Elaine Ecklund continues to whitewash the atheism of scientists

December 3, 2011 • 5:09 am

Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University, is making a career out of trying to pretend that American scientists are less atheistic than they really are. I’ve written about this extensively (just type “Ecklund” into the search engine of this site), as have others. Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog, for example, has pointed out how Ecklund distorts her survey data to inflate the degree of scientists’ religiosity and spirituality.

Science Daily recently highlighted a new paper by Ecklund and Kristin Lee in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, “Atheists and agnostics negotiate religion and family.” I’ve only skimmed the paper lightly, so I’ll just quote the Science Daily report, most likely an unedited or lightly edited press release from Ecklund’s university.  The study is based on exactly the same data Ecklund collected 5 years ago for her book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Science Daily reports:

Some atheist scientists with children embrace religious traditions for social and personal reasons, according to research from Rice University and the University at Buffalo — The State University of New York (SUNY).

The study also found that some atheist scientists want their children to know about different religions so their children can make informed decisions about their own religious preferences.

“Our research shows just how tightly linked religion and family are in U.S. society — so much so that even some of society’s least religious people find religion to be important in their private lives,” said Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, the study’s principal investigator and co-author of a paper in the December issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

So what was the surprising finding among America’s “least religious people”? Ecklund’s sample of 275 natural and social scientists from 21 “elite U.S. research universities” showed this:

The researchers found that 17 percent of atheists with children attended a religious service more than once in the past year.


But is that really so astounding? Some atheist scientists want to expose their children to different religions to let them either observe the worship or to allow them to decide for themselves whether they want to be religious, and, if so, what religion would they choose. Indeed, the report gives that and other reasons for that behavior:

“The individuals surveyed cited personal and social reasons for integrating religion into their lives, including:

  • Spousal influence — Study participants are involved in a religious institution because of influence from their spouse or partner.
  • Desire for community — Study participants want a sense of moral community and behavior, even if they don’t agree with the religious reasoning.”

Remember, we’re talking about only 17% of atheists with children—one in six—who go to church more than once per year. Twice would qualify. And apparently many of those atheists aren’t married to other atheists.

Indeed, Ecklund and Lee’s paper notes that “having a religious spouse or partner was the main reason that scientists who were not religious involved their children in a religious community with no clear gender differences [sic].”  So most atheist scientists are taking their kids to church not because of the irresistible pull of faith, a sneaking sympathy with religion, or even a desire to expose their kids to worship, but simply to placate their spouses.

Ecklund continues to recycle her old data, desperate to find evidence, however thin, that scientists are religious.  Why? Because she wants to show that religion is alive and well in America, even among the godless.  Here’s her conclusion as given by Science Daily:

Ecklund said the study’s findings will help the public better understand the role that religious institutions play in society.

“I think that understanding how nonreligious scientists utilize religion in family life demonstrates the important function they have in the U.S.,” she said.

Now the antecedent of “they” is unclear (Ecklund is a dreadful writer), but I’m pretty sure she and Lee are referring to “religious institutions,” not to “nonreligious scientists.” In other words, they’re trying to show how religion itself  has an important function in America.  Well, maybe it does, but not among this group, since 83% of atheists scientists don’t expose their kids to church.

Why does Ecklund continue to trawl her data for dubious conclusions like this, publishing paper after paper distorting her results to show how religious we atheist-scientists really are?  Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and if you check who funded Ecklund and Lee’s research, you’ll find this acknowledgment:

This research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Grant #11299, Elaine Howard Ecklund, PI.

Are you surprised? Ecklund has given Templeton great value for their money, producing exactly what the Foundation wants.  Her incessant stream of papers, all pretending to show the same conclusion form different angles, shows how canny Templeton is in promoting a comity between science and faith.

h/t: Devin

41 thoughts on “Elaine Ecklund continues to whitewash the atheism of scientists

    1. Presumably. And if you know more than about 50 religious people (with a reasonable spread of ages) that will give you two baptisms / weddings / funerals per year.

    2. I wondered that too, and expect that some of those 17% were just that. My first scientific mentor died up in Maine this past Jan. He was pretty involved with a Unitarian group, and that’s where the service was. But there were no crosses in view, they only mentioned ‘Lord’ once (in a verse in a spiritual song), and Jesus not at all. I came away with the conclusion based on that one sampling, that the Unitarians are more of an organized social support group than a religion.

