From Point of Inquiry: Why Use the "S" Word?

By Chris Mooney | May 11, 2010 8:44 am

I’ve talked in the last two posts about some of Elaine Ecklund’s surprising findings about atheist scientists, as discussed on Point of Inquiry (show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here). In this blog post, then, I want to move on to discussing another group that she finds in her survey: spiritual scientists, some of whom are also atheists. This is a topic we discuss beginning around minute 25:20.

The first point about these “spiritual” scientists is that they aren’t like spiritual Americans in general. They don’t believe in angels and demons. They don’t put together an eclectic blend of, say, Christianity, Buddhism, and New Age beliefs.

Rather, as Ecklund observes, they want their spirituality to be of a sort that is entirely consistent with science. And a considerable percentage of them actually overlap with the group of atheist scientists in Ecklund’s sample.

For these spiritual but essentially atheistic scientists, “spirituality” involves a sense of awe and wonder at the complexity and beauty of nature. But this raises a pretty big question. Why call it “spirituality” at all? Why use the “S” word, if it does not mean what everyone thinks it means?

Scientific spirituality appears to be an important trend and one we need to understand–but it is certainly open to this criticism. And I would be interested to hear how a “spiritual” scientist would respond to it.

(For more on the Point of Inquiry episode with Elaine Ecklund, you can find the show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here).

Comments (33)

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  1. May 12, 2010 - Science and Religion Today | May 12, 2010
  1. Walker

    You could consider this form of spiritualism as a type of neo-animism.

  2. aki

    I think I fall into this category. I’m an evolutionary biologist with no belief in angels/demons, etc. and most religous people, if they asked detailed questions about my beliefs, would likely say I am an athiest, and I can’t really deny that label in the sense that I do not believe in a personal God. But, I think “spirituality” is probably the most relevant term available to describe my sense of awe, wonder and ultimate agnosticism about the mystery and beauty of the universe. I was raised as a Quaker and still “believe” that there is “that of God” in everyone. I know this is simply a turn of phrase for me to describe something intangible that I take to mean the aspect of humanity that is capable of profound goodness if acknowledged and nurtured, but language sometimes fails us.

  3. GM

    The cynical explanation for why all those people used the “S” word is that despite supposedly being trained to choose their words very carefully when writing papers, they haven’t been trained to do the same in general, or they haven’t been trained to think about the broad implications of what they say. So it basically boils down to a case of superficial thinking and insufficient time spent examining the issue

  4. J.J.E.

    This is pretty obvious, right? “Atheist” is the least trusted and most disliked religious identification in the U.S. If an American has the choice to tie their religious identification to some vague “spiritual” label or “atheist”, I imagine that people would choose “spiritual” more often in those places (like the U.S.) where atheists are hated. I imagine that it would be different in Europe. This could be tested with an appropriate survey that measured the actual beliefs and determined what labels people chose to assign to them.

  5. FUAG

    I consider myself a “Spiritual American”. Each person defines their own spirituality so not sure how one would define “spiritual Americans in general”. I can only assume “in general” was inferred as gun loving, science hating, planet killing spiritual Americans.

    For me, it’s a matter of separating my beliefs from being defined by a religion. All religions, to an extent, are telling the same story. So, while not being religious in any way, I believe the message that religion conveys.

    Long-short: You can believe the message even if you don’t believe the stories…

  6. GM

    There is a lot wrong with the message too

  7. Guy

    I see no conflict between spirituality and science. They are not mutually exclusive.

  8. Chris Mooney

    Hi Guy (#7),
    I don’t think that I do either, but your comment intrigues me in the following sense–I wonder if New Atheists would argue back at you, postulating an inherent conflict between science and spirituality similar to the conflict they have postulated between science and more traditional religion? I just don’t know the answer to that question, but I would like to.

