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Faith and Doubt: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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August 22, 2013 Tags: Science as Christian Calling
Faith and Doubt: Two Sides of the Same Coin
The earliest known likeness of Robert Boyle, at about five years old, is a statue adorning the ostentatious tomb of his mother, Catherine Fenton Boyle (1632), in St.Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (right). Catherine died in childbirth less than a month after Robert’s third birthday. Photograph by Kathryn A. Davis.

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This is the second part in Ted Davis' series "The Faith of a Great Scientist". You can read the first entry in this series here.

Two weeks ago, I began a series about how Robert Boyle’s Christian faith interacted with his scientific work. This second installment shows how his early encounter with religious doubt drove him to reflect deeply on his faith for the rest of his life.

The Role of Doubt in a Life of Faith

Bombarded by deafening claps of thunder in the dead of night, an adolescent boy awoke suddenly from a deep sleep, terrified by the loud darkness, punctuated by staccato flashes of light so frequent and dazzling that he imagined himself amidst the fire that would someday consume the world on the day of judgment.  Trembling at the hideous thought of being unprepared to face the awesome finality of that dreadful day, he solemnly resolved to live more piously henceforth. Not long afterward, in calmer circumstances, Robert Boyle repeated the vow made in fear with another, made “so solemnly that from that Day he dated his Conversion,” according to an autobiographical memoir written in his early twenties.

Boyle’s conversion took place at Geneva, in the home of his tutor, Isaac Marcombes, a Huguenot who had left France for Geneva owing to religious persecution. Marcombes’ wife was a niece of a famous Genevan preacher and Calvinist theologian, Giovanni Diodati, who translated the Bible into Italian and French. Marcombes took the adolescent Boyle to church twice weekly and read to him daily from the Bible and Calvin’s Catechism. Altogether young “Robyn,” as his family called him, spent five years on the Continent with Marcombes, studying rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and the art of fortification. Becoming fluent in French, he travelled extensively in France, Switzerland and Italy—he was in Florence when Galileo died.

Left: Boyle used this notebook (Royal Society MS 44) in his studies with Marcombes from 1642 to 1644. Starting in the next decade, Boyle employed various amanuenses to write things down for him. Consequently, almost everything we have from the second half of his life is not in his own hand. (Source)

Within months of his conversion, however, his new-found faith came under attack. His autobiography records how he became deeply depressed while visiting the original Carthusian abbey of Grande Chartreuse, located in what Boyle described as “those Wild Mountaines” near Grenoble. Although I’ve never been to the place myself, the pictures are simply spectacular, far more likely to produce rapture than dismay. Do you agree? If so, then what was Boyle’s problem?

​Grande Chartreuse, situated in the Chartreuse Mountains (from which the Carthusian order got its name) in southeastern France. Boyle went there accompanied by his tutor, Isaac Marcombes. (Source)

The problem is actually ours—or perhaps mine alone, since I’ve led you down this path. As L. P. Hartley so aptly said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Here’s what we’ve forgotten: many Europeans in Boyle’s day were distressed by mountains, which they regarded as ugly, postlapsarian blobs marring the surface of on an otherwise perfectly spherical Earth. Marjorie Hope Nicolson pointed this out many years ago. I like Jack Macintosh’s suggestion that this may have contributed to the dark mood that overcame Boyle on this occasion.

Whether or not Macintosh is correct, Boyle had a particularly bad experience there, which he saw in the following terms: “the Devil taking advantage of that deepe, raving Melancholy, [and] so sad a Place, his humour, and the st[r]ange storys & Pictures he found there of [Saint] Bruno the Father Patriark of that order; suggested such strange & hideous thoughts, & such distracting Doubts of some of the Fundamentals of Christianity,” that Boyle even contemplated suicide. Only “the Forbiddenesse of Selfe-dispatch” prevented him from taking that fatal step. “But after a tedious languishment of many months in this tedious perplexity,” he reflected, “at last it pleas’d God one Day [when] he had receiv’d the Sacrament, to restore unto him the withdrawne sence of his Favor.”

We do not know precisely which “Fundamentals of Christianity” Boyle questioned at that moment. We do know that, henceforth, wrestling with doubt was part and parcel of his profoundly religious life, such that “never after did these fleeting Clouds, cease now & then to darken the clearest serenity of his quiet.” As he wrote just a few years later, “Of my own Private, & generally unheeded doubts, I could exhibit no short Catalogue” (Essay of the Holy Scriptures, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 13, p. 180). Ironically, doubt drove Boyle diligently to ferret out the rational foundations and implications of his faith, such that he “deriv’d from this Anxiety the Advantage of Groundednesse in his Religion: for the Perplexity his doubts created oblig’d him to remove them to be seriously inquisitive of the Truth of the very fundamentals of Christianyty.” Although “we cannot often give a Reason for What we beleeve; we shud be ever able to give a Reason Why we beleeve it.” It’s not hard to see why Boyle believed that “there is nothing worse taken up upon Trust then Religion.”

