Tuesday, 24 May 2011

I am not alone!

As my 10,000th page view close approaches (very exciting...in that I may well be alone!), I thought I would just put up a short prompt to all of the other scientists who also have philosophical or spiritual trends that they may be keeping in the closet!

A recent paper by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Elizabeth Long in the Sociology of Religion (2011) called Scientist and Spirituality interviewed nearly 300 natural and social scientists at 21 top US universities in order to determine details of their religious and spiritual beliefs. Over half were atheists, which is to be expected from a scientific group (if anything being in the US made this a little lower than we might expect over in the U.K.). Yet nearly 1/3 of the participants identified themselves as spiritual atheists.

Common trends included; personal and consistent spirituality, ethics and philosophy of science forming a spiritual base, opposition of organised religion, disconnection with theism in particular, a close connection with nature (especially us natural scientists), connection with Eastern philosophical traditions, and spirituality likely to promote public engagement and positive action.

(Less of this)

Scientists seem to have a much greater chance of seeking out their own philosophical and religious convictions and are rarely carried along with family or local trends when compared to the general population (of course as a good scientist I would also point out that this data has not been corrected for IQ or wealth). We also have a philosophical framework to fall back onto, not many other professions can claim this (although I am now inspired to write philosophical tracts for accountants, bricklayers and insurance salesmen). The philosophy of science has been shown to be associated with certain ethical paradigms such as open mindedness, collaboration and consideration. Here we have one of the interviewed chemists discussing the conflict of science and religion:

‘Interviewer: Some might say that there is a conflict between religion and science, an irreconcilable conflict. How would you respond to that kind of statement?

Chemist: [sigh] [ pause 9 seconds] There is surely not any irreconcilable conflict between spirituality and science. You know, I would adopt the views of Einstein on this, who always
claimed to be an extremely spiritual person, but he had no use for religion. He was always in
awe and wonder at the universe.’

As a group we don’t respond well to organised religion, even the theists were poor church goers and largely found their own connection to God. The idea of a personal deity didn’t receive much love either, even amongst religious scientists. Mathematicians and physicists in particular were more likely to identify with a life force or non personal deity than any other group (used to working with abstract concepts perhaps?).

To my great joy large numbers of the group including theists identified a close connection to nature a source of spiritual beliefs. Natural scientists were particularly strong here with 100% of them using the word nature directly after being asked about sources of spirituality. Intimate knowledge of the natural world was almost universally seen as eminently positive and informative to other aspects of life amongst us natural scientists. Here is a biologists thoughts on the topic:

‘You know that feeling you get standing by the seashore looking out over the endless expanse of water—or standing in the rainforest listening to the insects and the birds and their huge diversity and incomprehensibility. Or the feeling you get considering the age of all things in existence and how long it could go on. Sort of awe at the totality of things. If that’s what spirituality is, then I get it. But I have the feeling I am missing the point when I say things like that because my Christian friends don’t talk that way.’

Buddhism came up on a number of different occasions, as did Eastern and Hindu (Taosim remaining the stalking ninja of the eastern philosophical traditions). While the number of direct adherents to Eastern religions was small, just under ¼ of the group mentioned at least one of these three words. Two different psychologists when interviewed came up with the following:

‘I consider myself in one sense a spiritual person, wondering about the complexity and the majesty of existence as I understand it. And I happen to be very influenced by Buddhism as a system of ethics and thought, but I don’t consider Buddhism a religion. It’s really a philosophy, but it’s a philosophy imbued with a lot of spirituality. So that plays a role in my personal life, but not the belief in God or the angels’

‘My own spirituality might be closer to almost an eastern kind of tradition than a western tradition, even though I was raised a Catholic. I feel a little more comfortable with certain eastern ideas about individuality as an illusion. . . . And so these kinds of ideas give me comfort when I think about mortality, but they’re not really ideas about a god or anything. But they are ideas about before and after and meaning of life as it is being lived now.’

Best of all scientists were more likely to actually do something external about their spiritual belief than the general public (very surprising, but it turns out the general public is more likely to feel shame and resentment over their spiritual beliefs). Spiritual beliefs were strongly identified with positive action, environmental and social activism and leading or teaching future generations.

So it turns out I’m not really alone! Large numbers of scientists have arrived at what the author called spiritual atheism (next stop 100,000 page views). So I end this post with a question asked to an economist:

'Interviewer: How about spirituality? Is that important to you or different than religion
for you?

Economist: I’m going to sound like some flipping New Ager here. . . . I have a very strong commitment toward the outdoors and the environment and I think that can kind of be a spiritual commitment. I’ve made provisions to give a substantial amount of money in my will to the Nature Conservancy, for example.'

If you are a spiritual scientist in hiding out there, its O.K. you won’t be labelled a New Ager, 1/3 of your colleagues most likely think the same way!

(That's more like it!)

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