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
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.