The Spirituality of Scientists

© Darek Krzeminski,

Last month I wrote about sociologist Elaine Ecklund’s survey of American scientist’s beliefs. One interesting result of this survey was that a large proportion of scientists considered themselves to be ‘spiritual’*.

Ecklund and her team predicted that elite scientists in the US would be largely irreligious, and that ‘they would eschew the fuzzier forms of religiously eclectic spirituality which have become common in the general population.’ What they found was quite the reverse: that many scientists (including 20% of atheists) considered themselves ‘religious’, and 70% considered themselves ‘spiritual’ in their beliefs, experiences and practices.

Many of the scientists surveyed saw their spirituality as a personal journey of discovery, a sort of ‘meaning-making without faith’ similar to science. There was a rejection of religion, which was seen as dogmatic, judgmental, controlling, involving believing things without evidence, and incompatible with science.

These spiritual scientists didn’t want to compartmentalise their lives – in fact that’s probably impossible in such an all-consuming career. They valued aesthetics, and for some their spirituality flowed directly from their work. Their experience of making sense of complex systems and grasping something of the immensity and great age of the universe gave them a strong sense of awe and wonder at the natural world. There was a sense of mystery; a belief that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained using the tools of science, perhaps similar to the Eastern religious traditions. Their spiritual values often motivated these scientists to spend more time teaching so their students could share the same experience, to choose what they saw to be more worthwhile fields of research, or to change their behaviour outside of the laboratory. Overall the picture is that these US-based scientists are defying the usual social categories and pioneering a new approach to religion. Einstein appears to be a role model here, in his belief in a meaningful force beyond our understanding but rejection of organised religion.

In response to this data part of me wants to spend time explaining a few things: what Christian theology is actually about; that faith in God can be defended rationally (though that’s not the whole story); that we all exercise a great deal of faith every single day in our human relationships; and that science involves certain assumptions that at times amount to faith. The other part of me is excited that a good proportion of scientists in the US** share my experience of wonder at the processes that science reveals. There’s definitely the potential for some very interesting conversations here.

*You can find Ecklund’s paper on this data here.

**And perhaps also European: surveys are underway

9 thoughts on “The Spirituality of Scientists

  1. Nancy April 26, 2012 / 1:42 pm

    Ecklund’s book was one of the most encouraging books I’ve read in a while. There is the opportunity for rich conversation if we can figure out how to nurture it.


  2. Joseph Jimmy Hardcastle April 26, 2012 / 2:48 pm

    Ecklund has a habit of skewing her conclusions to favour her chosen result (that religion and science are totally compatible). I guess that’s what you get when you accept money from the poisonous Templeton Foundation.

    I think the word spiritual may be the one causing problems here, it’s meaning seems to vary from a feeling of awe to full on religious belief. There’s a strange disconnect somewhere in that spectrum in my opinion, those two things don’t seem to fit on the same scale. But Ecklund uses this confusion to say “Scientists are totes spiritual!”, when the data suggests that they are far far less “spiritual” than the general public (and indeed have a tendency towards atheism).


    • Ruth Bancewicz April 27, 2012 / 3:01 pm

      I’d recommend reading the paper – the point from my perspective seemed to be that although most elite scientists don’t seem to want to be associated with religion, they have meaningful experiences of wonder that they value very deeply. And they want to define themselves as ‘spiritual’. How you interpret that is up to you. I just think it’s interesting – more interesting that the debates. Jerry Coyne clearly wants to find ways to create barriers, while I am more interested in a process of open conversation and enquiry.

      As a Templeton grant holder I can reassure you that Templeton don’t have any part in ongoing work on grants they fund. If they think it’s interesting they’ll fund it. Then they leave the researchers to get on with their job.


    • Daniel Ortiz February 23, 2013 / 3:54 pm

      And your proof for Ecklund’s dodgie methodology comes from Jerry Coyne’s blog? Was that facetious? or do you really think Coyne is unbiased? …….


      • Ruth Bancewicz February 25, 2013 / 2:17 pm

        I’m not sure what you mean. I have linked Ecklund’s published paper, though you would need access to a subscription to the journal for the link to work.


        • Daniel Ortiz February 25, 2013 / 2:24 pm

          I’m sorry Ruth, I should have said that my comment was for Joseph Jimmy, not for yourself. Sorry for the mishap.


  3. Ian Hore-Lacy April 26, 2012 / 8:26 pm

    That all makes sense! I have also heard that many US scientists who are believers dont identify publicly as such in case they get tarred with the YEC brush and thereby compromise their standing as rational human beings. Maybe you have coroboration of this??


    • Ruth Bancewicz April 27, 2012 / 2:44 pm

      I have no idea. Ecklund did mention in her paper that scientists were very cautious because felt they were somehow more accountable for expressing what they believed in public. Things are so much more highly charged in the US that people in that sort of position are always very careful what they say.


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