  9. abb3w

    At a guess, trying to use a frame of reference that the masses will understand, even when the masses aren’t boggled by the elegant relationship between Maxwell’s equations and E= Δmc2 (or for that matter, don’t comprehend that there is a relationship).

  10. Just recently, PZ noted a proposed coinage for this kind of science-compatible awe: “scientility.”

  11. J.J.E.

    Christ, Chris:

    Can you really just say this:

    “I just don’t know the answer to that question, but I would like to.”

    Immediately after saying:

    “For these spiritual but essentially atheistic scientists, “spirituality” involves a sense of awe and wonder at the complexity and beauty of nature.”

    That’s a bit incoherent.

  12. GM – It’s not so much lack of care in choosing words, and more the fact that there is no word that currently exists to describe the way we feel. I tend to be hyper-sensitive about the words I use, and I won’t use the word spirituality because I think it causes misunderstanding, but I’m left being unable to describe my beliefs in under 1000 words.

    I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of cold-blooded, emotionless atheist, but I also don’t want to be associated with new-age BS and woo. I don’t have a word I can use for that.

    And Don – I read that post by PZ too and cringed at the word and the definitions. I like the premise, but that word does not role off the tongue (and kinda makes me want to vomit).

  13. FUAG

    GM, as an example to my point, what is wrong with the message (sans the blatantly religious ones)? that the 10 commandments convey. Would the world not be a better place if all people “religiously” followed those rules?

    Religion says that the tablets were given to Moses from God on Mount Sinai. The fact that the story is obviously bunk should not take away from the message.

    When you say “there is a lot wrong with the message” you are referring to centuries of dogma that has twisted the message and used fear of eternal damnation as a means of indoctrinating simple minded people to follow causes though up by people, not the base truths.

    E.G: It’s rational for one to want to protect the life of an unborn child, but it’s irrational to extend that to stopping stem cell research.

  14. Mike

    GM- I think you’re trying to fit too many groups of people into two simple boxes. I’d consider myself spiritual, and share the frustrations Kevin mentioned of not quite being able to share that sensibility. I get the sense that if I wrote out an essay on what I mean when I say I’m spiritual the atheistic readers would tell me that clearly I’m an atheist because I don’t believe believe in anything that fits standard definition of a deity. Religious readers would likely interpret a very religiously-minded essay because they’d pick up on familiar themes.

    I won’t ascribe this to you unless you’d like to claim it, but a lot of atheists seem to feel that once you accept reason and rationality, that theirs is the only logical conclusion to draw. Its simply not true. I’m not sure everyone is on the same page, when the very vocabulary we use seems to have vastly different meanings to different participants in the same discussion.

  15. gillt

    Ken Ham believes in creation science spirituality, so there!

    What is it with accommodationists and the “S” word? What does the word spiritual mean when you can apply it equally to Ken Ham and Ken Miller and (why not!) even Richard Dawkins?

    The English language is a great and varied thing. Why not say “a sense of the numinous or sublime? Is it too secular for you…to *gasp* New Atheist?

  16. Mike

    @gillt – You do realize numinous refers to something divine – it doesn’t define a secular feeling.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but in my mind spiritual doesn’t (necessarily) refer to the supernatural, but the super-physical. It can refer to the psychological or the sociological. My spiritual beliefs don’t require a deity, but I also think they lay beyond the bounds of current scientific methodology. I suppose you could refer to the philosophical – but for me that doesn’t quite grasp it.

    My spirituality draws on what it means to be a good person and make a positive impact on the world – Its an intensely personal and individual set of beliefs. It’s something beyond the coldly rational and the material.

    I would think a humanist would consider themselves spiritual. Even the greeks espoused a humanist spirituality that was agnostic.

  17. Rob

    So just exactly wtf is a “new Atheist”? Someone who just realized that the religious dogma they’ve been indoctrinated into is nothing more than ancient mytholgy and folk lore? Or are they just people that are now able to finally admit that they don’t believe in the supernatural because organized religion no longer has any ability to punish or torture them? I’m so sick and tired of religious organizations and their followers/sheep and the bigotry, intollerance and hatred that they preach. Long live reason and logic! One day civilization will look back at our silly religions and laugh…that is if we don’t destroy ourselves and this Earth first.

