Humane Society of the U.S. offers a bounty of resources

Click this screenshot to visit the Humane Society website. Or, click the internal links listed in this article for specific faith-related resources.Animal protection movements date back centuries and so does their connection with religious leaders. In the 18th Century, Methodism’s founder John Wesley worked with the leading British anti-cruelty activists of his day. Over the past half century, the Humane Society of the United States has taken up the cause and now is backed by 11 million American supporters.

Among the HSUS
faith-related resources

The HSUS Food & Faith Recommended Reading page suggests books that “examine factory farming and other food and animal issues from the standpoint of human ethics. Even where they are not specifically Christian, they provide a good starting point for considering these topics in light of a Christian faith perspective.” That HSUS list includes Year of Plenty, the memoir written by ReadTheSpirit friends, the Goodwin family.

An April 2012 story on Compassionate Campers reports news about a faith-based camp that was facing serious flooding from dam-building beavers. Instead of harming the beavers, camp officials worked with HSUS to deter the beavers’ relentless building in an animal-friendly way.

On Facebook, visit the Faith Outreach page to keep up with regular updates and links. That Facebook page is the social-networking arm of the main Faith Outreach portal within the HSUS website.

Also, check out the HSUS collection of interfaith statements about treatment of animals. The Christian portion of the list ranges from Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist to Seventh-day Adventist and Assemblies of God. The Judaism area contains Reform, Conservative and Orthodox sections. Other faiths represented here include Hinduism and Islam.


Interview: John Dominic Crossan on Challenge of Jesus

In Part 1, we introduced John Dominic “Dom” Crossan’s ambitious new 16-week Bible study course, complete with full-color study book and illustrated lectures by the Bible scholar on DVD. You can find out more about this new multimedia curriculum at the website.

Today, we welcome the popular scholar and teacher back to ReadTheSpirit.


DAVID: Not too many years ago, guys like you and your colleague Marcus Borg were considered theological bomb throwers. Now, you two seem to be beloved guests in congregations nationwide. What changed? You guys—or American Christianity?

DOM: We haven’t changed in what we’re saying, but you are right. Now, we find ourselves welcomed in so many churches, as many invitations as we can accept. Actually, there are too many invitations to accept them all. I’ve been working as a scholar since 1970 and, for the first 20 years of my life, I was perfectly happy doing my research and writing my books for other scholars. Probably no normal human being ever read what I was writing back then. Then, around 1990, we all broke out into newspaper headlines with what we were saying about the historical Jesus. A lot of people were stirred up by the newspaper headlines and seemed quite upset.

DAVID: I think a lot of people misunderstood what you were saying.

DOM: There were a lot of people, back around 1990, who thought that we were trying to prove that the Bible was somehow a big deceit. People thought we were saying that Jesus probably didn’t say or do most of the things in the Bible. There was a lot of misunderstanding about what we were saying.

I do think that the terrain in many churches across the country has changed. People are much more receptive to the kind of research we do. I know that I haven’t changed what I’m doing or saying. What I have done all along is serious research. My standard always has been that I will never cheat on where I see history and faith meeting. I won’t make up history and I won’t deny faith just because people want to push these conclusions in one direction or another.

Acceptance from Networks to Congregations Nationwide

JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN. An image from his video lectures on DVDs that are part of the new Challenge of Jesus.DAVID: As a journalist who has covered your work for 20 years, I think that’s a fair assessment of what has happened. People are more open to the conclusions you’ve reached these days. One sign of your widespread acceptance is the long list of network-TV documentaries in which you keep appearing, year after year.

DOM: Yes, I’ve been on PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, the History Channel and many others. The number of people who watch those channels must be huge, because I can’t walk through an airport anymore without being recognized. Someone will stop me and say, “You’re the Bible guy, aren’t you?”

DAVID: There are a lot of skeptical writers, these days, publishing books about Christianity and the Bible. Some very popular writers describe themselves either as atheist or agnostic. But, you still regard yourself as a Christian, don’t you?

DOM: Yes, and I can say that I know what the term means, if we are truly followers of Jesus. I describe myself as irrevocably Roman Catholic, which means that I love the community and the tradition.

