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Posts Tagged ‘Religion

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

The Warfare of Science and Religion Today—Brian Cox

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Brian Cox by Vincent Connare

Brian Cox, the celebrity particle physicist and professor at The University of Manchester, says at Science and Religion Today that he’s fighting maniacs not religion. Brian is the former rock star astronomer who presents science and astronomy features on TV.

There is a lot of goodwill toward scientists among the religious communities in this country. I met the dean of Guildford Cathedral when I was an atheist on a panel and we… became good friends. I also recently got invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s house because he liked “Wonders of the Solar System”. Rowan Williams is a very thoughtful man. If you want to move society forward in a more rational direction, religious leaders can be useful because they share that view.

Brian Cox admits he considers it quite acceptable to be anti-Creationism—his anti-maniac—but being “anti-religion is not helpful”. Maniacs ignore all the scientific evidence that the world was created more than four billion years ago, and choose to believe—on no more evidence than that someone told them the bible is the word of God—that it says the world was made only 6,000 years ago. It is all right to say such a one is an idiot, or is insane, but trying to wage an atheistic war against all religion is an effort that ought not to be made.

One imagines that there must be more to justify Cox’s position, but this blog does not give it, so it appears there as a rather poor argument. Maybe the battle need not always be fought whenever a scientist meets a cleric, but it is only a polite suspension of battle orders for social reasons. Brian has met a couple of pleasant clergymen who are not as strident as the Discovery Institute at plugging Genesis, so we ought to abandon essential scientific principles in future contact with such nice old codgers. Old fashioned Church of England clergymen still consider nice to be part of their job description. Anglicans used to be generally nice, they were famously tolerant, but now the Evangelicals have taken over!

Brian Cox is skipping differences that cannot be reconciled between science and religion as world outlooks:

  • Religion requires gullible people to be able to sell nonsense. Science requires skeptical people to question everything.
  • Science honestly deals with the material world of observable phenomena, and the consequences of it. Religion is no different, but dishonestly pretends to deal with a fancied supernatural world, and invisible things.
  • Science only considers acceptable what has been repeatedly tested and confirmed. Religion tells tall stories such as that of the eternal life after death, as if they were absolute truth, though no clergyman knows these stories to be true. Again, it is dishonesty.

Had Brian tried engaging his clerical chums in a serious discussion of metaphysics, epistemology and ontology, he must inevitably have ended up exasperated. They can no longer admit that much of the allegedly ancient parts of the bible—Christians seem to believe the bible is God’s timeline, like a divine diary—is mythical, and indeed has been shown to be substantially the same as even older myths from other Ancient Near Eastern countries like Babylonia. Their members, already getting thin on the ground and increasingly fundamentalist and intolerant force them to spout the inerrant line, or try to hedge their bets so as not to offend one side or other of the battle within Anglican ranks.

Brian Cox should take care whom he trusts. Many an innocent traveler has walked along a lonely road with someone they did not know, and woken up sore, cold and walletless. The footpad might not be the present Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop of Guildford, but to think that men who put their own trust in a figment, and opportunistically will take the most convenient line to keep their congregations rather than correcting their false ideas, will not metaphorically mug you is pure naïveté.

Written by mikemagee

4 April, 2011 at 9:27 pm