Richard Dawkins confesses that he is a “cultural Anglican.” Excerpt:

Prof Dawkins admitted he would consider going into a church, and would miss ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone. And he said he was “grateful” to Anglicanism which he claims has a “benign tolerance” – enabling people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them.

He told the Spectator: “I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a
village cricket match on the village green.

“I have a certain love for it.”

Well, I understand this. I am not an Anglican, but to attend Evensong in Anglican churches in England is to experience the particular beauty and worth of what the Anglican tradition has given to Christianity. What interested me most about the Dawkins interview was this:

He said he was living in a post-Christian world in Oxford where he found it was rare to meet someone who was religious in academic life.

I’m sure he’s correct about the near-total dearth of religious believers at Oxford, though I suppose that if one were a believer, one wouldn’t want to talk about it in front of Dawkins, because who wants to get that one going? This does raise an interesting question: what becomes of a culture when it’s entire intellectual class is atheist? What are the long-term prospects for that culture? I’m not asking with an answer in mind. I’m wondering, though, if we have any historical examples. Thoughts?

I also wonder to what extent academia in the UK differs from academia in the US in this respect? A few years back, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed American scientists working in academia to find out what their religious beliefs were, if any. She found a surprising number of scientists who held theistic beliefs, or who were, despite not believing in God, considered themselves to be spiritually aware. She also found that religious scientists said privately that they concealed their beliefs because they feared being rejected by their non-religious colleagues — but that non-religious scientists were privately willing to be a lot more tolerant than their religious colleagues believed. From a piece Prof Ecklund wrote:

From 2005 to 2008, I surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists on their views about religion, spirituality and ethics and spoke with 275 of them in depth in their offices and laboratories. It turns out that nearly 50 percent of scientists identify with a religious label, and nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending services more than once a month. While many scientists are completely secular, my survey results show that elite scientists are also sitting in the pews of our nation’s churches, temples and mosques.

Of the atheist and agnostic scientists I had in-depth conversations with, more than 30 percent considered themselves atheists; however, less than six percent of these were actively working against religion. Many atheist and agnostic scientists even think key mysteries about the world can be best understood spiritually, and some attend houses of worship, completely comfortable with religion as moral training for their children and an alternative form of community. If religious people better understood the full range of atheistic practice — and the way that it interfaces with religion for some — they might be less likely to hold negative attitudes toward nonreligious scientists. The truth is that many atheist scientists have no desire to denigrate religion or religious people.

In fact, about one-fifth of the atheist scientists I spoke with say they consider themselves “spiritual atheists.” Perhaps their stories are the most interesting. One chemist I talked with does not believe in God, yet she says she craves a sense of something beyond herself that provides a feeling of purpose and meaning and a moral compass. She sees herself as having an engaged spirituality, one that motivates her to live differently. For example, spiritual reasons keep her from accepting money from the Department of Defense, she says; for her, it’s too linked to the military.

Given the presence of religion in the scientific community, why do Americans still think scientists are hostile to religion? Within their scientific communities, religious scientists tend to practice what I call a “secret spirituality.” They are reluctant to talk about religious or spiritual ideas with their colleagues. I spoke with one physicist who said that he thinks universities are not always very accepting environments for scientists of faith. He believes that if he openly said he is religious, others would question the validity of his scientific work; it is his sense of things that at his elite school, he can be a scientist or be religious, but not both.

And within their faith communities, religious scientists often practice a “secret science.” Sitting in the pews, they are often hesitant to discuss scientific ideas because they are afraid of offending those next to them. The result of this reticence is that people of faith are not aware of the religious scientists in their midst. More than that, these scientists fail to serve as role models for religious youth who might want to study science but fear science might lead them away from faith. As a result, these children lose out.

What do you think? I especially want to hear from readers working in academia. If you answer this, please say what field you work in (science, humanities, etc.), and what your experience has been, either as a believer or non-believer. I ask this question not in a combative way, but simply to poll the room to see what the world looks like from the point of view of teachers and researchers inside colleges and universities.