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Religion Was a Force in 20th Century Physics, Symposium Speakers Assert




Messiah College historian of science Ted Davis speaking at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting Science, Religion, and Modern Physics Symposium | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

View the full symposium video here.

Research labs often resemble the United Nations in the diversity of their scientists and that’s a good thing, said Gettysburg College professor of humanities and philosophy Steve Gimbel at DoSER’s 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting Science, Religion, and Modern Physics symposium 17 February.  

“Why? Because it brings this diversity—not just of religious views because they all may be secular—but having these different backgrounds leaves traces of different ways of thinking, which increases the diversity of thought within,” said Gimbel.

Some sixty people attended the Monday morning session to learn how religion may or may not have influenced the work of three leading twentieth century physicists: A.S. Eddington, Arthur Holly Compton, and Albert Einstein. The consensus from all four symposium speakers was that these physicists were shaped by their religious contexts, but one of them, Albert Einstein, in more subtle ways than the other two.  And, whether or not broad generalizations can be drawn from their stories remains an open question. 

A.S. Eddington


Matthew Stanley | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

“In science as in religion the truth shines ahead as a beacon showing us the path; we do not ask to attain it; it is better far that we be permitted to seek…You will understand neither science nor religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront,” astrophysicist A.S. Eddington (1882-1944) wrote in 1930.

The statement is indicative of the important links between Eddington’s way of doing science and his way of practicing religion, said NYU historian and philosopher of science Matthew Stanley.

Eddington is best known as the man who provided the first observational evidence for Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, his primary scientific legacy is in astronomy, where he was one of the first theorists to figure out how stars work, said Stanley (author of Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A.S. Eddington).

Eddington was also a lifelong member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a Protestant sect that emphasizes “the presence of God within everyone, and a related embrace of mysticism, pacifism, and social activism.”

“We usually think about science and religion in terms of claims about the world, such as the moment of creation or the nature of man, but both science and religion are also practices—ways of acting, thinking, and doing,” said Stanley.

Mysticism and pacifism undergirded Eddington’s spiritual life and his work, Stanley said. 

“Just as a good Quaker needed a seeking attitude in worship, a good scientist needed a seeking attitude in developing a theory,” he said.

This “seeking” approach played an important role in Eddington’s investigation into the composition and function of stars. Eddington used an inductive approach to this work rather than the deductive method that had failed his predecessors. He brought together scattered facts like the masses and brightness of stars with mathematical analysis and looked for patterns to emerge, said Stanley. 

Likewise, “Eddington's commitment to internationalism was emblematic of the ideals of the Quaker renaissance; his generation had been taught to struggle against war as visibly and forcefully as possible. So when British science began to slide into the nationalist fervor that gripped the nation after the start of WWI in August 1914, Eddington was vocal in defending science as an international enterprise that should rise above petty patriotism,” said Stanley.

Informed by the Quaker strategy of promoting pacifism by humanizing the enemy, Eddington was the only astronomer who maintained correspondence with colleagues in enemy countries. Because of this, he was also the only British scientist to hear about “a new theory of gravity being developed in Berlin by a young physicist named Albert Einstein,”

Eddington was excited by the scientific significance of Einstein’s theory, but more excited that Einstein was, like him, a pacifist, said Stanley.

“Making the theory known would thus not only do a great service for physics, but also refute the wartime stereotype of the barbaric Prussian.  Thus the values of internationalism would do double duty: they would help science by restoring the borderless quest for truth while at the same time soothing the hatred between nations,” Stanley said.

Eddington aggressively and successfully campaigned to “make the German Einstein and his theory a source of popular fascination,” he said.

Eddington’s story tells us important things about the science/religion interface, said Stanley:

  1. We don’t have to privilege one or the other; we can treat both as meaningful, important categories.
  2. Thinking about science and religion in terms of values and practices gives us another axis on which to think about their interaction.
  3. Some – but certainly not all – religious values can find harmonious links to modern values, including science.
  4. When we talk about science and religion, it can be useful to look at specific examples – as opposed to reasoning in the abstract.  Look at how science and religion are, instead of deciding how they should be.  

Arthur Holly Compton   


Edward B. Davis | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Physicist Arthur Holly Compton (1892-1962) was a leading public intellectual in the decades surrounding World War II and earned a Nobel Prize in 1927. He was also a Presbyterian who believed that science greatly accelerated social change and posed new powers “for good or ill,” said Messiah College historian of science Edward B. Davis.

Compton was not a pacifist like Eddington, but he did challenge the widespread claim at the time that Jews held undue influence over U.S. foreign policy and served as co-chair of the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews from 1938-1947, said Davis.

As J. Robert Oppenhiemer’s supervisor on the Manhattan project, Compton faced a moral quandary over nuclear weapons that was born, in part, of the tension between the pacifism of his Mennonite mother and the Presbyterian theology of his father, he said.

Compton’s deep soul searching was not always evident in the confident tone of some of his public statements, Davis said. In the end, Compton concluded that a war fought to preserve freedom is justified in the eyes of God and “the morality of the atomic bomb is identical with the morality of war.”

