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.