  18. Guy

    I wonder what part of biology allows itself to make people believe in metaphysics or to have spiritual experiences. It has been with us for a long time. What evolutionary purpose does it or did it serve?

  19. Peter Morgan

    The optic nerve, often taken to be part of the brain, identifies and sometimes misidentifies elementary patterns in visual sense impressions. Lines, etc. Different parts of the brain identify higher order patterns, of trajectories, of types of animals, of the use of language in story, of patterns of social relationships, of mathematical presentations of experimental evidence. We can speak, for example, of a “sense” of connection with or disconnection from our family or from society, which are complex meldings of patterns in our intellectual and emotional state of mind. Paranoia is a (usually) mistaken identification of a pattern of behavior acting against my interests.
    As patterns become less directly connected to immediate sense impressions or as patterns become associated with very many immediate sense impressions, so there becomes less possibility of identifying precisely what patterns someone is sensing. Sometimes only I see a pattern, and I cannot explain what the pattern is, and at those moments I am a crank. At the limits of our imagination, I suppose we see patterns in the evidence that we take to be sublime — we attribute that sublime to our own minds, either not really there or that we call “wonder”, or we attribute that sublime to not us. We especially cherish shared moments of the sublime, in dance or art, in worship, or in Physics seminars.

    Instead of spirituality, or neo-animism, I suggest that there is a common sense of the sublime. My prejudice is that in my atheist moments I feel a sublime sense of independence, which sometimes goes as far as righteous anger at the world that besets me, and that in my spiritual/theist moments I feel a sublime sense of connection, dependency, and responsibility. My further prejudice is that overall I am happier when I feel connected to, dependent on, and responsible for others and for the world.

  20. kirk

    Because “my amygdala is firing in a most pleasing fashion” sounds jarring if you don’t sound like Mr. Spock or Raymond Babbitt.

  21. Interestingly, in the post Don (#10) is referring to, one of the top contenders for the word most apropos for describing the feeling associated with discovery, etc. is – wait for it – “spiritual,” followed by “sublime” and “numinous.”

    Wringing one’s hands over whether it’s “right” for atheists (or scientists) to use words like spirituality seems pretty ridiculous to me. I understand it’s difficult to find ways to express the equivalent “secular” feeling, but Dawkins seems to have managed nicely. So did Sagan.

    More importantly, is this important? I mean, at all?

  22. gillt

    Mike: “Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but in my mind spiritual doesn’t (necessarily) refer to the supernatural, but the super-physical. It can refer to the psychological or the sociological. ”

    You have a problem using numinous but you’re okay using word salad like super-physical? It’s specious to add a prefix to a word like physical simply to reverse it’s usage. Purposefully or not, you’re confusing that which isn’t currently understood (mysterious, unknown) with that which is beyond comprehension (supernatural, super-physical).

    I would use numinous in the sense the Romantic poets were describing a sense of the sublime in nature: deism at best.

  23. gillt

    Guy: “I wonder what part of biology allows itself to make people believe in metaphysics or to have spiritual experiences. It has been with us for a long time. What evolutionary purpose does it or did it serve?”

    Purpose doesn’t necessarily figure in to the equation. It could very well be a byproduct of a useful trait.

  24. Guy

    “Purpose doesn’t necessarily figure in to the equation. It could very well be a byproduct of a useful trait.” -gillt

    There are some who argue that the greatest empires in history were based on shared beliefs. Even ancient tribes had spiritual leaders in form of shamans. Maybe it’s something that gave us an edge over other primates. Could it be part of the reason we’re the ones that survived?

