Important Scientists Who Believed in God

Nicholas CopernicusIn view of the Christian roots of the scientific method it is not surprising that the large majority of the early scientists were Christians, many of them very devout at that. Some people might say that they were simply products of the Christian culture in which they lived. But it may have been the other way around. Because they were close to the origins of science they may have been more conscious of its Christian roots than we are today. It may have been precisely their Christianity that motivated them to do science. And what they learned as they explored the order and diversity in the universe seems to have helped to make them devout.

This is a list of some of the all-time great scientists and their contributions, as well as some comments on their Christian commitments. Most of these people are important early originators of our present scientific knowledge. These are familiar names to anyone trained in science even nowadays. But I have included a few recent names to show that integration between science and faith, particularly the Christian faith, is still being done today. I have gathered much of this information[1] from several sources on the internet, abridged it and added to it from my own background and other sources.

I must say that it impressed me profoundly, in compiling this list, to realize that the overwhelming number of the men whose names became familiar to me through my training in science were devout Christian believers.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543, pictured above)
Copernicus was the Polish astronomer who put forward the first mathematically based system to describe the motion of planets going around the sun. At the same time he became a Canon in the Catholic Church in 1497. His new system was presented to Pope Clement VII in 1533 who approved it and urged publication. Copernicus had a fully integrated view of science and God.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)

Brahe designed and built the first accurate instruments for astronomical observations and made many painstaking observations. It is the data he collected that made the discoveries of Johannes Kepler possible. Brahe was a Lutheran.

John Napier (1550–1617)

Napier was a Scottish mathematician who invented logarithms, a mechanical device to do multiplication, which was the precursor to the slide rule used well into the 20th century. He popularized the use of decimals. He also was a staunch Protestant who wrote on the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
Bacon was a philosopher who is known for establishing what we now call the scientific method (see my summary of it in Science and Christian Origins). At the same time he gave himself to the service of the Church.  About atheism he said, “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 Deity.”[2]

 Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
Kepler did early work on the nature of light. He used the extensive astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe to establish the three laws of planetary motion about the sun. Later, using Newton’s theory of gravitation, it was shown that this is exactly the way planets move under the sun’s gravity. He remained an extremely sincere and pious Lutheran, whose works also integrated science and Christianity.

 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Galileo is often remembered for his conflict with the Roman Catholic However, he brought some of that conflict on himself by his negative betrayal of the pope in one of his books. He always believed in a heliocentric solar system. He did his most useful theoretical work on dynamics (the study of how particles and bodies move in relationship to one another) after his censure by the Church. Galileo believed that God gave us two “holy books,” the Bible and the universe as a second book for us read, through science. Since both came from God, neither can err. When there was an apparent clash, it means we are interpreting one of them incorrectly. He therefore saw his system as an alternate interpretation of the biblical texts. This idea has been picked up by a number of modern scientists who have done a great deal of work to show how the two fields can reasonably be harmonized.[3]

 Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Descartes was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher. He wanted to bring all knowledge together in one system of thought. His beginning point was his famous statement “I think therefore I am”. He was both a devout believer in God and, with Francis Bacon, the other key figure in the development of the scientific method.

 Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and theologian. In mathematics, he published a treatise on the subject of projective geometry and established the foundation for probability theory. Pascal invented a mechanical calculator and established the principles of vacuums and the pressure of air. He was raised a Roman Catholic, but in 1654 had a religious vision of God, which turned the direction of his study from science to theology. His most influential theological work, the Pensées (“Thoughts”), still in print, was a defense of Christianity.

 Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Newton is thought by many to have been the greatest scientist of his era. His three laws of motion are the foundation of classical physics. Every student of physics learns to apply them in his or her first course in physics. He and Gottfried Liebnitz both independently invented their respective forms of calculus. In addition he made major contributions to optics. His scientific genius was matched by his devout religiousness. In fact during the second period of his life he devoted himself more to theological studies than scientific ones. In his famous Principia, in which he laid out his laws of motion, he stated, “The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716)

Leibniz was a noted mathematician who invented calculus independently of Isaac Newton. He was also a philosopher and made major contributions to physics and technology. He anticipated notions that surfaced much later in philosophy, probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science. He wrote works on philosophy, politics, law, ethics, theology, history, and philology. He was a Lutheran who worked to try to reunify Catholics and Lutherans.

