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Are All Great Scientists Atheists?

January 6, AD2014

The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.”  Galileo Galilei

Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order…This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.” Albert Einstein, as quoted in Cosmos, Bios and Theos.

“There can never be any real conflict between religion and science for the one is the complement of the other.” Max Planck, ibid.

Reflecting on a snarky comment to one of my recent blogs (“the Catholic church seems to know with some certainty that we have souls (a nonsensical concept provided (sic) what we now know about neuroscience“), I can only conclude that evangelical atheists (including Richard Dawkins) learn about science from the popular media rather than from research–their own and that of others. From the comments of these evangelical atheists on Facebook and other blogs, I also conclude that they know little of the history and philosophy of science. The corollary to this ignorance is their opinion that you cannot be a good scientist if you are deluded by religious faith.

Let’s put the kibosh to that opinion by relating the religious beliefs of eminent scientists. In the early history of science, great scientists–Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal–all had a deep religious faith. But suppose the atheist responds, “That was then, this is now; we know more now to justify that believing in God is a delusion.” My response to this canard is to cite the theistic credo of present day eminent scientists, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Most of these seem to be in the “hard” sciences, physics and chemistry, rather than in biology or medical sciences.  If any of you readers have ideas about the reason why physicists are more likely to be theists than are biologists, I’d like to hear them. Most of the information given below is drawn from Cosmos, Bios and Theos, by Henry Margenau, Yale mathematical physicist* (the * denotes member, National Academy of Science, ** Member. Research Council of Europe, ***, Fellow, Royal Society UK–see below) and Roy Varghese. I’ll give a pertinent quotation and minimum background material for each scientist. Not all of the scientists listed in the book believe in some specific religion, or even a personal God.  Many are deistic, believing in a Creator, but not necessarily a God immanent in the universe. Because of space limitations, not all of those interviewed will be listed here.

  • Professor Christian Anfinsen* (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, biochemistry of RNA, Johns Hopkins University): “I think that only an idiot can be an atheist!  We must admit that there exists and incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.”
  • Professor Werner Archer (Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine, restriction enzymes and molecular genetics, University of Basel): “I do not think our civilization has succeeded in discovering and explaining all the principles acting in the universe. I include the concept of God among these principles.  I am happy to accept the concept without trying to define it precisely.  I know that the concept of God helped me to master many questions in life; it guides me in critical situations and I see it confirmed in many deep insights into the beauty of the functioning of the living world.”
  • Professor D.H.R. Barton*** (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, conformational analysis in organic chemistry, Texas A&M University):”God is Truth. There is no incompatibility between science and religion. Both are seeking the same truth”
  • Professor Ulrich Becker** (High energy particle physics, MIT): “How can I exist without a creator? I am not aware of any answer ever given.”
  • Professor Steven Bernasek (Solid state chemistry, Princeton University): “I believe in the existence of God.  His existence is apparent to me in everything around me, especially in my work as a scientist.  On the other hand I cannot prove the existence of God the way I might prove or disprove a (scientific) hypothesis.”
  • Dr. Francis Collins* (Medicine, former Director of the Human Genome Project, Director, National Institutes of Health, author The Language of God ):”Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates.”
  • Professor Freeman Dyson *   *** (Theoretical physics, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study):”I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind.” Taken from the Templeton Prize Award address, 2000.
  • Sir John Eccles*** (Nobel Prize, neurochemistry):”If I consider reality as I experience it, the primary experience I have is of my own existence as a self-conscious being, which I believe is God created.”
  • Professor Manfred Eigen (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, fast reaction kinetics, Director Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Gottingen): “…religion and science neither exclude nor prove one another.”
  • Professor John Fornaess* (Mathematics, Princeton Univ.):”I believe that there is a God and that God brings structure to the universe at all levels from elementary particles to human being to superclusters of galaxies.
  • Professor P.C.C. Garnham*** (Medical protozoology, University of London): “God originated the universe or universes…At some stage in evolution  when proto-humans were sufficiently advanced, God created the human soul…By faith and by appreciation of scientific necessity, God must exist.”
  • Professor Conyers Herring* (Solid state physics, Princeton University): “We live in a hard, real universe, to which we have to adapt. God is a characteristic of that universe–indeed a miraculous characteristic–that makes that adaption possible. Things such as truth, goodness, even happiness, are achievable, by virtue of a force that is always present, in the here and now and available to me personally.”
  • Professor Vera Kistiakowsky* (Experimental Nuclear Physics, MIT and Mount Holyoke College):”I am satisfied with the existence of an unknowable source of divine order and purpose and do not find this in conflict with being a practicing Christian.”
  • Professor Sir Neville Mott*** (Nobel Prize for physics, solid state physics, Cambridge University): “...we can and must ask God which way we ought to go, what we ought to do, how we ought to behave.”
  • Professor Robert Neumann* (nuclear and isotope chemistry and physics, Princeton University): “The existence of the universe requires me to conclude that God exists.”
  • Professor Edward Nelson* (Mathematics, Princeton University): “I believe in, pray to, and worship God.”
  • Dr. Arno Penzias* (Nobel Prize for physics for first observation of the universal microwave background radiation, Vice-President for Research, AT&T Bell Laboratories): “… by looking at the order in the world, we can infer purpose and from purpose we begin to get some knowledge of the Creator, the Planner of all this. This is, then, how I look at God. I look at God through the works of God’s hands and from those works imply intentions. From these intentions, I receive an impression of the Almighty.” (as cited in The God I Believe in)
  • Rev. Professor John Polkinghorne*** (Theoretical elementary particle physics,  President, Queens College, Cambridge University):  “I take God very seriously indeed.  I am a Christian believer (indeed, an ordained Anglican priest), and I believe that God exists and has made Himself known in Jesus Christ.”
  • Professor Abdus Salam*** (Nobel Prize for physics (elementary particle theory), Director, International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste): “Now this sense of wonder leads most scientists to a Superior Being–der Alte, the Old One, as Einstein affectionately called the Deity–a Superior Intelligence, the Lord of all Creation and Natural Law.”
  • Professor Arthur Schawlow* (Nobel Prize for Physics [laser physics], Stanford University): “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life one must ask why and not just how.  The only possible answers are religious… I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.”
  • Professor Wolfgang Smith (Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics–theoretical work provided the key for solving the re-entry problem in space flight, Oregon State University): “If the physics of the last century prompted atheism, the physics of today is inciting at least the most thoughtful of its votaries to re-examine ‘the question of God’ “
  • Professor Charles Townes* (Nobel Prize for physics, development of the MASER/LASER, University of California, Berkeley): “I believe in the concept of God and in His existence.”
  • Professor Eugene Wigner* (Nobel Prize for physics, applications of symmetry principles–group theory–to quantum mechanics, Princeton University): “The concept of God is a wonderful one–it also helps us makes decisions in the right direction.  We would be very different, I fear, if we did not have that concept.”

A few remarks are in order to put this list in an appropriate context.  First, only a small fraction of the listed scientists  are practicing Christians, and of these, a smaller proportion are Catholic. Most are deists who believe in a Creator God, but not a personal God.    Second, it is quite likely that the majority of scientists, including great ones, are atheists or agnostics (Steven Weinberg comes to mind as the most vocal of these).  Nevertheless, if only a small proportion of scientists are believers that shows that atheism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a good scientist.  Third, if one looks at birth-dates (not included here) the majority are old–and in fact may be dead–Cosmos, Bios and Theos was published in 1993. I can offer two explanations here:  these older scientists matured in an age that was not as anti-religious as the present one and/or scientists gain a reputation only after a life-time of work (neglecting boy geniuses, theoretical physicists and mathematicians).  Fourth, and this is puzzling, a significant plurality of the listed scientists are from Princeton University.  Maybe this represents a selection bias on the part of the authors or is an indicator of more religious freedom at Princeton.  Fifth, I’m sure I’ve omitted many eminent believing scientists;  two come immediately to mind:  John von Neumann and Kurt Goedel (both at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton–what is in the air at Princeton?).

Finally, I will say that I find most of the remarks inspiring. And it shows me that faith is not ultimately an act of intellectual discernment, but grace given to us by the Holy Spirit. It is a gift, and we should not be scornful of those who have not received the gift.

*     Member, National Academy of Sciences
**   Member, Research Council of Europe
*** Fellow,  Royal Society UK

© 2014 Bob Kurland. All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end. Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group. And, finally, my motivation: “It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking. Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.

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  • WSquared

    The corollary to this ignorance is their opinion that you cannot be a good scientist if you are deluded by religious faith.

    …well, that assumption rather begs the question of what “God” is the object the aforementioned “religious faith.”

  • CC

    Whoever thinks all great scientists are atheists must have never walked the halls of the higher eschalons of science. Where I did research in a prestigious lab at the NIH, I knew at least five other Catholics. One did not practice but at least two went to Mass every Sunday. Religion gives one a degree of self discipline and self negation. Those who get derailed by drugs, sex and alcohol or have no integrity because they have no moral compass are less likely to get to upper levels of scientific research.

    • Matt

      There is literally no data to support these claims whatsoever.

    • Dennis

      I studied graduate philosophy under the well-known Catholic philosopher Charles DeKoninck half a century ago. Dr. DeKoninck never ceased to note that many of the leading natural scientists eventually recognized the inherent limitations of their respective disciplines and turned, in some form or other, to de facto metaphysical speculation. This might not make them meet the proper definition of theists, but clearly they did not remain all their lives prisoners to the materialistic constraints of positivism.

    • Matt

      Not clear how this is a response.

  • duhem

    I will not be responding to any further comments on any blogs. Please see

    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2014/01/on-avoiding-occasion-of-sin-of-anger.html

    for an explanation.
    Thanks to most of you for your comments.
    Bob Kurland

  • Guy McClung

    Matt-Actually I was paraphrasing myself from some years ago, see below. I had never read the interview you allude to before you cited it herein; and I did not plagiarise it. Interesting interview. Check out the criteria for plagiarism and copyright law before you allege plagiarism-which I think is “ad hominem.” Try this next time: “Guy, brother in Christ, you make a good point, similar to one I read in_____________.” Guy McClung, San Antonio

    ” Draw a big cirlce and label it HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Draw a
    small circle in the big circle and label it SCIENTIFICALLY PROVABLE KNOWLEDGE.
    Make the big circle much much bigger than the small circle. The “empirical
    view” cannot “step back…it cannot leave the small circle. And based
    on its dogmas, many small circle folks deny that the big circle exists.

    From COMMONWEAl, 2006: [by GuyMcClung]:

    “John Haldane’s review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking
    the Spell is a gem (“Opiate of the Philosophers,” March 10). Haldane
    succinctly explains and exposes the defects of the view that religion is merely
    the result of evolution. Dennett espouses the “religion of science,”
    whose principal dogma is that only those propositions that can be verified by
    testing and experiment are true. This dogma is itself untestable–it is the
    opiate of those who worship at the laboratory bench, the altar of
    science. Guy McClung”

  • Matthew Jenkins

    Several things I’d like to pick up on. Firstly, the use of example does not demonstrate that something is neither necessary nor sufficient. This is particularly the case when you look at people given that your definition of “great scientist” is clearly ‘someone who has received one of the highest accolades in science’. Does it follow that because someone has achieved something amazing in their professional life that they are just as rigorous in the rest of their lives? Of course not. We are all more than capable of keeping two sets of books. As a result your “neither necessary nor sufficient” claim requires more substantiation.

    Secondly I need to pick you up on a bait-and-switch. The word faith has many possible meanings. If I say that a 8 year old has faith in the existence of the tooth fairy and I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow those are two entirely different senses in which the word is being used. This occurs because it is a compound concept. A faith in something is a belief (a personal affirmation of the truth of the proposition) and a justification (a reason why the belief was adopted). The problem with making a compound is that a great deal is left out of the final explicit statement. If you write out a faith claim in terms of a belief and its justification then it is clearer how you’re making the switch.

    “I have faith in the existence of the soul.”

    Broken down becomes:

    “I believe in the existence of the soul and my reason is that I do not find a materialistic conception of the self convincing.”

    Whereas…

    “I have faith that the universe is explicable scientifically.”

    “I believe the universe is explicable scientifically and my reason is that thus far science has successfully explained a great deal and inductively it seems more likely that science will continue to go on explaining more and more than that it will stop short.”

    This kind of spelling out is what is required in order to be philosophically rigorous when speaking of faith.

    Thirdly I will differentiate between scientists and science. Scientists are people trying to learn something via the scientific method (or one of its variations). Science is the pure application of that method requiring no agent. Scientists need science, science requires no scientists. There was a science of physics before there were any physicists. As a result it is an entirely separate claim that “the apes who applied the method S found that they could simultaneously believe X and Y” compared to “the method S is compatible with both X and Y”.

    Finally I would like to point out that if many of these scientists (who you seem willing to accept as authorities in defense of your own case) are deists and avowedly not catholic then why do you accept their authority on whether or not their is a prime mover and not on his nature or whether or not he is personal? If you will talk repeatedly about the philosophy of science this is what’s called begging the question in the strict philosophical sense. You’re accepting an argument in support of your position which you would not support if it opposed you.

    In summary:~

    ~ Great scientist =/= someone who achieves a high accolade in science.

    ~ Faith is a belief and a justification. Different justifications are of different strengths and thus to use faith for both science and souls is a false comparison.

    ~ Science =/= Scientists. Therefore the incompatibility of ‘scientist’ with ‘faith’ would not be the same as the incompatibility of ‘science’ with ‘faith’.

    ~ Deism neither leads to nor supports Catholicism. If someone is a deist they have rejected catholicism as much as they have rejected atheism. Why accept their argument against the latter but not the former?

  • Matt

    The majority of health officials are not homeopathic practitioners. Some are however, this does not mean that one may conclude that there is no contradiction between homeopathy and evidence based modern medicine.

    To notice that a select few scientists are religious is not an argument for their compatibility.

    I have never however and would sincerely like to hear an argument which coherently explains how theism is not culled by the scientific method (rather than simply confuscated with deism).

    • duhem

      Matt, I’m not replying to you but to rebut your argument for others who might not see through it. First your argument by analogy is logically irrelevant (criticizing your argument is not ad hominem). The point of the article is not that because there are great scientists who believe in God, therefore God exists. Rather it is to rebut the assertion of evangelical atheists that no one intelligent can believe in God, and that science disproves the existence of God. As the Nobelist Manfred Eigen puts it so trenchantly “…religion and science neither exclude nor prove one another.”
      And, as remarked at the end of the article, faith is given by grace and implemented by intellect. To those who won’t believe no argument will be convincing.
      Bob Kurland

    • Matt

      Nobody mentioned ad hominem, which this is clearly not. How is the analogy irrelevant? Rather than just asserting this?

      My argument is obviously not that intelligence is incompatible with faith. Science is fundamentally incompatible with faith and faith is required for theism. To accuse this is a false equivalence and no new atheists argue this either, Dawkins freely admits that there are a great many theistic scientists brighter than him.

      There is no rebuttal here, rather another assertion and an argument from authority. It wouldn’t matter to me if 100% of elite scientists were theists, it is incompatible with science.

    • duhem

      last time I will dignify your comments with a reply. Sure appeals to knowledgeable scientists are appeals to authority; so what? And if you knew anything of the history and philosophy of science(and that is an ad hominem statement) you would know that science itself depends on faith, faith in a rational ordered universe, a faith fostered by the Christian tradition of the Christian tradition, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus. You might ask yourself why science didn’t develop in the highly intellectual Greek and Hellenistic civilizations, or the Chinese, or ponder the question put by the Nobelist, Eugene Wigner, whence the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Rebut the Russell paradox, that the universe was created 5 seconds ago, and we with our memories in it, and I’ll accept everything you say about science disproving theistic faith.

    • Matt

      Dignify my comments with a response? There is nothing offensive about my comments, nothing insulting, just a honest criticism of your core arguments –rather scientific really. Science is the best way to approach understanding because it is at its core, critical.

      I didn’t accuse you of ad hominem to begin with and now you have unapologetically used it. It doesn’t offend me, it rather weakens your argument though, your argument is then based on an incorrect assumption at best and at worst avoids addressing my argument.

      I have at no point claimed that science disproves any of the theistic religions, nor does it disprove goblins or Russel’s teapot or the tooth fairy. That was never my argument. Rather faith is incompatible with science and faith is required for, say Christianity, because there is no evidence that is not circular or fulfilling for the validity of it’s core precepts.

      Science is erroneous to to theism because faith is contradictory to it and without faith there is no reason to believe anything claimed in the Koran or Bible or Torah are true. To notice that science has not falsified their unfalsifiable claims does not make them any more likely than the flying spaghetti monster.

      To begin with an, argument should never be from authority ‘This person said so, so it’s true’, that’s nonsense and not scientific. ‘This person claims this, because…’ is very different before you reply. ‘And so what?’ well so if you wish to argue this issue by highlighting those elite scientists that are religious as evidence for their compatibility then you have to accept that actually the vast majority (>90%) of elite scientists (defined by membership to the national academy in the US, Royal Society in the UK and equivalent institutions) are atheists. So to gauge the compatibility of religion and science by elite scientists one would have to conclude that they are not compatible overall –at which time I would refer you to my original comment.

  • james

    As to why one tends to believe as opposed to the other : physicists deal with force (outside action) so need to think in the macro while biologists investigate the small and therefore might suffer from myopia, which the 2nd definition is: a deficiency of foresight or discernment. ; )

    .

  • Guy McClung

    Draw large circle, use dotted line if you wish. Label it HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Draw smaller circle, use dotted line if you wish, label it SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE. Your choice: put smaller circle completely in larger circle; or have overlap, as much as you wish, between the two circles. Anyone who says the smaller circle and the larger circle are identical, that all human knowledge is scientific knowledge and any knowledge that is not scientific is not knowledge, worships at the altar of the laboratory bench and professes the dogmas of the religion of science. Guy McClung, San Antonio