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