‘Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.’  ~ Albert Einstein

At school, I was told that science and religion had parted company when Pope Urban VIII bade the Inquisition show Galileo the ‘instruments of torture’, for the crime of suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun.

The grave of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) in Westminster Abbey

The inference was that Galileo was a scientific rationalist, and his former friend the pope was a superstitious bigot. But what my teachers did not tell me was that Galileo had consigned both of his two children to a nunnery, which strongly suggests that he was a believer.

Galileo was not the only founding father of science who had strong religious convictions. The very idea of ‘revolution’ that he proposed derived from the work of Copernicus, who was a Catholic priest.

Isaac Newton was secretly a Unitarian Christian, and spent more of his time examining the Bible than performing experiments. Pioneer of atomic theory John Dalton was a Quaker, and Michael Faraday, who developed the theory of electromagnetism, belonged to a tiny sect called the Sandemanians, (as did educationalist William Godwin, father of Mary Shelley, who gave us Dr Frankenstein and his monster).

Gregor Mendel was not simply a priest: he was an abbot. He is hailed as the father of genetics. Charles Darwin was a theology student who adopted agnosticism, but the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Wallace, was a Spiritualist. David Lack, who provided the first systematic proof of natural selection, converted to Anglican Christianity.

Einstein was persuaded to espouse the Big Bang Theory by Charles le Ma”tre, the Catholic priest who developed the idea (which is approved in a Papal Bull). Le Ma”tre was also first to propose the model of the expanding universe (before Hubble).

While Einstein avoided organised religion, he did make a variety of statements that can only be considered mystical. For instance: ‘Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.’

A depiction of Aristotle teaching in an early Islamic text on animals, ca. 1220 C.E.

Nils Bohr and Erwin Schroedinger’s Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics remains fundamental almost 90 years after it was formulated. Both were also given to the occasional mystical utterance (Bohr even adopted the yin-yang symbol for his baronial arms).

It is worth noting that most of the examples given here are of the Christian religion. In the ‘Dark Ages’, Islam promoted science and enquiry, and the first Christian universities (Bologna, the Sorbonne and Oxford) came into being to discuss the commentaries of the Muslim philosopher Avicenna.

Roger Bacon is called the father of science, but he acquired his scientific approach from student of Islamic texts, because Islam saw a scientific and philosophical renaissance in the Middle Ages.

Buddhism is founded on principles of rational enquiry, as is Taoism. It is true that all belief systems are prone to dogma, but it is also true that believers have often been able to develop rational ideas without prohibition.

I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but I accept that other people do not share my beliefs, and I rejoice in diversity and pluralism. I also know that I really don’t know the truth about life, the universe and everything (and I’m no longer sure that I want to know!).

Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould put forward the view that science and religion are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’: science is concerned with facts and religion with values. We might substitute the term ‘beliefs’ for ‘religion’, as Gould would doubtless have accepted atheism as a belief (or perhaps ‘counter-belief’).

I support both freedom of belief and freedom of disbelief. Where an idea is evidently nonsensical or hateful it should be dismissed, but religion is not of itself such an idea, and there needs to be no war between believers and disbelievers – just as long as we share whatever we can of the truth, and learn to tolerate beliefs that do not agree with our own, just as long as those beliefs do not incite hatred or harm.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about science or religion you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!