MadSci Network: Science History

Re: How many famous scientists in this century are Christian/Catholic?

Date: Thu Apr 8 14:38:27 1999
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Science History
ID: 922282432.Sh

A glossary of terms used in this article is given at the bottom. My apologies for the unavoidably Western bias in this article; I am most familiar with Western thought.

How many famous scientists in this century are Christian/Catholic?
Truth is not established by majority vote. The only conclusion reachable from the fact that this or that famous scientist is agnostic, or atheist, or theist, or Christian, is that their beliefs are probably reasonable ones and should not be rejected out of hand.

With that, I will admit that I don't know exactly how many famous scientists in this century are Christian/Catholic. Rightly or wrongly, it is not something that is considered important by their peers. I can give an incomplete list of important 20th-Century scientists who are/were Christians:

This list is by no means exhaustive. I know of more who are less prominent. There are sure to be still more of whom I don't know or am not certain. Again, religious beliefs are not usually considered important by a scientist's peers.
With the idea from Darwin et al we learn much more about our own history, and from the theory (should I use "theory" here?) of Big Bang, we know about the origin of everything. So it don't seems to have much space for the existence of religious stuff. But isn't it true that still quite a number of famous scientists who are religious man? What does it bring out? Isn't it true that the facts that we now have are strong enough to claim that "God is Dead"? Or if the scientists are just overemphasize the significance of the facts?
The answer to your question Isn't it true that the facts that we now have are strong enough to claim that "God is Dead"? is by no means definitively settled. You'll find sites to give you whichever answer you prefer below. But first, some clarification and history.

Biological evolution and the Big Bang, like most other scientific facts and theories, can be and have been used both for and against theism. For example, Georges Lemaître, who proposed the Big Bang on the basis of Hubble's discovery of universal expansion, found comfort in the idea that the universe had a beginning, because it validated his religious belief in a transcendent creator.

Charles Darwin had devoutly Christian supporters even in his own day. These days, many Christian theologians claim that an evolutionary universe fits unforcedly into the Christian conception of God. (For clarification, you may contact me or read anything by - for example - Nancey Murphy, John Polkinghorne or Ian Barbour.)

Those who claim that evolution is incompatible with theism should remember that Augustine of Hippo, the 5th-Century bishop and philosopher, "scooped" Darwin by suggesting that God created the universe with built-in organizing principles through which all forms of life and non-life developed. This is the position of most theists in science.
Insofar as one exists, the "official position" of SCIENCE on this question is that science and religion are two different ways of knowing and two different areas of inquiry. They should be kept separate, and there is no necessary influence of one upon the other.

Many (or most) working scientists hold this view. The cynic may suggest that this view simply avoids controversy, but by and large it is honestly-held; for example, Stephen J. Gould's Rocks of Ages: Science & Religion in the Fullness of Life.

Nevertheless, there are many (theists, non-theists and atheists) who claim that science is incompatible with theism. Many specifically point to evolution and the central dogma of biology as supporting this position; Richard Dawkins has claimed that Darwin makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But I'm afraid that Dawkins ascribes too much importance to Darwin.

Atheism has been around for a very long time. Three thousand years ago Hebrew poets condemned atheism. Some of the philosophies developed by the ancient Greeks were robustly atheist - not in that they held that there were no gods, but they held that the gods were products of natural processes just like everything else. (See Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, which by the way was written during the beginning of the Christian era in the Roman Empire).

It is possible that there was a hiatus of atheism in the West after the Roman Empire turned Christian, but by the 14th Century atheist thought was prominent enough to draw both condemnation and closely-argued refutation from the Roman Catholic Church. Atheism became prominent again during the European Renaissance, with the rediscovery of the atheist philosophers of the ancient world. And Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Laplace based their atheism on Newtonian mechanics (though Newton himself did not agree).

The bottom line:

Evolution is often considered a point in favor of atheism. But atheism does not require biological evolution to exist; and if evolution were demonstrably false, there would still be atheists who could justify their atheism by careful argument.

