Ecklund and Long: Scientists are totally spiritual

May 9, 2011 • 6:22 am

Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, has gotten tons of mileage out of her Templeton-funded study on science and religion.  Over and over again (I’ve written about this many times here: just search for “Ecklund”), she’s claimed that scientists are far more religious than people think (even though they’re far more atheistic than the general public), and used her results to bash scientism, promote religion, and urge scientists to bring up their faith in the classroom.

Now she and Elizabeth Long have a new paper in Sociology of Religion examining the atheist scientists who are “spiritual.”  The paper is highlighted at PuffHo, and I’ve read the whole thing (you can download it here).  I’d urge you to skip it, though, for it’s turgid, boring, and horribly written.

The main finding is that 26% of all interviewed scientists (72/275) describe themselves as “spiritual” in an “identity consistent” way, and that 22% of atheist scientists see themselves as “spiritual.”  As with Ecklund’s findings of normal religiosity in scientists, they find this “surprising”.

However, we found that 72 of the 275 natural and social scientists see themselves as pursuing what they describe in various ways as an identity consistent spirituality. These scientists are not the majority of those interviewed,but they are a very substantial minority, around 26 percent of those interviewed

. . . a small but theoretically important minority of academic scientists who are spiritual but not religious perceive spirituality as consistent with their identities insofar as it engages their everyday lives, and is instantiated in their practices as teachers, as citizens of the university and as researchers.

Note the weasel words “very substantial minority” and “theoretically important minority” (what on earth is that?), all meant to puff up the results. (Ecklund has a history of such rhetorical inflation.)  And I don’t know how in the world she squares these results with this conclusion:

In this paper, we ask how scientists understand spirituality in their own terms. Our results show unexpectedly that the majority of scientists at top research universities consider themselves “spiritual.” . .

Majority of scientists? I don’t see this anywhere, unless somehow Ecklund is lumping together religious people with “spiritual” ones.

But lest you see the spirituality of scientists, as Ecklund and Long somehow do, as vindicating faith or religion, look what the data really mean:

For those academic scientists who are spiritual, their sense of how spirituality is defined is congruent with their ideas about science. For example, a significant proportion sees science as more congruent with spirituality than it is with religion. Evidence from the qualitative interviews reveals that religion and spirituality are not overlapping categories to these scientists. For example, about 40 percent of academic scientists who see themselves as spiritual have not attended religious services in the past year. In their view, spirituality, in contrast to religion, is open to individual inquiry, having more potential than religion to come in line with scientific thinking and reasoning, which they see as the pursuit of truth. Our results show that scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs.

These people are nothing more than atheist scientists who sometimes have a feeling of transcendence, awe or wonder. Hell, that could be me if you catch me at the right moment.  This one statistic is the only interesting thing in the piece, and it’s not all that interesting.  And it’s buried in 22 pages of postmodern gobbledygook.  (The only funny thing is Ecklund and Long’s failure to deal with the palpable fact that scientists are far less religious than the general public.) To get a flavor of modern sociological prose, have a gander at 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 [sic] 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.

The distinct framings are instantiated! As H. L. Mencken once wrote about Thorstein Veblen’s equally verbose and pompous Theory of the Leisure Class, “Well, what have we here? What does this appalling salvo of rhetorical artillery signify? What was the sweating professor trying to say?” Templeton must love this kind of stuff.

h/t: Sigmund


Ecklund, E. H. and E. Long.  2011. Scientists and spirituality.  Sociology of Religion, advance access.  doi:10.1093/socrel/srr003

107 thoughts on “Ecklund and Long: Scientists are totally spiritual

  1. Never trust any work done by a university faculty member who cannot make a subject and a verb agree. (subset…have) L

        1. Even better: it’s also argumentum ad auctoritatem since the speakers of a language are the authorities which create and modify it 🙂

          1. Perhaps it varies according to context. Those who use the singular are focussing on the singularity of “subset”, those who use the plural on the plurality of “them”.

  2. The impression I get from Ecklund’s style of verbosity is that it is an attempt at deflecting attention from the data that messes with her ideas.

