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Faith Versus Fact
Can you be both a good scientist and believe in God? Or is the belief in the supernatural simply incompatible with serious science?
Science and religion are often regarded as conflicting disciplines, yet the two need not necessarily be at odds or mutually exclusive. Below are ten scientists from history who saw science and Christianity as harmonious.
Ten Historical Christian Scientists
- Johannes Kepler
- Blaise Pascal
- Robert Boyle
- Antony van Leeuwenhoek
- Leonhard Euler
- Michael Faraday
- James Prescott Joule
- Gregor Johann Mendel
- Joseph Lister
- James Clerk Maxwell
Are Science and Christian Belief Mutually Exclusive?
Inquisitive observation and a scientific mindset have enabled humankind to discover the naturalistic laws that govern the universe. These, in turn, have paved the way for the astonishing technological advances and amenities of modern life.
On the other hand, science, notwithstanding its unquestionable merits, can't provide answers to all the existential questions of life, i.e. explain its meaning (if there is any) or even the reason why matter exists. Sometimes scientists have ventured beyond the scope of their discipline. Others have approached science with the presupposition that only matter exists, thereby denying a priori the reality of any spiritual realm.
Yet disdain of religion is far from universal among scientists. Many great scientists of the past (and present) were Bible-believing Christians. Even the average guy might have heard of some of the names listed, but many might not be aware of the religious convictions of these great pioneers. They are listed in purely chronological order.
1. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
Johannes Kepler was born in the town of Weil der Stadt near Stuttgart, Germany in 1571. His father was a mercenary soldier and did not have a mind for education nor religious matters. His grandfather, on the other hand, was a dedicated Christian who encouraged his faith in God. At an early age, Johannes saw two astronomical events that would arouse his interest in the skies: the Great Comet of 1577 and a lunar eclipse.
Later on, a scholarship from the Duke of Württemberg allowed him to attend the University of Tübingen where his studies included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, mathematics, astronomy, and theology. Despite his desire to become a minister, Kepler was recommended for a position as a teacher of mathematics at the Protestant school in Graz. Further on his interest and study of astronomy brought him in contact with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague. After Tycho's unexpected death in 1601, Kepler was appointed his successor as the imperial mathematician and astronomer.
Discovering the Laws of Creation
Kepler's work was motivated by his religious conviction that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan. The laws of nature were within the grasp of the human mind and God wanted man to recognize them by creating him after his own image so that he could share in his own thoughts.
In his opus magnum, the three-volume Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, Kepler detailed his findings and formulated the three laws of planetary motion for which he is perhaps most famous for.
Astronomy and Astrology
Kepler was both an astronomer and astrologer. What appears as a contradiction to a 21-century mindset was rather the norm in his day, a time when scientific knowledge of the heavenly bodies was much more limited and there was considerable confusion between the two disciplines.
Glorifying God Through Astronomy
Looking back later in life Kepler noted that he had had the intention of becoming a theologian, but then had learned to see how through his endeavors God was glorified in astronomy, as God himself had made clear in his Word stating that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
2. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Blaise Pascal was born in rural France in the town of Clermont-Ferrand in 1623. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was only three. Blaise suffered from poor health throughout his life, but he was blessed with a brilliant mind. Already as a teenager, he invented a calculating machine (the Pascaline) and impressed senior mathematicians with his papers on conic sections.
First Interests in Religion
When in 1646 his father, a local judge with an interest in science, broke his hip, Blaise came in contact with two doctors who followed Jansenism, a theological movement with Calvinist affinities. This aroused Blaise's interest in religion and he began to write on theological subjects.
Yet for some time he again fell into a worldly lifestyle, until the night of 23 November 1654, when he had an intense religious vision. Blaise recorded the experience and would from now on carry the note with him in his coat. The piece, which became known as the Memorial, begins: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars...” and concluded by quoting a Psalm “I will not forget thy word. Amen”. Pascal believed in the historicity of the Bible, including Genesis and the Fall and was convinced, as the apostle Paul, that only the second Adam, Jesus Christ, could redeem humanity from its fallen state.
Scientifically Pascal made crucial advancements in hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, and mathematics. In honor of his contributions, his name has been given to the SI unit of pressure, to a programming language, Pascal's triangle and Pascal's law (an important principle of hydrostatics).
His theological writings include the Pensées, a coherent examination, and defense of the Christian faith. Pascal went with his Lord on 19 August 1662 aged 39.
3. Robert Boyle (1627-1691)
Early Years and Education
Robert Boyle was born in Ireland in 1627, the fourteenth child of the Earl of Cork. His wealthy upbringing allowed for the best education available at the time: Eton college, private tutors and further education on mainland Europe, where he also came to meet the aged Galileo.