Religious doubt remained a defining characteristic of Boyle’s personality. Many of his mature works, dealing with various aspects of faith and reason, can be seen as parts of a lifelong conversation with his own soul. The constructive role that doubt played in Boyle’s life has often been overlooked. For example, the late Richard S. Westfall, one of the most influential scholars of the Scientific Revolution (and my own doctoral mentor), observed more than fifty years ago that the extensive attention Boyle and some of his contemporaries gave to “answering hypothetical atheists” in their writings was really more of an effort “to satisfy their own doubts” about the religious implications of the new science (Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 145). Although Boyle often engaged unidentified “atheists” in his writings—a topic I will come back to in a future column—there was more going on than Westfall apparently realized. Doubt is the other side of the coin of faith, and Boyle’s approach to it was frankly precocious. Not long after his twentieth birthday, in a notebook entitled “Diurnall Observations, Thoughts, & Collections,” Boyle recorded the following aphorism: “He whose Faith never Doubted, may justly doubt of his Faith.” Immediately before this, he had written, “The Dialect of Faith runs much upon the First Person[;] or True Faith speakes always in the First Persen.” Boyle understood both intuitively and cognitively a crucial fact about religious faith: it is a highly personal matter, and only those who take steps to examine their own beliefs can really lay claim to them and live accordingly. Needless to say, the conceptual box in which Richard Dawkins places religious faith will never hold Boyle’s.

Boyle’s faith was indeed his own, a product of thoughtful reflection as well as religious experience. “I am not a Christian, because it is the Religion of my Countrey, and my Friends,” he confessed at one point. “I admit no mans Opinions in the whole lump, and have not scrupled, on occasion, to own dissents from the generality of learned men, whether Philosophers or Divines: And when I choose to travel in the beaten Road, ’tis not because I find ’tis the Road, but because I judge ’tis the Way” (Reason and Religion, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 8, p. 241). Precisely what Boyle meant by this, is best seen in a highly interesting unpublished treatise “On the Diversity of Religions” that survives among his papers.  “[N]ot only do far fewer religions differ fundamentally than men perceive,” he observed,

but far fewer men follow any of those religions of their own choice than some believe. For it is one thing for a man to profess this or that religion, but another thing entirely for him to choose the best. For the latter cannot be done save by one who has seriously and carefully examined the religion he has embraced in preference to others, and has compared it with them. But unless this serious and deliberate choice has taken place, one cannot legitimately conclude from the number of men adhering to that religion that it is the best. ... Thus, when all things are duly considered, we may readily note that there are few who choose a given religion, even though there are many who follow it, for the rest all behave passively, so to speak, each man professing his religion more by chance than by judicious choice.

His overall conclusion was, “That a wise Christian should not be disturbed by the number and diversity of religions” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 14, pp. 255-6 and 237).

​Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, portrait of Manasseh ben Israel (1654). Boyle visited the erudite rabbi in his Amsterdam home on a short trip to the Netherlands in 1648. In the 1650s, Manasseh lobbied Oliver Cromwell (with partial success) for the readmission of Jews to England. Boyle favored such a change in policy, although he thought the government should also pay for a few Christian scholars to undertake linguistic and biblical studies, in order to increase the number of ministers who would be qualified to engage the rabbis in inter-faith conversation and debate. Manasseh’s correspondents included some of the greatest Dutch scholars, including Isaak Vossius, Hugo Grotius, and Caspar Barlæus, but Boyle reports that Manasseh regarded Adam Boreel as “the Ablest Person of the Christians” (Some Considerations Touching the Style Of the H[oly] Scriptures, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, p. 426). (Source).

Perhaps we might expect a 17th-century English author to hold just such a view, informed more by ignorance than by objectivity. However, Boyle actually knew more than most of his contemporaries about religions other than Christianity, just as he was well read in the doctrinal controversies among Christians–especially those related to Socinianism, which he regarded as a dangerous heresy. He knew and respected the eminent rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, discussed the Hebrew language and Jewish beliefs with a Jewish scholar in London (whose name we don’t know), and even tried learning Arabic before weakening eyesight forced him to abandon the project. Actively seeking conversation with Jewish scholars, he regarded such “Fundamentall Controversys” as “both more Necessary & more Worthy a Wise mans Study, then most of those, comparatively Trifling ones, that at present so miserably (not to say so Causelessly) distract Christendome” (Essay of the Holy Scriptures, p. 217). Overall, Boyle’s encounter with doubt was undoubtedly positive.