    A bit like theology – the writing style is intentionally opaque so as to tire people out before they can expend the energy required to think critically about it.

    In short, its bullshit.

      1. This type of writing has infused itself into all areas of academic writing. I once read a fine arts dissertation that took two pages to describe the colour red.

        And yes, “colour” is spelt right- I am Canadian.

  3. The term “spiritual” is pretty much devoid of meaning. As you point out it doesn’t distinguish naturalist and supernaturalist beliefs. If they determined what percentage of scientists have supernaturalist beliefs that would be interesting, but that would require asking different questions.

  4. These people are nothing more than atheist scientists who sometimes have a feeling of transcendence, awe or wonder. Hell, that could be me if you catch me at the right moment.

    Absolutely — who can look at the night sky and not be overcome with awe that in that vast sea of coldest vacuum there are infinitesimal bits of carbon that can be awed by the night sky? (Perhaps “spirituality” is just recursion…)

    As a Rice grad, I offer my apologies for Ecklund. (Or does that sound too Kwokish?)

    1. The best refutation I’ve heard of the whole notion of ‘spiritual atheism’ came in an interview by Sam Harris by the right wing talk radio host Dennis Prager. In that case it was Harris who was calling himself ‘spiritual’ but Prager was having none of it.
      To paraphrase Prager “but you are using the word in a completely different way to the way religious people use it!” “That’s not what spiritual means to a religious person – your word ‘spiritual’ has nothing to do with having a soul!”
      I think the whole Harris Prager exchange is available on youtube.

    2. Nah, you need to list at least 20 well-known people to make it over the Kwokish line.

    3. “who can look at the night sky and not be overcome with awe that in that vast sea of coldest vacuum there are infinitesimal bits of carbon that can be awed by the night sky? (Perhaps “spirituality” is just recursion…)”

      Very similar to what I concluded, the other night when I suddenly found myself in an intellectual Black Hole of the form –

      “This ‘me’ that’s wondering about all this – but it’s just meat! How can that be?”

      And my conclusion was similar to Tulse’s and Susan Blackmore’s, that the “[my]self” is a recursive / [it]self-referential memeplex.

  5. In order to discover a more endemic understanding (Harris 1979) of how scientists categorize religion and spirituality in their own terms, we needed data that would allow us to apprehend scientists’ definitions in their own words
    rather than imposing categories of religion and spirituality only from surveys used in the general population.

    Shorter Ecklund & Long: we didn’t define “spirituality” in the surveys and interviews

    In analyzing transcripts of the qualitative interviews, we categorized scientists as spiritual (1) when they specifically labeled themselves as spiritual without being prompted by the interviewer; (2) articulated a specific set of spiritual beliefs; (3) engaged in practices that they saw as a further instantiation of spirituality; and (4) claimed to have experiences they described as specifically

    Shorter Ecklund & Long: we classified them as spiritual when a) they said they were (without definition)
    or b) based on our own definition of spiritual (that was not revealed ahead of time).

    They seem to have successfully deduced that “spiritual” is a vague word that means different things to different people.

    1. Re, number 4: everyone who goes “AWWW, CUTE!” at a kitteh or puppy could be described as “spiritual” by Ecklund. She doesn’t bother to describe what she self-identifies as a “spiritual” experience.

      It’s a fishing expedition with a barrel of indeterminate size, filled with fish of every possible characteristic imaginable.

        1. Um, Ophelia, that’s called silk-screen, and they’re “designed” to look like cats…

          By Ceiling Cat, of course!

  6. Yes, I’ve used the word “spiritual” in the past to describe those feelings of transcendence, awe, wonder, etc.

    Lately, though, I’ve been avoiding it. Not merely because it implies a belief in a “spirit” (ie, something supernatural), but also because it’s used most often in the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” sense.

    And much of the time, someone who uses that phrase is deep into homeopathy, astrology, phrenology, and every other kind of woo-ology you might care to mention.

    If you’re ever in the on-line dating market, there’s one phrase that is a sure and certain indicator of a moonbeam hippy fuzzy thinker, and that’s “spiritual but not religious”. Run away.

