An atheist scientist is probably the last person you'd describe as spiritual - but according to a recent study, it might be an accurate description.

The study, from Rice University, said of the 275 natural and social scientists at elite universities interviewed, more than one-fourth or 72, of those interviewed said they were spiritual. The scientists said they have a spirituality that is consistent with science, even though they are not formally religious.

Our results show that scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs, Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and lead author of the study, said in a statement. 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.

As an example, the spiritual scientists say they see science and spirituality as an individual quest for meaning that can never be final. This is different than religion in their eyes because religion requires buying into an absolute absence of empirical evidence.

Ecklund wrote the study with Elizabeth Long, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Rice. The duo saw terms like organized, communal, unified and collective to define religious beliefs, and individual, personal and personally constructed for spirituality.

While the data indicate that spirituality is mainly an individual pursuit for academic scientists, it is not individualistic in the classic sense of making them more focused on themselves, Ecklund said. In their sense of things, being spiritual motivates them to provide help for others, and it redirects the ways in which they think about and do their work as scientists.

The research will be published in the June issue of Sociology of Religion.

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna