Scientists as "spiritual atheists"

By Razib Khan | April 14, 2010 5:01 am

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.

eklund1eklund2eklund3eklund4

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Atheism, Science
  • bioIgnoramus

    The scientists who believe in God “without doubt”: 9%. For the US population: 63%. There you have it: a seven-fold difference.

  • bioIgnoramus

    Do you happen to know how many of the nearly 1700 surveyed were outside the US?

  • bioIgnoramus

    Ah, Mooney says “the universities whose scientists were surveyed for the book are: Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, U. of Chicago, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, U. Michigan, U. Minnesota, UNC Chapel Hill, U. Washington-Seattle, U. Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.C., Washington University, and Yale.”. So “Scientists” in her case means “American Scientists”, at least in terms of where they are working. Thought as much!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    yes, the american god data is obviously from the GSS (the wording and %’s are the same). so i assumed the scientists had to be. at least by residence.

  • bioIgnoramus

    Call me pedantic, but the proposition “I do not know if there is a God” is just a subset of “I do not believe in God”. Who on earth believes in something whose existence they are uncertain of? If you are going to ask questions of people who are likely to more intelligent than you are, you really ought to devote a hell of a lot of care to the detail.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Having a religious affiliation is not the same as being theistic. I’m sure a lot of the 14 percent of scientists who identify as Jewish are atheist or agnostic — they’re Jewish by culture, tradition, belonging, etc. This is especially true of Judaism but is probably also true of other religions to lesser extents.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDHJ4ztnldQ Joe Bogus

    Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) speculates that many scientists actually do not think there is a God or gods, but claim to believe in order to ensure continued funding for their work. After all, atheists are considered slightly lower than pedophiles, so professing a non-belief has a direct impact financially.

  • Bowman

    Richard Dawkins wants to have the Pope arrested when the latter visits the UK. He called the Pope “A leering old villain in a frock.” Amen, brother! Time to bury religion. Nobody can claim that faith is harmless anymore. Belief in ghosts, fairies, Easter bunnies, Santa clauses, gods, etc, is harmful to the well-being of people and the environment.

  • bob sykes

    Some organization has polled the members of the National Academy of Science several times at 10 year intervals with similar results. Around 40 % have some sort of religious belief. The conspicuous exception is biologists. Only about 4 % of biologists have any religious belief.

    The fundamentalists are right to see Darwin as the enemy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    bob, you’re confusing the two larson & witham studies. the 40% is from the first broader one, which was inclusive of many different levels of eminence.

    http://ncse.com/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god

  • Katharine

    Actually, I’ve heard 93% of the NAS in GENERAL is atheist.

  • Katharine

    It should be telling that those at the top echelons of a profession which is geared toward sussing out the truth by objective measures are more atheist than those at lower echelons.

    But no, the fundies don’t understand this.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I’ve heard 93% of the NAS in GENERAL is atheist.

    93% don’t believe in a personal god. that includes some deists and agnostics presumably.

    speculates that many scientists actually do not think there is a God or gods, but claim to believe in order to ensure continued funding for their work. After all, atheists are considered slightly lower than pedophiles, so professing a non-belief has a direct impact financially.

    i don’t think that this scholar’s research budget included large research cash grants for taking surveys. but if it did i need to send inquiries to templeton ;-)

  • Katharine

    “93% don’t believe in a personal god. that includes some deists and agnostics presumably.”

    Have they sussed out what percentages of that are what?

  • Katharine

    “speculates that many scientists actually do not think there is a God or gods, but claim to believe in order to ensure continued funding for their work. After all, atheists are considered slightly lower than pedophiles, so professing a non-belief has a direct impact financially.”

    Wasn’t there a survey by the University of Minnesota which actually said the religiobot majority in America just thinks we’re all lower than Scientologists?

    I would imagine a substantially LARGER percentage hate pedophiles.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Table 3.1 is useless. The definitions could be anything and everything to different people.

  • Rork

    Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998), speaks of some of the data bob sykes writes of.
    National Academy of Science “believe in God” was 7% (based on a 50% response rate).
    Biologists were lowest at 5.5%, mathematicians highest at 14.3%. Statisticians often gave probabilities rather than give a straight yes/no, and many philosophers refused to answer for lack of a definition of “God” (yes, jokes). I am impressed by how small those numbers are, or rather, as a missionary atheist, I want the gentle reader to be impressed.

    The authors conclude: ‘NAS president Bruce Alberts said: “There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.” Our survey suggests otherwise.’

    Ecklund seems to think unbelievers self-select to do science and so are over-represented. I might guess that there is a common cause for both instead, but that might just be self-flattery. Not sure I can cook up tests.

  • Bob Carlson

    Would there likely be a difference in god belief or spirituality between hard scientists and social scientists? If so, I would wonder what the break-down of the two categories might have been in Eklund’s study. I couldn’t help noticing that her 2008 book, Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life has no reviews on Amazon.

  • Eric Johnson

    I’m an agnostic, and not one that particularly verges on atheism, because I don’t think science explains the world very effectively. As far as I can tell, the anthropomorphic principle, plus the possibility of multiple regions or dimensions in the universe, can probably explain why the fundamental physical constants of our observable universe permit the complex matter structures necessary for our existence. But why does anything exist at all? I’m sure many philosophers consider this a malformed question, but is there anything to that position besides assertion of their intuition? My intuition may be about as good as theirs, and it seems like a well-formed question to me.

    Next on the docket: awareness/qualia. Why and how do we have it? I am not too terribly resistant to the hypothesis that it is an epiphenomenon with no causal efficacy on matter whatsoever, though I do not necessarily believe that that is true. But I have a very hard time understanding why anyone thinks it could ‘emerge’ from any known properties of matter. Therefore I consider it a big mystery, and really, one drop of recalcitrant mystery, in an otherwise-explicable world, equals a recalcitrantly mysterious world. I understand a lot about parts of the world, but I consider my degree of overall, systemic-holistic understanding of the world, to be pretty much zero. I don’t understand it at all.

    On the other hand I am pretty thoroughly distrustful of religious intuitions, primarily because they are easy to explain, at least within the biological context: it’s trivially easy to see how they could be fitness-enhancing.

  • Eric Johnson

    I wonder how scientists will change their views on theism (or the like) in the future. Suppose AI is never created, and indeed no real progress is made. Suppose other avenues of investigation into consciousness also make no progress. And that there is no major progress toward a totalizing “Theory of Everything” in physics that is able to “have predictive power for the outcome of any experiment that could be carried out in principle.”

    Would scientists start to, ever so slightly, relinquish confidence in the ability of science to “explain everything?” Does the feeling that all is explained by science, rest partly on the fact that science has been so successful *recently*, and we therefore give it the benefit of the doubt as to whether it will eventually explain every last thing that any person could possibly consider yet-unexplained?

    I guess what happens depends on how you define atheism. I once read an insightful argument about this. The author wanted to point out that many agnostics should consider themselves atheists. A scientific agnostic (as imagined by this author) has no positive evidence of the existence of leprechauns, yet he can certainly never disprove their existence completely, pushing the odds of their existence down to “absolute zero.” But he does not say he is “agnostic on leprechauns.” Technically, he is. But in that sense he is agnostic on all things. But the odds of leprechauns existing is so low that it is totally impragmatic to address it in any way. Likewise he should consider the odds of god existing to be, not absolutely zero, but absolutely negligible, and should not consider himself agnostic on god, or, pragmatically, consider there to be any chance at all that god exists.

    I don’t see it that way, though. The mysteries I noted in my above post, such as qualia, intuitively open my mind to the possibility that god or some other transcendental power might exist. I wouldn’t necessarily say that qualia constitute “evidence” for this possibility. That word seems a little strong. But those mysteries do prod me in some way. In contrast, when it comes to leprechauns, there aren’t any mysteries out there that te existence of leprechauns could possibly shed any light on, the way I see it. So the existence of the divine seems more plausible to me than the existence of leprechauns.

  • http://aurmoth.blogspot.com John

    I bet that 55% elite scientists are from India and China.

  • Katharine

    Quite honestly, the notion of the existence of the divine has exactly as much evidence for it as that of the notion of the existence of a small toaster on the other side of the galaxy.

    Which is to say, it has no evidence supporting it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    john, that would be a neat trick since 85% of the sample are white :-) around 1-2% are black i think. also, the sample includes social scientists too from what i recall (you can find it in google books, just search for “table”).

    re: “leading scientists” survey (NAS), 72% atheist, 20% agnostic, the rest theists.

    http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/sci_relig.htm

    Ecklund seems to think unbelievers self-select to do science and so are over-represented. I might guess that there is a common cause for both instead, but that might just be self-flattery. Not sure I can cook up tests.

    i’ve seen other data which suggest that the irreligiosity and liberalism of scientists are matters of self-selection, not something that develops during their educational process.

    Would there likely be a difference in god belief or spirituality between hard scientists and social scientists?

    i believe ecklund has presented data that suggests hard scientists are more irreligious. but often the data goes the other way as well (psychologists and sociologists are often quite irreligious, but that might be a function of their liberalism).

    I couldn’t help noticing that her 2008 book, Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life has no reviews on Amazon.

    many monographs don’t have reviews. academic books are not often widely read, in large part because the general public is not intelligent enough to be interested, and the intelligent often have narrow interests.

    also, not to be a dick, but assertions of the truth of atheism aren’t really adding much to the discussion. i’d prefer that we try to avoid too much normatively rooted chatter and try and stay empirical. you know, scientific :-)

  • http://aplawrence.com Tony Lawrence

    “assertions of the truth of atheism aren’t really adding much to the discussion. ”

    OK, then – how about a “theory of atheism”?

    I’d assert that there is no evidence supporting theistic belief. Therefor it is my “theory” that no gods exist.

    Can you offer anything at all that would disprove my theory? Does ANYTHING ever happen in this world that cannot be explained without adding supernatural influence? No, it does not and no scientific experiment ever expects otherwise. Therefor, my theory of atheism is accepted by all scientists – even if they insist otherwise.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    lol. did someone at alt.atheism or alt.religion.debate link up this post? tony, i’m an atheist. i’m just not too interested in discussing my beliefs, rather, i’m more interested in examining these *survey data*

  • http://www.MolecularFossils.com MolecularFossils

    Yeah, I find it disingenuous that this data was presented as “Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic?” Phrasing it as a question allows Mooney some dastardly wiggle room. To answer his question, “Yes, they are!” I also am annoyed that the definition of “Top Scientist” seems to change depending on who is using it, from National Academy member to random professors in various disciplines at a few select American universities.

    I’m not criticizing you, Razib, because the description is in common use now, but describing Dawkin’s as “militant” completely white-washed the meaning of the term.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Yeah, I find it disingenuous that this data was presented as “Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic?

    i assumed chris’ reference was the NAS study, which gave a really high number for non-theism. it’s certainly quoted around the atheist blogosphere. as i implied, reference point matters. eminent scientists aren’t that atheistic if you think that atheism necessarily follows from great science. they are if you accept the “nonoverlapping magisteria” position. IOW, the answer to the question “depends.”

  • John Emerson

    …..mathematicians highest at 14.3%.

    High IQ has a down side.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    High IQ has a down side.

    i think the culture of natural scientists is different from mathematicians. also, the sample sizes here are pretty small.

  • http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/#WhyTheSomRatThaNot MW

    Eric Johnson asks “But why does anything exist at all? I’m sure many philosophers consider this a malformed question, but is there anything to that position besides assertion of their intuition?”

    Here’s an online philosophy encyclopedia entry on your very question:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/#WhyTheSomRatThaNot

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  • Rork

    I too am shocked that matter exists. It seems so wrong, so messy.
    The philosophy encyclopedia, though interesting, did not teach me any hypotheses from the physics. It’s the physicist who have a problem here.
    Thanks MW. Must I thank God for matter, or Leibniz, or are they the same thing?

    As for mathematicians (I’m stats wonk in cancer genetics), some of them don’t have to face the evidence that humans are related by descent to yeast very often (I use that “fact” almost daily), and are less likely to be aware of neo-darwinist work on altruism (also seems true of some famous molecular biologists though), and such stuff, that are irrelevant in algebraic topology or number theory.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Jon Templeton Foundation funded much of Ecklund’s research. Isn’t Mooney bound by ethical considerations to mention this, along with his own Templeton funding, when he writes about it? Full disclosure and all?

  • Lynn David

    If you define “spirituality” as man’s emotional response to the world/universe or to life itself, then a spiritual atheist is not oxymoronic.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If you define “spirituality” as man’s emotional response to the world/universe or to life itself, then a spiritual atheist is not oxymoronic.

    Correct, but since “spirituality” may be defined that way or several other ways, the term is so unambiguous as to make such a statement useless. X% of atheists believe in an afterlife would tell me something. X% of atheists believe in souls would tell me something. X% of atheists are “spiritual” tells me nothing.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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