    1. I too have dispensed with self-identifying as spiritual. I went from “believer” to “spiritual but not religious” to “atheist”. Using the word spiritual to describe a sense of awe and wonder just confuses people.

      1. Is there a word that describes that sense of awe we feel in a purely naturalist sense without any hint of supernaturalism? I personally can relate to that feeling of spiritualism but long ago stopped using it for the same reasons other posters. I really sometimes wish that religious folk who claim that atheists are lacking meaning and have no sense of the religious experience could spend a moment in my body when I come upon a vibrant and jeweled star cluster with my binoculars. Or Andromeda. Or Saturn’s rings. Or watching my son’s first year of life. To have such beauty literally take your breath away speaks to that sense of awe we are all capable of experiencing, it’s not solely the property of the supernatural.

        1. Isn’t it “a sense of wonder”?

          [Which, I guess, still have religious interpretations, only less kidnapped for religious duty.]

  7. Maybe it’s Elizabeth Long’s moderating influence, but I don’t find the paper all that bad. I mean, the prose is a bit thick, but what’s wrong with identifying a group of scientists pursuing spirituality “more congruent with science than religion”?

    While there’s nothing in the world outside the purview of science, in practice we have to go beyond the data in order to live our lives. I’m one of those who finds a personal need for community, ritual, and collective action beyond what I share with my average colleague. I’m not bashing atheists, and consider myself one in most ways, but I think you shouldn’t be so defensive *in this case*.

    Their point seems to be that scientists are not neatly divided between religious and “just the science, thanks”. And I don’t think Templeton is going to have any great love for “spiritual atheism”.

    1. I think the problem here is that we are dealing with a word that has very different meanings. To a religious person to hear that someone else is spiritual means that the other person is holy in some way – interested in the soul and God although not necessarily in a particular religion.
      The atheist ‘spirituality’ they describe has nothing to do with ‘souls’ or God and is simply a wonder and desire to understand the natural world.
      In fact if you defined spirituality in that way then virtually every scientist is ‘spiritual’ (why else become a scientist other than a desire to understand the natural world).
      It is simply a type of misdirection that allows religious people to think that learning about science won’t cause them (or, more accurately, their children) to lose their religious faith.

      1. Yes, “spirituality” is a problematic word to use, but it’s one that the subjects, as well as the authors, use. You’d be better off reading the paper than just claiming that they’re sneakily trying to keep God in the equation.

        One reason that I like the paper is that I consider myself a spiritual atheist (stronger emphasis on the second word; “secular humanist” is also good). “God” and “souls” are meaningless distractions from the real work of living a meaningful life. “Spiritual atheist” isn’t a perfect label, but it does highlight that not everything is obvious to pure reason when, in real life, you have to go beyond the data.

        Furthermore, you don’t have to shut up regarding what you’re about, but if you want to understand what I’m about, realize that labels will always be imperfect, and look deeper.

        1. What makes you think I haven’t read the paper? Not only have I read it but I’ve read her other papers where she uses the same tactic of misdirection. Try reading the paper yourself. She states that scientists view spirituality in completely different terms to the way non scientists use the term and yet she is prepared to use this term in several places in the paper where its dual definition destroy any sort of conclusion she is trying to make. It’s like saying orange is good for your health – without specifying whether you are talking about the color or the fruit.

          1. My apologies, Sigmund. I don’t have a high opinion of how Ecklund has portrayed her data elsewhere, but I deeply respect Elizabeth Long, whom I’ve known for a long time. I’ll try to say more after work. 🙂

        2. not everything is obvious to pure reason when, in real life, you have to go beyond the data.

          You say “beyond the data” twice, but doesn’t define this. Is it about emotion or context, the usual sense of the common deepity inserted about here? Both of these are “within the data” as we understand it (observable), albeit personal experiences.

          If not a deepity: how do we measure it, does it really exist or is it just a meaningless mantra that you use in your argumentation?

          1. I absolutely grant that Ecklund is abusing her results in less-than-professional commentary. I still think the underlying research is really cool. There’s a lot of room for activities-and-perspectives-that-we-shouldn’t-call-spiritual-but-what’s-another-good-word that are compatible with a scientific and godless worldview.

