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Man of Science, Man of Faith

Man of Science, Man of Faith

Religious inquiry and scientific investigation can complement each other.


Have you heard about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge? This would-be instructor wasn't simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning," he determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely "intelligent design" but out-and-out divine creation. This applicant's writings on astronomy, for example, include these thoughts on the solar system: "This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being . . . He governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done."

Hire somebody with such views to teach physics? At a Baptist junior college deep in the Bible Belt, maybe, but the faculty would erupt if you tried it just about anywhere else. Many of them would echo Oxford's Richard Dawkins, the prominent evolutionary biologist, who writes in The God Delusion that he is "hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise. . . . It subverts science and saps the intellect."

Equally blunt is Sam Harris, a PhD candidate in neuroscience and another unsparing foe of religion. "The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum," he writes in an essay whose title -- "Science Must Destroy Religion" -- makes clear the antipathy with which many modern scientists regard religious faith. "The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science."

Less elegant but more influential, the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 classified religion with "myths," "mystical inspiration," and "superstition" -- all of them quite incompatible with scientific study. Michael Dini, a biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, made headlines in 2003 over his policy of denying letters of recommendation for any graduate student who could not "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question of mankind's origin. Science and religion, he said in an interview at the time, "shouldn't overlap."

There were truths to be found in both of the "books" authored by God, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.

But such considerations didn't keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above. Indeed, it named him to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics -- in 1668. And a good thing too, since Isaac Newton -- notwithstanding his religious fervor and intense interest in Biblical interpretation -- went on to become the most renowned scientist of his age, and arguably the most influential in history.

Newton's consuming interest in theology, eschatology, and the secrets of the Bible is the subject of a new exhibit at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (online at His vast religious output -- an estimated 3 million words -- ranged from the dimensions of Solomon's Temple to a method of reckoning the date of Easter to the elucidation of Biblical symbols. "Newton was one of the last great Renaissance men," the curators observe, "a thinker who worked in mathematics, physics, optics, alchemy, history, theology, and the interpretation of prophecy and saw connections between them all." The 21st-century prejudice that religion invariably "subverts science" is refuted by the extraordinary figure who managed to discover the composition of light, deduce the laws of motion, invent calculus, compute the speed of sound, and define universal gravitation, all while believing deeply in the "domination of an intelligent and powerful Being." Far from subverting his scientific integrity, the exhibition notes, "Newton's piety served as one of his inspirations to study nature and what we today call science."

For Newton, it was axiomatic that religious inquiry and scientific investigation complemented each other. There were truths to be found in both of the "books" authored by God, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature -- or as Francis Bacon called them, the "book of God's word" and the "book of God's works." To study the world empirically did not mean abandoning religious faith. On the contrary: The more deeply the workings of Creation were understood, the closer one might come to the Creator. In the language of the 19th Psalm, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

To be sure, religious dogma can be a blindfold, blocking truths from those who refuse to see them. Scientific dogma can have the same effect. Neither faith nor reason can answer every question. As Newton knew, the surest path to understanding is the one that has room for both.

July 28, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Joel, November 24, 2008 5:42 PM

Glad to see

I'm glad to see this article written. Too many people have the view that science is an alternative belief system to religion.

(12) John Barnes, March 10, 2008 12:57 PM

Energy waisted

Pandering to those who hold religious beliefs by suggesting that Newton somehow benefited from holding those same beliefs seems gratuitous. Simply consider how much time he waisted calculating when creation began or working on other possibilities derived from superstition. There is no need to suggest that he would have been less inspired to understand nature had he not believed it was a product of God. Men of science today are equally inspired without holding such beliefs. Had Newton lived in postmodern times, he would most likely not have been religious, and be even more productive.

(11) Lyn Morrison, September 22, 2007 4:53 PM

Interesting Historical Perspective

A little historical perspective is largely helpful. If he were here and now, he'd be minimalized, marginalized, mocked, and/or martyred or driven mad or underground. Of course, he was some of that even then, mostly misunderstood. He kept a lot to himself away from the media. He was wise in many ways. Thanks for bringing him up.

(10) Neil Schipper, August 11, 2007 7:19 PM

Truth in the service of dishonesty

It's fine to conclude that the human intellect is capable of remarkable things even when it holds a religious worldview. Lots of evidence for that.

The suggestion that this is somehow preferable is pretty lame, though.

Essentially everyone as smart as Francis Bacon or Issac Newton who's lived in the past half century is atheistic or perhaps fuzzily deistic (which is sort of like "don't really care much").

It's a by-product of contemplating everything that's been learned.

(9) b, August 1, 2007 5:30 AM

Faith in G-D or Faith in Sc-ence

It's funny how most scientific thinkers mock and despise anyone who expresses faith in a Creator God. To a man they all espouse the Theory of Evolution as the proven explanation of our existence. Yet when examined it is obvious that evolutionary theory requires a super abundance of faith to get around it's multitude of gaping holes.
Dogma produces blindness in science, just as much as it does in religion.
The "theory" of Evolution is little more than a humanistic religion complete with its own prophets and high priests. These men and women do as much to pull the wool over the eyes of the unquestioning populace as the medieval priests and magicians did. Evolution provides a sop to those who look for a way to deny any "higher authority" at work. It makes us nothing more than evolved animals, and was sadly one of the main influences behind Hitler's final solution.
We need "faith" in all walks of life, even for getting on an aeroplane or climbing a ladder. We need faith to believe the evolutionists.

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