Friday, February 04, 2011

No Basis for Spirituality as a ‘Bridge’

In an effort to improve the dialogue between scientists and science writers on the one hand and religious folks (who are sometimes science skeptics) on the other, it has been suggested that emphasizing a common spirituality might help. This would be possible because even in the case of atheists, the universe inspires feelings of awe and wonder which might be considered “spiritual”. Science journalist and author Chris Mooney made this case in a recent op-ed titled “Spirituality can bridge science-religion divide.”

Some of the religious survey data I’ve been looking at suggests this is not a well-founded recommendation.

As part of the data analysis used in their book American Grace, Robert E. Putnam and David Campbell construct a religiosity index, which combine answers to questions (from their “Faith Matters” survey) regarding strength in belief in one’s religion and God, importance of religion in one’s life, and frequency of attendance at services. They use this index to measure the correlation of religiosity with other opinions and demographic characteristics.

On page 21 they report: “Among rank-and-file Americans, spirituality and religiosity go hand in hand.” This is because among those who are the least religious only 4% describe themselves as "very spiritual", while 80% of the most religious do so (each grouping was about one fifth of the total).

At the same time, the Pew US Religious Landscape survey asked respondents two questions directly related to this topic: first, whether they frequently felt a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being”, and secondly whether they frequently felt a “deep sense of wonder about the universe.” With regard to the first question, there was a significantly greater percentage who responded affirmatively among those affiliated with the most devout denominations as compared to secular respondents. On the second question, however, there was no meaningful difference in agreement across groups (about 40% responded yes); I interpret this to mean that a sense of wonder at the universe does not act as a proxy for spirituality among the secular.

So, there is evidence here that Mooney's premise of a shared sense of spirituality is incorrect.


Crude said...

Maybe this is off-base, but are you sure you're framing the targets of Mooney correctly?

I don't know how religious "science writers" tend to be, but if I recall right from Ecklund's investigation, quite a number of them are either spiritual or religious - if in less mainstream ways. If that's correct, then it seems like the idea is more feasible.

I don't think Mooney is necessarily trying to build a bridge between, say.. Jerry Coyne and Ken Ham.

Steve said...

Well, in this op-ed, he mainly talks in the context of Dawkins and the new atheists. But as I understand it, Mooney himself is an atheist and a science writer, so that's why I understood him to be preaching in part to others like himself.