Big Questions Online recently spoke with Elaine Howard Ecklund, the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, a book that has been getting a lot of attention as of late.  In the book, Ecklund, a sociologist, describes her survey and interview-based research on the religious positions of scientists at elite universities. An excerpt of the interview is below:

You found that almost 67 percent of scientists have a spirituality and 22 percent of atheist scientists consider themselves spiritual. What do they mean by “spiritual”—a word that tends to be defined differently by different people?

They meant a variety of things. So what I tried to do was figure out what would be the most consistent definitions that they all have. For them, spirituality was something really that’s outside of themselves. It’s not just self-actualization, but wanting to see something larger than themselves that directs what they actually do. A lot of them talked about caring for students better as motivated by their spirituality. And it was very consistent with the work that they do as scientists.

They’re really sincere about it. When I did the in-depth interviews, that’s what convinced me—when I sat with them in their offices and talked with them for a couple of hours about it. They were very sincere, and they had a codified way of discussing it. They had exact things that they believed. I did not count as “spiritual” [those] people who said: “Well, if you really press me to the wall, I guess I would say I’m spiritual,” and had not thought about what it really meant to them.


So what should people take away from your study?

Many of these scientists who are atheists are not hostile to big questions of the meaning of life. I thought there would be scientists who were religious. I thought there would be probably a lot fewer scientists who were religious than people in the general public who are religious. None of those findings were surprising. But this spiritual atheist finding has really been surprising to me personally. And that’s a nice thing about research: It can kind of dispel some of our stereotypes. I think dispelling stereotypes is very consequential. This kind of research has a lot of public consequences for how we have dialogue about these issues, or don’t have dialogue.

For some groups, it will bring common ground—if you care about that. Some people are just looking at this as research, and I think that’s perfectly fine, and I approach this as a researcher. If you do care about dialogue, I do think of these kinds of findings—that there is spirituality present in the groups that you would least expect it to be present in—as a way of fostering that dialogue. So religious people who are spiritual can say to scientists who are atheists who are spiritual, “Let’s talk about the differences and the commonalities in how we see spirituality.” It gives some kind of initial common ground rather than starting out a dialogue by focusing just on differences.

I think this work is fascinating, even though it is getting the expected backlash from the “atheist scientists who are not spiritual” that Ecklund mentions in the interview. These spiritual atheists appear akin to the pantheistic scientists of the 20th century, but there is a desire to distance themselves from theism because of the baggage associated with the science vs religion that is popularly presented. But it’s not a pan-nothing either. What is “it” really? It’s unclear. I can think of a few options but it probably varies amongst the individuals in the group.

It is apparent that spiritual atheists are aware of the limits of a purely scientific worldview. I appreciate that immensely. It is impossible to live coherent lives without making a “leap” from the scientific reductionism put forth by scientific atheists. Spiritual atheists acknowledge that without accepting traditional religion and theism. But at least they acknowledge it.

What do you think? Is there anything to “spiritual atheism”? Is it, as Ecklund suggests as a possibility, only interesting to sociologists like her? Could this spiritual atheism lead to a productive discussion with theists (like myself) who are respectful of their scientific perspectives? Panentheism anyone?