DAVID: You’re somewhat distanced from the Catholic church, though.

DOM: Yes, I guess I’m in something like an exile. But actually most Sundays throughout the year, I’m in some church somewhere. Most of those Sundays, I’m preaching.

DAVID: What kinds of churches invite you most frequently?

DOM: I don’t see much of a pattern. Numerically, though, it’s most frequently Episcopal, United Methodist and United Church of Christ churches. But there’s really no group that doesn’t invite me. I’ve even been invited more than once to a Baptist seminary to discuss these issues. And, at the Baptist seminary, it wasn’t a debate. I wasn’t invited as an opponent. I was invited to seriously discuss Bible scholarship.

Why The New Challenge of Jesus Series is So Unusual

DAVID: We’re strongly urging readers to get these new multi-media materials you’ve produced and offer the full 16-week series of classes, using your book and videos. The main reason is: This is unique stuff. It’s really amazing. You go into great depth about the ancient world into which Jesus rose to worldwide prominence. Here’s a good example of why I’m calling this “unique:” You devote four weeks to helping us understand the dramatic rise of the Roman Empire and the nature of its Imperial Theology. I can’t imagine PBS or National Geographic producing a series about Jesus’ life—and spending that much time on the setting, before Jesus even shows up. You start talking about Jesus’ life in the fifth week.

DOM: The main principle I emphasize in the opening of this series is that we have to understand the matrix surrounding Jesus’ life. We have to understand what was happening in the Roman imperial world to understand the radical challenge Jesus represented.

DAVID: Most people probably associate the word matrix with science-fiction movies. Give us an example of why matrix is so important in understanding a major movement like early Christianity.

DOM: OK, here’s an example: Today, we can listen to a recording of a speech by Martin Luther King, talking about the inspirational power of his dreams. We may think: What a nice guy! What a great orator! How inspiring! But the civil rights movement was much larger than just Martin Luther King and one speech about his dreams. We can reduce it to that once a year in a short documentary honoring King, but the real story of civil rights is a much larger matrix of events and forces and people.

The same thing is true of Jesus. We can read the gospels and say: What a great guy! How inspiring! But what was happening around Jesus was so much larger. He represented a real challenge to the basic ideas on which Roman Imperial Theology rested.

The World of Jesus ‘Ain’t Background You Can Skip’

DAVID: You’re really blunt about this point in your new series. At one point, you actually tell viewers: Hey, when we’re talking about the world of Jesus—it ain’t background you can skip. Those are your words in the video: “It ain’t background you can skip!!!”

DOM: That’s right. Before Jesus ever existed, there was already a human being who was called God Incarnate and was given all of these titles that Christians later would use to describe Jesus. What Jesus and his early followers were doing was a direct challenge to Roman theology. Caesar, the divine conqueror, was saying that peace only comes through victory, through war. Jesus was saying that peace comes through a much different process.

DAVID: Before we publish highlights of this interview with you, we will publish a “Part 1 story” that summarizes this main point in your new series. You’re saying that Jesus wasn’t just a divine figure who came down here to save us from Hell and open the gates of Heaven. Jesus wasn’t calling this world evil and simply offering a ticket to Heaven. In fact, you’re saying, Jesus taught that this world is God’s world. You’re saying that Jesus saw this world as a good place where people can establish God’s kingdom.

DOM: Yes, that’s right. When Caesar Augustus was called Savior of the World, everyone knew what that meant. It meant that 20 years of savage, devastating Roman Civil War was over. Augustus had ended that. He brought peace, finally. When people began applying that same title to Jesus, they weren’t talking about Jesus simply taking everybody away into some other world. They were saying that Jesus was the Savior of this world. They were talking about Jesus bringing a time of peace here in this world.

If you believe in God’s creation, it’s blasphemous to say that God blew it and that this world is evil and that, in fact, this world is such a bad mistake that it should be called back to the factory. No, Jesus was talking about the transformation of this world. Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified if Jesus was talking about some other world. Pilate would have said: “Oh, you’re only talking about some other world. Well, no problem, then. We Romans are only interested in ruling this world, thank you.” That’s why it was so radical when the same titles used in Roman Imperial Theology got shifted to Jesus. Pilate understood that Jesus really was a threat to the Roman world view.

