How Prominent Scientists
Approached Religion

In the eyes of some in the religious community, the word science is but a synonym for atheistic materialism, and the whole enterprise of testing hypotheses and studying the inter-relationships of phenomena is but another ideology. They think that physicists and biologists and other toilers in the field are motivated by a desire to discredit the idea of God, and that hubris informs such aspirations. To such individuals it is useless to explain that neither microscope nor telescope can discover a God that lacks corporeal form and sense-content; that science is not metaphysics; that empirical investigation and mathematical computation are arguably the most reliable means by which to understand the natural world; and that the state of scientific knowledge is always provisional, ever susceptible to amendment and critique.

The charge about atheism does not hold up under review. It's true that some, like Richard Dawkins, have railed against religion in a less than high-minded and dignified way, but most prominent scientists over the last few centuries have approached the subject with reverence and open-mindedness, and most have believed in one or other version of God, though not of the anthropomorphic variety. The passages below (minus Dawkins') are a testament to this.

"I once...asked the then professor of astrophysics at Oxford to explain the origin of the universe to me. He did so, and I posed my supplementary: 'Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?' He smiled: 'Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand [you] over to our good friend the chaplain.' My immediate thought was, 'But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?' If science itself cannot say where the laws of physics ultimately come from, there is no reason to expect that religion will do any better and rather good reasons to think it will do worse."

-- Richard Dawkins, quoted in The Guardian (9/04/03)

"It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and atheism is in all respects hateful, so in this, that it depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty."

-- Francis Bacon, "Of Atheism"

"In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."

-- Charles Darwin, in a letter (1879) to J. Fordyee

"...the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a First Cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty."

-- Charles Darwin, Autobiography

"Every serious and reflective person realizes, I think, that the religious element in his nature must be recognized and cultivated if all the powers of the human soul are to act together in perfect balance and harmony. And, indeed, it was not by any accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were also deeply religious souls, even though they made no public show of their religious feeling."

-- Max Planck, Where Is Science Going?

"The negation of free will, the negation of moral responsibility; the individual considered merely as a physico-chemical unit, as a particle of living matter, hardly different from the other animals, inevitably brings about the death of moral man, the suppression of all spirituality, of all hope, the frightful and discouraging feeling of total uselessness..."

-- Lecomte du Nouy, Human Destiny

"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with the awareness of -- and glimpse into -- the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive...The highest principles for our aspirations and judgments are given to us westerners in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition. It is a very high goal: free and responsible development of the individual, so that he may place his powers freely and gladly in the service of all mankind..."

-- Albert Einstein, From an essay read on National Public Radio's "This I Believe" program in 1954.

"Suppose you are sitting on a bench beside a path in high mountain country. There are grassy slopes all around, with rocks thrusting through them; on the opposite slope of the valley there is a stretch of scree with a low growth of alder bushes. Woods climb steeply on both sides of the valley, up to the line of treeless pasture; facing you, soaring up from the depths of the valley, is the mighty, glacier-tipped peak, its smooth snowfields and hard-edged rock faces touched at this moment with soft rose colour by the last rays of the departing sun, all marvellously sharp against the clear, pale, transparent blue of the sky.

"According to our usual way of looking at it, everything that you are seeing has, apart from small changes, been there for thousands of years before you. After a while -- not long -- you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you.

"What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you? The conditions for your existence are almost as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago, perhaps, another man sat on this spot; like you, he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the dying light on the glaciers. Like you, he was begotten of man and born of woman. He felt pain and brief joy as you do. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself? What is this Self of yours? What was the necessary condition for making the thing conceived this time into you, just you, and not someone else? What clearly intelligible scientific meaning can this 'someone else' really have? If she who is now your mother had cohabited with someone else and had a son by him, and your father had done likewise, would you have come to be? Or were you living in them, and in your father's father, thousands of years ago? And even if this is so, why are you not your brother, why is your brother not you, why are you not one of your distant cousins? What justifies you in obstinately discovering this difference -- the difference between you and someone else -- when objectively what is there is the same?

"Looking and thinking in that matter you may suddenly come to see, in a flash, the profound rightness of the basic conviction in Vedanta: it is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling, and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling, and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings."

-- Erwin Schrödinger, quoted in Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions (1984, pp.96-97). Emphasis in original.

"Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?"

-- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History Of Time

Further Reading

Some of Einstein's Writings on Science & Religion

"Harvard Professor Sees Religious Roots of Astronomy"

Physics Web


Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil And Moral

E.W. Barnes, Scientific Theory and Religion (Barnes was both an Anglican theologian and respected mathematician.)

George Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas & Philonous

Francis Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin & Selected Letters

Arthur Eddington, Science And The Unseen World

Albert Einstein, Ideas And Opinions

Werner Heisenberg, Physics And Beyond

Plato, Phaedo; Republic; Timaeus

Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

George Santayana, Reason In Religion (vol. 3 of The Life of Reason)

Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life? and My View of the World

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions