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26 percent of Atheist Scientists are Spiritual, but What is Spiritual?

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It seems that new research from Rice University has found that more than 20 percent of atheist scientists are spiritual. 72 of the 275 natural and social scientists interviewed said they have a spirituality that is consistent with science, although they are not formally religious. If this is the measure quoted as 20 percent, it is actually 26 percent!

Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology at Rice, is the chief author of the study which she conducted with Elizabeth Long, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Rice. Ecklund says:

Scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs. 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. There’s spirituality among even the most secular scientists. 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.

Apparently these scientists see both science and spirituality as part of their individual quest for meaning without faith that can never be final. Their spirituality is congruent with science and separate from religion. Spirituality is open to a scientific journey requiring empirical evidence, religion demands the “absence of empirical evidence”.

The terms scientists most used to describe religion include “organized, communal, unified and collective”. The 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. Ecklund said:

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.

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 spiritualty provides nonnegotiable reasons for making sure that they help struggling students succeed.

Much of the comment on the study by the authors is waffle. What is valid in it is not original, and what is original is not valid. It really is not surprising. The lead author seems to have done the research under a grant of $283,549 from the John Templeton Foundation to study “Religion and Spirituality among Natural and Social Scientists at Elite Research Universities”, and must have felt under pressure to find something to please the sponsor.

The researchers seem to have used the results of the research to define what they mean by spirituality, rather than defining the terms they wished to study first. Thus, it is a curious finding that only the science professors who do their teaching job properly are spiritual. It seems to mean that conscientiousness is at least one facet of spirituality. If so, the nonspiritual teachers could never get tenure, and so selection would push up the ratio of these mysterious spiritual ones in any science faculty.

In fact, the word “spirituality” defies definition, it is so meaningless. Etymologically it derives from the Latin for “breath”. Breath relates to life for which breath is essential in mammals, including humans. It is an early metaphor for life, actual breathing life, and came to be associated with an immaterial entity that gave life to inanimate matter. Thus God made Adam of clay and “breathed” life into him! The life that God has breathed into him and all of us is literally “breath” or spirit (spiritus).

Thus to accept the concept of spirituality is to accept a dualism that science can find no evidence for. When there is no evidence for any proposed phenomenon or hypothesis, the null hypothesis is that it does not exist, not that it does exist. That is scientific skepticism.

Some scientists might not think about these things too much because they are irrelevant to the practice of science, so some might not have strictly coherent views on spirituality. Even more so, given that the term, quite apart from its linguistic origins, is now so widely interpreted that no two people ever are speaking about the same spirituality. Proof is the discussion that the report of this research generated. Approaching 200 comments submitted showed it superbly. Few posts were talking about the same thing.

It seems, though, that a lot of people did think that a spiritual experience was a personal—subjective—sense of awe. It is this sense of awe that many scientists who are not a bit religious may be willing to describe as spiritual. It has nothing to do with religious belief, and the attempt of religions to hijack it as the presence of God, or whatever, is typical religious dishonesty. It is almost invariably a sense of awe at Nature or something natural, like a childbirth. Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, says his “Road to Damascus” experience came when he suddenly came across a frozen waterfall, an awesome but entirely natural phsnomenon. It should have strengthened his desire to investigate Nature, rather than stimulating his return to God. However, the wonder of human architecture, say, as in the spectacle of the interior of a cathedral, can induce it too. That was undoubtedly the objective of the medieval bishops in building such wonderful buildings.

Perhaps Professors Ecklund and Long will do a much more thorough study with a more representative sample, proper definitions, and greater objectivity. Let’s not hold our spiritus! A Templeton Prize might be awaiting.

Written by mikemagee

10 May, 2011 at 9:27 pm

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