DAVID: The Romans were saying that the only way to peace was through war and victory. Jesus taught that through God’s plan of justice and compassion, peace could be achieved in a dramatically different way. That’s still a deeply stirring message of hope 2,000 years later.

DOM: Yes, Jesus’ challenge really was about the transformation of this world and this is not some secularism or humanism that I’m trying to push on people. This is based on the theology that this world belongs to God and it is good and can be transformed. That’s right out of the Bible. I don’t think the world ever will work by endlessly fighting wars in the hope that one more war somehow will bring peace. The problem is that, after each victory, the world gets more violent. In the Roman Empire, everyone thought Rome had brought a terrible new level of violence into the world. But, now, we have far more capacity for violence than Rome ever imagined.

‘This Biblical Stuff’ isn’t a dead issue

DAVID: You’re saying, in this new series, that this message is not some brand-new reinterpretation of Christianity. This is going way back to the original message of Jesus.

DOM: Yes, exactly. I am convinced that we have to radically change what we think of as Christian, Bible-based theology today. I’m convinced that this is not anything new. That’s why I call this re-olding the Christian faith. Christianity is about making this truly God’s world of justice and peace. What we’re talking about here is taking the Bible seriously. I don’t think that this biblical stuff is a dead issue. No, not at all. I believe it still can change the world.

Interested in The Challenge of Jesus?

Visit the website, where you also can see a video clip.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
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Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Spiritual Puzzles of Jack Kevorkian 1928-2011

Jack Kevorian’s Spiritual Legacy:
A Painful Tattoo, Bones in the Pocket & the Mystery of Death

JACK KEVORKIAN earlier this year. Photographer Gevorg Gevorgyan http://ggprophoto.comJack Kevorkian finally knows the answer to his life’s biggest question: “I’ve been fascinated by death because I wondered what the unknown was that’s facing me,” Kevorkian testified in a 1994 hearing. “Also, I’m a medical doctor, death is a part of my profession, and we don’t know anything about it. … If you know what death is, you know what life is.”

Unfortunately, none of us who so closely covered his long career in assisted suicide—eventually claiming well over 100 deaths—can interview Jack now.

But, one thing is clear. Attempts to paint the Kevorkian story as a contest between an angry skeptic and his religious enemies are way off the mark. As a journalist who reported on spiritual responses to Kevorkian over many years, I was responsible for recording many of those religious blasts in the public square. Over the years, the loudest religious response was voiced—and was well financed—by Detroit’s Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida, who eventually retired in 2009. In the 1990s, Maida organized a statewide campaign in Michigan and an entire interfaith coalition of religious leaders to condemn Kevorkian and assisted suicide. For his part, Kevorkian usually responded to religious leaders with acid-tipped barbs.

In one news report about Maida’s decision to fund a multi-media campaign against Kevorkian, I quoted Maida as saying that assisted suicide was a slippery slope toward euthanasia and abusive engineering of human life. “We could have people making decisions for us about who can come into life and how we go out of it,” Maida said in our interview.

When I asked Kevorkian about this, he snapped back: “Maida is about as relevant to this issue as he is to a heart operation.”

Maida responded that Kevorkian was wrong. This question is part of a global concern for defending the sanctity of human rights against powerful forces that the 20th Century proved were fully capable of large-scale human-rights abuses. “This is rooted in our understanding of who we are as human beings,” Maida told me. “In abortion and in assisted suicide, we’ve got basic human rights we’re trying to address.”

But that’s not the only spiritual frame through which the Kevorkian debate was viewed by American families. To this day, millions of men and women simply have no idea where to turn for spiritual advice on difficult end-of-life decisions. As a careful observer of religious media, I can tell you: Even as Americans collectively age and face these decisions in growing numbers—there’s a yawning lack of responsible religious counseling on these issues affecting millions.

Kevorkian and the Woman Who Carried Bones in Her Pocket

What haunts me in remembering Kevorkian are the men and women I met who, like Kevorkian, were honest about the mystery of the Big Unknown—who desperately and sometimes poignantly searched for spiritual as well as physical answers.

Let’s be honest: For all his bluster, Kevorkian cared little about the spiritual side of life. When he talked about such matters, he was blunt as a sledgehammer and often went out of his way to offend traditionally religious people.

I was part of the Detroit Free Press’ long-term investigative team that studied scores of cases in which Kevorkian helped people kill themselves. Our team discovered that a shocking portion of the people Kevorkian helped to kill were, in fact, not terminally ill. They might have had years of life left, despite their conditions. And, in some extreme cases, our team found, people were so terrified and depressed about their possible medical conditions that they ended their lives—only to have an autopsy prove that they weren’t physically ill at all! Despite his claims of elaborate ethical codes, Kevorkian managed death like an assembly-line foreman—often paying little attention to people’s physical and mental conditions and sometimes leaving their remains in ghastly settings.

That’s what led so many of the surviving families, who returned home after Kevorkian suicides, to invent their own spiritual responses. That’s what led to the woman with the painful tattoo—and the woman who carried bones in her pocket.

If you care to research Kevorkian’s career, you’ll find the full names of these unfortunate people, but in this story I’ll use only first names.

In 1996, Rebecca was a California woman who killed herself with Kevorkian’s help because she believed that “excruciating” multiple sclerosis already had destroyed her quality of life. However, her autopsy later showed that, while she may have been psychologically disturbed, she was “robust,” “fairly healthy” and had no signs of MS.

Through this traumatic process, Rebecca’s daughter Christy—who had assisted her Mom in reaching Jack—suffered an agonizing spiritual struggle before settling upon her own private memorial to her mother.

Way back in the good years with her mother, Rebecca and Christy had enjoyed the ocean. So, Christy decided to have a huge tattoo of the ocean floor permanently etched into her back. “There’s a starfish and a sand dollar and there’s a big seahorse with bubbles coming out of its mouth. It’s really colorful and shows everything my mom would love,” Christy told me.

Part of establishing this memorial in skin were the hours Christy forced herself to lay still as tiny needles pressed the dyes into her skin. The pain became a penitential rite. In fact, she couldn’t complete it as soon as she had hoped, Christy told me—the pain was too intense. Eventually, Christy planned to keep returning to the artist until the ocean scene was finished with the words, “In Loving Memory: Rebecca.”

What else could Christy have done at that point? We all may have responses to her dilemma. We may scoff at anyone naïve enough to deal with the infamous “Dr. Death.” But Rebecca and Christy were women many of us might have befriended—real, loving, intelligent women simply seeking solace.

They were women like—well, like the woman with bones in her pocket. Carol is her name, the devoted mother of an ALS-suffering son who couldn’t bear to see him go through the final phases of the debilitating disorder. Her son was only 27, bedridden, unable to speak clearly or to use his fingers by the time she helped him end his life with Kevorkian’s aid. At that point, she and her son were desperate. On his own, the son had made three unsuccessful attempts at ending his life.

And yet, Carol told me, they weren’t aware of any supportive spiritual community to help them through this crisis. Many of the families who visited Kevorkian described this painful void. Suddenly, professionals were telling them that the end of life was largely a matter of managing financial crises and organizing medical services. One surviving family told me about the unbearable rudeness of technicians who came to pick up their just-deceased mother’s hospital bed. In contrast to this uncaring vacuum, even the brusque Kevorkian could seem like a savior.

Of course, Kevorkian dispensed just death—and left the surviving families in a flash. There was no ongoing care. Despite that lack of personal care, Carol remained a Kevorkian advocate after her son’s death. She told me that it was simply left to her—alone—to establish her own mourning rituals. “I just can’t get over it,” she said.

On the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Carol’s son, several relatives did decide to carry out his wishes by sprinkling his ashes from a mountaintop. But Carol was not ready to give up all of the ashes and, instead, took a small spoon and measured out 23 scoops of the ashes for the mountaintop rite.

Why 23? “Because (he) was No. 23 in Dr. Kevorkian’s series,” Carol explained.

As she examined the ashes, she discovered small bone fragments, some of them white and some of them charred black. “Now, I carry around two bone chips with me, one black and one white,” she said. “I just keep them in my pocket. This way, any time I put my hand in my pocket, there’s my son. It’s pathetic, but when it’s your son, you just don’t get over it.”

Carol was right. We don’t get over death easily—and certainly not such a traumatic death. For all of our global spiritual awareness, our collective richness of religious wisdom and our millennia-long experience with ritual and reassurance—there’s precious little being offered to such needy families today.

If you’re reading this today—and you’re involved in thoughtful ministries to aid families—then email us at [email protected] and tell us about what you’re doing and what you think about all of this. Certainly there are growing numbers of hospice programs, thousands of clergy and chaplains who do a solid job with end-of-life rituals—and many professionals researching these issues.

But as Jack Kevorkian finally gets the answer to his life’s biggest question today—June 3, 2011—perhaps it’s a moment when all of us can resolve to help our friends, our neighbors and our own families find out more about what unfolds as our lives near their conclusions.

Let’s work on it now, shall we? That is, while we’re still here to talk about it in a helpful way. We certainly can’t ask Jack what he found on the other side.

Care to read more about Kevorkian’s legacy?

You can still order a copy of The Suicide Machine by the Detroit Free Press Staff via Amazon. I wrote the chapter in that book about the spiritual and psychological legacy of Kevorkian suicides for many families.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.


Have you found ‘Man from Earth’? The Wanderer has!

My own vote for Human Specimen Most Likely to Have a Mysterious Mission on Earth is: Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. the Spiritual Wanderer. If you don’t regularly read his column, you should. This week, he did it again! As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I take pride in having a pretty vast awareness of contemporary American books and films with spiritual themes.

But, I’d never heard of “Man from Earth” until the Wanderer wrote about it in his latest column. Of course, I had to see the movie right away, based on his recommendation, and: This is to say—it’s fascinating!

If you love the mind games behind science fiction more than the Hollywood special effects, you’ll love “Man from Earth.” This is “Big Chill” meets the “X-Files” as a circle of old friends gathers for a weekend at a remote cabin. One friend, a college professor, is about to move away—and he drops a bombshell on his friends: He’s moving away because he will never age and, soon, this odd physical condition will raise questions on campus. Why will he never age? Because he’s 14,000 years old. He’s one very smart, well-adapted cave man.

“I’m checkin’ for a hidden mike! Candid Camera?” says his scholar friend played by John Billingsly, a bespectacled actor who has played a long series of nerds over the past couple of decades.

Another colleague, played by one-time Hollywood heart-throb William Katz, quickly flips open his cell phone and calls for help. He moves off to a quiet corner and urgently whispers into the phone. “Yes, he’s fabricating this story! Oh, it’s crazy! Right. As soon as you can!”

What would you do if your best friend pulled this?

Well, around the offices of ReadTheSpirit, our own version of out-of-kilter observations about the meaning of life regularly come from the Spiritual Wanderer. Ever since Rodney Curtis posted that “Man from Earth” column this week, readers have been clicking over there in a steady stream—then presumably getting the film from Netflix or from Amazon. You can order the DVD of “Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth” for less than $9 from Amazon right now. It’s also available on Blu-ray for the same price, at the moment.

SCIENCE FICTION WRITER JEROME BIXBYOh, you may be wondering about that name Jerome Bixby—unless you’re a heavy-duty Sci Fi fan, that is. This feature film was a longtime labor of love for Bixby, who died in 1998. He was born in 1923, worked primarily as a writer in various formats and is most famous for his work that wound up in “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” episodes. He also wrote an early version of a story that later became a movie and novel, “Fantastic Voyage,” about scientists who shrink to micro size and travel inside a human body. For many years, Bixby toyed with this “Man from Earth” story until it finally was released as a feature film a decade after his death. Wherever Bixby is today—he’d be pleased.

Oh, yeah! One more thing: You’re probably wondering how much actual religion winds up in “Man from Earth.” A whole bunch! I won’t spoil the experience of the film, but we do wind up squarely in the midst of a mind-expanding religious debate.

Come aboard! Make a quick stop at Spiritual Wanderer and read about how Rodney found this film—and passed it along to us. If you’ve read this story to this point, then you’re probably the kind of reader who’ll enjoy the Wanderer on a regular basis.

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

(Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

724 Science vs. religion argument takes center stage, reviving Charles Darwin’s monumental life

How do we bring the great marble monument to life? Darwin is a huge influence in our lives, yet his own life often seems obscure—tough to access on a human level. Reader Julia Benson Connolly wrote to us from her Florida home, hoping to help revive the great man.

First, Julia recommends our web page called, “Science Vs. Religion Argument: Educational Resources,” which lists science and religion scholars, recommended books for all age ranges, websites and various helpful groups and projects. And, now, Julia’s on that page as well for her recommendation of “Trumpery,” a play about Darwin’s life and legacy.

Julia sent us her own review of the play “Trumpery”: My family and I just returned from a vacation in the area of Washington D.C. While the museums, monuments, et al, were inspiring, we were mostly taken with a play we saw about Charles Darwin, “Trumpery.” It’s a riveting study of Darwin as a man, a father, a husband, a scientist, a non-believer among believers. The superb acting gave the play an even greater impact, but the themes would likely come through well in just reading it.
Then, Julia sent us several links:

Washington Post review of the Charles Darwin play “Trumpery” The review is mixed, but praises the way a cosmic-scale theme springs from what starts as “a parlor debate.” Director Jim Petosa “sets those conversations against a vast eternal void, and for better and for worse that tactic pushes the actors beyond conversation and toward ecstatic heights,” the Post concludes.

Read some of the play “Trumpery” Julia found the script online. Google Books lets you “flip the pages” for free—but not all the pages, in this case. Nevertheless, you can get a good sample thanks to Google.

Read the book on which “Trumpery” is based Julia says it’s based on “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution” by David Quammen.

Thanks, Julia, for such an intriguing addition to our “Science vs. Religion Argument” resource page!

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve” and “Eyewitness 4.”)

We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.


702 Science Vs. Religion Interview, Part 2

we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and this week to some of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 2 of our interview …

Highlights of ReadTheSpirit Interview
with Elaine Howard Ecklund, Part 2

DAVID: You’ve really opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. One of those categories is “Boundary Pioneers.” The main example you name is Dr. Francis Collins, who scientists across the country point to in a positive way for his work in building bridges with religious people.

ELAINE: That’s right, scientists in my study mentioned Francis Collins most frequently. He was talked about—by both religious and nonreligious scientists—in the most positive light as encouraging dialogue. Richard Dawkins was mentioned by the scientists—again, both religious and nonreligious—as a negative force, cutting down on dialogue.

Holmes Rolston IIIDAVID: We’ve recommended books by a number of these Boundary Pioneers: E.O. Wilson, James Gustave Speth and we’ve had a lot of readers respond to an interview we published with Holmes Rolston III. Are these the kinds of people you’re describing as Boundary Pioneers?

ELAINE: Yes, this is the kind of person. A Boundary Pioneer has to be someone who is highly respected in the scientific community already for the excellence and importance of their own scientific work. These folks, like Francis Collins, are senior people. It’s much less likely that you’d find a true Boundary Pioneer doing work in a junior position somewhere. They wouldn’t be able to foster real dialogue in the academy and their work in this area might have consequences for their future work in science.

Who Are The “Spiritual Entrepreneurs”?

DAVID: Here’s another category you’re proposing: Spiritual Entrepreneurs. You write that these are “scientists looking for new ways to hold science and faith together yet still free of the constraints of traditional religion. These entrepreneurs have a spiritual impulse that is ‘thicker’ or more substantial, marked by a search for truth compatible with the scientific method, belief in a meaning that is greater than the individual, a coherence that unifies the various spheres of life, and, for some, engagement with the ethical dimensions of community living.” These men and women sound sort of like Thomas Edisons tinkering with the whole idea of spirituality, trying to invent new approaches to understanding the meaning of life.

