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Science journalist Chris Mooney on why new atheists should avoid expressing open hostility to traditional peoples


Here. At the Council for Secular Humanism.

I’d like to reach out to the new atheists and say that even if you don’t care to be friendly toward religion, I think we ought to be friendly toward one another. We’ve had a lot of differences, and yet as I mentioned, we share all that intellectual DNA. We should be able to find common ground.

To that end, perhaps we can shift the focus away from science and religion and occasionally start talking about science and spirituality, where I think we might find something that divides us less.
It turns out that many scientists now describe themselves as “spiritual” even though they have no religious beliefs or supernatural commitments whatsoever. Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund has done the biggest study I know of on the religious views of U.S. scientists, and she found that over half describe themselves as spiritual. Most interestingly, 20 percent say they are spiritual but not religious—these are atheists and agnostics who nevertheless point to something “spiritual” that inspires them.

Granted, their use of that word is quite different from what members of the general public tend to mean when they talk about spirituality. For a lot of Americans, spirituality means, “Oh, I’m a little Buddhist, but I’m still a little Catholic, but I like crystals and acupuncture.” Ecklund’s scientists reject that approach—one told her, “I’m not some flipping new ager.” One atheist biologist described it to Ecklund in these words: “It’s that feeling you get standing by the seashore looking out over the endless expanse of water, or standing in the rainforest listening to the insects and the birds in their huge diversity and incomprehensibility, or the feeling you get considering the age of all things in existence and how long it could go on, sort of awe at the totality of things. If that’s what spirituality is, I get it.”

If that’s what spirituality is, a lot of people don’t get it. They think spirituality means not running away from dreadful problems. But this stuff is probably coming soon to a whacked-out church near you.

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