Scientists and Spirituality

That’s the title of a new paper from Elaine Ecklund and Elizabeth Long, published in the academic journal Sociology of Religion. I’m playing catch-up here, since other bloggers have already discussed this paper, but why should they have all the fun?

But first, a story. Many years ago, when I was home from college over a summer break, I was sitting in Palmer Square in Princeton, NJ. I was enjoying my lunch from Hoagie Haven, which my Princeton-based readers will tell you is the finest sandwich shop on the planet. On the table in front of me was a chess magazine and an ice-cold bottle of Stewart’s Root Beer. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping. Life was good.

That’s when I noticed a couple of guys going from table to table. One was asking questions of the people who were sitting there, while the other was video taping the discussion. To judge from the somber look on the interviewer’s face, it was topics of great import that were being discussed. From the way the tables were arranged, it quickly became clear that they would come to me last. I watched them go from table to table, eager to learn what they were talking about.

Finally it was my turn. The interviewer sat down and explained that he was from an obscure cable channel called Odyssey which specialized in religious programming. Then, with a deeply serious expression, he asked me, “Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?”

Without hesitation, I replied, “No.”

He was taken aback and said, “Really? Most people have to think about it. Why don’t you consider yourself spiritual?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something about how I see no evidence for any of the usual religious claims. The interviewer pounced. “But I didn’t say religious! I said spiritual.” I rolled my eyes and told him that if he wanted to give me a clear definition of what he meant by spiritual then I’d tell him if I was that, but as far as I was concerned spirituality should have something to do with, you know, spirits.

We talked for a few minutes and then he left. I have no idea if any of my interview made it into the final film.

Which is my long way of introducing the topic of the paper, which, unsurprisingly given the title, is about how scientists look at spirituality.

The paper is based on surveys and interviews with 275 scientists at elite universities. The authors write:

However, we found that 72 of the 275 natural and social scientists see themselves as pursuing what they describe in various ways as an identity-consistent spirituality. These scientists are not the majority of those interviewed, but they are a very substantial minority, around 26 percent of those interviewed, and are theoretically interesting as an ideal-type for what they say about the ways spirituality manifests itself for this population and how such characteristics might compare to populations defined around other social locations, including other occupational groups.

Very substantial minority? Methinks I smell a whiff of disappointment the number wasn’t higher.

Anyway, it turns out that even some atheists and agnostics consider themselves spiritual:

How academic scientists approach a belief in God is central to how they view the relationships among religion, spirituality, and science. About 34 percent of scientists at elite universities “do not believe in God” and about 30 percent more answer “I do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out,” the classic agnostic response, meaning that over 60 percent of ths population describes themselves as either atheist or agnostic. About 22 percent of the scientists who are atheists still consider themselves spiritual and about 27 percent of the scientists who are agnostics also consider themselves spiritual.

I would note that those are mighty small percentages. Most atheistic and agnostic scientists apparently do not have much use for the term “spiritual.”

The respondents to the survey seem to have some strange ideas about what spirituality actually is. The authors write:

We argue here that this substantial and theoretically interesting group of scientists who see themselves as spiritual view religion and spirituality in distinctly different terms. Scientists show a spiritual impulse that is marked by a search for truth compatible with the scientific method, a coherence that unifies various spheres of life, and, for some engagement with the ethical dimensions of communal life, all of which are part of what we have come to think of as an identity-consistent spirituality, because it fits so well with their identity as scientists and tends to be a relatively self-consistent set of beliefs and practices.

Seriously? That’s all it takes to be spiritual these days? That seems like pretty weak tea. Things get even stranger when the authors present quotations from some of these spiritual scientists:

I spend a lot of time in my course preparations. I could spend a lot less time and invest more time in my own writing and publications. But I feel an obligation to be responsive to students who are struggling … My part of making the world better is helping those individuals succeed. And so I’m not able to cut myself off from my interactions with those students on a one-to-one basis. I feel a certain kind of spiritual obligation to help in the best way that I can, which in that sense is teaching them, trying to figure out how to reach them so that they understand. [I do this] in ways that I know some of my other colleagues don’t.

It’s funny how people use language. This person, a political scientist, describes his desire to help his struggling students as the manifestation of a spiritual impulse. Personally, I call it doing my job. po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.

As the authors stress throughout the paper, the way these scientists see spirituality is quite different from how the public at large sees it. Outside of the scientific community, spirituality is seen as closely related to religion. But for most of these spiritual scientists, the exact opposite is the case. The sort of spirituality they practice is specifically at odds with traditional faith. It does not at all connote a belief in God or an acceptance of anything supernatural. The authors write, “In contrast to their views on spirituality, what scientists in this group specifically dislike about religion is the sense of faith that they think often leads religious people to believe without evidence. The nuances of why they find spirituality to be a more palatable category than religion are most clearly delineated through this aspect of their concept of religion.”

