Ep 14 – Scientist Who Believe in God

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I know I may be repeating myself but I feel I must in order to make sure I am clear on the intent of this podcast.  I do not set out to offend anyone (on purpose anyway) but to challenge ideas and to challenge beliefs.  I am fascinated with the Bible and the idea of a god or gods or even goddess.  I am an atheist; I do not think there is sufficient evidence for the gods that have been presented to mankind throughout history.  The evidence clearly favors that no god known to the human race exist and especially the Judeo-Christian God, which is the focus of this podcast.  What is the evidence and what method am I using?  I like to rely on science and critical thinking.  I like to think that the scientific method is the best tool we have to understanding our world.  I do not pretend to understand all there is about science and the universe but I can appreciate the experts that have dedicated their lives to understanding it.  I know that it works, how else would we explain that marvelous technology we have today or the advancements in medicine?  But, science was created by man.  Science is tool we discovered that helps organize our universe in a predictable way that allows us to send satellites into space, navigate streets with little devices, video chat with people halfway across the world and to land an SUV size rover on Mars.  This is why I love science, this is why I love learning new things and this is why I think a god cheapens that experience.  Faith is a difficult word and concept for me to understand but it is something that has to be dealt with when dealing with believers from any religion.

I know that no matter how many facts or proofs I throw at a believer, faith will always trump that.  Unless someone accepts that scientific method and understands critically thinking, trying to argue the existence of a god with facts and proofs is an uphill battle.  I know there are a lot of believers that accept evolution, the age of the earth, global warming and view the bible as allegory and not literal.  I am not challenging those people with facts about genetics and archeology (those people you need to engage philosophically) because they already understand it.  They compartmentalize their brains so that the science and faith sections don’t cross.  Does that mean you have to be an atheist to appreciate science and discovery?  Does that mean you have to deny the existence of a god to make enormous contribution to the understanding of our universe?  Does that mean if you accept the existence of a deity that you cannot be a good scientist?  I think that answers to those questions are a resounding NO and history backs up that claim.  In this episode I am going to look a few of the most influential scientist throughout history that were or are believers in some form of god and show you that even if you do believe in a higher power, you can still be a good scientist.  This is part one of my two part series on Famous Scientist that believe in God!

Before we get into this list, let me say a little disclaimer.  Albert Einstein will not be included because he did not believe in a particular god.  I went into some detail on this in episode three of this podcast.  Einstein to make reference to god in some of his quotes but it has been detailed pretty substantially that he was using god as a metaphor for the laws of nature, so in the end Einstein was an atheist at most and an agnostic at least, not a believer in a god.  He was also of Jewish decent but not a practicing Jew [1].

Arthur Compton (1982-1962) Nobel Laureate in Physics

Arthur Compton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physic in 1927 for his discovery of what became known as the Compton Effect.  This effect is the change in the wavelength of X-rays as they collide with electrons which are caused by the transfer of energy from the photon to the electron.  This discovery confirmed the dual nature of electromagnetic radiation as both a wave and a particle [2].  He also worked on the Manhattan Project.

Compton was a Presbyterian and taught Sunday School class at Princeton, was an elder in the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis and a member of the national Presbyterian Board of Education.  He saw science as a way of connecting with is maker, a way of understanding his god in this world.  He also stated the following about the conflict between science and religion:

  • In their essence there can be no conflict between science and religion. Science is a reliable method of finding truth. Religion is the search for a satisfying basis for life.

Also, when questioned about the existence of God and how one can know, he stated the following:

  • If religion is to be acceptable to science it is important to examine the hypothesis of an Intelligence working in nature. The discussion of the evidences for an intelligent God is as old as philosophy itself.  The argument on the basis of design, though trite, has never been adequately refuted. On the contrary, as we learn more about our world, the probability of its having resulted by chance processes becomes more and more remote, so that few indeed are the scientific men of today who will defend an atheistic attitude.

So, to Compton, the order and the apparent design of the universe screams a creator.  This has since been disproven by later theories but to Compton, science was a way of understanding his creator and ultimately, his faith in his God lead him to do great things in science [3].

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Probably most famous to those listening to this podcast is his theological theory which is known as Pascal’s Wager which is a probabilistic justification for a belief in God.  He used the following logic for this wager:

  • God is or He is not
  • A games is being played…where heads or tails will turn up
  • According to reason, you can defend either of the propositions
  • You must wager (it’s not optional)
  • Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  • Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain [4].

There are several flaws in this logic but I will save that for another episode.  Here are some of the scientific contributions Pascal made:

  • He is the founder of Hydrostatics which is the science of fluids at rest
  • He is also the founder of Hydrodynamics which is the science that deals with how fluids flow.
  • He is also the founder of the Theory of Probabilities which is a branch of mathematics dealing with the analysis of random phenomena.

Pascal was a Roman Catholic but later adopted a form of Catholicism known as Jansenism which emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace and predestination.  As with most religious scientist, Pascal used science to better understand his God [5].  He states the following about proving the truth of Christianity:

  • There are two ways of proving the truths of our religion; one by the power of reason, the other by the authority of him who speaks.
  • We do not make use of the latter, but of the former. We do not say, ‘This must be believed, for Scripture, which says it, is divine.’ But we say that it must be believed for such and such a reason, which are feeble arguments, as reason may be bent to everything [6].

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)

He was an eminent German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor and artist.  He discovered thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms and coined many terms still used today in biology including anthropogeny, ecology and stem cell.  He made huge contributions to the early development on the Theory of Evolution but he was a bit of a racist.  He proposed a scientific classification for different races with the Caucasian being at the top on African Negroes at the bottom and predicted that the lower races would soon become extinct [7]. He also proposed the idea of social Darwinism and some of his philosophies were adopted by the Nazi party.

Haeckel did not profess to be any particular religion but if you had to pick, it would be a form of deism because of statements like this:

  • Ever more clearly are we compelled by reflection to recognise that God is not to be placed over against the material world as an external being, but must be placed as a ‘Divine power’ or ‘moving Spirit’ within the cosmos itself.

It appears to be similar to Einstein’s view of a god but he clearly believed that God was a force within the natural world.

Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961)

Schrodinger is probably most famous for this thought experiment know as Schrodinger’s cat which presents a scenario that a cat might be alive or dead, depending on an earlier random event [8].  I am not going to pretend to understand this but rest assured it has something to do with quantum mechanics are decaying radioactive atoms.  His is also credited with being one of the founders of quantum mechanics.  He won a Nobel Prize in wave mechanics for his Schrodinger equation.  Again, I will not pretend to understand this but I will quote it as a partial differential equation that describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes with time [9].

Schrodinger was a Catholic and thought science was a creative game with rules and the rules were designed by God himself, which he stated as:

  • Science is a game – but a game with reality, a game with sharpened knives.
  • If a man cuts a picture carefully into 1000 pieces, you solve the puzzle when you reassemble the pieces into a picture; in the success or failure, both your intelligences compete.
  • In the presentation of a scientific problem, the other player is the good Lord. He has not only set the problem but also has devised the rules of the game – but they are not completely known, half of them are left for you to discover or to deduce.
  • The uncertainty is how many of the rules God himself has permanently ordained, and how many apparently are caused by your own mental inertia, while the solution generally becomes possible only through freedom from its limitations. This is perhaps the most exciting thing in the game.

Schrodinger also believed that science could only answer so many questions.  Questions such as beauty and art as he stated:

  • I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity.
  • Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously [10].

The wonderful thing about science, it progresses and it was soon able to answer these questions whether by the social scientist or through neuroscience.

Francis Bacon (1561-1627)

Francis Bacon arguably made one of the biggest contributions to science.  He is credited with being the creator of empiricism which is that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.  He also established inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry which means looking at a set of observations and seeking to explain what one sees.  He demanded a planned procedure for investigating all things natural; this would become known as the scientific method [11].

Born to a Calvinist mother, Bacon became an Anglican where he adhered to the middle of the road Church of England which was neither authoritarian nor sectarian.  Religion was more of a formality for Bacon [12].  Bacon said this about God and the Universe:

  • The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light, upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light, into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light, into the face of his chosen.

Francis Collins (1950-Present)

Collins is most famous for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project which mapped the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome.

Collins grew-up a nominal Christian and later considered himself an atheist by graduate school.  He had a hard time dealing with dying patients and sought out a spiritual solution and investigated several faiths.  Using C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he became an Evangelical Christian.  He does reject Young Earth Creationism and intelligent design but opts for the more appealing theistic evolution or evolutionary creation.  When comforted with the potential conflict of being a believer in God and a scientist, he stated the following [13]:

  • For me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.
  • Many will be puzzled by these sentiments, assuming that a rigorous scientist could not also be a serious believer in a transcendent God. This book aims to dispel that notion, by arguing that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.

He also states the following on how far science can take mankind and its limitations:

  • Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools when properly utilized can generate profound insights into material existence. But science is powerless to answer questions such as ‘Why did the universe come into being?’, ‘What is the meaning of human existence?’, ‘What happens after we die?’. One of the strongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profound questions, and we need to bring all the power of both the scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen.

