Are scientists spiritual? The answer is yes! Recent research suggests that the majority of scientists at top universities in North America have spiritual leanings, even though they may not like to admit it.

If you are university student, or if you have ever thought critically about religion and spirituality, chances are you have absorbed the idea that scientists and scholars are, by virtue of their “higher” educational training, secular atheists. It's true, isn't it. Most people believe that scientists are secular thinkers, critical of spirituality, and hostile to religions. Scientists are “almost uniformly perceive scientists as the carriers of a secularist impulse, a group responsible for building the modern research university and undermining religious authority by their success in deciphering the mysteries of the natural order without recourse to supernatural aid or guidance” (Ecklund and Long,  2011, p. 254). To this general view we can add the particular view (espoused by particular scholars) that the more eminent a scholar is (i.e. the smarter they are), the less “religiously involved” they will be. Stark makes this point when he suggests that smarter scholars are more likely to avoid religion. He says, and I quote, “that the more eminent the scholar, the less likely he was to be religiously involved”[1] This basic message is clear. Scholars are secular, and smarter scholars are secular too. The message, which is echoed down through the scholarly corpus[2] and aped to the students in their seats, is clear. Scholars and scientists are secular and atheist and if you want to be smart, you should be too.

Chances are that if you believe this, you believe it without any evidence at all. I for a long time believed that all my colleagues were secular atheists, but I only believed it because I had been told it was true. I never questioned my colleagues about their beliefs, I just assumed the basic truth. Of course, I myself have had strong mystical/spiritual experiences but I only once mentioned it to a colleague. For the most part I assumed my colleagues were atheist’s and that they would neither be interested in, nor welcoming of, spiritual, religious, or mystical discussion. In fact, quite the opposite. I believed, based on what I had been told, that they would be hostile towards it.

But is it true? Are scientists secular atheists and are they hostile towards spiritual discussion. Well, as I found out as I began to turn my attention to the scholarly literature on religion, mysticism, and connection, the answer is no! As much as it might come as shock to some, scholars and scientists have long shown an interest in the spiritual side of things. It is obligatory to cite William James as advocate of taking religion, spirituality, and in particular religious experience seriously,[3] but others have worked here as well. Abraham Maslow built a career on studying peak experience, really just an academically acceptable euphemism for mystical experience,[4] and others preceded (and followed) him.[5] Even the "high priests" of modern science, physicists, have, from time to time, expressed their “mystical” side.[6] But beyond these classic invocations (and far more interesting from my perspective) is the notable truth that when we (and by “we” I mean scientists) ask our colleagues what they really believe, they represent themselves as far more spiritual than people like Stark, Richard Dawkins, and even that “science guy” have led us to believe. It is surprise that researcher Ecklund expresses when she finds that after surveying "2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences," at 21 elite U.S. institutions, that the majority of scientists "at the top" are spiritual! Yes, you read that right—the majority of  elite scientists at top universities are spiritual! As Ecklund says:

Our results show unexpectedly that the majority of scientists at top research universities consider themselves “spiritual….” these findings are important, as scientists are often seen as being in conflict with religion, and yet, scholars see spirituality as a substitute for religion, so it is important for us to understand ways that scientists are negotiating their relationship with religion through spirituality.[7]

All I can say here is “WOW!" I'm as surprised as you may be here. I myself have been interested in religion, spirituality, and mysticism for over a decade now, but before I read Ecklund’s article I thought that all my colleagues were secular, atheistic gumballs. Now I find that it isn’t true. Indeed, now I find that, contrary to what dogmatists like Richard Dawkins would have you believe,[8] the “smartest” of my colleagues actually believe otherwise.[9] Indeed, the limited sociological research that has been conducted on the phenomenon has found that those with more education are equally likely, if not more likely, to have profound mystical experiences.[10] The educated just do not always conceptualize it in the same way. Instead of using religious language and concepts, they use a secular language, a psychologically neutral language (characterizing mystical connection as a peak experience for example)[11] and they step back from the personalized patriarch of mass religion[12] and instead prefer to discuss self-actualization, transcendence,[13] “pure consciousness events,”[14] or as Albert Einstein put it, cosmic religious feeling.[15]

Note: The following discussion is excepted from my book Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy.

I want to pause for a moment and consider in a bit more detail the views of Albert Einstein. Einstein is often invoked by atheists and deists alike to support either a simplistic atheism or deism, but his views were more complex and nuanced. As you might expect, Einstein clearly and unequivocally rejected the personalized patriarch, the “God conceived in man’s image,” as presented by the priests of mass religion;[16] nevertheless he did feel a mystical reverence for nature and he did admit a mystical connection to a transcendent God as expressed through nature. It was God that Einstein spoke of, but not a God as most would understand. For Einstein there was something of great intelligence, a “marvelous order” that was manifest in nature and human thought.   Einstein approached this “marvelous order” with a feeling of reverence or, in his own words, cosmic religious feeling. Einstein saw religious geniuses, i.e. prophets and Avatars of old, as expressing and developing this cosmic religious feeling. Some readers may find this doubtful, so it is worth quoting at length from his 1930 article.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought…. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another. [17]

In conversations with Dr. Hermanns, a sociologist and poet, Einstein revealed his conceptions of God and mysticism. Einstein says that he “no longer believed in the known God of the Bible, but rather in the mysterious God expressed in nature,”[18] a God which he felt revealed “such an intelligence that any human logic falters in comparison.”[19] He even admitted to mystical connection when he said to Hermanns, “We both may have mystical connections, but my God appears as the physical world.”[20] Einstein found his mystical connection with the natural world, which is something that any mystic would also feel a connection to. Indeed, Einstein describes his mystical experiences and cosmic religious feelings in exactly the same way a mystic would, which is to say, as unity, oneness, and wholeness. Hermanns writes:

Einstein looked through the window and seemed to mumble more to the trees than to me, "I believe that I have cosmic religious feelings. I never could grasp how one could satisfy these feelings by praying to limited objects. The tree outside is life, a statue is dead. The whole of nature is life, and life, as I observe it, rejects a God resembling man. I like to experience the universe as one harmonious whole. Every cell has life. [21]

So there you have it. Einstein was sympathetic to cosmic religion feeling and a nascent mystic himself. This may come as a surprise to many, but it shouldn’t be discounted outright especially since Einstein was not the only famous physicist to speak in mystical terms. Psychologists Ken Wilbur put together a collection of the “mystical writings” of the world’s great physicists in which he claims that every physicist in his volume was an actual, dyed-in-the-wool, mystic.[22]

If you are like me you are surprised to hear that most scientists are spiritual, and that Einstein and many others either had, or took, mystical experience seriously. So what is the moral of the story? Well, if you are a scientist with spiritual tendencies, if you are not convinced that the "material world" is all that exists, or if you are a student interested in exploring the phenomenon, don’t allow yourself to be bullied into silence by those on the “left” or the “right” who issue totalizing criticisms of religion and religious people,” or who paint everyone with an interest or an experience as a stupid fundamentalist[s].[23] Being interested in religion, spirituality, mysticism, consciousness, peak experiences, or whatever, is a valid personal and scientific orientation. It doesn’t make you stupid, it just makes you curious. Indeed, and in fact, interest in mysticism and spirituality may be the scholarly wave of the future. As I note in my article Dangerous Memories: Slavery, Mysticism, and Transformation,[24] there is something profound and transformative in mystical experience. Given the increasingly violent and rotten state of the world we live in, we need to be opening our minds and taking a look at anything that can give us (and by “us” I mean the endangered human race) hope that there is a way out of the messy morass we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into.

If you are an atheist, or a secular humanist, or anybody else who has rejected mysticism, religion, and spirituality outright, the moral of the story is, don’t be so closed mind. As Einstein noted, and as the dogmatist Richard Dawkins has amply demonstrated, atheists can be just as fanatical, dogmatic, an intolerant as any fundamentalist religious fanatic. Einstein had some particularly harsh words for the fanatical atheists of this world.

I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional "opium of the people"—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims.[25]

And besides, the atheist notion that spirituality and science are somehow incompatible is simply not true—it is propaganda really. Ecklund and Long note that rather than being naturally hostile to spiritual exploration, in fact scientists are naturally spiritual! Spirituality is, according to the authors of the study, part of who we are. Scientists may be repulsed by elites who use religion as an opiate, but as Einstein’s own perspective of God in nature attests, quests for spiritual truths are the same as quests for natural truths. It is the search for truth that scientists are engaged in. As Ecklund and Long note:

For many scientists, spirituality meshes beautifully with their identities as scientists because they also see spirituality as an individual journey, as a quest for meanings that can never be final, just as is the case for scientific explanations of reality…. For some their sense of spirituality flows very deeply from the work that they do as scientists.[26]

In other words, spirituality is an extension of the scientist’s already powerful drive for Truth. As such it should come as no surprise that scientists are spiritual after all.

­

References

Berger, Peter. A Bleak Outlook Is Seen for Religion. Vol. April 25: The New York Times, 1968.

———. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books, 1969.

Bourque, Linda Brookover. "Social Correlates of Transcendental Experiences." Sociological Analysis 30, no. 3 (Fall1969 1969): 151-63.

Bourque, Linda Brookover, and Kurt W. Back. "Language, Society and Subjective Experience." Sociometry 34, no. 1 (1971): 1-21.

Bowman, Gary E. "Einstein and Mysticism." Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 49, no. 2 (2014): 281-307.