Although Compton lectured on the possibility of life after death and produced a widely distributed pamphlet on the topic, like many of his Protestant modernist contemporaries, he did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

“[Compton] sought to make room for religious faith, not to offer a knock-down proof of immortality. In his view, science could neither confirm nor deny any aspect of life, which was not physical. And thus, belief in a future life must be based on religious, moral, or philosophical grounds rather than upon scientific reasoning. The reality of free will showed, in his opinion, that there must be at least some thinking possible independent of any corresponding physical change in the brain, so that consciousness may persist after the brain is destroyed,” said Davis.

Summing up Compton’s life, Davis quoted the physicist Samuel Allison, who said, “There was an intensely religious and idealistic side to his nature coexisting in a truly remarkable way with his ability to reason in the rigorous and objective manner of physics.”

Albert Einstein


Steve Gimbel | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

When we think about science and religion, we generally look at the what of religion or the what of science, but for the purposes of discussing theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Gimbel said he wanted to focus on how we come to believe the things we do.

We think of religion as an inviolable set of claims about God and God’s relationship to creation, but there is no sense of method apparent in these claims, said Gimbel.

Scientific beliefs seem to be of “a fundamentally different character,” he said.  They are changeable and emerge from the scientific method, a summary of how scientists do their work that is taught to school children and was developed as part of a mid-to-late 20th century public relations campaign.

“The reason we make up this story about ‘the scientific method’ is because what it does is it takes the results of science and separates them from the rest of our beliefs. It puts them in a place where they can’t be challenged,” said Gimbel.

“When we look at where this separation of science from our other beliefs comes from, in part it comes from the scientists and the philosophers of science who were fleeing the Nazis, who saw what could happen if we allow this combination to be part of our public thought about the nature of science. ... So they did their best to separate science off ... in part because science was science and we needed to keep it distinct. Maybe they bought it and maybe they didn’t, but I’m going to argue that we should,” he said.

Nobel Prize winning physicists Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard were among those who claimed Einstein’s theory of relativity was “Jewish science.” They did so in order to denigrate the theory and contrast it with Aryan, i.e. “legitimate” or “real” science, said Gimbel.

Although it may be appealing considering this background, the idea that we can separate science from religion is false, he said. Legitimate scientific theories are informed both in content and method (both in the what and the how) by the religious contexts in which they emerge.

There is nothing in the content (the what) of Einstein’s work that reveals his Jewish heritage. Einstein wavered in his lifetime between periods of religiosity and non-religiosity, but during the period when he was formulating his theories of relativity, he was actively antireligious, Gimbel said.

Nonetheless, scientists have styles and Einstein’s style reflects a distinctively Jewish way of thinking.

His pattern was to start with observable phenomenon, find seemingly incompatible ways of making sense of them, then move to a framework within which these different perspectives fit together into a larger insight, Gimbel said.

This approach is also evident in the Jewish Talmud and in the way rabbis study with partners, taking turns arguing each side of an issue, reflecting a belief that God’s truth is too big to fit into any one interpretation, he said.

“I’m not saying that Einstein’s Jewish background caused him to have this method, which caused him to come up with the theory of relativity. … But, the fact is, there is, in Einstein, this Jewish style of thought,” said Gimbel. “The fact is there are these different ways of thinking, which we still have, which in some sense derive from religious backgrounds.”




Ronald l. Numbers | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Drawing the fascinating symposium to a close was University of Wisconsin emeritus professor of the history of science and medicine Ronald L. Numbers.

Numbers affirmed the contributions of his colleagues to the ongoing discussion of the nature of the relationship between science and religion, but wondered if “the cases that are most interesting for people like us perhaps are the outliers.”

“How unique or distinctive was Eddington? Did it make a difference that he came from a once persecuted sect?” Numbers asked. Compton was a churchgoing Baptist, but there doesn’t seem to be anything distinctly Baptist in Compton’s reconciliation of the science and religion, so: “How far can one generalize?”

Numbers described Gimbel as “courageous, if not foolish, in arguing for Einstein’s Jewish science,” but said, “I think you’re probably right on target.”

He also affirmed Gimbel’s description of how the scientific method was popularized, saying: “It put science on a pedestal and was a totally meaningless slogan, except that it did a lot of good work for science.”

Finally, Numbers said there is consensus among historians of science and religion that religion should not be portrayed uniformly as an obstacle to science. The ways in which it has occasionally accelerated scientific development should also be acknowledged, he said.

“Some of you may not know how much of a shift there has been in the last few decades with respect to the understanding of science and religion. For a century or century-and-a-half, the main storyline was warfare and conflict, with religion largely standing in the way of scientific progress. As historians of all persuasions or no persuasions whatsoever have looked at the actual interaction on the ground, so to speak, there has been a huge shift,” he said.

For example, despite the “Galileo affair,” historians of science, such as John Heilbron, now recognize that no institution contributed more support for astronomy from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries than the Roman Catholic Church. “That’s a hard pill for some of us to swallow, but it may just be true,” said Gimbel.

View the full symposium video here

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