Collins seems to echo what many scientists have said throughout the centuries, that science is a tool used to understand the mind of God and that God gave man this tool to understand the world of which he lives.  I am not sure what makes the Christian God the correct God or any other god the correct god but it appears that the concepts of science have proven more effective in understanding this world than any idea of god throughout history.

Galileo Galilee (1564-1642)

No other man of science has had a greater impact than Galileo.  He vastly improved the telescope, found evidence for Copernicanism, confirmed the phases of Venus, discovered the four largest satellites of Jupiter, observed and analyzed sunspots, improved the military compass and other instruments and he has a champion for heliocentrism.  He is called the father of modern observational astronomy, the father of modern physics, the father of science and the father of modern science.  What he is best known for in skeptic and atheist circles is his courage in standing up against the dogma of his day and the powerful Catholic Church and boldly claiming that the earth was not the center of the solar system but the Sun.  Briefly, he was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained the rest of his life.  His story is worthy of an entire podcast episode, which I plan on doing in the near future [14].

Galileo was a practicing Catholic and remained so despite the Catholic Church labeling him a heretic.  Despite all this, Galileo remained true to his convictions as a scientist.  He did not reject the church or religion but instead held contempt for the dogmatic authority of the church and the way it stifled scientific investigation [15].

Here is what Galileo had to say about his faith, God and the Bible:

  • When I reflect on so many profoundly marvelous things that persons have grasped, sought, and done, I recognize even more clearly that human intelligence is a work of God, and one of the most excellent
  • The Holy Scripture cannot err and the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways [16]

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)

Leibniz contributed greatly to mathematics and invented calculus.  He fathered the idea of kinetic energy and coined the term function in reference to curve related quantity such as a slope or point.  He proposed the idea that the earth had a molten core.  He anticipated the distinction between conscious and unconscious states.  He worked to establish a central public health authority that focused on preventive measures and also proposed a national insurance program.  He is claimed to be the father of applied science and designed win-driven propellers and water pumps, mining machines to extract ore, hydraulic presses, lamps, submarines and clocks.  He also helped invent the steam engine.  He also may have been the first computer scientist and information theorist when he documented the binary numeral system.  He also invented the mechanical calculator.  He lobbied for the formation of national scientific societies so that thoughts and ideas were able to spread [17].

As a Lutheran, Leibniz tried to unite the Lutheran and Catholic Church and thought that reason alone was enough to heal the breach caused by the reformation.  On the idea of God, Leibniz had this to say:

  • God is absolutely perfect, for perfection is nothing but amount of positive reality, in the strict sense, leaving out of account the limits or bounds in things which are limited. And where there are no bounds, that is to say in God, perfection is absolutely infinite.
  • It follows also that created beings derive their perfections from the influence of God, but that their imperfections come from their own nature, which is incapable of being without limits. For it is in this that they differ from God [18]

Gregor Mendel (1882-1884)

Mendel thought the best place to study without worrying about cost was at a monastery.  In 1843 he became a priest and then four years later went to the University of Vienna.  There he studied physics, chemistry and botany.  By breeding plants, Mendel came up with the law of segregation, which became the first law of heredity.  This law states that the units of heredity also known as genes are found in pairs and that the paired gene is divided when the cell is divided.  Each member is received by the egg and the sperm and paired genes are present in either half the eggs or sperm. He discovered this while breeding plants.  Although not given the credit while his lived, future scientist came upon his ideas of heredity and credited Mendel with first discovering them [19].

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)

If you have ever used a cellphone, listened to the radio or watched TV, Marconi is the guy you need to thank.  He is credited with inventing wireless telegraphy or radio transmission.  With the success of this new way of transmitting information, he found financial success by founding The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 [20].

Marconi was baptized a Catholic but brought up Anglican by his mother.  He had this to say about God and science:

  • The more I work with the powers of Nature, the more I feel God’s benevolence to man; the closer I am to the great truth that everything is dependent on the Eternal Creator and Sustainer; the more I feel that the so-called science, I am occupied with, is nothing but an expression of the Supreme Will, which aims at bringing people closer to each other in order to help them better understand and improve themselves
  • Every step, science makes, brings us ever new surprises and achievements. And yet science is like a faint light of a lantern flickering in a deep and thick forest, through which humanity struggles to find its way to God. It is only faith that can lead it to light and serve as a bridge between man and the Absolute.
  • I am proud to be a Christian. I believe not only as a Christian, but as a scientist as well. A wireless device can deliver a message through the wilderness. In prayer the human spirit can send invisible waves to eternity, waves that achieve their goal in front of God [21]

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

A list of scientist that believed in God would be no list without Isaac Newton.  He’s your favorite scientist’s favorite scientist.  What has Newton done for science?  For starters, he advanced the scientific revolution by proving heliocentrism and finishing what Galileo started.  He laid the foundation for classical mechanics, the universal law of gravitation and the three laws of motion.  He built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on light shining through a prism and discovered the visible light spectrum.  He also developed an empirical law of cooling and studied the speed of sound.  He shares credit with Leibniz for developing calculus.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg that is Isaac Newton [22].

