Ecklund, who conducted an online survey of 1,200 scientists and an additional 275 interviews, classified the scientists into three categories: atheist/agnostic scientists (30 percent, half of whom view science and religion in inevitable conflict); those claiming a religion (50 percent); and those taking an unconventional and individualized spiritual approach (20 percent).
She found that the younger scientists operate with less of a conflict model between science and religion and are more likely to be religious. But on other measures, the scientists are far from the norm of American religion. While evangelical Protestants are heavily represented in the general population (almost 30 percent), only two percent of the scientists are of that religious tradition (with Judaism having the highest affiliation rate). The majority of scientists are at most religious liberals; only three percent of scientists working at elite universities see one religion as holding the most truth, which is the view most likely to be held by evangelicals.
The believing scientists did not see their beliefs as being influential on how they conducted their research; none of the religious scientists interviewed by Ecklund supported the theory of intelligent design, which criticizes the theory of natural selection in evolution; 94 percent of religious scientists think that evolution is the best explanation for the development of life on the earth. The author found few religious scientists who were open about their faith to their colleagues.
But while believing scientists may feel beleaguered by their non-believing colleagues, Ecklund found that the strongly anti-religious views found among “new atheists,” such as Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, are in the minority. “What religious scientists fail to realize, however, is that a significant proportion of their colleagues, although not religious themselves, are open to talking and thinking about matters of faith,” she adds. This is especially the case with the “spiritual entrepreneurs” in Ecklund’s third category.
These “spiritual but not religious” scientists range from “spiritual atheists,” who find their secular spirituality in nature or teaching science itself, to those engaged in such practices as yoga and meditation. Ecklund writes that the spiritual entrepreneurs are particularly adept at integrating spiritual concerns into their work and may serve as a model for a new kind of spirituality for non-scientists as well, particularly since scientists are often in elite positions that influence the rest of society.
Ecklund writes that these scientists may also be important in bridging the gulf between science and religion, since they see their spirituality as flowing into their science, yet avoid the usual politicized science-religion conflicts.
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.