  25. GM

    13. FUAG Says:
    May 11th, 2010 at 11:38 am
    GM, as an example to my point, what is wrong with the message (sans the blatantly religious ones)? that the 10 commandments convey

    If I recall correctly, the first commandment says that you should believe in God. That’s the first one…

  26. GM

    14. Mike Says:
    May 11th, 2010 at 11:48 am
    I won’t ascribe this to you unless you’d like to claim it, but a lot of atheists seem to feel that once you accept reason and rationality, that theirs is the only logical conclusion to draw. Its simply not true.

    A lot of atheists feel this way because it is indeed the only logical conclusion to draw if you follow the rules of logic and the data. Claiming this is not the case is equivalent to claiming that two contradictory mathematical theorems can both be true under same set of axioms. Which is absurd.

  27. FUAG

    GM – Correct, commandments 1 through 4 are religious garbage, thus the “Sans blatantly religious ones” bit. Sorry if my bad punctuation threw you off.

  28. GM

    There is no need for religion for the other commandments to be followed. By coupling them to religion, and you can’t uncouple them, the interpretation becomes completely different, and quite harmful

    Let’s examine in detail:

    5. Honor your father and your mother…

    Really irrelevant, but mostly OK and harmless.

    6. Do not murder

    OK, but what do we define as murder? If we includes birth control, then it’s an extremely problematic commandment, because it directly puts us on the path to extinction

    7. Do not commit adultery.

    Humans are not a monogamic species, what’s the point? It criminalizes something that is by no means criminal

    8. Do not steal.
    10. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife

    These are extremely problematic for some shoulb-be-but-somehow-are-not-to-most-people obvious reasons

    1. Number 10 explicitly defines wives as a property
    2. They both institutionalize property rights, and there is no objective basis for why there should be such a concept as property and why it should be playing the role it plays in our society. Of course, anthropology and history have explained very well why the idea of owning something arose in the Middle East, and why it didn’t in many other places in the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is an extremely harmful idea in the big scheme of things, as it is another one of those things that coupled with our primal biological instincts puts us on the path to extinction

    9. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor

    That’s probably the only one that makes some sense, as it promotes basic honesty, but in the context of everything else, it is insignificant

  29. Jackson

    Chris, you’ve read the book, and if it isn’t 100% clear to you, imagine our confusion.

    When Chris suggested “awe and wonder” in the podcast it made sense, except I also think that “spiritual” is not the word scientists would generally choose. I don’t know if there was a tendency for scientists who consider themselves “spritual” to somehow self-select for this study. The response rate was quoted as 75% which is unusually high, though I don’t see how that fact ties in.

    If the word “spiritual” does not appear on the survey, I am very surprised that a significant number of scientists would choose it for self-description. Perhaps if Ecklund reviewed the exact month of the survey this term was prominent in the popular media.

  30. dark tent

    What’s the point of the inquiry in this case?

    Debating this seems more than a little like arguing about angels dancing on the heads of pins.

    I was trained as a scientist and find nature awe-inspiring. I suspect that most scientists probably do. In many cases, I’d bet that’s the very reason why they study science.

    So what?

    Why the need to drag in “spirituality”? (which does not even seem to have been properly defined in this case)

  31. TB

    I suspect that, for most people, belief is a sliding scale and spirituality might best be used to describe that uncertaintanty. Even a spectrum that only varies between atheism (no god) and agnosticism (we can’t know if there is a god) stradles quite a wide chasm.
    Thinking of it this way helps me understand my gut feeling against those who express certainty – whether it’s religious fundamentalism or new atheism – on questions of philosophy. To me they tend to come across like a cliched used-car salesman: selling as perfect the physical embodiment of a question mark.
    And so an atheist that’s described as an ‘accommodationist’ isn’t just signaling tolorance for political purposes, to me they may also be acknowledging that their own personal beliefs may be a sliding scale too, and wonder what right do they have to force others to follow their own brand of uncertainty?

  32. wjv

    Instead of PZ’s scientility what about scientuality?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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