The Sciences

Scientists as "spiritual atheists"

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 14, 2010 9:01 AM


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Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic? Look at the Data asks Chris Mooney. He's referring to a new book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. Here's the Amazon description:

... In Science vs Religion, Elaine Howard Ecklund investigates this unexamined assumption in the first systematic study of what scientists actually think and feel about religion. Ecklund surveyed nearly 1700 scientists, interviewed 275 of them, and centers the book around vivid portraits of 10 representative men and women working in the physical and social sciences at top American research universities. She finds that most of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong. Nearly 50 percent of them are religious. Many others are what she calls "spiritual entrepreneurs," seeking creative ways to work with the tensions between science and faith outside the constraints of traditional religion. Her respondents run the gamut from Margaret, a chemist who teaches a Sunday-school class, to Arik, a physicist who chose not to believe in God well before he decided to become a scientist. Only a small minority are actively hostile to religion....

Some of Chris' readers are rather agitated about this all, and he suggests that perhaps they should read the book to answer their questions. I haven't read the book, but you can read much of it on Google Books or Amazon's text search feature. Skimming a bit I encountered the term "spiritual atheist," which many might find an oxymoron. Rather than present her interpretation, let me post some of the tables which have data in them.

In reply to Chris' question posed, my own interpretation is that yes, scientists are that atheistic! The reference point is the general population. In fact, 72% of scientists hold to a non-theistic position. On the other hand, most are not militant atheists in the mould of Richard Dawkins or Peter Atkins. Interestingly, if you assume that all of those with no religion are in the non-theist category (I think this is unlikely, but probably sufficient as a first approximation) then 40% of those who claim a religious affiliation among these scientists are non-theists. Also, I believe that Sam Harris, with his interest in meditation and Eastern mysticism more generally, would probably class as a spiritual atheist, so the categories New Atheist and spiritual atheist are not necessarily exclusive. I find table 3.1 intriguing. I suspect here scientists and the general public may be speaking somewhat about different truths, or more specifically, scientists are thinking of a narrower subset. For the general public religious truths are both descriptive and prescriptive. That is, they describe the world's past, and its present, as a factual matter, and, they prescribe a set of actions and norms. I think most scientists are thinking in prescriptive terms here, not descriptive. In other words, the religions of the world have integrated within their belief systems basic core human morality and ethics. Fundamental moral truths. I would myself agree that there are basic truths in many religions. Note: I've seen most of this data in Ecklund's papers, so I'm not spilling treasured secrets by presenting the tables.

All tables from Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think

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