The young Boyle saw the world around him as God's marvelous creation, which man was called to systematically study and dominate. This on the basis of the command given in Genesis 1:28, as he would later detail in his theological treatise The Christian Virtuoso.
Approaching Science Rationally
Unlike the alchemists of his time who often practiced their art with questionable methods and for dubious reasons, Boyle approached chemistry rationally with the scientific method developed by Francis Bacon. In The Skeptical Chymist, Boyle overturned Aristotle's concept of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) with the modern idea of elements as substances that cannot be further divided by chemical methods. His atomic theory was at first ridiculed by the alchemists, but then gradually gained ground and marked the beginning of the modern era of chemistry.
His perhaps most notable contribution to science is known as Boyle's Law: at a constant temperature, the volume of a given quantity of gas varies inversely with the pressure.
Scientist and Christian
Boyle was a devout Christian throughout his life. In addition to his scientific papers, he published numerous theological writings and favored the advance of the Christian mission.
4. Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
A Great Amateur Microscopist
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in Holland in 1632 and is commonly considered the father of microbiology. A draper by profession he began his biological studies out of curiosity with his homemade microscopes. Leeuwenhoek ground his own lenses and during his lifetime built over 400 (mostly single-lensed) microscopes.
Seeing What No Eye Had Seen
Though he was not the first to build a microscope, he advanced it more than anyone else and discovered things no human eye had ever seen: protozoans, bacteria, parasites, red and white blood cells, and even sperm.
Sharing His Findings
Though being a lay scientist, Leeuwenhoek began sharing his findings with the Royal Society of London of which he later became a fellow and through which his discoveries were made available to the scientific world.
Life From Life
Leeuwenhoek advanced proofs against spontaneous generation, the idea that living things emerge from inanimate matter, thereby laying the groundwork for Pasteur. In the marvels of creation, he saw an intelligent designer and with his studies humbly sought God's thoughts after him. Leeuwenhoek was from the Dutch Reformed tradition and regarded the study of nature as to the glory of God and the benefit of man.
5. Leonhard Euler (1707-1783)
Early Life and Education
Leonhard Euler was born in 1707 in Basel, Switzerland and became one of the greatest and most prolific mathematicians of all time. His father had studied both mathematics and theology and was a pastor of the Evangelical-Reformed Church. At first, it was he who introduced young Leonhard to mathematics. Later on, Euler studied at the University of Basel where mathematics was taught by a certain Johann Bernoulli, a family friend, and later renowned mathematician, who noticed Leonard's exceptional talent and helped launch his career.
Lecturing in Saint Petersburg
From 1727 to 1741 Euler taught at the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg where he quickly became fluent in Russian and from 1733 on also headed the mathematics department. Convinced of the unity of the mathematical sciences his research covered a wide range of fields: algebra, arithmetic, geometry, conic sections, astronomy, rational mechanics and even music theory.
A Christian Household
In 1734 Euler married Katharina Gsell, the daughter of a Swiss court painter. The marriage produced 13 children of whom, unfortunately, only three outlived their parents. Euler was a pious Christian and family life was characterized by the domestic devotions he would regularly hold.
Enlightened by God
Despite living in the age of Enlightenment that largely refused God, Euler was convinced of the Bible's divine inspiration. One of his major apologetic works is the Defence of the Revelation Against the Objections of Freethinkers.
Science for Lay People
Later on in life, he was asked to tutor the Princess of Prussia, Friederike Charlotte Leopoldine Louise, which he did through a series of letters written in lucid layman's terms and in which he also shared his Christian faith. These letters constituted a sort of scientific textbook and were later published and translated into all the major European languages, to make them available to a wider audience.
Though being almost blind in his later years Euler continued to work and publish unabated with the help of one of his sons as secretary. In memory of his extraordinary accomplishments, Euler is featured on the 10-franc Swiss banknote.
6. Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
Michael Faraday was born in 1791 in Sussex and grew up in London. He came from a poor family and received almost no formal education. Aged 14 he began an apprenticeship as a bookbinder, which gave him access to books and somehow allowed to educate himself in his spare time. Michael's main interest and fascination were with science, especially electricity and chemistry.
Eagerness to Learn Rewarded
He began attending science lectures of which he took detailed notes he would later bind to a booklet. This allowed him to obtain a position as a laboratory assistant. Those around him soon noticed that Faraday's scientific abilities were too extraordinary to simply let him prepare equipment. This resulted in the renowned chemist Sir Humphry Davy taking him on a scientific tour through Europe that lasted two years. The trip allowed Faraday to meet many important scientists, including Alessandro Volta and André-Marie Ampère.
Research and Scientific Achievements
On his return to England Faraday was now hired by the Royal Institution as a researcher. His main field at first was chemistry where he discovered benzene (crucial to manufacture many organic compounds), managed to liquefy chlorine and made improvements of steel alloys and glass. Yet his most notable scientific contributions were probably in the field of electricity. He advanced the idea that just as an electric current produces a magnetic field, by reverse magnetism could also produce electricity. Eventually, his research would provide the breakthrough for electric power generation and transmission.
Scientist and Lay Preacher
Faraday came from a devout Christian family and later became a preaching elder, as his church did not have a paid clergyman. On diverse occasions the humility that the genuine gospel requires stood out in his character: aside from giving to charities and visiting the poor, Faraday turned down a lucrative offer to become the president of the Royal Society, as he feared this would leave him less time for research.
In another incident, he did not grow bitter when his church withdrew communion from him after Faraday had skipped Sunday worship because he had been invited to lunch by Queen Victoria. When after almost half a century he retired from the Royal Institution, he thanked his former staff, but foremost God who had given him the gift to see the eternal laws of nature, that had been such a wonder to him.
7. James Prescott Joule (1818-1889)
Early Years and Education
James Prescott Joule was born in 1818 near Manchester, England to a wealthy brewery owner. He was at first educated at home and later together with his older brother by private tutors, among which also the famous chemist John Dalton who taught them the sciences.
Born to Experiment
When their father became incapacitated the brothers had to run the brewery, but James would always use his spare time to do scientific experiments in the lab he had purposefully set up. Over time he would work out important papers concerning the relationship of heat, electricity, and mechanical work. Joule submitted his papers to the Scientific associations but was largely ignored, as he was considered an amateur.
Admitted to the Royal Society
Then in 1847 a young professor of physics at the University of Glasgow finally would consider the importance of his work: William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) recognized the crucial contribution that Joule's findings made in unifying the fragmented diverse fields of physics. Another scientist who would sponsor Joule's work was Michael Faraday who allowed him to present his paper On the Mechanical Equivalent of Heat to the Royal Society. Soon afterward Joule would receive the society's prestigious membership.
Founder of Thermodynamics
Joule's experiments proved the principle of energy conservation, i.e. the fact that energy cannot be lost, but only be transformed from one form to another. He is therefore often recognized as the founder of thermodynamics, a branch of physics that began to emerge around this time.
Collaboration With Thomson
For many years Joule worked and experimented with William Thomson discovering would become known as the Joule-Thompson effect: the fact that the temperature of expanding gas is cooling, a principle on which refrigeration is based.
Joule was a humble and sincere Christian that firmly acknowledged the God of the Bible as Creator. When in 1864 a large group of scientists signed a manifesto (The Declaration of Students of the Natural and Physical Sciences) in response to the rising concept of Darwinism, Joule was among the most prominent members of the Royal Society to sign.
8. Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884)
Johann Mendel was born in 1822 to a peasant family in the German-speaking Habsburg Empire. Already as a child, he helped out in the family orchard by grafting. This awoke his curiosity and were the beginnings of his experimental botany work. Early on his schoolmaster recognized his extraordinary talent for learning and encouraged his father to let him pursue higher education. Mendel was an exceptional student but his family was so poor that he often had to support himself.
Becoming an Augustinian Friar
This experience may have influenced his decision to become a friar, as the monastic life enabled him to obtain a higher education without the perpetual anxiety about a means of livelihood. When he joined the Augustinian friars he was given the name Gregor.
Experiments With Pea Plants
Between 1851 and 1853 he went to the University of Vienna to study botany, zoology, chemistry, and physics before returning to the abbey to teach. His most productive research took place between 1856 and 1863 when he conducted experiments on some 29,000 pea plants and described the laws of inheritance that bear his name. He coined the terms 'recessive' and 'dominant' for the appearance of certain traits and began to unveil the concept of 'hidden factors', i.e. genes.
Posthumously the Father of Genetics
In 1868 Mendel became an abbot and his scientific work largely ceased as he was occupied with ministerial and administrative work. Though he later becomes famous as the father of modern genetics, his work did not receive recognition during his lifetime. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that his work was rediscovered and his experiments independently verified.
A Christian Character
Mendel grew up in a deeply religious family. A burned tile found in the Mendel living room had the symbol of the Holy Trinity and included the words: “Thy will be done”. Mendel was rooted in the Christian faith and passionately tried to convey his conviction to others, an attitude also shown in the sermon outlines still preserved. His contemporaries described him as generous, kind and mild-mannered and someone who knew how to dispense help without letting the petitioner feel the charity.