The Big Bang theory is often considered a point in favor of theism. But the theology of creation does not require that the universe have a temporal beginning! So even if the universe were demonstrably eternal, there would still be theists who could justify their theism by careful argument.

No article addressing your question would be complete without a list of resources. I suggest that you begin with resources defending theism since you hold the opposite opinion, just as I would suggest that a theist begin with resources defending atheism.


Most of the resources available on the Web which defend theism are concerned with Christian theism. This is because Christianity is the dominant Western form of theism, and the Internet has been and continues to be dominated by westerners. I will limit myself to three sites which defend theism reasonably well and/or provide a great many links.


The best single site is The Secular Web. The last time I spent any time there, the quality of the articles was mixed: some of them were very good indeed, and some of them were ad hominem screeds without substance. This site is centered around naturalism/materialism (see atheism, below).

Two other useful sites are

A final, wry word which I could not resist inserting:

One of the most common arguments against theism is psychological. The projection theory of religious experience was developed by Freud; theists are said to project their earthly fathers/parents onto some imaginary father in heaven. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: atheism can also be nicely explained by classical Freudian psychology.

  Dan Berger
  Bluffton College

Most of the definitions in this glossary are oversimplified; but then, Karl Popper called science "the art of systematic oversimplification." I suggest a good encyclopedia-dictionary of philosophy or religion.
ad hominem argument
An argument which attacks an opponent's character rather than discusses the issues. This is one of what are considered logical fallacies.

The agnostic believes that there does not exist enough evidence to decide one way or another whether God exists. Most agnostics do not believe that such evidence is possible. T.H. Huxley coined the term in an 1889 monograph.

The atheist denies that there are any gods at all. There are two forms of atheism.

Naturalism or materialism
While these terms are not identical, both the naturalist and the materialist deny the existence of anything not describable as an undirected, natural process involving only substances and events describable by physics (matter, energy and space-time).

Mystical atheism (usually, I think, a form of Buddhism)
I know less about this form of atheism. What I am calling "mystical atheism" does not deny the existence of the spiritual or the numinous, but does deny the existence of gods per se. It seems to me that "enlightened" humans may take a godlike role.

Not all forms of Buddhism are atheist; Tibetan and (I think) Chinese Buddhism involve the action and worship of gods and goddesses and tend to be more pantheist (q.v.). On the other hand, I believe that Zen Buddhism is an atheistic religion.

According to my dictionary, metaphysics deals with the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter. More generally, metaphysics deals with questions of ethics, morality, and the "ultimate" questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we have strong impressions of good and evil? and so on.

panentheism ("all is in God")
Panentheism is similar to pantheism (q.v.) in that it holds that the universe is contained in God, but differs in that it holds that God is more than the universe. Because of this, panentheism is usually classed as a form of theism (q.v.).

pantheism ("all is God")
Pantheism identifies the universe with God. This can obviously take many forms; compare the pantheism of Spinoza and Einstein, in which the God/universe is impersonal, with Hinduism, in which the universe and everything in it are personified.

Polytheism is the belief in more than one god; this group of gods is often called a pantheon. All the polytheistic religions I am aware of hold that the gods were born of the universe rather than vice versa. This makes them pantheistic (q.v.) as well as polytheistic (see theism).

Possible exceptions to this qualification include dualist religions, of which Zoroastrianism is the most important.

Theism is defined by my dictionary as "the belief in the existence of a god or gods." This, however, is a weak definition. Theism more specifically holds that God is other than the universe, that God freely chose to create the universe, and that God is sovereign. Some of the claims of theism are moderated by panentheism (q.v.), which is nevertheless similar enough to be considered a form of theism.

It should be recognized that theism may be arrived at philosophically; in this century, people including Alfred North Whitehead and Paul Davies have come to theism by philosophical evidence, without being led to one of the three major forms of theism.

The three major theistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold similar basic views. They claim that God is unitary, God is the source and upholder of the universe, and God is other than the universe. Nevertheless, some individual Jews, Christians and Muslims are panentheists (q.v.) or even pantheists (q.v.).

Theism should not be confused with deism, which essentially holds that God created the universe and then left.

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