“Spiritual” atheists explained: a guest post

Reader Sigmund has avidly followed the kerfuffle about the “spirituality” of scientists—especially the incessant articles by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, whose work is funded by the Templeton Foundation.  Ecklund, as you may recall (see the link above), has made a career out of arguing, based on her surveys, that scientists are surprisingly religious and spritual.  In both her academic publications and popular articles, Ecklund and her colleagues constantly claim, contra their data, that the moderate degree of religiosity and spirituality among scientists suggests a happy concordat between science and faith.  (See here and here for Jason Rosenhouse’s analysis of what her data really show.)

In the guest post below, Sigmund analyzes Ecklund’s claim (made to Chris Mooney in a Point of Inquiry podcast) that the scientists she interviewed themselves brought up their “spirituality.” He shows that this claim is bogus—that Ecklund herself planted that word several times in the “guide questions” she asked her scientist-subjects.  Sigmund also points out that Ecklund’s description of her research on “spirituality”—that is, the disparity between her actual data and how she describes them—seems disingenuous.  I wonder if Templeton cares about that.

SPIRITUAL ATHEISTS EXPLAINED

by Sigmund

Between 2005 and 2007, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, now an associate professor at Rice University in Houston, carried out a survey of the religious beliefs of a representative sample of 2,198 scientists from the top “twenty-one elite US research universities”. The survey, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, asked the responding scientists to complete a 15 minute internet based survey regarding their personal religious beliefs and practices. After answering the questionnaire,a selection of 275 of these scientists were subjected by Ecklund to either face-to-face or telephone interviews over the next three years. This survey and set of interviews have, thus far, resulted in one academic book, Science vs Religion, What Scientists Really Think  and, remarkably, four separate peer reviewed papers. The entire series of publications can probably best be described as Ecklund having one long losing argument with her data.

The initial dataset, published in 2007 in the journal ‘Social Problems’, provided a picture of scientists remarkably similar to that revealed by Edward Larson and Larry Witham in their famous 1997 Nature paper, with less than 8% of natural scientists in Ecklund’s survey stating that they had no doubt about the existence of God. Fully 75.2% of natural scientists questioned did not state a belief in God.

Despite this result Ecklund has continued to hammer on at her dataset, determined to prove that it is not quite the mortal blow to science-religion compatibility that her own figures suggest. One cannot, however, fault her for sheer determination, or indeed imagination, in how she tackled this dilemma.  After deciding that belief in God is not a critical point, nor indeed is adherence to traditional religious practice, Ecklund recently settled on the idea that it is the question of “spirituality” that proves the compatibility of science and religion.

Ecklund defined a new category of “spiritual atheism”—those who see themselves as spiritual yet do not believe in God—in a paper with co-author Elizabeth Long, “Scientists and Spirituality”, published earlier this year in the journal ‘Sociology of Religion’.

Describing this hypothesis in an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast of May 2010 she states:

“About 65% of this population see themselves as being spiritual or interested in spiritual things and that perhaps was the most surprising thing to me, that people who do not consider themselves at all religious, and are scientists, see spirituality as very attractive.”

That a substantial proportion of atheist scientists would describe themselves as “spiritual” was surprising to many. Chris Mooney, the host of that Point of Inquiry episode, described it as the “blockbuster” finding of her entire project and asked her the obvious question.

Mooney: “Well, if I’m putting myself in a critical mindset towards this “spiritual scientists” I would say then why on earth are you using the word spiritual when you don’t believe in anything. Why don’t you use “awe and wonder” and things like that which are the words that Sagan used.”

Ecklund: “And you could have, right? So I tried very hard actually not to, the way that I set up my methodology for the interviews I got, I tried hard not to introduce these kinds of things, into their vocabulary and sort of let them talk about, you know, how they got a sense of meaning and purpose and they could have said “awe and wonder through science” but they used the label spirituality, which I found intriguing.”

Exactly how hard she tried was revealed this week in Ecklund’s most recent paper, “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science” which was co-authored with Jerry Z. Park and published in the ‘Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion’.  In it Ecklund reveals that, far from avoiding the introduction of the term “spirituality” into the conversation, the interview followed a script of nine “guide questions”, six of which explicitly used the terms “spirituality” or “spiritually”.

Indeed, from reading the guide questions it is patently obvious that it is Ecklund herself who introduces both the term “spirituality” and the notion of a difference between “spirituality” and “religion.”

