Religious scientists work in culture of “assumed atheism”

by | May 26, 2024 | Faith & Religion, Spirituality, Story Ideas | 0 comments

May 2024

Scientists who personally practice a faith tradition do manage to reconcile the seemingly at-odds worldviews. Many say that while it can be challenging and uncomfortable to speak openly at work, due to a perceived taboo of being spiritual in such an objective profession, they can accommodate being both spiritual and scientific.

In an article in the scientific journal Nature, journalist Ann Marie Conlon highlights the work of Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who has studied scientists’ religiosity for the past 20 years.

Through 40,000 surveys and more than 2,500 personal interviews, Ecklund has found that more scientists than one might expect hold a religious worldview. In one study from 2016, at least 30 percent of respondents in eight countries declared a religious affiliation (still markedly lower than the 85 percent of the general global population that identify as religious).

Confidentiality made it easier for religious scientists to talk openly about their faith, according to Ecklund.

Christopher Scheitle, another sociologist, surveyed more than 1,300 science students and found that many report a culture of “assumed atheism”, which led them to hide their religion for fear of being judged.

Interestingly, the attitude towards scientists of faith is not as exclusionary within the scientific community as one might think from statements by the most vociferous atheists, Ecklund points out. In the 2016 study, two-thirds of respondents did not find that the science-religion relationship is one of conflict.

There are cultural differences. At research labs in India, for example, scientists are expected to have a spiritual outlook to a greater degree than elsewhere. Across Africa there is also a strong culture of religious acceptance, says Faadiel Essop, a medical physiologist in Cape Town, South Africa, in the article.

Essop sees the often strict divide between science and religion in the West as a barrier to the free exploration of ideas.

“Work and religion are viewed as separate domains. Personally, I think they’re an integrated whole”, he says.

Suzanne Kalka is a science educator in Manchester, U.K. Her advice to science teachers who hesitate to be open about religion is to offer examples of famous scientists who combined faith with scientific achievements. She cites data showing that 75 percent of scientists who won a Nobel prize between 1901 and 2000 were of Judaeo-Christian faith.

Anders Bolling

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