Science and Faith

Reports on such issues as evolution, the origin of the universe, and climate change, are literally covered daily in the mainstream press, often with a self-confident undercurrent that relegates anyone who dares questions the scientific community’s conclusions on these issues as ‘backward’, ignorant, blinded by archaic, repressive and downright dangerous religious beliefs.

One may even venture to say that science, at least for some, has become a new religion. These scientists, newscasters, pundits and the like see science as somehow unassailable, due to the logic, replicable experimentation, and peer-review standards that are key to scientific legitimacy. This of course is in stark contrast to faith, which cannot be measured like a scientific experiment, and which does not lend itself to verifiable testing and the like.

The current great divide between science and faith was not always as wide as it is today. Dan Graves’ book, Scientists of Faith, published by Kregel Resources, 1996, presents forty-eight short profiles of scientists who have made enormous contributions to their respective fields, while maintaining a strong personal faith. 

Today Stephen Hawking is perhaps one of our foremost mathematicians—and probably one of the most renowned scientists in history, on par with Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton.  Hawking was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University from 1979 to 2009.  He has written a number of books including the monumental bestseller, A Brief History of Time.

Hawking is an atheist, which, in the early 21st century, is not particularly unusual in the scientific community.  A Pew Research poll in May and June of 2009 among scientists of the group, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, found that 41% of scientists were atheists, whereas (in a separate poll, also by Pew) only 4% of Americans shared that view

Other notable scientists who have not believed in the existence of God include Francis Crick, Sigmund Freud, and Alfred Nobel.  Crick in 1962 received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with two other scientists. They were awarded the Prize for ‘their determination of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the chemical substance ultimately responsible for hereditary control of life functions’ Sigmund Freud is of course known as the father of psychoanalysis, and Alfred Nobel is famous for inventing dynamite and for whom the Nobel Prize is named. As of this writing in March of 2015, notable living scientists who believe that there is no God include the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the book The God Delusion;  the neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith; and Ray Kurzweil, who, according to his website is the ‘principal inventor of  the first CCD flatbed scanner’, ‘the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments’,  among other commercially available electronic other products

The scientists’ beliefs, at least in this point in history may seem to be somewhat out of step with general population, nonetheless their influence—especially in the popular media—is extremely significant. The dichotomy between science and faith is presented in the media as not only a modern-day phenomenon, but as a historical one as well–as if science and faith were at loggerheads since the beginning of time.  For instance Charles Darwin’s study of fossils and different animal specimens different species nearly two hundred years ago,, and his seminal work, The Origin of Species–and its implication that man evolved from other primates–is frequently presented as a refutation of Man as God-created.

Likewise Galileo Galilei’s advocacy of the heliocentric system (a cosmological model where the Sum, not the Earth, is at the center of the solar system) and his subsequent troubles with the Inquisition are given as ample evidence of the church’s simple-minded and antiquated views of man’s place in the universe, and of its fundamental incompatibility with the scientific method.

Scientists of Faith explores the work and beliefs of scientists from the late sixth century to the early 20th century. Though not explicitly stated one of the significant take-away of this work is the extent to which throughout history scientific thought seems to be a reflections of the time in which it exists.  A thousand, even five hundred years ago, the influence of the Christian church, certainly the Catholic Church, was extremely significant in the western world. One may argue that that influence has diminished somewhat in recent years, and with it, a steady drifting apart of the faith and the scientific communities.  So much so that at times it seems that the two are trapped in mortal combat—their objectives and perceived contributions to humankind inexorably at odds with each other.

For those on either side of this debate, I think it would be worthwhile knowing that this massive divide did not always exist. Some of the most significant scientific discoveries, inventions and innovations of the past one thousand years that impact our world today were made by people of faith.  Here is a sample of Dan Graves’ profiles.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) significant contribution to the field of electrical research is without question.  His experiments with electromagnetism lead to the invention of the first dynamo, the precursor to the electric motor. He also invented the first transformer and electrical inductance (that is the process of electricity flowing through matter). Also terms that are a common today originated with Faraday, including electrolysis, anode, cathode, electrolyte and ion.

Faraday was a lifelong member of an offshoot of the Scottish Presbyterian church called the Sandemanians. According to Graves Faraday’ believed that all nature must be connected as a single whole’, an idea which informed his scientific work.