“1. I’m going to use the words religion and spirituality interchangeably here, recognizing

there is a lot of public discussion about the differences between these terms. Could you

say a bit about how you understand the terms religion and spirituality?

2. How do religion and spirituality come up, if at all, in the course of your discipline?

3. How about in teaching, does religion or spirituality come up at all in interactions with

students or teaching and in what kinds of ways?

4. I’m also interested in the relationship between religion and your work as a scientist. How

does religion (or spirituality) influence the work you do as a scientist?“

With that amount of prodding it is more intriguing that so many scientists avoided the term completely in their answers.

Finally, those familiar with Ecklund’s previous work will realize the importance of examining the data in the results section rather than the claims highlighted in the abstract. In the abstract for this paper Ecklund states that “only a minority of scientists see religion and science as always in conflict”, echoing the claim on her website about one of her previous papers on the survey that “the findings show that in contrast to public opinion and scholarly publications most scientists do not perceive there to be a conflict between religion and science.“

In fact, her latest results show that 85% of scientists find science and religion to be in conflict, either occasionally, depending on the context (70%), or always in conflict (15%).

While it’s hard to dispute that the John Templeton Foundation is getting its money’s worth supporting Ecklund, a scientist who reads this series of papers can only despair at what passes for peer review in the field of sociology.

43 Comments

  1. J.J.E.
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    So, I’m not so clear on how much of this is milking the same data set for all it’s worth and how much is followup studies.

    Can you clarify whether those guide questions were asked for the study that she was discussing with Mooney when she claimed:

    So I tried very hard actually not to [introduce terms like spirituality], the way that I set up my methodology for the interviews I got, I tried hard not to introduce these kinds of things, into their vocabulary and sort of let them talk about, you know, how they got a sense of meaning and purpose and they could have said “awe and wonder through science” but they used the label spirituality, which I found intriguing.

    If she was indeed discussing results from a study that explicitly asked those priming questions before the free form interview portion, I think she could be indicted of lying. If not, well, she’s still guilty of giving her data full body massages and selective interpretation, but it impugns her integrity far less directly.

    • Sigmund
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it refers to the same study that she talked about with Mooney.
      The description of the set-up was too long to fit in the above article but I’ll reproduce it here.
      “It was necessary to employ a method that would allow discovery of new categories and strategies
      for how scientists structure meanings of religion, science, spirituality, and the relationship
      between these. To this end, 501 of those who completed the survey were randomly selected and
      asked to participate in a longer in-depth interview. At least 50 individuals were selected from
      each of the seven fields. Between July 2005 and March 2007, 275 interviews were completed,
      mainly by the first author, either in person or over the phone. The qualitative interviews ranged
      from 20 minutes long to two and a half hours, and all were transcribed. Respondents were asked
      specifically how they understand the terms “religion” and spirituality. They were also asked if
      religion had any influence on their specific discipline or their particular research as well as how
      they perceive the relationship between religion and science. The following questions, from the
      interview guide, were used to address these topics:”
      And then it goes on to list the above questions.
      Basically she is saying that a selection of the initial sample were chosen for interviews and the ‘free-form’ interviews
      consisted of her asking nine guide questions, six of which mentioned the terms “spirituality” or “spiritually”.

      • J.J.E.
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        Ouch. It certainly seems as if she got caught in a lie. I can’t believe she’d say something like that given that her surveys contained multiple questions with those explicit “spiritual” clues. Grrr. Too bad one doesn’t pay a professional penalty for lying in media appearances.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Ecklund follows the extremely dreary pattern of not finding what she wanted so she goes back to the data and makes things up. Her experiment was not well designed to begin with but, having said that, her data clearly contradicts her claims. I think she’s an embarrassment to Rice.

  2. steve oberski
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Coming soon from Ms. Ecklund, humanitarian mass murders, inclusive racists and pro-choice pro-lifers.

    • R.W.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      And obese skeletons.

  3. Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    My spirituality ended in 2002 when I got sober. But I could easily be coerced back into the spirit world pending a doorstep delivery of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it. This sociologist (who despairs of crappy peer-review in the social sciences, BTW) is a spiritual atheist, and durn proud of it. My latest acquisition is a bottle of 100% agave El Viejo Luis. Thanks, dad.

