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.
As I’ve said, there is much that is surprising or unexpected about Elaine Ecklund’s findings on religion among scientists. I’m going to be blogging on this all week, but again, as background, if you haven’t yet you should first check out our Point of Inquiry episode (show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here).
The second point that arises from Ecklund’s research that I find intriguing is this. There’s a cliche out there, particularly among some conservative religious folks, that there is something nasty about science (and particularly evolutionary science), such that studying it will kill off your belief system.
However, Ecklund’s research seems to give the lie to this idea–and our discussion of this topic begins around minute 17:55-19:10.
First, among scientists who are atheists, Ecklund found that they tended to come from irreligious or not very observant family backgrounds. In other words, their atheism or lack of religion was in place long before their scientific training began.
Meanwhile, for scientists who retained religious beliefs, they tended to have started out with them to begin with, and then held on to them after a struggle or crisis of faith. But once again, if I understand Ecklund right, the struggle tended to happen before one’s scientific training and so was obviously not caused by it.
In both cases, then, what seems to be the key predictor of a scientist’s religious belief is family religious background…and not whether one studies science.
So why then are Christian conservatives so afraid of letting their kids learn real science? It doesn’t seem to be the threat here at all.
As I expected, some intriguing (and potentially controversial) points emerged in the interview with Elaine Ecklund (show website here; listen here; download/subscribe here). In particular, at around minute 15:10 or so, I ask Ecklund about her finding that there are two types of atheists in her scientist sample–first generation, and second generation.
First generation atheists start out in a faith tradition and then, at some point, reject it. By contrast, second generation atheists start out with atheist or non-religious parents, and so never really have to reject anything. (I don’t know how many third, fourth, etcetera generation atheists there are out there.)
On the air, Ecklund observed that the first generation atheists tend to be more critical of religion, and more driven in making such criticisms. After all, religion is something that is much more personal to them, and that they have rejected. We second generation atheists, though–for I am one–we tend to be more mellow. Or so Ecklund finds, anyway.
But I pressed her on the point. After all, although I’m “second generation,” I was pretty angry at religion when I was a college atheist activist. I was pretty driven. Yes, I mellowed with time–but I was and still remain second generation.
What’s more, I’m sure that there are some first generation atheists who aren’t particularly driven to bash religion, no matter the difficulty of their deconversion experiences or the powerful impact these had on their lives–it’s just not in their temperament.
Still, Ecklund defended the generalization despite my devil’s advocacy. In general, it is of a piece with her finding that family upbringing is a central predictive factor for later life religiosity or the lack thereof, as well as for who actually becomes a scientist (they tend to come from less religiously observant households).
So what do folks think–is there anything to this idea?
Here is the description of the program:
It’s hard to think of an issue more contentious these days than the relationship between faith and science. If you have any doubt, just flip over to the science blogosphere: You’ll see the argument everywhere.
In the scholarly arena, meanwhile, the topic has been approached from a number of angles: by historians of science, for example, and philosophers. However, relatively little data from the social sciences has been available concerning what today’s scientists actually think about faith.
Today’s Point of Inquiry guest, sociologist Dr. Elaine Ecklund of Rice University, is changing that. Over the past four years, she has undertaken a massive survey of the religious beliefs of elite American scientists at 21 top universities. It’s all reported in her new book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.
Ecklund’s findings are pretty surprising. The scientists in her survey are much less religious than the American public, of course—but they’re also much more religious, and more “spiritual,” than you might expect. For those interested in debating the relationship between science and religion, it seems safe to say that her new data will be hard to ignore.
Once again: The show website is here; and you can listen here and download/subscribe here. And you can get a copy of Ecklund’s book, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think, by clicking here.
I’m interviewing Elaine Ecklund for Point of Inquiry today (the show airs Friday), and here’s one thing I’m definitely going to ask her.
Prior to Ecklund’s study, the most prominently cited study of religious beliefs among elite scientists that I know of was by Edward Larson and Larry Withham in Nature in 1998. They surveyed members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and found that only 7 percent embraced a belief in God. At the time, this result got a lot of news attention, and it continues to be discussed today–e.g., in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
Ecklund’s findings are very different–she gets 36 percent belief in God, and 50 percent religiosity among scientists at elite universities (the difference is apparently due to the large percentage of scientists who claim some type of religious identity but do not believe in God; many are Jewish).
I want to know the reason for this large apparent divergence in findings.
Some possible explanations: The ten year gap between the two studies; the greater age of NAS members; different polling questions, or different definitions of religion; Ecklund’s inclusion of social scientists in her study, where Larson/Withham only polled natural scientists. Or perhaps there’s something inherent in getting to the level of NAS member that selects for more strongly atheistic scientists than merely getting a post at a top university.
If anyone has an answer–or cares to speculate–leave a comment below….
For my next show, I’m going to be interviewing Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund about her new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. After merely mentioning this book’s existence drew over 180 comments on the blog recently, I get the feeling that really digesting Ecklund’s findings will make for quite a show.
It is worth noting that this will be the first time a Point of Inquiry show that I’ve done has gotten into the hotly contested subject of science and religion. My own views on this topic are widely known, have been widely aired and debated, and also sometimes criticized. See, e.g., my POI episode with D.J. Grothe about Unscientific America.
In that show I was the guest; but now I’m in the host’s shoes at Point of Inquiry, and my goals and responsibilities are very different. Rather than advancing a particular view, my objective will be to include a diversity of voices on science and religion–starting with Ecklund, but extending to include a range of perspectives as I do more shows in the future. That includes interviewing “New Atheists” like Vic Stenger and others.
With that said, then, I’m encouraging folks to submit questions for Dr. Ecklund, either here on the blog or over at the Point of Inquiry forums. I’m interviewing her on Monday, so you have about 48 hours to get them in if you want them to be considered…..