Why one in five Scientists call themselves ‘spiritual’

Jun 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Physical Sciences

A new study conducted by Rice University sociologists has examined the definition of spirituality amongst elite scientists in 75 leading U.S. universities who otherwise brand themselves as ‘atheists’. 72 out of 275 scientists in this study considered themselves not religious but spiritual, a self descriptive trend that is all too common in today’s increasingly secular environment.

Spirituality, in this new enhanced scientific sense, was interpreted by the scientists as having a fundamentally different set of core constructs compared to its meaning in a non-scientific sense. It was often viewed by scientists as being synonymous with the pursuit of scientific truth. Religion on the other hand was viewed by the scientists to be completely different from spirituality because “ where spirituality is open to a scientific journey, religion requires buying into an absolute “absence of empirical evidence.” “

in addition, the scientists in this study used the words ‘individual’, ‘personal’ and ‘personally constructed’ to describe spirituality, whereas the words ‘organised’, ‘unified’, ‘communal’ and ‘collective’ were most often used to describe religion. The spiritual scientists often saw themselves as ‘engaged’ in contrast to their non-spiritual colleagues, in several ways that might be considered to be beneficial for the world around them rather than focusing their work for the advancement of their own career.

The findings of this study however raises some important dilemmas. The assumption that the scientists in this study made about religion are perhaps too narrowly focused towards blind faith that is typically seen in orthodox forms of religious practice. The substantial body of agnostics or a large chunk of humanity who affiliate themselves with some form of traditional religious practice, Eastern or Western, without necessarily any belief in the supernatural cannot be really categorised as ‘ having bought into an absolute absence of empirical evidence.’ It also fails to account for the continually evolving nature of religion as we have witnessed over the centuries.

The organised community-based nature of traditional religions is also substantially different from various new-age movements based on religious awareness, where the focus has been on a personal understanding of spirituality, often combining elements of different spiritual traditions and religions. To categorise spirituality as different from religion as the scientists in this study propose perhaps arises from bias against religion than neutral observation. For that matter, academic science can also be called ‘organised ‘, ‘unified’ and ‘collective’ , whereas in reality, the vast majority of human beings at present combine elements of science, spirituality and religious inspiration in their daily lives without rigidly or exclusively subscribing to any of the above.

As Elaine Howard Ecklund, Assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and principal investigator in this study concludes :

“There’s spirituality among even the most secular scientists – 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.”

Scientists therefore perhaps only seek the answers to the big question within a relatively rigid framework that they describe as ‘atheistic’ , to distinguish themselves from from various religious movements that have sought to find meaning from a different context. A large proportion of humanity will perhaps continue for the foreseeable future combining elements from both science and religion in their personal lives in their individual spiritual journeys.

In an ideal world we should be free to pursue our own journeys to words truth and reason without being forced to join any rigidly defined territory marked ‘science’ or ‘religion’ only.

Source :

1 http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/ru-mt2050511.php

2 E. H. Ecklund, E. Long. Scientists and Spirituality. Sociology of Religion, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srr003

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