Scientists and Belief in God

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (Oct. 25, 2000)
©2000 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

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There are as many scientists who believe in God today as there were a century ago, and more scientists are now studying the marvels of nature to copy them in order to improve our lives. Louis Agassiz, perhaps the greatest natural scientist of the nineteenth century, declared, "It is the job of prophets and scientists alike to proclaim the glories of God."

Throughout history, most scientists have been believers in God, but during the last few centuries the scientific trend has been toward atheism. God's laws are so effective that the universe seems to just run itself. Scientists have been very successful explaining many phenomena without the need for any intervening hand from deity. But now the trend toward atheism may be reversing.

By 1914 only 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God, according to a poll quoted in Scientific American. It had been assumed at that time that as scientists discovered more and more of the laws of nature that the trend would increase until virtually all scientists were atheists. The authors of the 1999 article note that recently there has been a trend reported in the news that a reconciliation between science and religion is underway:

"Now, at the turn of the millennium, comes a movement bent on reconciling science and religion. New books hail the divine in physics, biology, even computer information theory. Last year 'SCIENCE FINDS GOD' emblazoned the cover of Newsweek, and other leading news magazines picked up on the theme. More conferences than ever feature dialogues between 'the two ways of knowing.' By one report, U.S. higher education now boasts 1,000 courses for credit on science and faith, whereas a student in the sixties would have long dug in hardscrabble to find even one. Scientists who are older and tenured, it is said, feel it is time to give witness to their once closeted or newly found faith."[1]

The authors of that article set out to determine whether the atheistic trend in science had increased or not. They repeated the questions of the 1914 poll to the same level of scientists and discovered that today there are still 40% of scientists who believe in God. They conclude, "scientists today no more jettison Christianity's 'two cardinal beliefs' than their counterparts did in 1914. Gallup surveys suggest the same about the general population." They go on to report that among scientists in the top positions the atheistic trend does appear to be increasing, but they also note that it has been pointed out that, "There's a reward system to being irreligious in the upper echelons." Thus, it has been suggested that the extreme atheism at the very top is probably more of a result of "200 years of marketing that if you want to be a scientific person you've got to keep your mind free of the fetters of religion."

This recent poll may have detected the bottom on the cycle and the percentage of hard scientists who are believers may well now begin to increase. Before looking at evidence supporting this position, let's consider the thoughts of two of the greatest scientists on their belief in God. Sir Isaac Newton is often considered to be the greatest physicist of all time. He really did "write the book" on the laws of physics. While Newton is known principally for his work in physics, he also produced many volumes on the subject of religion. He wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel and the book of Revelations, and he wrote on the chronology of ancient kingdoms.[2] As an example of his seeing no problem whatsoever in using science to discover truth about religion, he used his own newly discovered laws governing the motion of the moon to reconstruct the Judean calendar at the time of Christ in order to calculate the exact date of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He was about two hundred years ahead of his time with this idea. His work was repeated with the same results in the early 1900's by scientists who thought they were doing it for the first time, and his method is still the best way known to make this determination.[3]

Here are a sample of the religious writings of Sir Isaac Newton:

"And the gospel is that Jesus is the Christ. 'Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.' I John v.I. ... And all this is the Gospel which Christ sent his disciples to teach all nations ...

"Repentance and the remission of sins relate to transgressions against the two first commandments. We are to forsake the Devil, that is, all false gods and all manner of idolatry, this being a breach of the first and great commandment. And we are to forsake the flesh and the world, or as the Apostle John expressed it, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life, that is, unchastity, covetousness, pride and ambition; these things being a breach of the second of the two great commandments. And we are to believe in one God, the father, almighty in dominion, the maker of heaven and earth and of all things therein, and in our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, who was born of a Virgin and sacrificed for us on the cross, and the third day rose again from the dead and ascended unto heaven...

And as for the Christian worship, we are authorized in scripture to give glory and honour to God the Father, because he hath created all things, and to the Lamb of God, because he hath redeemed us with his blood and is our Lord, and to direct our prayers to God the Father in the name of Christ ..."[4]

Another excellent example of a great scientist who had a strong belief in the existence of God was Louis Agassiz, who "is acknowledged even by current researchers as the greatest natural scientist of his day."[5] He discovered the Ice Age, founded both the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at Harvard, and with his wife established the great women's college Radcliffe. Here are a sample of his outlook on how science should bring us closer to God:

"In our study of natural objects we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading his conceptions, interpreting a system that is His and not ours."[6]

"Facts are the words of God, and we may heap them together endlessly, but they will teach us little or nothing till we place them in their true relations, and recognize the thought that binds them together."[7]

Agassiz was a champion of divine creation and devoted the last years of his life to defending it. He declared that "It is the job of prophets and scientists alike to proclaim the glories of God," and he spent his life as a scientist doing exactly that. He died in 1873, and when the St. George temple was dedicated only four years later, he was one of the eminent men who came there with the signers of the Declaration of Independence to request of President Wilford Woodruff that his temple work be done.[8]

After Agassiz, the scientific trend shifted as a majority of scientists began to feel they understood the laws of nature well enough to explain their observations without requiring a belief in God. However, as noted above, a core of scientists who do believe in God has persisted, and does not show any signs of decreasing in percentage. These scientists continue to see the hand of God reflected in all of his creations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, "The true doctrine of omnipresence is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb." [9]

Today there is another interesting trend. It is that the number of inventions based on copying nature is now beginning to be systematically exploited. In so doing, one need not even bring up the argument over whether "nature" refers to the handiwork of God or millions of years of mindless evolution; all that matters is that nature is incredibly successful at solving problems with which we have struggled for years.

This trend began by noticing that many inventions were discovered from observing how "nature" had solved problems. Inventors spent centuries trying to invent the airplane after watching birds fly. The book Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science chronicles several of these observations which led to inventions. It also includes some discoveries that really appear to have been accidents, but many came from simply noticing the invention already working in nature, and using scientific inquiry to discover just how they work. Examples of such inventions include Velcro, which resulted when George deMestral looked to see why burs stuck so tightly to his clothing. