By Lea Plante Science & Theology News Spirituality is important to a majority of scientists in the United States’ elite research universities, says the researcher of a new study on religion. These scientists are confounding the prevailing opinion that academics aren’t religious.
Researcher Elaine Howard Ecklund, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University in Houston, surveyed more than 1,600 scientists from 21 elite research universities. Ecklund designed the survey to examine scientists’ religious and spiritual beliefs as well as their practices.
“I really wanted a sense of what academic disciplines feel as a whole about issues related to religion and spirituality,” said Ecklund, lead investigator of the two-year research project, which will be completed in 2006.
Ecklund said the scientists she surveyed are “the people who are really creating a lot of the knowledge that goes out about science and social science, public policy kinds of issues.” She presented her initial research at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in August.
Ecklund used indicators such as attendance at religious services to measure levels of religiosity; indicators like participation yoga, meditation, scripture reading and prayer were used to measure spirituality.
More than half of scientists in all disciplines identified themselves as spiritual to some degree, although not necessarily affiliated with a specific religion.
Natural science vs. social science
Early study findings also indicate that more social scientists engage in religious practices than natural scientists.
Ecklund’s study results indicate what she calls an “academic reversal,” in which social scientists are more likely to be affiliated with organized religion than natural scientists. Her findings are in direct contrast with earlier studies, which indicated a lesser degree of religiosity among social scientists than natural scientists.
“She reverses the thing that we’ve all been basing a lot of our premises on — that is, that social scientists are the village atheists of the academy,” said John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist at Missouri State University in Springfield.
In contrast with the natural sciences, the direct connection with humanity experienced in the social sciences may allow for a greater acceptance of encounters with religion or spirituality, said Schmalzbauer. There is more openness, he said, in “areas of the social sciences that are more interpretive, that place more emphasis on meaning, and culture and worlds people inhabit, which makes them more cousins to the humanities.”
Interest in religion has increased among social scientists, Ecklund hypothesized, “because of changing culture in the social sciences, and a resurgence in the study of religion in some of these disciplines, sociology and political science in particular.” She cites the role that religious groups have played in recent U.S. elections: “You can’t study politics any more without taking religion seriously.”