Are Scientists Spiritual? – The Sociology of Religion

Are scientists spiritual? The answer, as you might not guess, is yes. In fact, recent research suggests that the majority of scientists at top universities in North America have spiritual leanings, even though they may not admit it in collegial company.

In my opinion many scholars that study religion have never actually been interested or taken a part in a religious institution. Instead they have based their work on secondary sources…. Or they use outsider perspective to understand the formation and impact of the religious institution on the society being studied. Ultimately, this results in ethnocentrism because they are studying the group and coming up with stereotypical conclusions because they view themselves as being better off then the individuals who are presented in this context. Meagan Leduc – Sociology 231 Student.

One of “things” that one immediately comes upon when one becomes interested in spirituality is the general notion that scientists and scholars are, by virtue of their “higher” educational training, secular atheists. It’s true. In general, scientists are seen as secular thinkers, critical of spirituality, and hostile to religions. Ecklund and Long (2011, p. 254) note that people “almost uniformly perceive scientists as the carriers of a secularist impulse, a group responsible for building the modern research university and undermining religious authority by their success in deciphering the mysteries of the natural order without recourse to supernatural aid or guidance.” To this general view we can add the particular view (espoused by particular scholars) that the more eminent a scholar is (i.e. the smarter they are), the less “religiously involved” they will be. Stark makes this point when he suggests that smarter scholars are more likely to avoid religion. He says, and I quote, “that the more eminent the scholar, the less likely he was to be religiously involved” (Stark, 1963, p. 5). This basic message is clear. Scholars are secular, and smarter scholars are secular too. This basic position is echoed down through the scholarly corpus (Berger, 1969; Dawkins, 2006) and aped to the students in their seats. Scholars and scientists are secular and atheist, or so it is we are told

Of course, any serious student of spirituality and religion will not accept this message at face value no matter who brings it forward. The serious student of spirituality and religion will immediately ask, is this true? “Are scientists secular atheists?” As it turns out the answer to that question is no! As much as it might come as shock to some, scholars and scientists have long shown an interest in the spiritual side of things. It is obligatory to cite William James as advocate of taking religion, spirituality, and in particular religious experience seriously (James, 1982); but, others have worked here as well. Abraham Maslow built a career on studying peak experience, really just an academically acceptable euphemism for mystical experience (A. H. Maslow, 1959; A.H. Maslow, 1971; A. H. Maslow, 1994), and others preceded (and followed) him (Bucke, 2009/1929; Krippner, 2012). Even the “high priests” of modern science, physicists, have, from time to time, expressed their “mystical” side (Wilber, 2001). But beyond these classic invocations (and far more interesting from my perspective) is the notable truth that when we (and by “we” I mean scientists) ask our colleagues what they really believe, they represent themselves as far more spiritual than people like Stark (1963), Dawkins (2006) , and even that “science guy” have led us to believe. It is surprise that Ecklund expresses when she finds, after surveying “2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences” at 21 elite U.S. institutions, that the majority of scientists “at the top” are spiritual!

Yes, you read that right–the majority of  elite scientists are spiritual! As Ecklund says:

Our results show unexpectedly that the majority of scientists at top research universities consider themselves “spiritual….” these findings are important, as scientists are often seen as being in conflict with religion, and yet, scholars see spirituality as a substitute for religion, so it is important for us to understand ways that scientists are negotiating their relationship with religion through spirituality (Ecklund & Long, 2011, p. 255: Italics added)

All I can say here is “WOW!” I’m as surprised as you are here. I myself have been seriously interested in religion, spirituality, and mysticism for over a decade now; but, before I read Ecklund’s article I thought that all my colleagues were secular, atheistic gumballs. Now I find that it isn’t true. Indeed, now I find that the “smartest” of my colleagues actually believe otherwise (Ecklund & Long, 2011).


Now I have to admit, I got a lot of questions about this remarkable finding. One of the immediate questions that arises here is, what do scientists mean when we they admit they are spiritual? We won’t go into the details of that here except to to note that scientists don’t believe in Christendom’s abusive patriarch and they don’t always believe in going to church and listening to a priest pontificate (Ecklund, 2012; Ecklund & Long, 2011) . Their beliefs are, in general, “less institutionalized”, more organic, and more “spiritual” than some others. Other questions I have as well, like what are the implications of this finding for the besieged Secularization Thesis and why, if so many of this world’s smart scientists actually believe in a spiritual side to things, there isn’t more discussion in university classrooms. These are all interesting questions but since my intent is not to bore you with unending academic “blah blah blah” let me say that I’ll deal with these questions later. Instead allow me to leave you with a story and a statement.

First, the statement. If you are a scientists with spiritual tendencies, if you are not convinced that the “material world” is all that exists, don’t allow yourself to be bullied into silence by those (on the “left” or the “right”) who issue “totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people,” or who paint everyone as a “stupid fundamentalist[s]” (Ecklund, 2009) .  Whether you are a scientists, a student, or a member of the laity, if you have an open mind, feel free to open your mouth and discuss. This is academia after all and there is no place within for closed minded, bullying, repression.

