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. The Phist

    What does mythology have to do with science?

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

    All religions are speculative, science is not.

    Science does expose the fallacies of many religions and scientific analysis often exposes the human motivations behind those fallacies. In that sense mixing the two might offer benefit, as a social science. As for hard sciences, religion, doesn't have anything to offer except confusion.

    A Spiritual life, on the other hand, doesn't require/conflict with science nor finds a religion essential.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  3. eldono

    Science is science, not mythology or dogma. Religion should be in social studies, or even better, history classes. Science is the search for truth. Religion has no search, just belief.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  4. Joel/NJ

    Those who don't believe in Christ won't go to heaven

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

      And, heaven would be what??

      December 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • The Phist


      Explanation: Heaven does not exist.

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

      So, muslims, atheists, jews, hindus and others who do not believe in your zombie will roast for eternity?

      December 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  5. Jonathan

    Religion exists. To deny it would be just as idiotic as trying to deny that scientific evidence exists. When it's appropriate, teachers shouldn't be afraid of discussing religion in a matter of fact way.

    The problem that always comes up with all these types of issues is that typically, one group is usually trying to convert people to their beliefs. Either religious groups are trying to convert non-religious people, or those that don't like religion are trying to convince people that religion is stupid. It won't happen. You don't convince a person to give up their faith, or to find faith, just by telling them how wrong they are. All that does is make them dig in deeper.

    What we need to be promoting is acceptance. There are these multiple thoughts on how this works, and none of them have concrete proof, they're all just guess work now (and before you all start getting outraged about how evolution is Science, and therefor infallible and yes there's proof and it's a stone cold fact, let me remind you that it is still referred to as the "Theory of Evolution", meaning scientists acknowledge that it is still speculation based on available data, but not proven 100%), so pick the one that feels right to you. And allow others that same right. And part of allowing others that right is not trying to brow-beat them into thinking your way.

    School shouldn't be about trying to tell kids what to think, it should be about presenting all facts and allowing the kids to make their own conclusions.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. tony

    Early Mans four greatest Inventions.
    1) A begging bowl.
    2) A god
    3 Linking 1 and 2 to make the non-refusable "Collection Plate".
    4) An atheist Putting 2 Collection Plates on an axle and producing wheels.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  7. Joel/NJ


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

      No it wasn't. It's already taught in church. Look into it.

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

      As an option. And, atheism included with Islam.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  8. Taylor

    I feel the difference here is that science is rooted in facts and information, whereas religion is based on beliefs that don't have facts to prove or disprove them. Given the conservative nature of religion in general, and being a type 1 diabetic who could seriously benefit from stem cell research, I would not feel comfortable with religion getting near science and compromising a possible cure for something affectiong millions worldwide.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  9. ZZZzzzzzzzzz

    "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."

    Wow- what a big assumption. The author assumes that these facts are NOT already taught with these contexts. His whole argument is based on these faulty assumptions. Swing and a BIG miss.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  10. thekid

    This is a joke right? I thought this was snuffed out with the Creationism and Intelligent Design vs Evolution deal. Religion alongside science in schools? Religion doesn't even stand up to the slightest poke of inquiry. Scientific theories stand up to the harshest battering of inquiry and more inquiry, and more inquiry, and yet even more. Religion believes that it is the truth and that it's unquestionable. Science demands itself to be questioned. Whoever said it, they are right, science is not a democracy. It does not exist to appease everyone democratically. Science is concerned about one thing, the truth, and getting as close to the truth as the information, data, and technology available allows. If bronze aged mythology deserves a place in the classrooms, then why don't we include Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology as well?

    We also can't forget the FSM...

    December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  11. JT

    I think students need to be taught what science is. They should be taught the scientific method and how theories are formed. They need to be taught how rigorious and completely undemoncratic science is. Facts are not put up to a vote.

    Then...the massive divide between religion and science will be very clear. You will know bunk when you hear it, even from otherwise intelligent adults who shold know better. Christians long for the respect that science has and always tried to re-define science to make it compatible with whatever myths they happen to believe in.

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

      Amazingly well-put! It's true though. Science garners it's respect by rigorous vetting, and a neverending quest to disprove itself. Society respects science because what is put forth has already suffered the utmost of scrutiny.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  12. Jeebus

    The Church has always been threatened by science. The pseudo-science of creationism is just their latest attempt to undermine science.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  13. Stephen Nowlin

    Bravo for this thoughtful plea by the author. It's worth noting that religion and social conservatism are no more the culprits in keeping science isolated, than is the science community itself, through the self-imposed "science has nothing to say about that" rule. But I think this paradigm is slowly shifting - cable TV and books like Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape" are letting science out of its corral and promoting its relevance to all aspects of life. Yes, the Religious Right regards science as the devil's work, but when it refuses to engage in the full spectrum of its cultural implications, science is behaving as if it agrees. stephen.nowlin@artcenter.edu / http://www.williamsongallery.net/worlds .

    December 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  14. want2believe

    I am an atheist, but I also feel it is important to understand religion. I was raised catholic and learned about the evidence of religion in sunday school while learning science at school...and it should stay that way in my opinion. However, I thought the author made a great point about relating chemical stimuli and the use of incense by different religions. I see no problem with teachers connecting religion and science in this manner because as the author said, it is extremely important to connect learning with everyday life. But I feel the line has to be drawn there. The idea of incorporating society and ethical issues into the classroom sounds great, but the majority of students are already behind...we need to stay focused on the science

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

      But don't fall for their trap that religion = morals and ethics. Some of the most horrible evil people I've ever met are very religious.

      December 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  15. LuvBug

    If the world suddenly ended and we had to learn everything all over again, we would still come to the same conclusions scientifically (IE world is round, revolves around the sun, etc). However, religion and the ideas that make the stories up, would be lost entirely. Shows what is 'real' and what is 'fantasy' quite well. Keep fantasy out of the education forum, and only allow it in classes that recognize the fluff basis behind it and teach it for what it is. Fairytales.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  16. QS

    "Two inconsistent thoughts coexist without an attempt to reconcile or integrate them."

    There's a reason science cannot be reconciled with religion and it has nothing to do with ethics. For one to believe in science and religion of course there's an inconsistent coexistence of thoughts.....because religion cannot coexist with reality.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  17. Jim

    This would lead to awkward moments where the instructor would be in a position where he/she has to say 'Your belief system may tell you that is how the universe works but the best information available from observing evidence suggests that your beleif system is wrong'.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  18. 2803

    Yes...and we also should teach our children that religion kills those who study science. That way they can just stop learning for fear of the American Inquisition.

    Stop mixing religion and science...and stop mixing religion with politics.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  19. sdfgh

    anyone who takes a piece of literature ( including religious texts) literally is a nutcase.

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  20. Robb in Iowa

    "The theory of evolution is what is taught because it is what best explains the data in a rational manner. The National Academy of Science, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, The National Association of Biology Teachers, and 72 Nobel Prize Winners have all gone on record as supporting evolution and rejecting the teaching of creationism in science class." ~ Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Tim Berra

    December 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
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