Looking Ahead

The next column moves from doubt to piety—perhaps a surprising transition, but both were omnipresent in Boyle’s life. We have plenty to discuss in the meantime.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38.

Boyle’s unfinished youthful autobiography, “An account of Philaretus during his minority,” is found in vol. 37, fols. 170-184, of the Boyle Papers at the Royal Society in London. It remained unpublished until 1744, when Thomas Birch printed it in the first volume of The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle; to which is prefixed the life of the author, 5 vols. Michael Hunter’s complete transcription of the original manuscript is included in Robert Boyle: By Himself and His Friends (1994). Beatrix Färber prepared an electronic edition of Birch’s version. “Philaretus” was the name Boyle gave himself in the document, which is written in the third person.

Several other quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.

In addition to the sources listed at the end of part one, I also recommend a web article by philosophers J. J. Macintosh and Peter Anstey, “Robert Boyle,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Bill Guerrant - #82505

August 23rd 2013

“There is nothing worse taken up upon trust than religion.”

That is a powerful and thought-provoking quote.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82506

August 23rd 2013

Faith and doubt are two “subjective” attitudes.  The real question is: Is there an objective aspect of Life and Reality? 

Fideism says no.  Only one’s faith is “real,” and nothing else is.  Scientism says no in the sense that only “science” is real and nothing else is. 

The only real way to get around this dualism is create a triune reality, where science (or knowledge,) faith, and the world are all real, and the task of each of us to bring them into reasonable harmony. 

For me this means a redefintion of what we mean by doubt.  Doubt usually means to question the existence of something.  For me constructive doubt is to question our understanding of something.  We do not doubt the fact that something real exists, but question how and why it exists, because we need to expand our horizons as broad as possible.    

It is quite clear that evolution has taken place in our world, but it is not clear that the explanations of how this has happened are adequate.  The role of science and all rational disciplines including theology is to improve our understanding of Reality in all its aspects.  When we accept Darwinian Natural Selection as gospel without proof we are in deep trouble.

We can never understand the world without asking: How does it work?  We can never understand ourselves without asking:  How do humans function?  We can never understand ourselves and God without asking the question:  How does God relate to us and how do we need to relate to God and to others?         

Roger A. Sawtelle - #82517

August 25th 2013

It is interesting that Richard Dawkins uses the extinction of the dinosaurs to make fun faith without evidence.  The extinction of the dinosaurs is the best known example of evolution based on climate change, rather than genetic mutation. 

Thus Dawkins recognizes that the extinction of the dinosaurs took place because of an astroid hit caused climate change, but refuses to recognize that this event does not fit into his gene driven theory,   

Merv - #82546

September 1st 2013

Thanks for this continued series, Ted.  I am currently reading Hunter’s “Boyle:  Between God and Science”, and have only just reached the “turning point” of Boyle’s literary career where he drops his experimentation with romance literature, ethical epistles, and such and focuses his writings solely on his newly beloved natural philosophy.

I don’t remember if Hunter himself used this word,  but from descriptions Hunter gives (or quotes from historical works about or by Boyle) I shouldn’t be surprised if Boyle would be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum today. 

And while he kept himself out of actual romance, he indulged in a lot of romance literature reading at least early on (fun way to learn French?).

Ted Davis - #82548

September 1st 2013

I’m glad you’re reading Michael Hunter’s biography, Merv. Perhaps the only major point on which Michael and I have differed (with regard to Boyle), involves how to understand Boyle psychologically. Michael is more willing to speculate about this than I am; I don’t always find his conclusions (on this) convincing. But, he certainly knows more about Boyle than anyone since Boyle’s own day, so he has earned the right to an opinion on such things.

A “Romance” was more or less (I know very little about this general topic) an ancestor of the novel. I don’t plan to talk about Boyle’s interest in “Romances,” but I’ll say quite a bit in a few weeks about his studious avoidance of “romance” in the common meaning of that word.

Merv - #82549

September 2nd 2013

Well, to hear Hunter tell it, it doesn’t seem clear what all of Boyle’s early life motivations were in regard to marital possibilities.  I remember reading that at least some of his “romance” readings did involve adventures of amorous nature.  His father had arranged who he was to marry, but later in his adult life when she married Boyle’s cousin instead, Boyle’s attentions were thereafter focused on his work.  It sounds like as a young man he at times felt compelled to at least put on a show for the sake of possibilities.  Hopefully I’m not misrepresenting Hunter on my first reading here.  ...or jumping the gun too badly on your discussions.   Looking forward to your next installments on Boyle.

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