Bucke, R.M. Cosmic Consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton, 2009/1929.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.

Ecklund, Elaine Howard. "How Scientists Misunderstand Religious People." Science and Religion Today, October 21 2009.

———. What Scientists Really Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ecklund, Elaine Howard, and Elizabeth Long. "Scientists and Spirituality." Sociology of Religion 72, no. 3 (2011): 253-74.

Einstein, Albert. "Religion and Science." New York Times, November 9 1930.

Forman, Robert K.S. . Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness. Albany: State University of New York, 1999.

Hermanns, William. Einstein and the Poet. Brookline Village, MA: Branden, 1930.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Jammer, Max. Einstein and Religion. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Krippner, Stanley. "Altered States of Consciousness." In The Highest State of Consciousness, edited by John White, 3-9. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

Krippner, Stanley, and Harris L. Friedman, eds. Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Maslow, A. H. "The Authoriatarian Character Structure." Journal of Social Psychology 18, no. 2 (1943 Nov 01 1943): 401.

———. Motivation and Personality (2nd Ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

———. Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. New York: Penguin, 1994.

———. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964.

———. Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd Edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1968.

Maslow, A.H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

———. "A Theory of Human Motivation." Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 370-96.

Myers, F.W.H. "The Subliminal Consciousness." Proc Soc Psychical Res 7 (1892): 298-355.

Sosteric, Mike. Unpublished.

Stace, Walter Terence. The Teachings of the Mystics. New York: Mentor, 1960.

Stark, Rodney. "On the Incompatibility of Religion and Science: A Survey of American Graduate Students." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3, no. 1 (1963): 3-20.

Underhill, Evelyn. The Essentials of Mysticism. Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons., 1920.

———. Practical Mysticism. www.digireads.com: Digireads, 2010.

Wilber, Ken. Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists New York: Shambhala, 2001.

Endnotes

[1] Rodney Stark, "On the Incompatibility of Religion and Science: A Survey of American Graduate Students," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3, no. 1 (1963): 5.

[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1969); A Bleak Outlook Is Seen for Religion, vol. April 25 (The New York Times, 1968); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2006).

[3] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982); Walter Terence Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics (New York: Mentor, 1960).

[4] A. H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (New York: Penguin, 1994); A.H. Maslow, "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943); The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1971); A. H. Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd Edition) (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1968); "The Authoriatarian Character Structure," Journal of Social Psychology 18, no. 2 (1943).

[5] R.M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (New York: E.P. Dutton, 2009/1929); Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman, eds., Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2010); Stanley Krippner, "Altered States of Consciousness," in The Highest State of Consciousness, ed. John White (New York: Doubleday, 2012); Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics; Evelyn Underhill, The Essentials of Mysticism (Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons., 1920); Practical Mysticism (www.digireads.com: Digireads, 2010); F.W.H. Myers, "The Subliminal Consciousness," Proc Soc Psychical Res 7 (1892).

[6] Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists (New York: Shambhala, 2001).

[7] Elaine Howard Ecklund and Elizabeth Long, "Scientists and Spirituality," Sociology of Religion 72, no. 3 (2011).

[8] Dawkins, The God Delusion.

[9] Ecklund and Long, "Scientists and Spirituality."

[10] Linda Brookover Bourque, "Social Correlates of Transcendental Experiences," Sociological Analysis 30, no. 3 (1969); Linda Brookover Bourque and Kurt W. Back, "Language, Society and Subjective Experience," Sociometry 34, no. 1 (1971).

[11] Maslow, "A Theory of Human Motivation."; A. H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (2nd Ed.) (New York: Harper & Row, 1970); Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964).),

[12] Elaine Howard Ecklund, What Scientists Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 255.: italics added; Ecklund and Long, "Scientists and Spirituality."

[13] Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.

[14] Robert K.S. Forman, Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness (Albany: State University of New York, 1999).

[15] Einstein speaks directly and clearly about religious experience in his 1930 New York Times article entitled Religion and Science. Albert Einstein, "Religion and Science," New York Times, November 9 1930.

The full text of Einstein’s article is available http://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/einstein/einsci.htm

[16] Gary E. Bowman, "Einstein and Mysticism," Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 49, no. 2 (2014).

[17] Einstein, "Religion and Science."

[18] William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet (Brookline Village, MA: Branden, 1930), 9.

[19] Ibid., 83.

[20] Ibid., 71.

[21] Ibid., 63.

[22] Wilber, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists

[23] Elaine Howard Ecklund, "How Scientists Misunderstand Religious People," Science and Religion Today, October 21 2009.

[24] Mike Sosteric, Unpublished. For a copy of this article please contact me at [email protected]

[25] Einstein quoted in Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), 97.

[26] Ecklund and Long, "Scientists and Spirituality," 262.