  4. Gayle Stone
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    She plants ‘spiritualty” in her questions to make sure it gets discussed so as to satisfy Templeton that she is earning her money. Its possible, like many evangelists, that she doesn’t practice what she preaches.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      but…

      that makes it even worse.

      what a waste of time and money this person is.

      Rice University should immediately start reviewing her findings, just like Harvard did with Marc Hauser.

      There is academic misconduct here, no doubt in my mind.

  5. Myron
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “About 65% of this population see themselves as being spiritual or interested in spiritual things…”

    What the hell does that mean?
    That scientists are intellectuals?

    “intellectual n. = a person who places a high value on or pursues things of interest to the intellect or the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, as aesthetic or philosophical matters, especially on an abstract and general level.”

    (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/intellectual)

  6. Myron
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    “About 65% of this population see themselves as being spiritual or interested in spiritual things…”

    What can that possibly mean but “Many scientists are also interested in art, literature, music, or philosophy”? I doubt that it means “Many scientists are interested in esoteric, mystical, or occult things”.

    • Llwddythlw
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      I must admit I can’t quite figure out what meaning was being ascribed to “spiritual”. Did Ecklund or Mooney define what they meant by “spiritual”? I’ve just looked it up on my OED, and there are several pages of definitions including “morally good”, “characterized by or exhibiting a high degree of refinement of thought or feeling”, “clever, smart, witty”, and then there’s also “devout, holy, pious”.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Ecklund claims that she did not offer a definition, leaving that to the interviewee. I guess the resulting ambiguity does not bother her. Heck, she’s probably counting on it.

  7. Aztek
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    What a massive load of…hmm (moment of self-censorship)…doodoo. Anyone can claim to believe in two seemingly incompatible ideas. Someone might even genuinely think in their mind that they simultaneously believe in completely incompatible beliefs. But it doesn’t change the fact that they are not compatible. It only means that it is possible for a person to fool himself.

    • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM
      Posted September 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Or herself.

  8. vel
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I’m always amazed at the deception evidently necessary to prop up religion.

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      I’m not, to be honest. When you start with a premise that isn’t even plausible and can’t be supported logically or evidentially, the only thing you CAN do is fudge your data. That is, if you really, really want it to be true (and if you want your money). Any scientist or researcher with integrity who repeated this study would’ve looked at their data and realised, even if they’d used the same loaded questions as Ecklund, that the starting premise was a brainfart.

      • Marella
        Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

        Where’s Ben with his descriptions of “evil giants, talking snakes and zombie intestinal fondling” when you need him?

        • Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          snmfg glrmph ersml — huh? Wha…?

          Erp…sorry ’bout that. Dozed off there for a minute…there was this buzzing sound…couldn’t tell if it was a mosquito or a sorry researcher drunkenly droning drivel.

          For that matter…where am I, and what’s up with these clothes…?

          b&

          • Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

            That’s my narcocoulrophilia – I have a compulsion to dress unconscious people as clowns, and you just happened to be passed out.

  9. Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Back in my graduate student days, I used to think of sociology as mostly made up nonsense masquerading as science. Since then, I have actually talked to some sociologists (faculty at my campus) about their work, and revised my opinion to be more favorable toward sociology.

    Everything that I read from Ecklund reminds me of that earlier graduate student judgment of the discipline.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Good catch!

    from reading the guide questions it is patently obvious that it is Ecklund herself who introduces both the term “spirituality” and the notion of a difference between “spirituality” and “religion.”

    Can anyone take Ecklund seriously after this? It has been patently obvious that she is misinterpreting her data. But now we find that she is cooking it too.

    The take home message is that this is how the religious, or their facilitators, do pattern search. If they don’t see “god”, they introduce “god”.

    • Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      Forced pareidolia?

      If you don’t see the face of Jesus on your toast, paint it there with jam and sing hallelujah.

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    In the abstract for this paper Ecklund states that “only a minority of scientists see religion and science as always in conflict”, echoing the claim on her website about one of her previous papers on the survey that “the findings show that in contrast to public opinion and scholarly publications most scientists do not perceive there to be a conflict between religion and science.

    “Always” in conflict? Note even I would say that. What a load to parse.

    • TomZ
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, her abstract is misleading with this quote “only a minority of scientists see religion and science as always in conflict”

      When we find that it’s technically true that a minority answered affirmative to the “always in conflict” question, she leaves out the majority (another 70%) affirming that conflicts do exist at least “…occasionally, depending on the context (70%)…”

      It’s like a graph-scale trick, only with words.