            What I mean by “beyond the data” is that subjective concerns may not be quantifiable or in practice be amenable to controlled experimentation. For example, meditation works for some people. Packages of memes and practices from such diverse traditions as Sufism and Buddhism can be more useful in getting through the day than MRIs and and the latest Journal of Neuroscience.

            Which is not to say that any of this is off-limits to rational inquiry. There is no god in the gaps, but heuristics are still worth something.

            I’ll have to stop there, and consider writing more at length elsewhere.

            1. I agree that certain forms of introspective thinking, meditation etc, can be of benefit to certain people. The critical issue here that I am worried about is the notion that there may be some truth to cartesian dualism. By this I mean that there is a widespread belief in the population at large that something like classic dualism (the mind is separate from the body) is true. If you accept this then things like ghosts, life after death, supernatural gods etc, are real possibilities. The term spirituality, used by the general public is very much connected to this sort of dualism.
              I happen to think that tackling the pervasive dualism in society at large is the next big task that philosophical naturalists. Like evolution, we must make it clear that scientists have reached a consensus on dualism – there is no evidence for a ghost in the machine – we are our brains.

    2. So, you’re saying that you need to have a life outside the lab. Doesn’t everyone? How is that unusual? How many hermit scientists with no friends, no family, no hobbies, and no intellectual interests in anything other than their work are there? None in my experience.

      1. OK, my life outside the lab includes being active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It’s a nice place for my kids to learn about diverse religions, for my friends (including the gay ones) to get married in, and more than half the ministers (and all the ones who’ve survived for long) have embraced atheists as an important part of the community, not just some fragment to be accommodated. (I’m aware of the annoying Xtian revanchism happening at the denominational level, ugh.)

        We sing, share poems, listen to sermons that are more philosophy than theology, have flower communion (see Norbert Čapek), celebrate holidays (yes, including some Christian ones) and contribute money and time to worthy causes without any baggage of proselytizing. Depending on the congregant, the amount of “God” involved is small or zero.

        But enough of that arises from a spiritual tradition that I don’t have a problem using that term in that context. (Houston also has a Church of Freethought… try wrapping your brain around that). I get flak about it elsewhere, but haven’t got a better word, yet.

        1. Here’s the problem though. If “spiritual” means some naturlistic, then every scientist is spiritual. You’re not different from scientists who don’t go to UU services and do the things that you speak of. Everyone is spiritual in a naturalistic sense, in that there are things that they value. I just don’t see how a naturalistic spiritual atheist is different from any other sort of atheist.

          1. Um, so all atheists have to be the same, and do the same things, or we don’t qualify? What if we make alliances with differently-spiritual people like Deists, so long as they’re not messing with the science?

            If pure atheism is enough for you, great. But what I suspect is an inflexibility about who qualifies as an atheist.

            We don’t have to live alike and love alike to doubt and reason alike.

            People should be able to choose their own labels. Where Ecklund erred is in being sloppy about applying labels to others, then making extravagant claims that spiritualism pervades everything.

            1. No. I just can’t figure out what makes you “spiritual” as opposed to other atheists like me. No one believes in “pure atheism”. I have other beliefs, about a million different subjects, and values as well. I just think you think you’re different and you’re not. You just have a different hobby, namely going once a week to a church.

    3. It’s not about loving ‘spiritual atheism’, it’s about spreading the lie that science and religion are somehow compatible. Ecklund’s works are prime examples of the lies and contortions these people go through to attempt to get people to believe that science is just another stinking religion.

      1. The cool part of the research, for me, was about scientists who wanted their religion or spiritual community to be more accepting of science.

        I’m not defending Ecklund’s unprofessional writings elsewhere, twisting that around completely backwards.

          1. Yes, the novelty would be in more congregations making an effort to be that way, recognizing the insight of the scientists already squirming in their midst.

  8. A totally unrelated study reveals that 26% of scientists have a poster in their home or office of Carl Sagan with the words “Smoke Weed Everyday” written on it.

    “Spiritual” is an un-word.

  9. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
    -George Orwell

    1. …which, of course, makes her aces in Josh Rosenau’s book…

      Just sayin’. An academic treatise that uses a lot of words to say nothing at all badly. (And comes to a conclusion in direct contravention of her own data, to boot). Rosenau is getting a ‘chubby’ even as we speak.

      Seriously, shouldn’t someone point out to Ecklund that 76% of her scientists do not describe themselves as “spiritual” AT ALL, and many of those that do so use the non-theistic, non-woo-filled, alternative definition of spiritual as a synonym for “sense of wonder at the awesomeness of nature”?

      If I were studying some medication for a dread disease, and it didn’t work in 76% of the cases, and in the majority of the remaining it only worked if you change the definition of the disease — well, that drug isn’t making it to the market, that’s for sure.

  10. Well, I’m a scientist, I’m spiritual, and proud of it. Who doesn’t enjoy a fine scotch, brandy or cognac every now and then?

  11. Re bringing up my “faith” in a college science class: how the HELL is that relevant to the chemistry I’m teaching? What do they want, questions about my faith on the midterm exams? I defy anyone to figure out how faith influences chemistry.

    These students are paying about $300 PER LECTURE, and they want their money’s worth, not religious ramblings about the state of my soul.

    Also, I don’t have the time. It’s hard enough getting all the chemistry they need into their heads in one short semester.

  12. Reminds me of a study reported in the media a year or two ago which stated that “surprisingly” men gossip just as much as women, provided that you redefine the word gossip to include all the sorts of thing that men routinely talk about (e.g. sport).

  13. What I don’t understand is why people hold so tenaciously to faery tales.

    Do I experience awe and wonder as a reaction to the seemingly-impossible beauty of the Cosmos? Damn straight I do!

    And do I enjoy a well-told fantasy story, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s bestsellers or most of what survives from antiquity? Hell yeah!

    And could I have fun imagining a fantasy of my own whereby the awe and wonder I experience is a result of Tinkerbell tweaking the White Rabbit’s tail? Suer — why not?

    But do I then go on to think that maybe the awe and wonder really is the result of something “transcendental”?

    Do I really have to answer that last question?

    And can anybody help me understand why somebody old enough to shave would “really” think such a thing?



  14. Ecklund used Templeton funding to arrive at a statistically dubious conclusion.

    The entire paper, as well as the original work from which the paper is drawn, is substantially intellectually and scientifically corrupt due to her funding source.

    Ecklund has the credibility of a tobacco executive who claims that cigarettes are not addicting.

  15. I am a scientist and I enjoy fine spirits, particularly the highland single malt variety. I expect Ecklund’s next paper will now include me in those faith-full scientists that have no problems reconciling science and Jesus.

    1. Islay. Smoky and/or peaty is better. Nyah, nyah. And if you don’t think likewise, scare up some of your highland types while I fetch some of my Islay lads, and let’s have ourselves an armed conflict over whose spirituality is superior.

          1. Thanks for the tip! Now I have to remember… “Highland Park, Highland Park, Highland Park”.

            I gotta do that, or I’m likely to walk out of the store with a nice big cheap bottle of Highland Mist.

            1. There’s a very good Scottish ale – Harviestoun’s ‘Ola Dubh’ (‘Black Oil’) – that is matured in casks that were previously used to age ‘Highland Park’ whisky. I discovered it yesterday in an odd shop in Okachimachi, Tokyo. Recommended. And what a coincidence: I’d never heard of Highland Park whisky before, and it pops up on this thread th next morning. Did God have a hand in it?

              1. Definitely an oracle of god…

                Even the the cheaper 12 year old Highland Park is quite good – makes a great Breakfast Scotch.


          2. Thanks for the tip,
            I should give it a try…

            an open-minded Ardbeg fan 😉

            PS, BTW, I also really like Bunnahabhain Darach Ur (for those not familiar with the single-malt whiskies: no, I didn’t just make that up…)

      1. While I can appreciate some peaty flavor, there reaches a point of hell on earth. My personal favorites for spirit(ual) enlightenment these days are Oban (14 yro) and the Balvenie Doublewood.

