Lead author Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 275 natural and social scientists at elite universities and found 72 of the scientists said they have a spirituality that is consistent with science.
For example, the spiritual scientists see both science and spirituality as "meaning-making without faith" and as an individual quest for meaning that can never be final. For example, spirituality is open to a scientific journey, but religion requires buying into an absolute absence of empirical evidence, Ecklund said.
"There's spirituality among even the most secular scientists," Ecklund said in a statement. "Spirituality pervades both the religious and atheist thought. It's not an either/or. This challenges the idea that scientists, and other groups we typically deem as secular, are devoid of those big 'Why am I here?' questions."
The study, scheduled to be published in the June issue of Sociology of Religion, says non-spiritual colleagues might focus on their research at the expense of working with students, but spiritual scientists' sense of spirituality results in them helping struggling students succeed.
"In their sense of things, being spiritual motivates them to provide help for others, and it redirects the ways in which they think about and do their work as scientists," Ecklund said.
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