      1. Unitarian Universalists call themselves a “non-creedal religion”, which is sort of to say a non-religious religion. Since the membership is diverse, they are about as accommodating and ecumenical as they can be.

        They recommend their religious education by asking, “Who do you want to be the first to talk to your kids about religion?”

      2. Darwin’s family were of Unitarian roots of course – I suppose that gave him a subliminal start. We buried my mother’s ashes this year in Norwich Cathedral cloisters – I could not bring myself to attend the (general) service before so I waited in the cloisters while listening to Parsifal on a thingamybob! A wotsit pod. Jobs – a Jobs-pod

        1. On the other hand maybe that is because I am a natural atheist as opposed to a conviction atheist. I have never thought of that distinction before.

    3. Yep, lots of folks brought that up at PZ’s blog. (PZ’s website?)

      News flash: At least 1 in 6 scientists have friends who sometimes get married and/or die. ZOMG STOP THE PRESSES!

  1. Soft research for soft minds – unfortunately an all too prevalent symptom of the social sciences, and those individuals that are initially attracted to them due to some level of concern for the less fortunate. However, what so often eventually evolves are investigators (sic) that become dependent on regular paychecks that support a level of mediocrity which has little relevance as far as really making a difference in every day life Intellectual masturbation at it’s best, delusional deceit at it’s worst.

  2. This paper – and four of her previous papers – were based on the same set of scientists who Ecklund claimed were representative of scientists working at the top 20 Universities in the US. However, have a look at table 1 in this paper and check out the salaries of the scientists she interviewed. Apparently the majority of her survey group (52%) earn over 1 million dollars per year!
    Did she confine her interviews to Templeton Prize winners?
    Either she chose a really unrepresentative group of scientists (who the hell works as a scientist at a US university and gets more than 1 million per year?) or there has been some very sloppy peer reviewing of this paper.

    1. Looking at that table, I think it’s a misprint for $100,000. Being at one of the “elite” universities, I know that nobody on our science faculty makes a salary about $1,000,000!

      1. Say something nice about Templeton and that might change!
        I guess the most logical explanation for the 1 million dollars salary figure is a mistake. I still think it’s sloppy as this mistake should have been spotted by the peer reviewers or by the authors in the pre-publication proof reading. There is only one table in the whole paper and almost everything else apart from the salary figure is a re-hash of results from the 2007 paper. It’s the one piece of new data they manage to get wrong!

  3. Here in the UK people don’t make the assumption that mere attendance at a religious ceremony is a sign of personal religiosity. By that criterion Karl Marx would have to be judged religious as he liked certain types of religious music and would attend church services so he could listen to it.

    I can’t see how figures like these can tell you anything about the religiosity of anyone.

    1. By that criterion, I could be accused of being religious because I recently commented that the chorus of “Eternal Father Strong to Save” sends a shiver up my spine. Actually, the spine-shivering reason is that after a year of being personally worried about being kidnapped by Somali pirates (they tried to take a 60m boat within 100 miles of my last work site ; getting there involved an hour each-way in a speed boat ; we were truly vulnerable to attack), of being at sea in 20m waves and icebergs, and having colleagues flying home over 25m seas this afternoon, the phrase “those in peril on the sea” has a real, personal relevance. There is a claim that “there are no atheists in potholes”, but for absolutely certain, there are atheists in HUET trainers. Every 2 years. It doesn’t get more fun.
      In fact, that doesn’t make me religious. But I do put money in the RNLI bucket when I see one. Becasue that is likely to have a direct effect on the date of my death – pushing it into the future.
      Funerals, I don’t like attending in churches, but generally the point of them is to make the survivors feel better, so I’d rather not add to their distress by raising a row.
      Weddings – some people have family that cares about such things. When I got married, it was a civil ceremony (and we got married out of contempt for the racism of British government and practicality. The when I was a Best Man, it was for my Water Brother, which just happened to take place in a church. Nice building – I got pissed outside it many times when I was a student.
      I can’t remember the last time I heard of anyone having a child baptised. Do people still do it?
      (This editor really needs a preview, Jerry!)

      1. The edit bit is a WordPress thang [sic!]. Does water brother mean some sort of person with whom you have been at sea Aidan? Reminds me of the Goons – “The sea was in his blood, & you could see where it got in”…!

    2. I have been a confirmed atheist for about 60 years. However,at age 76, within the past year I have shown my respect by attending church services for three colleagues I taught with at the college level for over 30 years.