9. Joseph Lister (1827-1912)
Early Life and Education
Joseph Lister was born in 1827 in West Ham, England to a wealthy wine merchant. His father was also an important amateur scientist who would become a member of the prestigious Royal Society due to his merits in constructing a microscope free from achromatic aberration. Lister junior obtained Bachelor's degrees in Medicine and Surgery from the University of London with outstanding marks and was later also admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Lister's were Quakers, though Joseph upon his marriage (to the daughter of the famous surgeon James Syme) joined the Episcopal church.
At that time the introduction of the use of anesthesia had allowed surgeons to operate more carefully and improve techniques. Lister furthermore after a long working-day conducted research at the hospital in Edinburgh using the newest microscopes he was familiar with from his father.
Back then the about half of the patients that had surgery died afterward because of infections (sepsis). Lister observed that simple fractures were doing well, while compound fractures had a high death rate.
Introducing Antisepsis Procedures
He reasoned that somehow the infections had to be due to the contact with the air. Furthermore, a friend gave him a research paper by Louis Pasteur according to which infections did not arise spontaneously within the wound but had to be due to germs brought in from outside. Lister, therefore, began washing his hands, wearing clean clothes and using carbolic acid as a disinfectant when operating.
Not before long results indicated the procedures did work and the results were published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1867. Though initially, some doctors were reluctant, gradually Lister's (continuously improving) procedures gained universal acceptance.
Countless Lives Saved
Lister, the father of modern surgery, was a committed Christian who affirmed the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and gave testimony with his character. Far from glorifying himself for his breakthroughs, he thanked Pasteur whose research had been crucial in the fight against infections and the establishment of antisepsis procedures. Lister believed his life was guided by God and ultimately credited Him if through the ordinary means of surgery innumerable lives could be saved.
10. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
Early Life and Education
James Clerk was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1831 to a lawyer. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was still aged only 8. Until then she had been his main teacher. By then his exceptional intellectual faculties had already become apparent: James could recite the entire Psalm 119 (176 verses) and also lengthy passages of Milton. After the passing of his beloved mother, his father provided a tutor and James would later go on to study at the University of Edinburgh and further on enroll at Cambridge graduating in mathematics.
Research and Lecturing
Early on Maxwell produced original research papers, among others about the structure of Saturn's rings. For some time he then lectured at Cambridge on optics before returning to Scotland because of his aging father.
In 1858 Maxwell married the daughter of the principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen which would later merge with another college to establish the University of Aberdeen, where Maxwell would serve as Professor of Physics.
Then in 1860, he went to London as Professor of Physics and Astronomy at King's College, where he also supervised the standardization of electrical units for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It probably were the most productive years of his career and in 1861 he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society.
In 1865 he returned to his family estate in Scotland and did further research and writing on electricity and magnetism.
Around the time of Maxwell's birth, the famous physicist Michael Faraday had invented the generator and vice versa found out that an electrical current produced a magnetic field, but it would be Maxwell to work out the mathematical framework for the so-called field theory.
The four equations developed by Maxwell count among the truly fundamental contributions to physics, along with Newton's laws and Einstein's theory of relativity.
The Vast Electromagnetic Spectrum
When Maxwell calculated the speed of electromagnetic waves he found that it was the same as that of the speed of light.
He rightly concluded that light is just an electromagnetic wave and postulated that electromagnetic waves with different wavelengths would exist. Not long after his death, this would be confirmed first by radio waves (whose wavelength is longer than visible light) and later on by X-rays (which have very short wavelengths).
Modern telecommunication would, of course, be impossible without the groundbreaking work carried out by Maxwell.
A Committed Christian
In the second part of 19th-century evolutionary thinking was becoming popular but Maxwell thought it was impossible to reconcile it with the scientific evidence that instead pointed to design in nature and ultimately to the Creator.
Maxwell had first been introduced to the Christian faith by his mother and had then been a committed evangelical Christian throughout his life, in later years even serving as an elder of the Church of Scotland.
He had detailed knowledge of the Scriptures and was of absolute moral integrity. He was also known to visit the sick and pray with them and nursed his invalid wife in later years. In 1879, Maxwell succumbed to cancer at the early age of 48.
Science and Religion: Now It's Your Turn...
- Lamont Ann (1997); 21 great scientists who believed the Bible; Petersburg, Kentucky; Answers in Genesis
- Morris H.M. (1982); Men of Science, Men of God; El Cajon, California; Master
- Tiner J.H. (1977); Johannes Kepler-Giant of Faith and Science; Milford, Michigan; Mott Media
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Marco Pompili
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 14, 2020:
Very cool. Really interesting stuff, very well written, I learned a whole lot. Thanks.