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Victor Stenger

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Spiritual Atheism

Posted: 05/12/11 03:32 PM ET

A recent HuffBlog "The Spiritual Lives of Atheist Scientist" by Adelle M. Banks generated a lot of comments, including references to my own 2007 book God: The Failed Hypothesis. The article describes the work of sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund on the so-called "spirituality" of atheist scientists. Let me provide some background that was not mentioned by Banks or any of the hundreds of comments.

In 2007, Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle published a study "Religion Among American Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics" [Social Problems 54, no. 2(2007): 289-307]. They asked thirty-six questions of 1,646 randomly selected natural and social scientists from twenty-one top research universities and found that 31.2 percent were atheists (do not believe in God); 31.0 percent were agnostics (no way of knowing); 15.5 percent believed but had doubts; 9.7 percent were sure there is a God, 7.2 percent believed in a higher power that is not God; 5.4 percent believed in God "sometimes." Disbelief is greatest among physicists and biologists, each with about 70 percent atheists or agnostics and only 6-7 percent "true" believers.

In 2010 Ecklund published a book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think that received considerable media attention because of its conclusion that scientists are more "spiritual" than we have been led to assume. While based on the same study of elite universities mentioned above, Ecklund seems to contradict her own data when she writes: "Much of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. The 'insurmountable hostility' between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality." On the next page, however, she says that many academic scientists practice a "closeted faith" because of the hostility of their colleagues. She provides no data, just a personal impression from her interviews. Many more are "spiritual atheists who practice a new kind of individual spirituality -- one that has no need for God."

Ecklund adds, "The institutional infrastructure of the academy has changed to allow more of a place of religion." This is misleading, because she fails to make the important distinction (although she does so later) that is made in these institutions themselves between "religion" and "religious studies." I have visited many religious studies department around the country and find a common story. The majority of religion studies professors in secular universities are nonbelievers, to the great distress of students who enroll in these courses expecting to have their faiths strengthened only to be told what the Bible really says an how it really came to be written. Many atheist scholars, notably philosopher Daniel Dennett, have urged that religion be studied scientifically as an important social phenomenon. As far as I can tell, it already is in these vibrant religious studies departments.

Ecklund's book does not spend any time dissecting the data reported in her paper with Scheitle mentioned above. Rather she is more interested in whatever significance she can glean from her 275 anecdotal personal interviews. She concludes that scientists are more spiritual than we think while admitting that "spirituality" is a difficult term to define.

Ecklund notes, "Religion scholars think that Americans tend to link spirituality to interaction with some form of higher being." She refers to a study reported by sociologist Robert Wuthnow in his 1998 book After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s . Wuthnow asked Americans to define spirituality: they mentioned near-death experiences, unseen spirit guides, belief in angels, meditation, and prayer groups. That is, the general public associates spirituality with the supernatural, as do most dictionaries..

Presenting data from a 1998 General Social Survey (she gives no exact reference), Ecklund reports that nearly 29 percent of Americans say they are "very spiritual," compared to only 9 percent of scientists. On the other hand, 32 percent of scientists consider themselves "slightly spiritual" compared to 21 percent of the general population. Ecklund calls this "thin spirituality."

The thin spirituality of scientists is clearly poles apart from the thick spirituality of the general public. Two out of three scientists are still atheists or agnostics and only 6-7 percent are committed believers. The spirituality Ecklund attributes to some scientists is not supernatural. A biologist's response is typical: "I get my spirituality . . . from being in nature. But I don't really believe there's a God, so I don't consider it's necessary for what I do or how I behave."

I was looking in Ecklund's book for some evidence of the New Age quantum spirituality. Apparently there is little among scientists. The word "quantum" does not even appear in Ecklund's index. Evidently quantum spirituality lives outside the mainstream scientific community and is mainly found on the pseudoscientific fringes under designations such as "parapsychology" or "neuroquantology."

Behavior rather than belief seems to be the defining factor of the spiritual atheist. Those who call themselves spiritual are engaged in helping others, caring for the environment, enjoying the outdoors, and generally spending time meditating on central themes. We can't fault that.