Spiritual scientists without God

By Razib Khan | May 6, 2011 12:42 am

I’ve mentioned Elaine Ecklund’s research before on ‘spiritual atheists.’ Though I had a hard time understanding the thrust of her conclusions or inferences on occasion I could grapple with her raw quantitative results. But now she has a long paper out in Sociology of Religion, Scientists and Spirituality, which is based on long qualitative interviews. It is open access so you should be able to read the whole thing. Honestly I have a hard time figuring out if this is all a big semantic confusion. I’m curious if you can extract something interesting. Here’s the abstract:

We ask how scientists understand spirituality and its relation to religion and to science. Analyses are based on in-depth interviews with 275 natural and social scientists at 21 top U.S. research universities who were part of the Religion among Academic Scientists survey. We find that this subset of scientists have several distinct conceptual or categorical strategies for framing the connection spirituality has with science. Such distinct framings are instantiated in spiritual beliefs more congruent with science than religion, as manifested in the possibility of “spiritual atheism,” those who see themselves as spiritual yet do not believe in God or a god. Scientists stress a pursuit of truth that is individualized (but not characterized by therapeutic aims) as well as voluntary engagement both inside and outside the university. Results add complexity to existing thinking about spirituality in contemporary American life, indicating that conceptions of spirituality may be bundled with characteristics of particular master identity statuses such as occupational groups. Such understandings also enrich and inform existing theories of religious change, particularly those related to secularization.

  • Charles Nydorf

    How do Ecklund’s ‘spiritual atheists’ differ from the rational mystics or advocates of cosmic consciousness described by John Horgan and Raymond Smullyan?

  • http://claynaff.com Clay Farris Naff

    There’s pretty steep gobbledegook ratio at work here. I take this to be the key sentence:
    “We find that this subset of scientists have several distinct conceptual or categorical strategies for framing the connection spirituality has with science.”

    Apart from being ungrammatical (“subset” is singular), it begs the question that researcher presumably set out to answer: Namely, is there a connection between spirituality and science? While most likely a case of “semantic confusion,” I find it a revealing slip, one that would lead me to be skeptical about the entire study.

    Clay Farris Naff
    Science & Religion Writer

  • http://dioegenesartemis.blogspot.com/ Diogenes

    Every action has a reaction, and sometimes people find it difficult, or are unwilling, to distinguish them.
    I tend to think some degree of “spirituality” is innate and part of what made us human in the first place. I also think it has been evolving ever since. It may be related to more advanced group organization strategies.

    Iconization of such “emotions” is no more than the product of their cultural contextualization. Fast evolving “mind” traits would tend to produce instability since homogeneity always facilitates cooperation and organization. Some sort of enforced systematization and thus control of such phenomena becomes a social need (to ensure the “stability of society as a whole”), particularly in societies with high diversity. Not all Religions operate based on old medieval frameworks. Some like Marxism, Nationalism, New Atheism and even some science fiction-cults use apparently more modern icons. They’re not any more “modern” in their purposes I think.

    In other words, organized Religion (and it’s tendency to repress above all deviants within its own framework), ritual, iconization (including conceptual iconization) may just be social control mechanisms for the most advanced yet unstable phenotypes, channeling them in safer ways or doing away with them. Perhaps phenotypes related to recent still unstable developments in the evolution of our mind.
    If social instability cannot be controlled in any other way, such repressive phenomena are perhaps inevitable, even necessary.

    But the current revolutionary development of all sorts of much improved communications may be reducing the social need and feasibility of such control mechanisms, perhaps making them finally obsolete. I wouldn’t expect them to go silently.

  • Ken Pidcock

    I’m guessing that it makes a lot more sense to sociologists of religion!

  • M Burke

    As a Christian apologist I know is fond of saying, “Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.”

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Spiritual atheism doesn’t seem odd to me, and is a natural, somewhat less fuzzy variant on the ever common categorization on social networking and dating websites of “spiritual but not religious.”

    To me, it connotes an appreciation of aesthetic considerations, the romantic, and the emotional sides of our beings, an awareness of the irony we find in life, a sensitivity to our humanity, awe for ancient tradition not driven by metaphysics, joy de vivre and quest for la dolce vita. A good synonmyn would be soulful. A plain vanilla atheist grows corn; a spiritual atheist has orchids or bonzai. A lot of Japanese high culture that isn’t expressly metaphysical – like the tea ceremony, has the character I’d associate with spiritual atheism. A spiritual atheist might not pray, but very likely does meditate or “collect” (one of my favorite words from the Anglican tradition) or contemplate.

    A related religious word which appropriates fairly well to the realm of the secular is “reverent” which has a sense that means respectful or appropriately deferrential.

    There have been some efforts to “codify” spiritual atheism into an organized religion such as transhumanism, secular humanism, transcendentalism, John Shelby Spong’s Christianity, and ethical culture. Perhaps the prototypically modern spiritual atheist (or more accurately according to his self-identification spiritual agnostic) would be Carl Sagan.

  • yogi-one

    This isn’t new. The “Symphonies of Science” channel on Youtube is one of the latest champions of this viewpoint, but I’d say it goes back in Western culture to at least the Enlightenment, and farther back in the East, possibly to the Yogs Sutras of Patanjali (yes, Patanjali uses words that mean “god” in his sutras, but the concept has nothing to do with God in the Christian, or even the Zoroastrian sense. He uses it as a descriptive term for an experience that can be evoked through meditation.)
    Symphony of Science – ‘We Are All Connected’

    Be it genetic (and it probably is) or for whatever reason, humans have the capacity to experience states where they feel connected to the whole cosmos:
    “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Unfortunately, such sentiments are viewed by the Church as yet another threat to it’s existence. If people don’t need the church to mediate with God for them, then what is the purpose of the Church?

    And yes, this is definitely “soft” or social science, and comes under psychology or comparative religion. I don’t think you can subject this kind of stuff to rigorous scientific methodology.

    So it’s basically an unending, unresolvable issue. teh internets LOVE that kind of thing.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    A quick summation of the linked text:

    Researcher draws desired conclusion from examination of undefined words squashed together as though they formed concepts.

    It’s a great demonstration of the GIGO principle, I suppose.

  • Clark

    Isn’t a lot of this the problem of distinguishing deist from atheist? I mean many Stoics or pagan neoPlatonists of late antiquity were basically deists but had a view of God not far removed from what a modern atheist would accept. Yet the Stoics and neoPlatonists had mystic movements and even religious aspects. But there was nothing akin to a personal God. I’m not saying most or even the majority of atheists would be comfortable with Stoic or neoPlatonic belief. I think though that to the degree atheism is defined against belief rather than for a belief we shouldn’t be surprised to find strong parallels in similar movements of history.

    The big difference of course is that most modern atheists are physicalists of a sort that would be hard to reconcile to the Platonic or even the sort of view the Stoics have. One can be an atheist without being a physicalist of course. (Look at European universities)

    I’ve no view on whether this particular study is meaningful, mind you. (I’m pretty skeptical of these sorts of studies) Just that we shouldn’t discount out of hand the idea that one could be spiritual yet atheistic. There’s actually a strong tradition of this in French and German philosophy for instance.

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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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