      Would I ,a geologist, therefore be classified a a closet-theist?

  4. “Desire for community – Study participants want a sense of moral community and behavior, even if they don’t agree with the religious reasoning.”

    That is such a loaded sentence! Yes, most people want a sense of community, but they can find a sense of community at work, in their neighbourhood or in non-religious organizations. If people are looking for a “moral” community and “moral” behavior, they won’t find it in religious organizations. Religious organizations accept some while they exclude many. See Ophelia Benson’s post “The milk of human kindness”:

    “And then there’s Gulnare Freewill Baptist church, which told a parishioner – ever so politely, you understand – that her fiancé couldn’t come to the church again, on account of how he’s not a white person. Perfectly understandable. It’s because they (church members who voted on “the issue”) want to promote greater unity among the church body and the community.”


  5. I wonder what exactly a “religious service” would be. For example, if I go to a church around this time of year for the annual sing-along with Handel’s Messiah oratorio, does that make me a church-going atheist? It is in a church and the words are scriptural, but I would go for the artistic experience. Similarly, when I was in Paris I specifically went to the service at the Sacre-Coeur church, which is famous for its beauty and didn’t disappoint.

    There is an inherent problem with trying to extrapolate one’s beliefs from their presence in a building at a particular point in time.

  6. “The researchers found that 17 percent of atheists with children attended a religious service more than once in the past year.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if 17 percent of elite American scientists are Jewish. Most Jews I know are 1) functionally or literally atheists 2) deeply committed to the cultural heritage of Judaism.

  7. The researchers found that 17 percent of atheists with children attended a religious service more than once in the past year.

    My wife often dragged me to Christmas and Easter services. In fact, the Easter effect is so pronounced that the pastor tailored his jokes for the Easter service to the once-or-twice-a-year attendees:

    Pastor, what is it with you guys and the resurrection? Every time I go to church, you’re going on about the resurrection…

    1. In fairness, the number one reason my wife goes to my boring chemistry department events is undoubtedly “to placate her spouse”!

      This is so obvious – the surprise is that the number is only 17%. This woman is truly a moron.

  8. Jerry,

    In my opinion, one of the gravest mistakes many freethinkers, atheists, and non-believers make is failing to imprint their kids with an evidence-based cosmology.

    My atheist science-writer wife Connie Barlow and I have addressed more than 500 secular, non-religous, or Unitarian Universalist groups over the last decade. I’ve had literally dozens of humanists and atheists come up to me after one of our programs and say something like, “I raised my kid a good freethinker and not s/he is an evangelical! What’s worse, s/he’s now raising my grandchildren as fundamentalists. What did I do wrong?!”

    What they did wrong (in most cases, I believe) was mistake imprinting with indoctrination.

    See “Imprinting Is NOT Indoctrination”: http://thegreatstory.org/imprinting.pdf
    My intro to the above: http://www.thankgodforevolution.com/node/2056
    Podcast: http://evolutionaryevangelists.libsyn.com/webpage/32_imprinting_is_not_indoctrination

    Keep up the great blogging.

    ~ Michael

    1. I was raised UU (my father is a minister) and am still UU. I realized I was an atheist at age 8, years before I knew what my parents believed. I have seen many UU kids fall off the wagon, and in many different ways. My parents are liberals, but they didn’t raise me in an “anything goes” manner – they were fairly strict, and I’m pretty sure I benefitted greatly from that. Many of my peers, unfortunately, didn’t get any structure from their parents, any many of them took a long time to get their lives in order.

      1. UU? Unseen University?
        Sorry, but without recognising the acrnym, your post doesn’t communicate effectively.

  9. I guess I am one of those non-religious people in faith. In order to get my daughter the best education I can afford I have ended sending her to a catholic parochial school.  Yes she is getting religion classes and church services along with her education but I feel that she is smart enough that this won’t hurt her. Instead, it will allow her to get a first hand observation of the insidious effects of blind faith on real understanding.
    The school is quite pleased with how hard working, knowledgeable  and polite my daughter is but they don’t know how to deal with me. Though I don’t say anything openly they obviously have their suspicions with  my  refusal to participate in religious activities .  A while ago I was a school field trip chaperone with kids, parents and teachers at our local natural history museum. I suspect we were there to witness the infinite workings of god.  When the kids asked asked me why the chimpanzee and human skeletons were so similar I calmly said, “It’s evolution kids. ” I can tell you that the look I got from parents and teachers was not approval. I am facing the facts that if this school doesn’t start dealing with reality soon I will need to send my child to a new school.

