20% of Atheistic Scientists Are Spiritual

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.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.