The pursuit of science can be compatible with spirituality.

This conclusion comes out of a new study in which 275 elite scientists were interviewed by a team of sociologists. One in five atheistic scientists who were interviewed self-identified as "spiritual."

"These spiritual atheist scientists are seeking a core sense of truth through spirituality one that is generated by and consistent with the work they do as scientists," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at Rice University and lead author of the new study, which will appear in the June issue of the journal Sociology of Religion.

According to Ecklund, many of the scientists viewed both science and spirituality as "quests for meaning" that do not invoke faith. Religion, on the other hand, requires belief without empirical evidence, and is thus incompatible with the pursuit of science.

"There's spirituality among even the most secular scientists," Ecklund said in a press release. "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. They too have these basic human questions and a desire to find meaning."

Another difference between religion and spirituality, according to the atheistic scientists who were interviewed, is that the former is a communal, collective endeavor, while the latter is personal.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.