Now, the story. This story (recounted by Dr. Ecklund) is a story about the contradictions in science, the bullies that silence debate, and the dangers of extinction that we (and by “we” I mean scientists) face if you we don’t wake up and smell the kool-aid being served to us  (Sosteric, 1998). Whether or not you are a student, a scholar, or simply an interested onlooker, I recommend you pay attention to this story and then, next time you experience something like this, stand up for the freedom to speak and think, and do something about the oppression it reveals. It is important! The world is experiencing an unfolding crises (Editorial, 2014) of global proportions. It is the humble opinion of this author that the only way we are going to solve this crises is if we put aside the petty ideologies of our various “isms” and instead embrace a transcendent spirituality and human unity that brings us all together into a common and unified goal, instead of separating us into camps of various light and dark. Looking at the world right now we can see we are a long way away from that unity; but, I’m an optimist by nature and I know, based on a lifetime of experience, that the only way to get home is to take that first step. In the context of science and spirituality I believe the first step is to open the dialog at all levels. This is science after all. If we can’t talk openly and respectfully about spirituality and religion we have no right to call ourselves students, scholar, and scientists.

Anyway, without further ado, here is Dr. Ecklund’s story.

As a college sophomore at Cornell University, I witnessed a debate between William Provine, a Cornell professor of evolutionary biology, and Philip John–son, a U.C. Berkeley professor of law. They were there to debate the merits of the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design, and the two men clearly disagreed vehemently with one another. In attendance were committed evangelical Christian students (who agreed strongly with Johnson) and com mitted atheist students (who agreed strongly with Provine). And there were many students, like myself, who were not really sure what they thought about these issues and had simply come to listen. A wide-eyed collegian, not raised in an intellectual environment and having never heard such ideas expressed so persuasively before, I was struck by how civil the men were to each other and to the students gathered. They stayed there for three hours, debating and answering questions. Even after the formal lecture ended, each man continued in informal discussions with interested students. I came away thinking that discussion about controversial topics surrounding science can happen. I felt enlivened and eventually embraced a career in social science myself. Fast forward to nearly 15 years later. I was sitting on the opposite side of the room now, as a faculty member, watching a prescreening of Flock of Dodos, a film that investigates the differences between scientists and religious people who are on opposite sides of the debates about teaching intelligent design in secondary school classrooms. The premise of the film is that while most scientists find the intelligent design movement unequivocally wrong, it appears that those who support intelligent design have a greater spirit of dialogue than the scientists who act instead like a “flock of dodos.” (The dodo was a bird native to the island of Mauritius that evolutionary theorists think became extinct because it was not able to fly and hence could not escape from European explorers and the animals they brought with them.) Filmmaker Randy Olson, a trained biologist, implicitly argues throughout the film that scientists too will die out if they do not learn how to change with the times, to act more respect- fully to those who disagree with them, and how to present science in a more favorable, understandable light. As the film ended, discussion began. And I watched incredulously as some of the scientists in the room confirmed Olson’s accusations. They erupted with totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people, calling them “stupid fundamentalists,” oblivious that there were religious academics seated in the room. Sadly, when dialogue breaks down, those scientists with the loudest voices seem to drown out those with a different, sometimes more open perspective. (Ecklund, 2012, pp. ix-x)

I’m sure you’ll agree, of the two scenarios presented by Ecklund the first (the one where dialog is open and respectful) is far superior to the second (which was characterized by “totalizing criticisms” and an oppressive stifling of dialog).  Remember, there’s a crises afoot. For the sake of this planet, and our children, let us shut down the exploration no longer.

Berger, P. (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books.

Bucke, R. M. (2009/1929). Cosmic Consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

Ecklund, E. H. (2012). What Scientists Really Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ecklund, E. H., & Long, E. (2011). Scientists and Spirituality. [Article]. Sociology of Religion, 72(3), 253-274.

Ecklund, E.H. (2009). How Scientists Misunderstand Religious People. Science and Religion Today. October 21. []

James, W. (1982). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Krippner, S. (2012). Altered States of Consciousness. In J. White (Ed.), The Highest State of Consciousness (pp. 3-9). New York: Doubleday.

Maslow, A. H. (1959). Cognition of being in the peak experiences. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 94, 43.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Maslow, A. H. (1994). Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. New York: Penguin.

Sosteric, M. (1998). The University, Accountability, and Market Discipline in the Late 1990s. The Socjournal, June.

Stark, R. (1963). ON THE INCOMPATIBILITY OF RELIGION AND SCIENCE: A SURVEY OF AMERICAN GRADUATE STUDENTS. [Article]. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 3(1), 3-20.

Wilber, K. (2001). Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists New York: Shambhala.

Cite This Article

(2015). Are Scientists Spiritual?. The Sociology of Religion. []

By: Dr. S.

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