      Surprise, surprise, Ecklund’s being intellectually dishonest in her abstract.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    The fact that such nonsense as Ecklund’s can be published in those journals attests to the extremely poor quality of those journals. They likely rank along “Social Text” which Alan Sokal hoaxed back in 1996.

  13. Claimthehighground
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Back in the ’50s (yes, I remember them well), the USSR was notorious for claiming the initial invention of nearly every technological improvement. I recall a contest that occurred between a Russian race horse and one from the U.S. The Russian horse was badly beaten, and the Russian description of the race was as follows.

    In one of the most highly contested horse races ever run, the superior Russian horse ran a very strong second, while the unfortunate American nag could only limp in second from last.

    See, perspective is everything.

  14. Divalent
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    “1. I’m going to use the words religion and science interchangeably here, recognizing
    there is a lot of public discussion about the differences between these terms.”

    “2. Do you practice religion?”

    Wow! Most scientists are religious!

    • truthspeaker
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Your check from Templeton is on its way.

  15. OliversArmy
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    One cannot, however, fault her for sheer determination, or indeed imagination, in how she tackled this dilemma.

    Bruce Willis stars as Elaine Ecklund in Dei Hard.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  17. Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    ‘The entire series of publications can probably best be described as Ecklund having one long losing argument with her data.’

    LOL.

    Perfect summation up Ecklund’s ‘research’. Well said.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      Well, at the very least, the data has been collected. One hopes that at least the aggregate results are easily available for others to analyze and publish on.

  18. Lynn David
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I have always considered myself a spiritual athiest for quite some time now. But I do it by redefining spirituality in part to that “awe and wonder.” My general definition is that spirituality is the sum total of human emotions. And I have oft said that the capacity for spirituality is evident in the capacity for play – IN ANY ANIMAL.

    Why? Because man is a spiritual animal; but then so too are bears, dogs, squirrels…. Man has what he considers to be “spiritual events.” My point is, however, that man has in the past (and continuing to this day) most often misinterpretted such emotional moments in their lives. That misinterpretation leading to spurious religious and theological explanations.

    With such a definition I cannot see how any scientist cannot define themselves as spiritual. My point is to reclaim the idea, if not the word, in a scientific sense.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      hmmm… still not really clear what ‘spiritual’ is in your sense Lynn.

      • Claimthehighground
        Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        It’s Collins’ “Frozen Waterfall” moment, without that god thing. Both Hitchens and Harris have noted this as numinous, and J. Campbell as bliss. I’m with Lynn on this one.

        • Finbarr
          Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

          But then why call it ‘spiritual’? The dictionary definition (Collins) of that word is ‘relating to the spirit or soul and not to physical nature or matter’. Surely any sense if wonder and awe at nature is the complete opposite of that definition.

          ‘Spiritual’ is a weasel-word used by the religious to smuggle concepts of soul, gods, ‘cosmic consciousness’ and other such nonsense into everyday language. If all we’re talking about is wonder and awe, why not just say ‘wonder and awe’? If we’re talking about the emotions, why not just say an ‘emotional’ experience? Why refer to non-existent ‘spirits’ at all?

          I am deeply sympathetic to the idea of naturalistic ‘spiritual’ experiences, I have them quite often myself, but I don’t see why using the fuzzy and vague term ‘spiritual’ is at all helpful in describing them, and trying to distinguish them from religious experiences. It is misleading at best and downright dishonest at worst.

          • Dominic
            Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            …& I am with Finbarr! :)

            • Claimthehighground
              Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

              How Clintonesque! Why don’t we say it all depends on what the definition of the word definition is. Since we all share naturalistic ‘spiritual’ experiences of some form and we all know what we mean by that, this is turning into a who can get in the last word thing. I await the final overpost from Fin or Dom. I promise no reply. No, really I do. :-)

            • Notagod
              Posted September 9, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

              I too agree with Finbar. Spirituality is a word used to sow confusion not clarity.

  19. Marella
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Any time you hear the word ‘spiritual,’ run.

  20. Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM
    Posted September 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    If “spirituality” and “religion” are the same thing, then the data suggest that so-called “religious” scientists are really “spiritual” which is, of course, the same dis-belief in gods. Er . . . what?


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