ELAINE: About 65 percent of the respondents see themselves as spiritual to some extent and, out of those, a portion between 25 and 35 percent are what I would call Spiritual Entrepreneurs. These people are very disconnected from traditional religion but they want some spirituality that flows from their work as scientists that will give them a larger sense of meaning outside of themselves. They want a moral compass.

DAVID: You say that they’re different from people in the general public who say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” How are these scientists different?

ELAINE: They resist using religious terminology and don’t want to be connected to traditional religion. In the general public, people who say they’re spiritual actually tend to pick and choose from various existing religious traditions. They put together their spiritual lives from traditional religion. But these scientists are doing something different. I would say that they are drawing some of their ideas from the Transcendentalists like Emerson, but they’re not consciously talking about it in those terms. A few of them mentioned the Transcendentalists, but we need more research to see what’s happening with this group. I agree that it’s a very interesting group.

Father Thomas KeatingDAVID:  Well, I certainly jotted lots of notes in the margins in that section of your book. You point out, for example, that the Dalai Lama has lectured widely on “embracing meditation within science.” Here at ReadTheSpirit, we published a major interview with Father Thomas Keating, the co-founder of the contemporary Centering Prayer movement. Keating’s lectures regularly draw on physics and astronomy and medical research. I would say that Keating is a Spiritual Entrepreneur coming from the direction of traditional religion. I think this is one of the most exciting areas you’ve identified.

Where will you go from here?

Where Research May Take Us in Science Vs. Religion

ELAINE: There are many issues raised in this study that call for more research. One thing we question in this study, for example, is the common belief that a person goes to a university, studies science and that experience makes them lose their religion. That commonly repeated narrative is not borne out in this new data.

I’d like to know more about the lives of scientists. We do have indications that one’s background in life is very important. We didn’t study the lives of scientists over time, but I think there is a lot to study there. It might be that a certain kind of person with a certain kind of background will gravitate toward science.

I’ve already started working on a study funded by the National Science Foundation where I’m looking at highly successful scientists who are both men and women—trying to find out what actually made them go into science. For minority groups and women there are particular kinds of challenges. This kind of study may actually change the way we look at science and who studies science.

DAVID: Well, keep in touch with us as your work continues. I’m sure readers will be eager to hear what you’re finding in future research. Are you working on anything else?

ELAINE: Another project I would like to pursue is looking at different religious traditions themselves, trying to understand how they teach children and youth in particular about matters of science. Right now, most of our public conversations about religion and science are focused almost exclusively on conservative forms of religion. I think there’s a much larger range of ways that science is included in religion and religious teachings.

I’m also interested in cross-cultural understandings about religion and science and ethics. This study I’ve just published shows us that many of our common assumptions are wrong. Now, it’s clear: There’s so much more we need to know.

Read all the parts of our “Science Vs. Religion” Series:

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701 Science Vs. Religion Interview: Elaine Howard Ecklund

The Washington Post’s coverage of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s landmark book, “Science Vs. Religion,” summed up the importance of her research this way: “Though ‘Science vs. Religion’ is aimed at scientists, her myth-busting and her thoughtful advice can also benefit nonscientists. For Ecklund, the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

We agree with the Post, which is why we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and this week to some of Elaine’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 1 of our interview …

Highlights of Interview With Elaine Howard Ecklund on
“Science Vs. Religion,” Pt 1

DAVID: Let’s start with the big news in your book that’s attracting attention nationwide: You found that—rather than 1-in-10 scientists believing in God—more than a third believe in God and fully half of them are religious. That’s startling. Were you surprised yourself?

ELAINE: Yes, I was very surprised. As I began this research five years ago, I bought into the conventional idea that, when people learn more about science, they throw off the shackles of religion. I also bought into the conventional idea that there is conflict between religion and science. So, yes, I was personally quite surprised by what I found.

Scientists are more religious than I thought they would be, but in different ways than I anticipated. I was surprised, for example, to find so many scientists interested in spiritual matters, but not associated with religious organizations.

DAVID: You began by conducting a large survey. Then, the initial data raised these surprising insights. That led to the hundreds of personal interviews that allowed you to dig deeper into the lives of scientists. Is that a fair summary?

ELAINE: Yes. When I started the survey in 2005, I grouped the questions in the same way we group them in studies of the general population. But, I did make one change: I didn’t include the skip patterns we usually use in surveys. Normally, if a survey participant says that they do not believe in God, for example, then we skip the question about whether you attend church. We assume that, if you don’t believe in God, then you’re not part of a congregation. But I didn’t use those skip patterns in this study.  That led to my discovering, for example, that there are atheists and agnostics among scientists who also are quite involved in religious organizations. And, I found that there are atheist scientists who also consider themselves spiritual. I didn’t expect that at all.

Because the survey findings were emerging in such unusual ways compared with the general public, I decided that I should go out and interview people face to face. So, I took another scientific sample of 275 scientists and I interviewed them in person. That whole process took over two years. This was a big collection of data. In the end, I had more than 5,000 pages of transcribed materials to examine. I did most of this work as a post-doctoral fellow at Rice between 2004 and 2006 and we actually had a team of about 12 undergraduate students and some graduate students as well who helped me analyze all this data.

DAVID: Here’s one of the biggest questions that I kept asking myself as I read your book: Why is this surprising? There must be some major disconnect here. Why are our assumptions about scientists’ religious lives so far off the mark?

ELAINE: A big reason is that scientists generally don’t talk about religion. You need to remember, too, that I did the initial work in 2005 and this is when there were a lot of public debates in the news about whether evolution should be taught in public schools. So, in general, scientists are unlikely to talk publicly about religion and, on top of that, some of those news stories scared them. Most scientists are worried about being perceived as anti-religious.

DAVID: Why worry? There are big names like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others writing best sellers attacking religion.

ELAINE: Many scientists don’t want to be perceived as having any connection with the new atheists. Many regard Dawkins, Harris and the others as having a negative reputation with much of the public, so even atheist scientists aren’t eager to be associated with them. The situation backfires, because the loudest voices then tend to be the most negative and the general public assumes those are representative of all scientists. That cuts down on the dialogue even more.

Who Are The “Spiritual Atheists”?

DAVID: Let’s talk about some of the really fascinating religious groups you discovered among scientists. Let’s start with “Spiritual Atheists.” In your book, you point out “in the general population, spirituality is almost inherently linked with some conception of God.” But a significant minority of scientists consider themselves both atheist and spiritual. You found that these men and women have many different explanations for this, but there are at least two groups among them. One group finds spiritual value in nature and in the awe-inspiring discoveries of science. Another group draws heavily from Eastern religions like Buddhism and, of course, Buddhism doesn’t require a belief in God.

ELAINE: Yes, this is one of the most interesting parts of the study. It could be that there are more people in the general population who are part of this group, but we just haven’t been asking the right questions to find them. Or, people haven’t been talking about this in public.

DAVID: Yes, you could be picking up religious movements like Buddhism, which is relative small in the U.S. And, it’s not just Buddhists who don’t see God as an essential belief. There’s a movement within Judaism also that doesn’t believe in God, called Humanistic Judaism. That’s a small but important movement that holds Judaism is a spiritual and moral tradition that should be preserved, but a belief in God isn’t essential.

ELAINE: Yes, a few people in our study did identify with a Jewish identity but not a belief in God. So, there are existing groups in the world that might hold these two positions.

DAVID: As a group, these scientists really are—well, you use the term “pioneers.” Although they’re hesitant to talk in public about religion, they’ve got some very interesting viewpoints.

ELAINE: These scientists are particularly interesting, I think, because of the nature and status of elite scientists. Top scientists at leading institutions feel they have a special kind of authority. They feel they have a kind of liberty to define things in new ways.

DAVID: You’ve opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. (CONTINUED IN PART 2.)

Read all the parts of our “Science Vs. Religion” Series:

We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

(Originally published at