James Joule (1818-1889) discovered “various forms of energy—electrical, mechanical and heat—are basically the same and can be changed, one to another. This discovery formed the basis of the law of conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics. Specifically, his work centered on determining the relationship between energy and that heat that it produced. He established the relationship between the work produced by a source of energy and the heat that results from it (p 132). The unit of energy, called the Joule, is named in his honor.  Joule’s religious leanings are relatively Graves book however, with a single work attributed to Joule: “After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom power and goodness as evidence of his handiwork.” (p. 133).  No reference is provided for the quote.

In 1852 James Joule, working with the physicist William Thomson (1824-1907), also known as Lord Kelvin,  discovered that when a gas was allowed to expand, without performing any external work, its temperature falls. This Joule-Thompson effect was the genesis of the refrigeration industry of the 19th century. Some of Thomson’s other contributions to science include the absolute temperature scale (measured in kelvins), the geophysical determination of the age of the Earth, and theoretical work and inventions in submarine telegraphy.

Kelvin is said to have started each of his lectures with a scripture, recited from memory. According to Graves, Kelvin’s faith is illustrated by a quote that stresses a harmony between heaven and earth, and a dire prediction for those who cannot see this relationship (P. 146).

The Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is regarded by “most modern physicists as the scientist of the 19th century who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics, and he is ranked with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for the fundamental nature of his contributions” The concept of electromagnetic radiation originated with Maxwell, who took Michael Faraday’s observations on electrical and magnetic lines of force and gave them a sound mathematical grounding.  His electromagnetic field equations then paved the way for Einstein’s famous special theory of relativity. Maxwell’s work on electromagnetic radiation strongly influenced the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who used Maxwell’s theories to produce electromagnetic waves in a laboratory.  These later became known as radio waves.

While Maxwell spoke little of his faith publicly his Christian convictions were well known. Maxwell expressed his beliefs in a number of ways, by giving free lectures and on occasion, personally caring for the ill (p. 152).  He was also known for his ‘extemporaneous’ prayers, including the following: “Teach us to study the work of Thy hands that we may subdue the earth to our use and strengthen our reason for Thy service.”

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). Johan Mendel (1822-1884) was born in part of Austria that is now part of the Czech Republic. In 1843 he entered the Augustinian monastery at Altbrunn, where he was given the name Gregor. Mendel would later be George Mendel was the first to lay the mathematical foundations in the science of genetics.

In 1854 the Abbott of the monastery asked Mendel to conduct a major experimental program to study the effects of hybridization. Landowners in the area, including the monastery, were interested in crossbreeding in both plants and animals as a way to maintain profits in light of potential competition from abroad.

Mendel experimented on peas–due to the numerous varieties that were already available–and followed multiple generations of hybrids. He found that the first generation displayed the characteristics of one variety (the dominant character) but not of the other (the recessive).  Following multiple generations he was able to identify that the recessive gene did reappear, after the third generation, fifty percent of the recessive characteristics did appear in some varieties.

Up until that time the effects of cross-breeding had not been quantified, and it was Mendel’s work in being able to identify the mathematical underpinnings of hybridization that has formed the basis of modern genetics.

When the plant experiments were extended to the breeding of animals–the fertilization of an egg by the sperm–the results held true. Mendel then postulated three laws from his experiments.

First, the egg and sperm carry only one of the matching genes (e.g. shortness or tallness). Second, traits are inherited independent of one another (it was later proven that some traits are linked). Third, when sperm and egg come together each provides one gene to each inherited trait, and one gene will be dominant over its counterpart. These findings were key to the modern field of genetics.

Given the strong contributions made by people of faith to the scientific community, it is somewhat baffling why there is now such antagonism now between the two camps. Where and when did it start? Why did it grow?  My theory is this. As it has become more acceptable to be an atheist, to espouse no belief in God, voices in the scientific community who do not believe in God have become louder, as has those in the faith community.  The rhetoric has increased, and positions have become more entrenched.  Both sides to a certain extent (but at the risk of being politically incorrect, more so the scientific community) sees the other’s position as incompatible with their own.  This certainly is at odds with the historical relationship between the two camps.

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