Atheist scientists: 20% are ‘spiritual’

RICE (US) — A survey of 275 scientists finds a fair number consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

Though the general public tends to marry spirituality and religion, the study found that spirituality is a separate idea—one that more closely aligns with scientific discovery—for “spiritual atheist” scientists.

Through in-depth interviews with natural and social scientists at elite universities, the Rice University researchers found that 72 of the scientists said they have a spirituality that is consistent with science, although they are not formally religious. Findings are reported in the journal Sociology of Religion.

“Our results show that scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs,” says Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology and the study’s lead author. “These spiritual atheist scientists are seeking a core sense of truth through spirituality—one that is generated by and consistent with the work they do as scientists.”

For example, these scientists see both science and spirituality as “meaning-making without faith” and as an individual quest for meaning that can never be final. According to the research, they find spirituality congruent with science and separate from religion, because of that quest; where spirituality is open to a scientific journey, religion requires buying into an absolute “absence of empirical evidence.”

“There’s spirituality among even the most secular scientists,” Ecklund says. “Spirituality pervades both the religious and atheist thought. It’s not an either/or. This challenges the idea that scientists, and other groups we typically deem as secular, are devoid of those big ‘Why am I here?’ questions. They too have these basic human questions and a desire to find meaning.”

Ecklund co-authored the study with Elizabeth Long, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Rice. In their analysis of the 275 interviews, they discovered that the terms scientists most used to describe religion included “organized, communal, unified and collective.”

The set of terms used to describe spirituality include “individual, personal, and personally constructed.” All of the respondents who used collective or individual terms attributed the collective terms to religion and the individual terms to spirituality.

“While the data indicate that spirituality is mainly an individual pursuit for academic scientists, it is not individualistic in the classic sense of making them more focused on themselves,” says Ecklund. “In their sense of things, being spiritual motivates them to provide help for others, and it redirects the ways in which they think about and do their work as scientists.”

Ecklund and Long notes that the spiritual scientists saw boundaries between themselves and their nonspiritual colleagues because their spirituality facilitated engagement with the world around them.

Such engagement, according to the spiritual scientists, generated a different approach to research and teaching: While nonspiritual colleagues might focus on their own research at the expense of student interaction, spiritual scientists’ sense of spirituality provides nonnegotiable reasons for making sure that they help struggling students succeed.

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