        1. Wow… Lagavulin and Laphroaig in one thread. Demand proof, I say!

          …and none of this watered down spirituality. (ok, I take that back. I think I had some ancestors that were preserved in the peat bogs. I wouldn’t want to end up like them.)

      2. I’m with you on the Islay smoky/peaty malts – Laphroaig being my personal favorite – the older the better.

  16. Spirituality is not a sociological concept, and it was inserted into the sociological “imagination” by the Templeton foundation’s multi-million dollar initiative on spirituality. The vast majority of Americans interpret these types of questions about spirituality from the lens of their Christian faith, generally linking it to the third god of the Christian trinity. It is used as a way to deflect attention away from specific religious beliefs which often are associated with a variety of negative sociological outcomes–low educational attainment, poor occupational outcomes, sexism, racism, intolerance, scientific illiteracy, low verbal ability and a host of other social problems.

  17. The whole idea is just another branch of Religion’s Special Privilege. It’s what people say in order not to piss off the privileged religious majority. It’s all but an apology for not being an actual theist. “I don’t believe in your god but I think the idea of it is just lovely. Do you still like me?”

    1. Your comment just reminds me of something:

      I remember a tv-series on Dutch television, many years ago.
      A well-known Christian evangelist of that time would visit the homes
      of Dutch celebrities and talk with them about God and the Christian faith.
      One of the things that I found striking, was that, although most of the people he interviewed were either non-believers, or of the “there is probably something, but I don’t know what it is” persuasion, they would go out of their way to show respect for the interviewer’s belief system.

      They often apologized for their lack of faith, as if their non-belief was a character deficit, the result of an inability to believe, a lack of strength.

      I am not sure where this attitude comes from, maybe it is the idea that questioning or criticizing deeply held beliefs is rude and an expression of hostility.

      Just realized, btw, that the phrase “deeply held beliefs” has positive connotations. It’s often used when talking about someone’s religious convictions, but much rarely, I would assume, for describing e.g. someone’s political convictions.

      1. Unfortunately it is a widely held belief, and one which is certainly promoted by all superstitions, that believing in something without evidence is somehow a virtue.

        1. I would like to figure out what is the root of the belief that believing something without evidence is a virtue. It seems to me that this is the kind of belief that is imposed upon a person, not the kind of belief that you would arrive at from your own efforts.

          I can imagine how having false beliefs can benefit others, I cannot imagine how false beliefs can benefit yourself…

          1. For a religious it tells of the strength of your belief. (That it coincides with convenient gap theology is merely a coincidence – not.)

          2. That depends on how one defines “false belief”. I can believe something without evidence that happens to actually be true. In fact, apologies if this is a reductio ad absurdum that misses the point, but “trust” can be defined as believing things without direct evidence, and is a critical component of a functional human society. So believing without evidence is a good thing for everyone if the belief is true, but does have the potential to be a bad thing for the believer (and possibly others) if the belief is false.

          3. “I would like to figure out what is the root of the belief that believing something without evidence is a virtue.”

            It’s in the bible (so it must be true) – in fact it’s the intestine-fondling passage, John 20:
            27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

            28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

            29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

      2. People should remember that Nazism was also a “deeply held belief”. The fervency with which someone holds a belief shouldn’t grant it special status, particularly when we are talking about matters-of-fact rather than life-choices.

  18. Ecklund and Long: Scientists are totally spiritual

    The correct title should have been…

    “Ecklund and Long: Scientists are like totally spiritual dude”

  19. In my days as a Christian engineering student, there was an urban legend circulated that there were a lot of Christian physicists. The backstory went as follows: People realize that the universe is a mysterious place that they themselves don’t understand, but they are convinced that the scientists have the answers, so there is no need for them to believe in gods. The scientists know that they have some but not all of the answers, but they are confident that the physicists have all the answers, so there is no need for them to believe in gods either. The physicists, however, know that they do not in fact have all the answers, so most of them are Christians. QED.