  10. My wife’s a scientist. We’re both atheists. We were Unitarians and went for social reasons. Then the whole “Oh, we don’t like atheists” thing came up in the magazine and we stopped going.

    Haven’t missed it as much as I thought I would. And it’s nice to have Sunday’s free.

    1. There has been an unfortunate trend toward being more “religious” which you note. I think it is intended to reach out to more people, but at the risk of alienating many of the core people. For example, we are very gay-friendly, but it almost seems like we are trying to be Christianity Lite for gays who feel excluded by other churches.

  11. Elaine Ecklund continues to whitewash the atheism of scientists

    Shouldn’t that be “to Christwash” or “to faithwash”, or something? 🙂

  12. One thing I’ll grant the Templeton Foundation is that they’re transparent about their grants. That’s how we know that they gave Ecklund $283,549 to do this work. For those keeping track, that works out to a cost of more than $1000 per interviewed scientist.

  13. lol. i attend mass because it’s entertaining as hell!

    it’s funny how everyone responds on cue, they sit, they stand, they kneel all en masse. lol.

    1. You would, no doubt, find video clips of Muslims at prayer a hoot – I certainly do; a whole culture suffering from OCD.

      Reminds me of something from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception:

      Two other, less effective aids to visionary experience deserve mention – carbon dioxide and the stroboscopic lamp. A mixture (completely non-toxic) of seven parts of oxygen to three of carbon dioxide produce, in those who inhale it, certain physical and psychological changes, which have been exhaustively described by Meduna. …. In yet other cases carbon dioxide transports the subject to the Other World at the antipodes of his everyday consciousness, and he enjoys very briefly visionary experiences entirely unconnected with his own personal history or with the problems of the human race in general.

      In light of these facts it becomes easy to understand the rationale of yogic breathing exercises. Practiced systematically, these exercises result, after a time, in prolonged suspensions of breath. Long suspensions of breath lead to a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the lungs ….

      Prolonged and continuous shouting or singing may produce similar, but less strongly marked, results. …. Hence the interminable ‘vain repetitions’ of magic and religion. The chanting of the curandero, the medicine-man, the shaman; the endless psalm-singing and sutra-intoning of Christian and Buddhist monks; the shouting and howling, hour after hour, of revivalists – under all the diversities of theological belief and aesthetic convention, the psycho-chemico-physiological intention remains constant. …. The way to the superconscious is through the subconscious, and the way, or at least one of the ways, to the subconscious is through the chemistry of individual cells. [Appendix I; pg 112]

      Better living through chemistry ….

  14. As mauch implied above, sometimes the absolutely best school available in an area is the K-8 or K-12 associated with the Catlick church. This was the case when by kids were growing up, proven by test scores and later college admissions over a 50 year time frame.

    There was huge competition amongst the highly educated masses, of the faith or not, to get their kids into this school. If your child was a singer, or played a musical instrument while in school, there was a pretty good likelihood that they would be asked to perform in church at some point in their tenure. This proud parent, who had been minorly ostracized by family and friends for not attending religious weddings or funerals since he was 12 years old, was always certain to be front and center for these performances.

    None of my 3 kids are religious. The youngest is an out atheist like his ol’ Pa and the other two just don’t care. My eldest is rather conservative politically though, and that makes me wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

    1. My older brothers went to Catholic schools for most of their education – I attended only in first and second grade. I’ve observed that Catholic schools are great incubators of atheism. As part of my Lutheran mother’s duties in my parents’ divorce decree, I too was sent to CCD (catechism). Any kid who has not been crushed into utter conformity by their parents by the age of 10 will naturally think the nuns are crazy: You mean god counts the number of venial sins in deciding how long you have to wait in purgatory before getting into Heaven? But if you swear (take God’s name in vain) and die before you get to confession, it’s hell for you, buddy! How can any one believe such tripe?

  15. This is not totally off-topic but is heading in that direction. I just listended to an interview with “evolutionary biologist” and musician Greg Graffin who apparently teaches in California, and has a book “Anarchy Evolution.” Perhaps when he has the oppotunity to discuss things in detail, all is made clear, but his interview seemed to give a confusing view of both atheism and evolution. Anyone more familiar? Professor Coyne?

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