In the latest edition of The Sociological Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal devoted to all types of sociological topics, Rice University researchers led by Elaine Howard Ecklund have provided a snapshot of academic scientists construction of an “alternative spirituality.”

The team surveyed 6,470 scientists in four national regional contexts and interviewed 65 self-identified spiritual but not-religious scientists.

What they found was that alternative spirituality is more prevalent among scientists in Taiwan and France than in the U.K. and the U.S. This work was supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation grant titled “Religion among Scientists in International Context.”

Alternative spirituality encompasses a wide swath of beliefs including paganism and new-age type religions. The team found that the construction of spirituality redefines the cultural meanings bundled with religion in these respective contexts. “Our research helps to explain how the construction of spirituality is changing the face of religion in different societal contexts,” Ecklund and her team wrote. They interviewed biologists and physicists.

Other researchers on the project were: Di Di, an assistant professor of sociology at Santa Clara University; Simranjit Khalsa, doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Rice University; and Robert Thompson, Jr., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The study of how religious people view science and how scientists view religion is an ongoing project for Ecklund.
In 2012, she received her third round of funding from the John Templeton Foundation with the aim to investigate religious people’s understanding of science at three levels of inquiry: the highest levels of religious authority, case-study congregations and individual religious people.

In 2018, she studied whether scientists of faith experienced discrimination. The analysis was published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in June and found that Protestant, Muslim and adherents of “other” traditions report higher rates of religious discrimination in both biology and physics relative to those who do not identify with a religion. Jewish and Catholic academic scientists report higher rates of discrimination in biology but not in physics.

Later that same year she published a book on what scientists made of religion, Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion.

Last December, the team at Rice University partnered up with The Catholic University of America for a study that found putting creationism in the curricula has strong support from Black and Latino Americans that they said was partially explained by religion.

The study, “Challenging Evolution in Public Schools: Race, Religion and Attitudes toward Teaching Creationism,” draws on data from a survey of 9,425 American adults. Researchers were eager to see how different racial and ethnic groups felt about the topic of teaching creationism.

That study was also funded by the John Templeton Foundation’s Religious Understandings of Science project.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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