The popular perception about scientists is that they are atheists and only believe in something which can be proven by scientific research. However, there were many famous scientists who continued their work in their concerned fields while holding on to their beliefs in God.
Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician credited for discovering pulmonary circulation, was tortured and burned at the stake for his ideas on reforming Christianity.
Science and God are seldom spoken of in the same breath only to stress on their incompatibility with each other. Science and God have been at crossroads with each other for a long time. Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian scientist, was persecuted by the Catholic Church over his publication of evidence that supported the Copernican theory.
Believers in God have often contested that science can merely explain the functioning of a system; it cannot answer the fundamental question of why does a system work. For example, believers say that science can explain the functioning of the heart, and its labyrinth of arteries and veins, but it cannot explain why the heart beats in the first place.
On a broader level, this transforms to the philosophy of the meaning and purpose of life, which according to believers, science will never be able to explain. Atheists, on the other hand, have always embraced scientific thinking as the only way the human race can progress and find answers to all impending questions.
Many atheists believe that the concept of God and religion has always been used to take advantage of naive and gullible individuals.
Belief in God Among Scientists and the General Population
Although believers and nonbelievers may have valid points to back their arguments, the numbers are highly skewed in favor of the former. A research conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in 2009, found that 95% of Americans believe in God or some higher power.
To be specific, 83% of the respondents said that they believe in God, while 12% said that they accepted the fact that there was a universal or higher power. But when the same study was conducted on scientists, the number of believers and nonbelievers was approximately equal.
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveyed scientists who were members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The survey found that only 33% of scientists believed in God, while 18% believed in some higher or universal power, putting the overall percentage of believers at 51%.
Scientists are known for their rational thinking and attitude of ‘believe in only what can be proven’. However, numerous eminent scientists and researchers have explicitly or implicitly shown signs of their belief in God.
These scientists have emphasized that their belief in God helped them in getting a better understanding of nature and the world. Mentioned here are some of the most famous scientists who believed in God.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, is known for his theory of relativity E = mc². Einstein is widely considered as one of the greatest scientists of all time, along with Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking.
Although Einstein lived in a period where atheists were not hounded or declared heretics, it is widely believed that he ‘believed in the pantheistic Spinozism concept of God rather than a personal God’.
The widespread unanimity on Einstein’s belief on the existence of God came under some scrutiny as his handwritten “I don’t believe in God” letter was auctioned last year for $3 million.
However, observers are of the view that this letter should not used to label Einstein as an atheist, as in the letter, he is talking about the Biblical God, and not the pantheistic God he always believed in. Mentioned here are Einstein’s views on the existence of God. The third quote is from his “I don’t believe in God” letter.
“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
“God does not play dice with the universe.”
“The word God for me is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change this…”
Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)
Blaise Pascal is credited for being the founding father of the probability theory and mechanical calculator. He was one of the finest French mathematicians and inventors of the 17th century. Pascal, unlike his other scientific peers, had a rather interesting viewpoint about the existence of God.
His thoughts on the existence of God, known as Pascal’s Wager, were published in the book Pensées. According to Pascal’s Wager, the possible gain of believing in God is far greater than the possible loss of not believing in God. Following are some of the views of Pascal about God, in his own words.
“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
“Faith is different from proof; the latter is human, the former is a Gift from God.”
Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961)
Erwin Schrödinger’s work on wave mechanics earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Apart from doing the pioneering work in wave mechanics, Schrödinger also contributed to color theory, electromagnetic theory, and meson physics. Historians cite the lectures delivered by Schrödinger as an evidence of his belief in God.
“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 deduce.”
“It (science) 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.”
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
Galileo Galilei was an Italian astronomer and mathematician, who supported the postulation of Copernicus that the Sun was at the center of the Universe. During his career, he made numerous discoveries, notable among them being the discovery of the four satellites of the planet Venus. He is also credited for inventing the modern compass.
Like other scientists of that era, Galileo too had to face stiff opposition from the Catholic Church. After allegedly disrespecting Pope Urban VII in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.
Despite being opposed by the ‘religious’ people of those times, Galileo believed in God or a higher power, as can be seen from his writings and statements.
“Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.”
“Whatever the course of our lives, we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us.”
Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
Sir Isaac Newton needs no introduction, as we all know him for being the person who got all the answers to his questions when an apple fell on his head from a tree! Well, the story may be apocryphal, but there is no denying the fact that Newton’s findings have been the foundation of classical mechanics and infinitesimal calculus.
There is an endless list of the achievements of Newton the scientist, but talking about Newton the believer, it can be said that he, on many occasions, told his friends and colleagues about the rationality of his belief in God. Despite the fact that Newton was not an atheist, he was considered as a heretic, due to his unorthodox beliefs.
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is considered as one of the most important scientific books of all time, has some passages where Newton has revealed his belief in God. The following quotes by Newton explicitly portray his belief in a higher power.
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being….This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is won’t to be called Lord God “pantokrator,” or Universal Ruler…”
“Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895)
Louis Pasteur was an eminent microbiologist and immunologist. His most important work centered around the germ theory, during which he, along with his team, was able to develop vaccinations for rabies and anthrax.
The process of Pasteurization, in which a substance is heated for a specific period of time, and then immediately cooled to prevent it from spoilage by bacteria, was created by Louis Pasteur. He was a devout Christian, and made others know about his belief through his words and writings.
“A bit of science distances one from God, but much science nears one to Him.”
“The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.”
Max Planck (1858 – 1947)
Max Planck was an eminent scientist, known around the world for being the founding father of Quantum Theory. For his work in this field, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.
Apart from being a world-renowned scientist, he was also a professor of physics at the University of Munich and University of Berlin. Considered to be a pioneer in the world of physics, Max Planck was reportedly a believer in God. He substantiated his views about God and religion in his lectures and writings.
“Both religion and science need for their activities the belief in God, and moreover God stands for the former in the beginning, and for the latter at the end of the whole thinking. For the former, God represents the basis, for the latter – the crown of any reasoning concerning the world-view.”
“That God existed before there were human beings on Earth, that He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity, and that He will remain enthroned on a level inaccessible to human comprehension long after the Earth and everything that is on it has gone to ruins; …
…those who profess this faith and who, inspired by it, in veneration and complete confidence, feel secure from the dangers of life under protection of the Almighty, only those may number themselves among the truly religious.”
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543)
Nicolaus Copernicus, the great Polish mathematician and astronomer, is best known for being the first scientist to postulate that the Sun was at the center of the Universe. Copernicus studied the sky with his naked eyes, as no astronomical instrument had been built for this purpose at that time.
Copernicus also postulated that the Earth and other planets were constantly revolving around the Sun. Although his views were against the Catholic Church and the orthodoxy of that time, it is widely believed that Copernicus was not an atheist. Some of his views mentioned here lend support to the claim of historians that Copernicus believed in God.
“I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God.”
“…It (Universe) was built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.”
René Descartes (1596 – 1650)
René Descartes was a French mathematician and natural philosopher. He is mainly known for his contribution to algebra and geometry. Apart from being a distinguished mathematician, Descartes contributed immensely to philosophy with his treatise Meditations on First Philosophy.
It is considered to be one of the most inquisitive expositions of all time. Descartes is also known by many for his deeply philosophical quote, “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes’ belief in God is exemplified in the following statements.
“I experienced in myself a certain capacity for judging which I have doubtless received from God, like all the other things that I possess; and as He could not desire to deceive me, it is clear that He has not given me a faculty that will lead me to err if I use it aright.”
“It is thus quite certain that the constitution of the true religion, the ordinances of which are derived from God, must be incomparably superior to that of every other.”
Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976)
Werner Heisenberg was born in Germany in 1901. He went on to become one of the leading researchers of Quantum Mechanics, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932. Heisenberg is known to science students around the world for his eponymous “Theory of Uncertainty.”
During his long and illustrious career, Heisenberg had the opportunity to serve as the head of several prestigious institutions, including the German Research Council and Nuclear Physics Working Group.
Despite being at the forefront of the study of Quantum Mechanics, there is unanimity among historians on Heisenberg’s belief in God; his following statements give further credence to their claims.
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
“Religion is therefore the foundation of ethics, and ethics the presupposition of life.”
(Note: Although the scientists mentioned herexpressed their belief in God through their writings or sayings, their idea of God may not necessarily have been the same as that of the orthodox religious people.)