His beliefs are somewhat of a mystery because he hid them so well from public view but are slowly be unraveled and one of the most  radical beliefs he held was that worshiping Christ as God was idolatry and to him the fundamental sin.  He was a heretic but he hid is faith so well, that he was not suspected of it while alive.  He rejected the trinity and was considered to be Arian which states that Jesus was created separately from God thus rejecting the trinity.  He often refused to take orders from the church and on his death bed, he refused the sacrament.  Newton still believed in God and he wrote more on religion on the Bible than on natural science.  It can be said that Newton believed in a deistic god but also in a God that intervenes in the world but not the tradition Christian God of his time, mostly the trinity [23].  Here is what he had to say about God:

  • From His true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent and powerful Being; and from His other perfections, that He is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, His duration reaches from eternity to eternity; His presence from infinity to infinity; He governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done

As with most scientist of his time, Newton saw the perfect symmetry of nature as having a divine designer.  He saw that chance could not create the world of which he lived and had this to say:

  • Opposite to godliness is atheism in profession, and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind, that it never had many professors.
  • Can it be by accident that all birds, beasts, and men have their right side and left side alike shaped, (except in their bowels); and just two eyes, and no more, on either side of the face; and just two ears on either side of the head; and a nose with two holes; and either two forelegs, or two wings, or two arms on the shoulders, and two legs on the hips, and no more?  Whence arises this uniformity in all their outward shapes but from the counsel and contrivance of an Author?
  • Whence is it that the eyes of all sorts of living creatures are transparent to the very bottom, and the only transparent members in the body, having on the outside a hard transparent skin, and within transparent humours, with a crystalline lens in the middle, and a pupil before the lens, all of them so finely shaped and fitted for vision, that no artist can mend them? Did blind chance know that there was light, and what was its refraction, and fit the eyes of all creatures, after the most curious manner, to make use of it? These, and suchlike considerations, always have, and ever will prevail with mankind, to believe that there is a Being who made all things, and has all things in his power, and who is therefore to be feared.
  • We are, therefore, to acknowledge one God, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, the Creator of all things, most wise, most just, most good, most holy. We must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Maxwell was a Scottish mathematical physicist and is credited with formulating the electromagnetic theory.  This theory united all previously unrelated observations, experiments, and equations of electricity, magnetism and optics.  He demonstrated that these three are all the same manifestations of the same phenomenon, the electromagnetic field.  All of the early laws and equations of these disciplines became simplified under Maxwell’s equation [24].

As a Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist, Maxwell was a deeply religious man but also very private about his religious convictions.  In the public sphere, he let his science speak.  Here is what he had to say about God and science:

  • I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of
  • Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit themselves to His righteousness and are willing to receive His gift. They are to be conformed to the image of His Son, and when that is fulfilled, and God sees that they are conformed to the image of Christ, there can be no more condemnation, for this is the praise which God Himself gives, whose judgment is just [25]


That ends part one of my two part look at famous scientist that believed in God.  Part two will be coming out soon but not too soon.  I want to address other topics and I need to take a break from writing about scientist.  But on a deeper level, what does all this mean?  Why does it matter what a scientist believes?  Would these great minds made the same contribution without believing in a god?  Would we have these great breakthroughs without a god belief?  Clearly some of these scientists were inspired by their god and sought understanding of their god through study the natural world. I am sure these great discoveries would have occurred eventually but does it really matter what their motivation was?  I don’t think so.  Does this prove that a divine hand guided these men?  Hardly!  Given the wide range of beliefs, God does not appear to have been an influencing factor besides providing the motivation. We should judge people based on their action and not their beliefs.  But, if their beliefs influence their actions and their actions cause harm, then we have to critically examine those beliefs and that is what I am trying to do here.  I hope you enjoyed this episode and learned something new.  I know I did just by writing it.

This has been C-Webb’s Sunday School.  Find us at atheistsocialworker.org or at dumbassmedia.info.  We are on iTunes, search C-Webb’s Sunday School and while you are there, leave us a review.  We can be found on stitcher, Zune and most other podcatchers and don’t forget to follow me on twitter @cwebb619.  Join me next time when I take on more religious claims both holy and unholy