This raises a question. They know that the word “spiritual” comes with quite a bit of religious baggage, and they are keen to distance themselves from traditional religion. Why, then, use the word at all? Why the eagerness to describe something as commonplace as a teacher helping his students with a word like “spiritual?”

My suspicion is that these folks want to be thought of as spiritual because they perceive that it has connotations of depth and humility. Someone who isn’t spiritual is seen as shallow and narcissistic. That’s why they are so keen to describe every two-bit expression of awe at nature as an expression of spirituality. It is emblematic of the extent to which religion and virtue are commonly thought to go hand in hand in our society. Even people who abjure every aspect of traditional religion want to be thought of as part of the club.

At any rate, what becomes clear from the paper is that to the extent that spirituality is represented at all among scientists, it is very watered-down relative to the supernatural beliefs so prevalent among the public. As I discussed in this post, there are some who have argued that spirituality can serve as some sort of bridge across the divide between science and spirituality. In reality it is just another manifestation of that very divide.


  1. #1 TylerD
    June 2, 2011

    It’s somewhat analogous to the popularity of the word “providence” among 18th. century deist and theistic rationalist intellectuals (well represented among our founders). While there was a lot of social pressure to cede some ground to religious thought, it was increasingly obvious at that point that the traditional notion of a deity working miracles was crass and stupid. “Providence” was a way to claim belief in divine intervention without being a complete idiot. “Spiritual” is the equivalent today.

  2. #2 itchy
    June 2, 2011

    they are a very substantial minority, around 26 percent of those interviewed, and are theoretically interesting as an ideal-type for what they say about the ways spirituality manifests itself for this population …

    this substantial and theoretically interesting group of scientists …

    WTF does “theoretically interesting” mean? Is this minority more interesting than the majority?

    Translation: We want to show that, even if they claim to be atheists, scientists are, in fact, “spiritual,” so the “spiritual atheist” scientists are the most interesting … to us.

    Why, yes, that’s objective.

  3. #3 Bob Carroll
    June 2, 2011

    I guess I’m in that 25% of scientists who do consider themselves to be spiritual, whatever that means.
    And the conscientious application of a sense of duty may indeed be some manifestation of spirituality.

    Otherwise, more of us might follow Noel Coward’s cynical advice: (approximately)
    “if you’re broke,
    take dope or lock yourself in the john,
    But tell me, Why must the show go on?”

  4. #4 Lenoxus
    June 2, 2011

    Someone who isn’t spiritual is seen as shallow and narcissistic.

    Ironically, I find the reality to be almost the opposite. At least, most spirituality seems to take for granted that the universe is in some sense all about us. And, of course, that you’d damn well better be “spiritual” yourself.

    Anyway, linguistically speaking, “spiritual” is one of those few words that’s all affect and no referent. For example, the Nazis believed in a number of mystical things, but few would call them “spiritual” people, simply because they were evil. (This is a slim chance, but I hope it’s clear how that was not intended as a Godwin; my point was not to compare “spiritual” folks to Nazis but to illustrate the nature of how the word is applied. Maybe a better example would have been Rasputin?)

  5. #5 SocraticGadfly
    June 3, 2011

    Jason, this is why I don’t normally use the word “spiritual.” Ditto to Bob, because I know what the word usually means to people like these researchers. It’s the denotative angle, shining through.

  6. #6 That Guy Montag
    June 3, 2011

    Let me get it straight, you’re spiritual if you think individual beliefs have broader implications and have any concerned with ethical matters? To paraphrase that in philosophical parlance, they have a coherentist epistemology and study ethics. Hell does that mean that I’m necessarily spiritual given that in philosophy those sorts of questions are all we talk about?

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    June 3, 2011

    I don’t even know what the term means. If it means one should strive to accomplish things beyond ones immediate well-being -looking after a frail parent, adopting homeless cats- then I suppose I am spiritual.

    Going to listen to a sermon about a god I don’t believe in while sitting for hours on stone-hard benches? I think not.

  8. #8 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    June 3, 2011

    There’s glory for you!’

    ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

  9. #9 Special K
    June 3, 2011

    I’m an atheist, but I often use the word “spirituality” as a way to describe things like purpose, meaning, self-transcendence, hope, awe, and other hard-to-define human needs. I’ve never seen spirituality as having a religious or even supernatural element or felt that in describing myself as spiritual I’ve ceded ground to theism. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding among religious folk about what it means to live a good life as an atheist, so we need to do a better job of communicating exactly how we solve the problems that they’ve dismissed through their standardized set of religious beliefs. We’ve been impugned as self-indulgent, nihilistic materialists who have no need for other people or a purpose that encourages us to look beyond our daily physical needs. I can’t think of a better word than “spiritual” to describe how we are anything but those things (especially since many religions associate the descriptor “human” with selfish and antisocial desires).

  10. #10 eric
    June 3, 2011

    there are some who have argued that spirituality can serve as some sort of bridge across the divide between science and spirituality. In reality it is just another manifestation of that very divide.

    I think you mean “…divide between science and religion.”

    I’m in agreement; to the extent that this survey shows that scientists use the work ‘spritual’ to mean something different from what the average believer on the street does, it is demonstrating a clear difference in opinion and not a commonality/agreement of opinion.

  11. #11 Neil Rickert
    June 3, 2011

    Sure, I’m a spiritual person. That is to say, I can enjoy the occasional glass of wine.

    I hear all of this talk about “spiritual”, but nobody ever explains what it means. I suspect that it doesn’t actually mean anything.

  12. #12 Jim
    June 3, 2011

    I’m shocked . . . a topic taylor-made to discuss Sam Harris & not one memtion so far.

  13. #13 Blaine
    June 3, 2011

    In addition to scientists, I find that porn stars and strippers use the word ‘spiritual’ quite often. Maybe there is a connection there? I’ve found many scientists to be idiot savants. Take them outside their field and they become high functioning morons much like our prior president, G.W. Bush. But I digress.

  14. #14 The Phytophactor
    June 3, 2011

    I’m with you, Jason, spirituality has way too much religious baggage. Special K wants a synonym? How about thoughtful? Actually stopped attending a Unitarian church, whose members are largely atheists because of this constant insistence that spirituality some how must be increased or improved to replace the deity-based religious experience.

  15. #15 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    June 3, 2011

    For their next publication, Ecklund & Long will survey and interview scientists on whether they consider themselves to be nabbly. The definition of the word will be left up to the individual.

  16. #16 Divalent
    June 3, 2011

    IOW, Ecklund and Long take people who use the term metaphorically to decribe their motivations or general outlook on life, but then speak about them as if they are more literally spiritual. Kind of like if someone asked religious people if they had any doubts about any part of the dogma of their sect, and then count those who had any doubts as members of the “atheistic/agnostic” portion of society.

  17. #17 harrync
    June 3, 2011

    To many people, if you are not spiritual, then you must be a materialist. And no one wants to be a materialist, right?

  18. #18 Brian Blais
    June 3, 2011

    Carl Sagan used the work spiritual, and I don’t think it was just to appear humble. There are two reasons.

    1) there aren’t any good words for the “spiritual”-like feeling (awe, self-transcending love, etc..) that aren’t steeped in religious terms. Sam Harris makes this point a lot, and uses the word too.

    2) Both Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan asked “why to the religious get to dictate the definition of this word?” they advocated a take-back-the-definition approach, using it in the sense that these scientists are using.

    I agree, that it can be dangerous. A similar, although not identical, issue is the use of the term God in a metaphorical sense (like Einstein used it). See how much trouble that has been!

  19. #19 Ichthyic
    June 3, 2011

    For their next publication, Ecklund & Long will survey and interview scientists on whether they consider themselves to be nabbly. The definition of the word will be left up to the individual.

    “nabbly”… “naaabbly”

    no, too tinny. Needs a more woody sounding word.

  20. #20 Ichthyic
    June 3, 2011

    And no one wants to be a materialist, right?

    well, I quite enjoy it myself, but only because nobody else wants to.

  21. #21 Your Name's not Bruce?
    June 3, 2011

    @ Brian Blais #18 re Sagan;

    Seeing only the title of this post I immediately thought of this:

  22. #22 Lee Harrison
    June 5, 2011

    I absolutely detest the word ‘spiritual’. I’ve never heard a cogent definition of it that couldn’t be covered by other perfectly useful terms without the religious crap included. And since everyone seems to mean something different by it, why not just say what we actually mean? Honestly, what is wrong with calling feelings of awe, ‘feelings of awe’? a sense of peace and calm is perfectly described by the words ‘sense’ ‘peace’ and ‘calm’. Respect for the wonders of the universe can be called… you get the point, right?

    ‘Spirit’ is even worse – whenever I’ve asked anyone to define it all I’ve gotten is a long list of the things it isn’t. Spirit is IMmaterial, INsubstantial, INvisible, etc, etc. Okay, so I can’t touch it, see it, hear it or interact with it in anyway… Sounds like a bloody good definition of ‘non-existent’ to me.

  23. #23 Robert Oerter
    June 6, 2011

    “there aren’t any good words for the “spiritual”-like feeling (awe, self-transcending love, etc..) that aren’t steeped in religious terms”

    More, there isn’t any good word for that intersection of psychology, community, ethics, and philosophy that I mean when I use the word “spiritual.” It’s an important aspect of my life, and I have no other word for it.

    One reason for using the word (in addition to reclaiming it from purely religious/supernatural uses) is to help people realize that becoming atheist doesn’t mean they have to lose something that feels essential to them. If God goes, that doesn’t mean that community, morality, wonder, and self-worth go, too.

  24. #24 Jeanmarie
    June 8, 2011

    Count me in among the spiritually inclined agnostics. Sorry, I don’t care who thinks I’m a wimp for not calling myself an atheist, but that term doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t *know* anything for sure about either the existence or nonexistence of some sort of god or superintelligence. I read and admire Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet and others, but I don’t call myself an atheist. Sensitivity to the wonders of nature, a sense of awe, transcendence, higher emotions, all that figures in to the realm of spirituality. For me, it’s not the same thing as religion. I’m interested in the idea of religion though I have rejected organized religions and dogma. Spirituality does seem to be a deeply ingrained impulse. It may be that, as Dawkins suggests, religion is just a meme that, were parents not passing it down to their kids, would die out in a generation or two. I think it’s more likely that spirituality, which may or may not manifest as religion, is more deeply embedded in our psyches. But I really don’t know.

  25. #25 Blaine
    June 8, 2011

    I am almost through Supersense by Bruce Hood. It’s an easy read and goes some way toward explaining why religious ideas persist.

    Jeanmarie, I am sensitive to all the things you mentioned, but do not find it a problem to call myself an atheist. I tend not to like the word spiritual because it is so nebulous. I think some people use it to express the fact that they are aware that they are part of an interconnected whole…but it is too religious for my tastes. I fear that others may think I believe in the paranormal, etc.

  26. #26 rock muzik
    June 9, 2011

    And no one wants to be a materialist, right?

    well, I quite enjoy it myself, but only because nobody else wants to.

    thank you admin

  27. #27 Harbo
    June 15, 2011

    The implication is that, if you are not religious of spiritual, you are incapable of ethical behaviour, and a slave to untamed “animal” urges.
    I find this deeply insulting, And reflect the insult right back at them.
    I say that if you need a sky pixie, millennia old texts or gurus to tell you how to behave, you ARE incapable of decency.

  28. #28 They'll screw you
    July 20, 2011

    Hi, I came to America from Kazakhstan. Am I even under the right article? Well, anyway…what do you expect, right? Kazakhstan? Ha, Ha, Ha

    My impression of Americans is that they are alien gods. So great! Not just the gods that occupied the Americas after exterminating a whole bunch of Native Americans, who thought Europeans were gods who came to save them, but true alien gods. That’s even higher on the scale of the divine evolution than mere gods.

    Does anyone know what you’re supposed to do with that kind of greatness?

    Also, how is it supposed to benefit ME?

  29. #29 It's Nothing "0"
    July 21, 2011

    A response to the above comment…

    In the US, if you are in the disadvntaged and inferior category, it would be much safer to accept your plight and keep your mouth shut. If you start questioning American scumness, you’ll be screwed over even more. That’s the way they are.

    The world has to realize that American nation is comprised of, at least, %50 of people (species) that came from highly underdeveloped parts of the world, and infiltrated their beliefs, cultures and mentality into American culture.

    The biological essense of these people needs to undergo more growth and development. This is not predjudice. It’s a fact, the truth that no one wants face. That’s why they resort to religion and sprirituality. It’s less painful to see yourself as a God’s creation, versus viewing yourself through the prizm of evolutionary teachings).

    If people still attribute your great ideas to witchcraft in a country that claims to be the most advanced and intellectually superior in the world, there is definitely much work that needs to be done.

    You can recognize the truth, but still feel respect towards these people. You don’t have to hate them, especially, if the majority of the country believes that all people were created by God. If that’s the way God created people, then you should probably hate God for that and not his creations. They have no power or control over what God does to them and with them.

    Just don’t go and kill just because you read this message ’cause this will make you look like a total undereveolved savage! What defines “human” is benignness.

  30. #30 Creation through Holy Ghost
    July 25, 2011

    The Holy Ghost creates humans by entering their bodies and fixing them from within. That’s the mechanism that the Bible describes in order to explain how life on earth came into existence.

    What do you do if you want the Holy ghost out? Shouldn’t it feel like some type of sexual harrassment or even rape? Or should you just relax and accept your plight, and the fact that your creator thinks that you’re ugly scum and can be better?

    That’s the problem that Christians overlook upon converting atheists to Christianity. Atheists are used to perceive themselves as self-sustaining and self-creating individuals. Any interference from outside might feel not only unnecessary but highly disturbing. Plus you might feel as if you lose some control of yourself and even the reason to even try and do anything.

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