Thomas Bayes (1701-1761)

Bayes was a Presbyterian minister who wrote on philosophy and religion. He is also known for his work in probability and what has come to be known as Bayes Theorem.

Carolus Linnaeus (1907-1778)

Linnaeus was a botanist and zoologist, known as the father of taxonomy, the science of classification of living things. The system he devised is still used today. He was a serious student of the Bible and incorporated its ideas into his overall conception of the universe.

Leonhard Euler (1707-1783)

Euler was a very important mathematician and physicist. He also made contributions to the kinds of numerical methods that computers use today. He was the son of a pastor and wrote a book arguing against “freethinkers” who took a dim view of the Bible and Christianity. He was commemorated by the Lutheran Church and is on their calendar of saints.

Joseph Priestly (1733-1804)

Priestly was a chemist who discovered oxygen as an element. He was a somewhat non-traditional Christian, but still a man of faith who wrote against the corruptions of the Christianity of his day.

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806)

Coulomb was a Christian who worked on electrostatic attraction and repulsion of charged particles. He devised a formula to calculate the force between such particles called Coulomb’s law. His name was given to a collection of a given number of charged particles. It is called a coulomb.

Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

Volta was another believer who invented the battery. The unit of electric potential, the volt, is named after him.

Andre Marie Ampere (1775-1836)

Ampere, a devout Catholic, was a mathematician and one of the founders of electromagnetic theory. The unit of electric current, the ampere, is named after him.

John Dalton (1766-1844)

Dalton was an English chemist, meteorologist, and physicist best known for his pioneering work on the nature of atoms. He also did important work on color blindness. He was a Quaker and educator.

Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854)

Ohm was a German physicist and mathematician who discovered that there is a direct proportionality between the voltage applied across a resistor and the current flowing through it. That discovery is called Ohm’s law, and the unit of electrical resistance, the ohm, is named after him. He was raised in a Protestant family and always signed his letters with an expression of God’s commendation.

Augustin-Louis Cauchy (1789-1857)

Cauchy was a mathematician known especially for his work in complex variables (those that have both real and imaginary parts). He was a Jesuit who was active in trying to convert other mathematicians to Catholicism.

Robert Boyle (1791-1867)
Boyle established principles that govern the behavior of gases which to this day is called “Boyle’s Law” He also wrote an important work on chemistry. Encyclopedia Britannica says of him: “By his will he endowed a series of Boyle lectures, or sermons, which still continue, ‘for proving the Christian religion against notorious infidels…’ He took a special interest in promoting the Christian religion abroad, giving money to translate and publish the New Testament into Irish and Turkish. In 1690 he published The Christian Virtuoso, to argue ‘that the study of nature was a central religious duty.’”

Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
Michael Faraday’s work on electricity and magnetism not only revolutionized physics, but led to many of the electrical inventions that we now take for granted. He was also a devout member of a Christian group called the Sandemanians. Originating from Presbyterians, the Sandemanians rejected the idea of state churches, and tried to go back to a New Testament type of Christianity.

George Boole (1815-1864)

Boole was a mathematician who laid the foundation for the mathematical theory of logical variables (those whose values have to be either “true” or “false”). This theory has come to be called Boolean algebra in his honor. He was influenced by Unitarianism although he did not  attend church.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Babbage was a mathematician philosopher, inventor, and mechanical engineer. He was also perhaps the first computer scientist. He originated the idea of a programmable computer and actually constructed a mechanical device that could perform mathematical computations. This device was the world’s first mechanical computer. In his philosophical works he wrote in defense of the possibility of miracles.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
Mendel was the first to lay the mathematical foundations of genetics. He began his research in 1856 in the garden of the monastery in which he was a monk. Mendel was elected Abbot of his Monastery in 1868.

William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907)
Kelvin did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity at the University of Glasgow. But he is best known for his foundation work in thermodynamics where he formulated the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much work to unify that discipline. The Kelvin temperature scale most used in scientific work is named after him. He was also a very devout and committed Christian. He was also an “old-earth creationist,” because he estimated the Earth’s age to be somewhere between 20 million and 100 million years, based on his calculations of its cooling rate. This is a low estimate due to his lack of knowledge about the earth’s internal heating due to radioactive heating.[4] Nevertheless it shows his willingness fully to integrate the findings of science with his Christian faith and that he saw no fundamental contradiction between them.

 George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903)

Stokes was a mathematician, physicist, politician and Christian theologian. Born in Ireland, Stokes spent his entire career at the University of Cambridge, from 1849 until his death in 1903. Stokes made seminal contributions to fluid dynamics (including the Navier–Stokes equations, which every student of fluid mechanics learns to this day), optics, and mathematical physics (including the first version of what is now known as Stokes’ theorem, a fundamental theorem of vector calculus, still learned by every student of that science today).[5]

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Pasteur was a French chemist who invented pasteurization as a way to make milk safe to drink. He discovered the causes of anthrax, chicken cholera, and silkworm diseases and contributed to the development of the first vaccines. He was known as a deeply spiritual man with ardent faith in God, though somewhat inconsistently practicing the Catholic religion.

Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann (1826-1866)

Riemann, the son of a pastor, entered the university to study theology and philology with the purpose of becoming a pastor. He changed his mind because of the influence of the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and became a mathematician himself. He made important contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, and differential geometry. Some of his work was foundational for Einstein’s theory of relativity.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Maxwell was a mathematical physicist. His most notable achievement was to formulate the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light[6] as manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism have been called the ‘second great unification in physics’ after the first one realized by Isaac Newton.”[7] To this day his equations are the foundation of electricity and magnetism in much the same way that Newton’s are the foundations of mechanics. Every student of physics learns them and their application. He was also a very devout Christian.

James Prescott Joule (1832-1899)

Joule showed that the various forms of energy, such as mechanical, heat, and electrical were interchangeable which established the law of conservation of energy. This became the first law of thermodynamics. The metric unit of energy, the joule, is named after him. On his gravestone is engraved his apparent interpretation of his work, taken from the Gospel of John: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (9:4).

Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894)

Hertz was a German physicist known for his studies of electromagnetic radiation and the photoelectric effect. The unit of wave frequency, the hertz, is named after him. He was a committed Lutheran all his life.

  1. J. Thompson (1856-1940)

Thompson was a physicist who discovered the electron and also clarified the nature of atomic isotopes. He was active in the Anglican Church. He is known for kneeling in prayer at the beginning of each day and reading a portion of the Bible each night before retiring;

 Max Planck (1858-1947)
Planck made many contributions to physics, but is best known for quantum theory, which revolutionized our understanding of the atomic and sub-atomic worlds. In his 1937 lecture “Religion and Naturwissenschaft (Natural Science),” Planck expressed the view that God is everywhere present, and held that “the holiness of the unintelligible Godhead is conveyed by the holiness of symbols.” Planck was a church warden from 1920 until his death, and believed in an almighty, all-knowing, beneficent God (though not necessarily a personal one). He said that both science and religion wage a “tireless battle against skepticism and dogmatism, against unbelief and superstition” with the goal of moving “toward God!” It is especially noteworthy that Planck maintained his belief in God even though his theoretical work helped establish a statistical rather than deterministic view of the motions of sub-atomic particles. It means he believed in a God who could even have created the world in a statistical manner.

