where more than half of the residents are non-believers, agnostic & atheists – religion is still taught in middle school, and they still take students to church once in a while. I'm surpised that religion is not taught in America, where 80% are Christians and 90% believe in God.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Lilarose1941

      Religion IS taught in America, just where it should be taught.....at home, in churches, and in PRIVATE schools not funded by the public. Some religion is taught in the students' bathrooms in many schools from kindergarten through college.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Itellyouwhat

      Infinite Universe – zero is not equal to one (there is a point where matter can't be divided – God is Something that can neither be created nor destroyed that is dependent on nothing.) An infinite universe lacks a beginning, so there is no one set past or a given future.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  2. JJ

    Who is this author and why isn't he in jail? We tried mixing religion with the classroom, in Nazi Germany, where we learned through intelligent design that God had chosen the German people to be perfect and conquer the Jews.

    Science is science because it is hypothetically sound and empircally verifiyable. Religion fits neither category. That's why its religion.

    To paraphrase Joy Behar: "Teaching kids intelligent design is a lot like child abuse"

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Itellyouwhat

      Finite Universe – zero and one are equal (matter can be infinitely divided into nothing – God is Nothing that created everything out of emptiness) "At the Planck distance and the Planck time all physics, as we know it today collapses. This is the reason we call the beginning of the big bang a singularity. You cannot apply ordinary reasoning there. Zero and one have no sense there.OK?" J-P Burri There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Big Bang views one and zero as being equal, since it states that zero appeared out of the absence of zero; then zero created something.
      The Big Bang theory prevents any condition where something has always been. Infinity is defined as the difference between one and zero. Once one and zero are the same according to the big bang, the definition of infinity as stated above is no longer valid. If the big bang occurred, all math's must deal with the proof of 0=1.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Lilarose1941

      Well said, JJ. Thanks

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Joe

      He is not in jail because he does not mix RELIGION with science. He is connecting scientific truth to ethical/cultural practices, and nothing else- especially not the murder of any ethnic group. He is not proposing new "religious" theories. Re-read the article.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  3. Ed

    Science is a method for understanding nature, and questions of the supernatural have no place within that framework.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  4. AtheistRite

    At first, there was the pain of ignorance. So, someone cooked up religion as opium to ease the pain. Then science came along to chip slowly away at the ignorance with knowledge creation or discovery.

    The answer is not to increase the dose of opium. The answer is to increase the cure of ignorance through more science.

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

    ETHICS doesn not require religion. Moral beliefs do not need spirituality, while spirituality requires morality. You do not need to believe in god to believe in honor, truthfulness, valor, and ethics. Science is empiricism, it does not require metaphysics.

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

      Where do ethics come from? Where does our sense of morality come from? Why can we be creative (playing a musical instrument) while all other species on Earth have shown little if any capacity to do the same?

      Just as religion cannot rightfully answer scientific questions, science cannot answer why we have ethics or morality. People have tried, and all attempts have failed. That is why the two concepts are separate but not mutually exclusive.

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

      Pick up a book, Dave. I suggest "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. It may enlighten you to the natural(as opposed to supernatural) roots of ethics and morality. Stop blaming your ignorance on science.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Ed

      Agreed. I think all ethical and moral questions can be answered through the human ability of empathy. No higher power is required.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Patrick

    The author argues for a real-world approach to studying science. What mention religion or ethics specifically?

    Does the author think disciplines outside religion or ethics should not be taught alongside science?
    Does the author think this should apply to disciplines beyond science?

    I question the intent of the author in this matter. He has betrayed an agenda by focusing on the science/religion dichotomy.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  7. Vulpes

    This article to me demonstrates why we are failing in science. Relate science to real life of the student ... fine. Do not teach the lie of Creationism (nor it's variants). We might as well teach astrology and alchemy. The facts of evolution stand on it's own. The only reason to bring in religious canards into the science is to demonstrate how to critically think about the world around you and not be fooled by the religious zealots with agendas

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

      The belief in God concerns his description. Either God is Nothing that created everything out of emptiness or God is Something that can neither be created nor destroyed that is dependent on nothing. How God is recognized does matter, since truth can't be deceived!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  8. theotormon

    I do agree with the author that controversies can be fun to learn about and discuss. Thankfully, there are plenty of issues to choose from that are still unresolved amongst actual mainstream scientists. If you want to discuss the controversy over faster-than-light neutrinos or the reality of the Higgs Boson or the evolutionary mechanics of altruism, go ahead. But please, don't waste time in a science class speaking about controversies that only exist in the mind of the public, not in the realm of mainstream science.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  9. A Real Scientist

    Ahem, Dr. Aissen is not a science professor and from the looks of it, has NO CLUE WHAT SCIENCE IS ABOUT OR HOW TO USE THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD!!! God is a failed hypothesis and has no place in science.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  10. Nate

    Uhhh, I must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the weird part of the internet again.

