The argument that scientific theory is essentially incompatible with religious belief has been gaining traction in recent years. In fact, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, American scientists are about half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher, universal power. The survey found that the percentage of scientists that believe in some form of a deity or higher power, though, was still a strong 51 percent.
Scientists throughout history have relied on data and observations to make sense of the world. But there are still some really big questions about the universe that science can’t easily explain. Is it possible for the two realms to work together? Even in science, there takes a certain amount of faith to understand our universe. Here are what some of the top scientists in our history have had to say about God, religion, and Christianity.
Aristotle was a strong theologian, and conceived of god as outside of the world. For Aristotle, god was known and described as the first thing that moved, or the thing that moved without being moved by anything prior. He was talking about the start of the universe, which must have happened if the universe was to have a beginning. This was against the common view of the time that the universe always had, and always would exist. For Aristotle, this "Prime Mover" was in no way humanlike and in no way personable, so was a tad different from the idea of the Christian God today.
Aristotle studied under Plato, and they had some differences on the meaning of life. Whereas Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that truth would be found through the senses. For Aristotle, meaning doesn’t come down from the heavens, but it comes from observing the things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. His method of learning was not about revelation or waiting for a voice from heaven, he was all about observation and the scientific method.
After years of hinting at it, physicist Stephen Hawking confirmed to the press in 2014 that he was an atheist. The physicist, who died at age 76, wasn’t expected to see his 25th birthday, after being diagnosed with the incurable neurodegenerative condition ALS at age 21. Though Hawking beat the odds for more than five decades, the scientist told the Guardian in 2011 that death was never far from his mind.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Hawking furthered his view by saying that miracles of religion “aren’t compatible” with science.
In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Hawking said: “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Despite these feelings, Hawking did still believe that the universe and life had meaning.
Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, was also infamous for his controversy with the church. In Rome in 1633, Galileo was forced to stand trial and found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, mainly for his support of the heliocentric view of the universe. By publicly renouncing his opinion, Galileo managed to avoid the death penalty but was forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
Despite his disputes with the faith, he was really a devout Christian who saw not a divorce of religion and science but only a healthy marriage. He once said: "God is known by nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word."
Galileo, however, did condemn the practice of taking biblical passages at face value without critical thinking and deeper reflection. He believed that abandoning reason and evidence was a sign of both spiritual and intellectual laziness. He said: "But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations."
Charles Darwin's views on religion have been the subject of much interest; given his work in the development of modern biology and evolution theory have sparked major debates in the scientific and religious fields.
Darwin was actually rather silent about his religious views. However in 1879 he responded to a letter, saying that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a god, and that generally "an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."
He went as far as saying that "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities."
Though he may have questioned Christianity, Darwin attended a Church of England school growing up, once had a desire of becoming a clergyman, and played a leading part in the parish work of his local church later in life.
Albert Einstein is one of the most well-known physicists of all time. He was born into a secular Jewish family, but as an adult tried to avoid religious labels. He rejected the idea of a “personal God,” but at the same time separated himself from “fanatical atheists” whom he believed were unable to hear “the music of the spheres.” He preferred to call himself an agnostic or a "religious nonbeliever." Einstein also stated he did not believe in life after death, adding "one life is enough for me."
In a 1954 essay for NPR, Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the Mysterious — the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. 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 basics 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.”
Sir Francis Bacon
Known as the founder of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon believed that gathering and analyzing data in an organized way was essential to scientific progress. However his love of science didn't turn him away fro religion. An Anglican, Bacon believed in the existence of God.
In an essay on atheism, Bacon wrote: “God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because His ordinary works convince it. 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.”
Sir Isaac Newton was more than just an admired scientists. He was also a dedicated theologian. For Newton the world of science was by no means the whole of life, and he actually spent more time on theology than on science. Newton’s understanding of God came primarily from the Bible, which he studied for days and weeks at a time. He took special interest in miracles and prophecy, calculating dates of Old Testament books and analyzing their texts to discover their authorship.
Even in his famed Principia, Newton exhibited his dedication to God. He writes: "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..."
For Newton, science was the preferred way in which we could understand and discuss God. He said: "Since every particle of space is always, and every indivisible moment of duration is everywhere, certainly the Maker and Lord of all things cannot be never and nowhere....God is the same God, always and everywhere."