Robert Andrews Millikan (1868-1953)

Millikan was the first to measure the charge on an individual electron and also known for his work on the photoelectric effect. A religious man and the son of a minister, in his later life Millikan argued strongly for a complementary relationship between Christian faith and science. He worked to try to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with religion.

Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)

Marconi is known as the father of radio because he invented the first wireless telegraph. He was a devout Catholic who arranged for the first radio broadcast of a message by a Catholic Pope. In his introduction he gave glory to God who “placed so many mysterious forces at man’s disposal.”

 Arthur Compton (1892-1962)

Compton was a physicist who first demonstrated that light was particulate in nature. This was a revolutionary discovery because until then, light had been considered strictly wavelike. This discovery, called the Compton Effect, was the beginning of the discovery of many of the storage results of quantum mechanics. He was a Baptist who connected Christianity with politics and urged the United States to take a stand against all war and aggression by arming warplanes with atomic weapons as a deterrent.

Georges Lemaitre (1894-1968)

Lemaitre was a Roman Catholic priest who was the first to propose the Big Bang theory of the expansion of the universe and made other important contributions to cosmology. He is not well-known because he did not publish his works in English; therefore others re-discovered them and got credit for them

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who made significant contributions to quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. He is best known for his “uncertainty principle” which states that for very small particles, such as electrons, there are limits on the accuracy with which we can know both their position and velocity. The more accurately we know one, the less accurately we can know the other. This led to the development of what are called “wave functions” which accurately describe the behavior of electrons in atoms and molecules. He was a lifelong Lutheran.

Henry Eyring (1901-1981)

Eyring was an American chemist who developed the basic theory of chemical reaction rates and their relationship to compositions and temperatures. The rates of reactions are calculated through the Eyring equation, named after him. Eyring was a third-generation Mormon who had close connections with the top leadership of that denomination.

Kurt Gӧdel (1906-1978)

Gӧdel was a brilliant Austrian mathematician, especially in the area of mathematical logic. He eventually immigrated to the United States and became a good friend of Einstein. He made many important contributions to mathematical logic, but his most monumental contributions were his two “incompleteness theorems.” These shook the mathematical world which, at that time was hoping to be able to unite all of mathematics under a set of universal axioms (starting points for mathematical reasoning). Gӧdel’s theorems proved that this is an impossible task.

Unlike Einstein he was a theist who believed in a personal God. He was a baptized Lutheran though did not attend church. Furthermore he even believed that the existence of an afterlife could be mathematical proven. He also thought that he had proven the existence of God mathematically. This was a mathematical version of Anselm’s “ontological proof.” It is not widely accepted as a valid proof but it does bring out Gӧdel’s religious intensity.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Einstein is probably the best known and most highly revered scientist of the twentieth century. His most notable contributions are his special and general theories of relativity which are fundamental to our understanding of the larger universe. It is said that his general theory is the most rigorously tested and most accurate theory in the history of science. His work is associated with major revolutions in our thinking about time, space, gravity, and the conversion of matter to energy (E=mc2).

“Einstein was a deist–a believer in an impersonal creator God: He said, ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.’[8] However, it would also seem that Einstein was not an atheist, since he also complained about being put into that camp: ‘In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.’[9] ‘I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.’[10]

“Albert Einstein received instruction in both Christianity (at a Roman Catholic school) and Judaism (because of his family of origin). When interviewed by the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, Einstein was asked what he thought of Christianity.

“’To what extent are you influenced by Christianity?’

“’As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.’

“’You accept the historical existence of Jesus?’

