Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund offers a fresh perspective on this debate in “Science vs. Religion.” Rather than offering another polemic, she builds on a detailed survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities — the most comprehensive such study to date. These surveys and 275 lengthy follow-up interviews reveal that scientists often practice a closeted faith.…
Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves “spiritual.” One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in “wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence,” a sentiment many nonscientists — religious or not — would recognize.
In the book, Ecklund places substantial emphasis on the finding about scientists who identify as atheists and who also say they are spiritual. She refers to them as “spiritual entrepeneurs,” carving out a new sort of religious/spiritual experience, and urges the reader to consider this population’s implication at greater length.
Her recently published “Scientists and Spirituality” (with Elizabeth Long, 2011, Sociology of Religion) digs deeper into that group, especially into her interviews with these spiritual atheists, to try to understand that group, and the broader phenomenon of spirituality in American religious life.
Polls often ask about spirituality by asking respondents to choose which is closest to their own views: a personal God, a spirit or life force, agnosticism (I don’t know/it’s impossible to know), or atheism (there’s no God, guiding spirit, or life force). Ecklund’s study comes at it slightly differently, asking respondents how spiritual they find themselves (“very,” “moderately,” “slightly,” or “not at all”) and separately what they believe about God (“I do not believe in God,” “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out,” “I believe in a higher power but it is not God,” “I believe in God sometimes,” “I have some doubts but I believe in God,” “I have no doubts about God’s existence”). Spiritual atheists are those who said “I do not believe in God,” but who also said that they were “very” or “moderately” spiritual, and whose spirituality was “thick,” in that they spoke out in their interviews about ways their spirituality motivated their actions. The spiritually “thin” were those who only mentioned spirituality after the interviewer raised the topic.
Ecklund’s new paper locates these results in the context of two strains of research on American religious culture. In one of those branches, scholars have argued that spirituality serves as a crutch in the secularization process. As people drift towards a less religious society, people seek a way to express the good things they see in religion — usually a personal sense of awe and connectedness ‑Â without the negative baggage associated with organized religion. In contrast to this individual, secularized, even watered down religion, some scholars have taken “spiritual” to be a category for people who are seeking a novel, syncretic, and community-oriented way of connecting to the ideas underlying traditional religion without the limitations imposed by that tradition. Where one school says spirituality is personal or even narcissistic, the other sees it as linked to (progressive) social movements. Where one school treats it as an attenuated and secularized sort of religion, the other sees it as a new and vibrant sort of religion that challenges organized religion without challenging the role of religion in participants’ lives.
Ecklund’s interest in spirituality among scientists is driven by a belief that scientists, especially scientists at the elite universities she surveyed, could serve as standard-bearers for novel approaches to religion. Certainly, academia has a unique culture, one cut off in many ways from the religious culture that predominates nationwide, and that isolation creates opportunities for novel approaches. But it also creates the possibility that scientists are re-inventing the wheel, and using different terms to cover concepts that are already developed among other religious communities.
For instance, Ecklund notes a perception among these scientists that religion is “organized, communal, unified, and collective,” and as such dogmatic and “inherently against individual inquiry,” which they contrast with spirituality’s “individual, personal, and personally constructed” nature, which “allows the type of individual inquiry that is most compatible with science.”
American religion has always been characterized by an inventiveness and an openness to people pursuing their own religious paths. In recent decades, it has become more common for people to shop around before choosing a church, and for churches to adapt and make themselves more suitable for this increasingly individualistic style of religious practice. The churches most open to personal exploration and most opposed to dogma in general are often also the ones most friendly to science in general and to topics like evolution, stem cell research, abortion rights, and other topics that scientists might see as creating conflict with science. Whether these scientists are aware of such trends and find them insufficient, or are responding to cultural stereotypes of religion within academia would be an interesting followup study.
The spirituality these scientists express is often directed outward, and is explicitly contrasted with inwardly directed New Age practices. One biologist told the interviewer that spirituality is part of what motivates the emphasis of classroom teaching: “I’m always trying to remind my students that what they’re trying to understand is how everything fits together. And it’s useful to keep that in mind, in sort of the broader sense of the wonder of things…Â that’s included for me [in my definition of spirituality] but it’s not included in everybody’s definition.” Another scientist explains how spirituality drives an emphasis on students: “I spend a lot of time on course preparations. I could spend less time and invest more time in my own writing and publications. But I feel an obligation to be responsive to students who are struggling… I feel a certain kind of spiritual obligation to help in the best way I that I can, which in that sense is teaching them.” (Emphasis from original quotation.) All of this tends to suggest that spiritual scientists are operating less as a vanguard for secularism than as pioneers of a new approach to religiosity. In an academic culture dominated by nontheism, the mantle of spirituality may be a way to protect this holdout for religiosity, rather than a way to move away from religious ideas.