    As for the word “spiritual”, I am very uncomfortable when atheists use it, partly because it seems rather accomodationist: Can we disagree with the religious on the existence of gods, but agree on the importance of “spirituality”? I don’t think so. But I also dislike it because I have yet to see an atheist proponent of the concept who can give a clear definition of the term or its appropriate use.

      1. Spiritual without an other definition, implies spirit (soul or some other ethereal life) and as soon as you imply spirit you imply belief in woo. IMHO skeptics everywhere should shun this word like the plague.
        Now the awe of, and grandeur in, nature I think we can all embrace.

  20. Why all the obscuring language around all things religious?

    Here’s why:

    I quote Sir Peter Medawar (The Hope of Progress, 1974):

    [N]o one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.

    This neatly crystallized thought should be obvious to all. Whether the believers and theologians are unskilled or duplicitous, I’ll leave up to you.

  21. Ecklund reminds me of someone who frenetically rubs a stick since she has heard that this way they may catch fire. Too bad her stick is wet; the result simply looks like that much masturbation.

  22. My money says that Ecklund didn’t even have a proper sampling strategy. She’s consistent though (consistently thick-headed at best) and continues her tired game of taking evidence against her beliefs and pretending that the evidence supports her bizarre view of the world.

    1. That is an interesting question. I tend to think the statistical quality of the overall surveys (all of her papers seem to be based on one or two surveys carried out about 3 or 4 years ago) were not the problem. The problem is that there were so many questions in the survey that it is easy to cherry pick the data to ‘frame’ the answer in a religion friendly way.
      In other words if you look ar the hard data it looks pretty much what you would expect – most scientists do not believe in God, only about 10% or so believe in the traditional image of God etc.
      It is very bad from a religion friendly perspective.
      The one thing I’ve never figured out is how she got to the figures of ‘spiritual’ atheists. When talking about the survey she said the scientists volunteered that term themselves. This I find suspicious. Scientists tend to be matter of fact about questions – why volunteer a waffly undefined and ambiguous term like spiritual?
      It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of alternative options if you didn’t feel like you identified with the term atheist.

      1. The paper says, “over 20 percent of the atheist respondents have developed a sense of themselves as ‘spiritual atheists’.” Also, “About 22 percent of the scientists who are atheists still consider themselves spiritual and about 27 percent of the scientists who are agnostic also consider themselves spiritual.”

        But if these figures for “spiritual atheists” — and as the paper calls it, the “distinctive rhetoric” of the phrase “spiritual atheists” itself — came from conversations that were open-ended (not from survey questions fixed beforehand), then Ecklund’s figures (and the “distinctive rhetoric”) could be Clever Hans phenomenon, responding to Ecklund’s cuing (conscious or unconscious).

        I also like Ophelia’s comment #22 (“Do you still like me?”) for pointing out that the responses to the survey’s questions are social transactions, and a participant responding to the questions may give answers biased by what they feel would make themselves look socially acceptable, or feel good about themselves (“Am I likable?”). So the survey might not identify beliefs as much as it highlights socially acceptable answers. From The Lobster Quadrille,

        will you, won’t you
        will you, won’t you
        won’t you join the dance?

  23. ” ‘ … the majority of scientists at top research universities consider themselves “spiritual.” . .’

    Majority of scientists? I don’t see this anywhere, unless somehow Ecklund is lumping together religious people with “spiritual” ones.”

    Or cherrypicking which are the “top” research universities – aka data-mining.

  24. What does “spiritual” mean, anyway?

    It seems to me that there is an issue of people using that stock phrase “I am spiritual but not religious” as a way of giving an non-answer to the question of whether or not they are religious.

    So, I would question whether or not Ecklund is really counting the atheists accurately?

    For example a person might answer that they don’t believe in a supreme being, may be a person who does not believe in a “personal god” but who might believe in something like Tao or Dharma, which would be a universal principle, as a opposed to a “dude in the sky”. So, Ecklund would count that person
    as an “atheist who is spiritual” when, in fact the individual might be better classed as a “Buddhist” or “Taoist”.

  25. JC://and I’ve read the whole thing (you can download it here). I’d urge you to skip it, though, for it’s turgid, boring, and horribly written.//

    Thanks for working hard on this so we don’t have to! lol

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