“’Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.’[11][12]

“Although never coming to belief in a personal God, he recognized the impossibility of a non-created universe… He once remarked to a young physicist: ‘I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of ‘this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details’… A famous saying of his was ’Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’”[13]

John Polkinghorne (1930- )

Polkinghorne began his career as a highly-regarded mathematical physicist at Oxford University in 1958. He published many papers on theoretical elementary particle physics in learned journals and two technical scientific books. In 1979 he resigned his professorship to begin training for the Anglican priesthood and since then has held many important positions in that Church, including being president of Queens College until his resignation in 1996. He has devoted the latter part of his life to dealing with the reconciliation between science and Christianity and has written extensively on that subject and is considered one of the world’s authorities. His works in this field began with The Way the World Is (“What I would like to have said to my scientific colleagues who couldn’t understand why I was being ordained”) and has continued with many others. He has thoroughly integrated the two, speaks authoritatively on both science and Christianity, and is one of the leading spokesmen on this subject in modern times.[14]

Francis Collins (1950- )

Collins is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project”[15] which first decoded the entire human genome. More recently he has become director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He is also a committed Christian and he founded and served as president of The BioLogos Foundation, which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science, especially though the advancement of evolutionary creation.[16] His most well-known book is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.[17] The reason I mention Collins is that he is one of the first well-credentialed scientists who has embraced the theological position of theistic evolution, which maintains that there is no fundamental conflict between Darwin’s theory of evolution and present science. Though again, I don’t endorse all of the positions of BioLogos, the scientific evidence they present is impressive. Their views are increasingly accepted by certain Christian intellectuals. This represents a radical departure for many Christians, many of whom are very opposed to Darwinian evolution. It shows that whether some Christians agree with it or not, belief in Darwinian evolution is possible for a modern evangelical Christian.

[Other forthcoming entries in this series are: Science and its Christian Origins, Is there a Really a Conflict Between Science and the Bible? A Response to “Much Ado About Nothing”, Why are Many Scientists Less Religious than Previously? and The Limits of Science.]

——————-

[1] See especially http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/sciencefaith.html  and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_thinkers_in_science, last viewed September 4, 2014

[2] Sir Francis Bacon in “Of Atheism, http://www.authorama.com/essays-of-francis-bacon-17.html

[3] See especially Reasons to Believe, http://www.reasons.org/. This organization, headed by Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross, is specifically committed to old earth creationism. It accepts all proven scientific information about the age of the earth and other such scientific matters. Its specific mission in this is to make it possible for thinking people to accept the Bible in its entirely without rejecting any legitimate scientific claims. It is specifically aimed at converting people to Christianity. Even if you do not appreciate that, it seems to me that the harmonization they have done is both interesting and instructive. Ross and his colleagues have written prolifically about these topics. You can find his books on amazon.com. I do not personally endorse everything they believe or say, but have found their work to be a very helpful source. Their organization includes professional scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

[4] Based on information from  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Thomson,_1st_Baron_Kelvin, last viewed July 14, 2014.

[5] Based on information from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_George_Stokes,_1st_Baronet, last viewed July 14, 2014.

[6] Actually, all forms of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves, x-rays, etc.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clerk_Maxwell last viewed July 14, 2014.

[8] Cable reply to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein’s (Institutional Synagogue in New York) question to Einstein, “Do you believe in God?”  www.godandscience.org/apologetics/einstein.html

[9] Prinz Hubertus zu Lowenstein, Towards the Further Shore: An Autobiography (Victor Gollancz, London, 1968), p. 156.

[10] G. S. Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (Macauley, New York, 1930), quoted by D. Brian, Einstein: A Life , p. 186.

[11] G. S. Viereck, “What Life Means to Einstein,” Saturday Evening Post, 26 October 1929; Schlagschatten, Sechsundzwanzig Schicksalsfragen an Grosse der Zeit (Vogt-Schild, Solothurn, 1930), p. 60; Glimpses of the Great (Macauley, New York, 1930), pp. 373-374.

[12] http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/einstein.html , last viewed July 14, 2014

[13] http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/sciencefaith.html last viewed July 14, 2014.

[14] http://www.starcourse.org/jcp/ last viewed August 18, 2014

[15] This and the other quotations are taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins last viewed August 18,2014

[16] http://biologos.org/about last viewed August 18,2014

[17] http://www.amazon.com/Language-God-Scientist-Presents-Evidence-ebook/dp/B000NY12E6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1408398513&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Language+of+God

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