A (Very) Brief History of Christians in Science

on September 17, 2019

The importance of believers in the history of science is revealed by none other than Albert Einstein. Einstein kept pictures of three scientific heroes on the wall of his study: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. Newton (ca. 1642–1727) is one of the most influential scientists of all time, famous for formulating the laws of gravity and motion. While not an orthodox Christian, owing to his denial of the full divinity of Christ, Newton was an earnest believer in God and wrote more about theology than physics. Faraday (1791–1867) is best known for his work on electromagnetism, and his scientific contributions were so significant that he is considered one of the greatest experimental scientists ever. The Faraday constant is named after him, as is the Faraday effect, the Faraday cage, and Faraday waves. Faraday was a passionate Christian, deeply interested in the relationship between science and faith.1 Maxwell (1831–1879) has been credited with the second great unification of physics, bringing together electricity, magnetism, and light. He was an evangelical Presbyterian, who became an elder of the Church of Scotland. For these men, science and faith went hand in hand, and studying God’s creation was an act of worship.2 But is this just a tiny minority report in the history of otherwise atheistic science? Not at all.

Lord Kelvin in a chair

Lord Kelvin – Public Domain

Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), whose name is memorialized in the Kelvin unit of temperature, is another example of scientific excellence and serious faith. Kelvin was one of the first scientists to calculate the age of the earth in millions rather than thousands of years. In a speech to the Christian Evidence Society, of which he was president, he declared:

I have long felt that there was a general impression in the non-scientific world, that the scientific world believes Science has discovered ways of explaining all the facts of Nature without adopting any definite belief in a Creator. I have never doubted that that impression was utterly groundless.3

In the nineteenth century as today, questions of science and faith were hotly debated. But there were serious Christians at the center of the “scientific world,” arguing for belief in a Creator God.

The assumption that science is the tool with which atheists have gradually demolished Christianity is further exploded by the big bang. A Belgian Roman Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître was the first to propose the crazy-sounding idea that the universe had begun as an incredibly hot, incredibly dense point: a “cosmic egg.” Like any scientific paradigm shift, the theory met with resistance. In this instance, some of the pushback was motivated by atheism. As Stephen Hawking observed, “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention. . . . There were therefore a number of attempts to avoid the conclusion that there had been a big bang.”4

One of the scientists who opposed the theory was atheist physicist Fred Hoyle, who coined the term big bang in a radio interview, where he compared the theory to a party girl jumping out of a cake.5 Along with many scientists of his day, Hoyle preferred the “steady state” theory, according to which the universe had always existed. With this model, it was easier to avoid the idea that anything outside the universe brought it into being. Far from being yet another pointer toward atheism, the big bang is intriguingly congruent with the core Christian belief that God created the universe out of nothing.6

Perhaps the most controversial question in the realm of science and faith also has a complex history when it comes to Christianity. Darwin fluctuated in his own beliefs during his life, apparently progressing from deism to agnosticism. But Darwin’s closest collaborator and “best advocate,” Harvard professor and botanist Asa Gray, was a passionate Christian. Gray contributed his own research to Darwin’s via a correspondence of more than three hundred letters. In a letter to Gray in 1881, Darwin wrote, “There is hardly any one in the world whose approbation I value more highly than I do yours.”7 Unlike Darwin, Gray saw nature as filled with “unmistakable and irresistible indications of design,” and tried to persuade Darwin to return to Christianity, arguing, “God himself is the very last, irreducible causal factor and, hence, the source of all evolutionary change.”8

Gregor Mendel Headshot

Gregor Mendel – Fair Use

The New Atheist story is further undermined by the history of genetics. Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was a Roman Catholic friar who studied the heredity of pea plants in the gardens of St Thomas’s Abbey. Dawkins recognizes Mendel as the “founding genius of genetics itself,” but is careful to downplay his faith: “Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue his science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant.”9 Such biased reporting is vital if one is to maintain the story of science as antithetical to faith, and in most instances, it is simply impossible to justify.

If the history of science from the sixteenth to the twentieth century gives us multiple examples of leading Christian scientists, have scientists come to their atheistic senses in the cool light of the twenty-first century?

Christian Scientists Today

I live a short walk from MIT, the sacred temple of scientific endeavor in the United States. Stop a student in the “infinite corridor” that meanders through its buildings and ask if he or she thinks there are any Christian professors at the Institute, and the answer will likely be no. Yet the roll call of Christian professors at MIT is impressive. I have already mentioned nuclear science professor Ian Hutchinson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics Daniel Hastings, and electrical engineering professor Jing Kong, none of whom was raised as a Christian. But there are more. Artificial intelligence expert Rosalind Picard, who invented the field of affective computing, became a Christian when she was a teenager. Chemistry professor Troy Van Voorhis came to Christ when he was a grad student at Berkeley. Biological and mechanical engineering professor Linda Griffith became a Christian when she was already an established scientist. Other Christians include professor of mechanical and ocean engineering Dick Yue; chemical engineering professor Chris Love; professor of biological engineering, chemical engineering, and biology Doug Lauffenburger; history professor Anne McCants; and even neuroscientist and former MIT president (the first female president of the Institute) Susan Hockfield. The list goes on. And it extends far beyond MIT to leading Christian scientists across the world. If science has disproved Christianity, no one has thought to notify them!

This is not to say that science professors are not more likely than the general population to be unbelievers. They are: 34 percent of science professors at elite universities say they do not believe in God, versus 2 percent of the general population, and a further 30 percent say they do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out.10 But we must be cautious about deriving causation from correlation.

When interviewed, relatively few science professors at leading research universities tell stories of faith lost through science,11 and the demographics of science professors bias strongly toward white male Americans, Asian Americans, and Jewish Americans—the demographics least likely to espouse belief in God—and away from the most religious demographics: African Americans and Latino Americans.12 Perhaps because of increasing diversity, younger cohorts of scientists are getting progressively more religious—the opposite of the national trend.13 Indeed, it is possible that the narrative that presents science as antithetical to Christianity is part of what is keeping underrepresented groups (African Americans, Latino Americans, and women) out of the sciences. Again, the New Atheist story in which science disproves Christianity turns out to be less compelling than it at first seemed.

BioLogos - Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

The weakness of the claim that science has disproved Christianity is brought home by the testimony of one of the most influential scientists in America today, who came to faith when he was already a professional scientist. Francis Collins led the Human Genome Project and now directs the National Institutes of Health. He grew up in a secular home. Religion wasn’t so much attacked as it was irrelevant. As a graduate student at Yale, he shifted from agnosticism to atheism, assuming that belief in God was rationally untenable. But his atheism was challenged during his time as a junior doctor, when the faith of his patients seemed to give them enviable help in the face of suffering. Collins was particularly shaken by one conversation with an older woman suffering from severe and untreatable pain, who shared her faith in Jesus and asked, “Doctor, what do you believe?” “I felt my face flush,” he recalls, “as I stammered out the words, ‘I’m not really sure.’”14 In his discomfort, Collins realized that he had never really considered the evidence for God. This patient’s simple question set him on a journey of exploration and research that ended in him accepting Jesus as his Savior. He now believes that “the God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.”15

 

Content taken from Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.


Notes & References


Rebecca McLaughlin
About the Author

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill seminary in London. She is a regular writer for The Gospel Coalition. Her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion was published by Crossway in 2019.