Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Can a Modern Scientist Be Religious?

  1. Sep 25, 2009 #1
    Can a modern scientist be religious or even have a religion?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 25, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I don't think that is a problem and in fact, I think many scientists are.

    As a very simple example, consider the belief that God has created the universe and the laws by which it operates. This is even unifiable with the theory of evolution, although it doesn't place us humans in such a central position as "traditional" religion seems to do.

    Moreover, there are still many things that cannot be explained through science (for example: what was there (and where is "there") before the Big Bang) and unprobable events (for example, the odds of humans evolving as they did and getting as technologically advanced as they did) that may not obsolete religion.
  4. Sep 25, 2009 #3
    I think this is OT.

    But beside that:

    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson

    Dyson disagrees with the famous remark by his fellow-physicist Steven Weinberg that "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion."[33]

    “ Weinberg's statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: "And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion." The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" he said, "I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.[33]

    On the scale what Dyson achieved he is a very modern scientist, then again
    he is just one famous example. Most of the famous guys did at least pretend
    that they don't believe in anything. Science is not about this particular
    question, but that's a personal view.
  5. Sep 25, 2009 #4
    I think the only reasonable, scientific, and intellectually honest position with respect to the existence of God(s) is agnosticism. I regard God(s) the same way I do any hypothesis - what is the evidence, and to what conclusion does it lead? In the case of God(s), there does not seem to be any convincing evidence either way, so I will remain neutral until shown otherwise.
  6. Sep 25, 2009 #5
    The problem is asking the question does god really exist in scientific terms
    makes as much sense as asking if mathematical theorems are "really" true.
    One stays in a sorry state.

    It's the same with physics are there really true fundamental models or can we
    really understand nature ? No model of nature is perfect and in physics you always
    calculate as much as to feel that it is coherent with experiment. Period.
    So in that perspective a particular model is "true".

    Physics/Science does not address questions about pain, suffering, success, luck,
    family, friends, health, feelings, soul, perspective, will, relations, right, wrong, life style,

    So you have to make a choice and then live with.
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2009
  7. Sep 25, 2009 #6

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    It is a fact that many scientists are religious people. So the OP's question has an answer: "yes". Beyond that, we're drifting into the realm of Should a Modern Scientist Be Religious?

    I maintain that the answer to that is none of our business.
  8. Sep 25, 2009 #7
    Can a doctor smoke?

    Can a politician preach family values and have an affair at the same time?
  9. Sep 25, 2009 #8
    It can happen, but I think that learning about how science works and the kinds of answers we get about things it tends to turn people away from religion. The idea of religion is very human and earth centered when you try to look at the universe objectively a lot of these claims quickly fall apart. So let me really put it coherently this way:

    It seems to me that any scientist who allows himself to look at the "god hypothesis" objectively would probably not be religious. However, there are a great deal of scientists who create a wall between these two realms.
  10. Sep 25, 2009 #9


    User Avatar

    Many scientists are religious (studies have shown the percentages of atheists/agnostics is highest in the physical sciences, lower in the biological sciences, but still higher than the general population). But very few scientists will be evangelical - while many retain their religion throughout their studies in science, they tend to be the 'milder' forms of religion (the ones that make few demands on your life and don't expect you to reject things like science, birth control, womens rights, etc). Or they ignore that part (all the Catholics I know use birth control).
  11. Sep 25, 2009 #10
    Actually I'm pretty sure studies found biologists are the least religious not physical scientists.
  12. Sep 25, 2009 #11
    Few of the top theoretical physicists are religious. Abdus Salam was one of these few exceptions.
  13. Sep 25, 2009 #12


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Well stated. I would only add that people are religious for many different reasons, not all relying on a deep faith in God. For example, many follow a religion the same as they would any other family or cultural tradition they grew up with. And, only a few religions teach beliefs that are really incompatible or contradictory to scientific knowledge, most others are pretty neutral on the subject.
  14. Sep 25, 2009 #13


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If they go home and drink goats blood, none of our business.