This trend even holds, to some extent, among the spiritual atheists. Compared to interviews with the general public regarding spirituality, these scientists were more likely to contrast their spiritual beliefs with any belief in a deity. For the roughly quarter of atheist and agnostic scientists who regard themselves as spiritual: “These spiritual atheist scientists see the very act of deciding not to believe in God — in the face of an American public seemingly pre-occupied with theism — as an act of strength, which for them makes spirituality more congruent with science than religion.” Even among that group, it’s hard to see evidence of this spirituality representing a vitiated religiosity, but rather an attempt to construct a new way to articulate religious beliefs (construed broadly).
Ecklund notes that her interviews with spiritual atheists are unique in American sociology of religion because “there are so few atheists among those captured in surveys of the general population that we could not even do a meaningful comparison between these elite scientists and those in the general population, although it is important for other researchers to determine if this categorization of spiritual atheist is found among other population groups where atheists are likely to be concentrated.
I’m not a researcher in this field, and won’t claim to have deep insights to draw from cross-cultural comparisons, but the World Values Survey does ask a series of related questions about spirituality and theistic belief. This is hardly an ideal comparison, since people’s responses to these questions are rooted in their countries’ particular history and culture, but it at least gives us a sense of the relevant comparisons.
For instance, in the graph above, I plotted out responses to a question about people’s theological stance, where respondents could choose between belief in a personal God, belief in a spirit or life force, agnosticism, or atheism. Not surprisingly, Indian respondents tended not to believe in a personal god, but when you combine the number for theism and spirituality, you get nearly equal numbers of believers as we have in the United States. You’ll also note that current and former Communist nations — where religion is or was suppressed — are less theistic than neighboring nations.
Even so, combining theistic belief and spiritual belief, there’s a remarkable consistency, with spirituality seeming to compensate for declining theistic belief in many European nations. In famously nontheistic Denmark, spiritual belief is more common than atheism, agnosticism, or theism. Combined theistic/spiritual belief represents over 3/4 of the publics in the US, Canada, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Northern Ireland and Ireland, Italy, Austria, Finland, Iceland, Spain, Romania, and Switzerland.
And there are significant blocs of spiritual atheists as well. In the graph above, I combined the data above with data from a question asking people, “Independently of whether you go to church or not, would you say you are?”: “a religious person,” “not a religious person,” “a convinced atheist,” or “don’t know” (“don’t know” had to be volunteered).
Above, I plot the fraction of people who answer “a convinced atheist,” and also say a “spirit or life force” is “closest to your beliefs” (spiritual atheists in Ecklund’s sense, I hope) against the fraction of people who say they are religious and who assert a belief in a personal God. The colors of the names corresponds to the proportion of people who come up as atheists in response to the first question (about theistic beliefs, rather than religious identity), with red being a higher proportion of atheists, blue being a low proportion of atheists, and purples being in the middle.
As you can see, the 22% of atheist scientists who say they are spiritual is a bit higher than what we find among the general publics of various European nations, but not by much. The sample sizes here aren’t overwhelming (from a high of 116 spiritual atheists in China to a whopping 1 in Malta; the median is 14, the mean is 22.4), limiting the detail we can derive from any individual nation. But it’s enough data to compare nations.
It’s worth noting that there’s no correlation between the number of spiritual atheists and theistic religious folks, which I would have expected to find if spiritual atheists were a vanguard for secularism. And it’s especially interesting how wide a range we see on the y‑axis, from barely over 11% of religious people who believe in a personal God in some countries all the way to almost 85% in Poland and Portugal.
This tends to support the idea that spirituality should be understood as an experimental sort of religiosity, rather than a stepping stone away from religion. This is further supported by the fact that even in nations like Denmark with high rates of atheism, many atheists describe themselves as religious. Religion isn’t simple. Religion is about practices, it’s about community, it’s about belief, it’s about theology, it’s about politics, it’s about identity, it’s about family, it’s about culture, and it’s about more.