Sunday, August 14, 2005

America’s scientists are a surprisingly spiritual group, according to a survey in which almost 70 percent agreed “there are basic truths” in religion, and 68 percent classified themselves as a “spiritual person.”

Overall, about a third said “I do not believe in God” in the analysis, which polled 1,646 scientists at 21 research universities across the nation.

The findings mirror a similar study of physicians released by the University of Chicago last month, which revealed 76 percent of the 2,000 doctors surveyed said they believed in God.

“Science is often perceived as incompatible with religion and spirituality, but few have asked how scientists themselves think about religion,” said study director Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston.

Previous studies have indicated that as few as 7 percent of the nation’s top scientists said they believed in God. However, change may be afoot.

“In general, those in the academy may not be as irreligious as some academic and popular commentators would like to think,” Mrs. Ecklund writes in her study, “Religion Among Academic Scientists.”

The analysis probed the spirituality of the ivory tower, questioning scientists in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science and psychology about God, the Bible, religion, church attendance and prayer.

The average respondent’s age was about 50, eight out of 10 were married, 84 percent were men, and all had children. About two-thirds were full professors, and all had published books.

Blame it on an analytical background, perhaps, but the survey found fewer than 1 percent of the scientists took the Bible literally, while 25 percent thought it was “the inspired word of God” but not to be taken literally in its entirety. About 75 percent agreed the Bible “is an ancient book of fables recorded by men.”

The disciplines had their differences, however.

Physicists and biologists were the least spiritual — 41 percent in both groups said they did not believe in God. Among political scientists, the number was 27 percent — the lowest in the bunch.

The social scientists were more devout: 30 percent said they prayed, compared with 22 percent of the natural scientists. Another 28 percent of the social scientists regularly read a “sacred text,” compared with 20 percent of the natural scientists.

“Based on previous research, we thought that social scientists would be less likely to practice religion than natural scientists are, but our data showed just the opposite,” Mrs. Ecklund said.

She presented her findings yesterday before the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Philadelphia and plans to expand on the research.

University of Chicago researchers were equally enthusiastic about their survey. They found that 59 percent believed in an afterlife, 90 percent attended religious services, and 55 percent said their religious beliefs influenced how they practiced medicine.

“We did not think physicians were nearly this religious,” said study author Dr. Farr Curlin.

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