    Science classes should only be allowed to teach anything that has proof or theory based on evidence. If evidence crops up that your god exists, by all means, bring it in to the classroom; otherwise, leave it to the parents to teach kids religion. Chew on that.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  11. Janet Dreyer

    Of course one should not teach religion in a science class. Religion, which is the blind acceptance of concepts which are impossible to prove, is actually anit-science. If teachers are mixing the two, no wonder kids are confused.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  12. Matt

    Interesting idea but from my experience it isn't science that is pushing religion out of the classroom it is religion pushing science out of the classroom.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  13. tony

    Another underhand, lying, absolutely evil attempt to "groom" youngsters into becoming religious believers. But that's what evangelicals do. Burning at the stake is the fall back position for the too tough to convert.

    Children are born atheists for a reason. There isn't any god.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  14. Joe

    As a pre-med student and theology major, I have seen both sides. For those who think evolution discounts the Book of Genesis, you are making the all-too-easy mistake of taking the Bible literally. Scholars got past that centuries ago, so wake up. Evolution is indeed an almost flawless method to describe how life has adapted and survived, but the real question to ask is: what makes human beings different? This author is not trying to impose a set of religious beliefs but rather engage science with the broader, "human" experience of ethical behavior.

    Also, for those who are interested, reading St. Augustine's Confessions is something you might consider doing. He asks and answers many of these questions and asserts many qualities about the nature of God that make the cohesion between science and religion perfectly reasonable.

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

      Taking the Bible not-literally, pretty much says there wasn't a god back then either.

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

      Please explain that.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Seriously ...

      St. Augustine? Are you kidding? The idea of science didn't exist in his time and anyone practicing what was then called Alchemy was killed. If you're college educated (which I doubt) you should get your money back. If you are college educated then I would say it is no wonder this country is in the dumbster with people such as yourself spouting this nonsense and, thanks to your degree and a lot of naive people believing what you say because of your degree.
      St. Augustine was a womanizer (and I am being PC here due to the censors) that only turned christian because his mother made him promise on her deathbed not because he felt a calling to be one. Anything he wrote has be taken with a grain of salt.

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

      What makes humans different?! and you're pre-med?! Doesn't it have something to do with the outer layers of the brain?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Jesus is KING

    America is a CHRISTIAN country and Christianity should be enforced at all public schools, and students should be going to church before any big holiday, such as Christmas and Easter. Don't make atheist win this!!

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

      Agree! An atheist ignorant lady in the 60s eliminated religion from public schools.... later she got killed by an atheist!!

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

      Are there unicorns in the alternate universe you live in?

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

      Therefore the principles of human evolution from an insane species require a virgin birth of Adam and Eve for the establishment of a moral and just human government (Isaiah 9:6).

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

      Josephine. Make Love Elsewhere.

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

      Wake me when you're done trolling.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Vulpes

      Trolls should be called out and made ridiculed. Dirt bag 😉

      December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Lilarose1941

      In America (that is the United States of America) you CANNOT "enforce" religion! The reason the Pilgrims and millions of others came to America (that is the United States of America) is to ESCAPE those who demanded that people believe a certain way! NO RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS! By the way, whose religion shall it be? If you demand one, let it be mine! Now you won't like that very much, will you?

      December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • TheAgingPhilosopher

      Secular....

      December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Lilarose1941

      Josephine, you don't know what you are talking about. Go ahead, mention her NAME!

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

      Hard to tell whether this is satire, or you're serious. Either way, the only response to this can be . . .

      ROFL!

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

      Oh really? Ever read the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli? Article XI states "As the government of the United States of America is not in any fenfe founded on the Christian religion...". This was written during the time of George Washington and was ratified under the presidency of John Adams. Seems the founding fathers were very clear on the question of whether the US was a christian country or not. Mostly not, as it turns out.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • bible thumper

      I agree. we should not let things like the fact that many of the founding fathers were not christain but deist who did not believe in christ cloud our judgment. we should also include alchamy in science class. hey why not witchcraft. let be inclusive in how we degrade science with religion.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  16. Varan

    Evolution is not a belief system.

    I agree with the theory of context when teaching. My high school math teacher was ineffective compared to my college professors and, in my opinion, the only tangible difference was the examples.

    I don't think religion should be taught in science class. As an atheist, I do, however, see value in teaching religion at the high school level. It should be taught as part of a Humanities course. It should the history of religion and the variety of religion that exists today. It should teach the good and the bad. But I don't think, for example, that a geology teacher should ever have to discuss young Earth creation unless it is in response to a student inquiry.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • John C from Long Island

      Well Said!

      December 15, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • Seriously ...

      Perfectly put. I think a lot of people would benefit from having a category of learning "Religion" and then include every religion, not just the one that is locally dominant. Leave science to science.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Ed

      Agreed. A comparitive religions class should be taught in HS, but I'm sure many Christians would hate the idea.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  17. ick

    If you are going to include religion in your teachings, the learning should be that science (such as theory of evolution) is supported by facts and religion (such as creation) is supported by blind faith devoid of any factual proof.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  18. Janet Dreyer

    Religion does NOT belong in a science class. Religion, which is the blind acceptance of concepts which are impossible to prove, is actually anit-science. If teachers are mixing the two, no wonder kids are confused.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  19. tchii

    He wants ethics taught I agree, but religion has nothing to do with ethics (as far as I can tell) nor science. Teach ethics with science, leave religion to the religious...

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  20. John

    I intend to teach Nordic religion the next time I discuss evolution in the classroom.

    'Evolution was favorable to the dinosaurs until Thor decided to smash them with his hammer'

    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 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.