    If they start trying to get funding for a power plant based on theory that Djinns are fiery creatures and thus must contain a lot of energy.. then you start to worry.
  15. Sep 25, 2009 #14
    There's lots of different kinds of scientists. As long as what the scientist is studying and/or teaching about doesn't conflict with any religious doctrine, I could easily see him or her being religious. Now if you're a cosmologist or an evolutionary biologist or something like that, I don't see how you could honestly be religious, since you would be gathering information that contradicts scripture.
  16. Sep 25, 2009 #15
    I did actually lose my own strong religious faith because of science; specifically, the idea that every human thought and action is a direct consequence of something going on in a physical brain. To me, it made no sense that someone's soul could then be held accountable for any virtue or wrongdoing, or that the identity we associate with a person could in any way survive their death, when it's so inextricably linked to their mortal frame.

    Still, no-one makes the scientific point more emphatically than Robert Winston in his book on the human mind, and he is strongly religious; he claims in another book simply to have no idea what a soul actually is. I need to sit down and read the whole of his book on religion, to work out where he's coming from. Most of my religious friends don't really seem to know what they believe a soul is; I asked my (religious) mother what she thought happened to the soul of a sufferer from multiple personality disorder, and she considered it an interesting theological question to forget (with the intention of chatting to a priest about it).

    John Polkinghorne (now an Anglican vicar, with a background as a Cambridge particle theorist), John Barrow (Cambridge cosmologist and templeton prize winner), Ken Miller (molecular biologist at Brown and Roman Catholic who stood as an expert witness against ID in the Dover vs kitzmiller trial), Chris Isham (eminent theoretical physicist at Imperial college who has written about his Christian faith) and Alistair McGrath (now a vicar and theologian, but has a PhD in biochemistry from Oxford) are all examples of the fact that it is possible to be religious- and specifically, to adhere to some particular religious creed- whilst being an extremely accomplished scientist. I'd really like to get round to reading some of their stuff to restore my faith in religious belief- the student Christian union in my university specialises in the evangelical scrag end of belief (science is arrogant, evolution is just a theory, natural disasters are punishments from God, homosexuality is morally wrong ...).
  17. Sep 25, 2009 #16
    It'd be a mistake to assume that every religous person swallows scripture whole- or at least, takes it literally and swallows it whole. Both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have publicly acknowledged evolution as a scientific fact.
  18. Sep 25, 2009 #17
    Absolutely not. How a scientist can believe in something without evidence/accept mystical answers, I'll never understand. It's cognitive dissonance.
  19. Sep 25, 2009 #18


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    It's only dissonance if you play the notes at the same time.
  20. Sep 26, 2009 #19
    What do you mean "either way"? The proposition under question is whether x exists. A complete lack of evidence of x combined with no good reason to believe x, doesn't require the Scientist to abstain from believing that x probably doesn't exist, even absent the fact that belief in gods and goddesses is ridiculous, prima facie.

    Sure, technically, all REAL Scientists are atheists about everything. And qantum uncertainty makes, literally, anything possible. But as Bertrand Russell said, "I cannot prove that no Chinese teapots orbit Mars. But I consider the likelihood so remote that there is no detectable distinction between my opinion on the matter and complete disbelief".

    Agnostics are cowardly atheists, fearing popular opinion, death, or both.

    Note that none of the above precludes awe and wonder.

    Or love.

  21. Sep 26, 2009 #20

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    That is if you limit evidence to mean scientific evidence. We have over 4000 years of history as well. There is also personal experience. Faith is often motivated by experience and the experiences of others.

    So are you saying that once a scientist, only a scientist? Science is a tool for discovery that has limits. You make it sound more like a religion.

    What would be your opinion of someone who made a religion out of Newtonian physics [in fact some people still do]? They would seem pretty silly now, wouldn't they? Is it your opinion that we know everything of siginficance that will ever be known?
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook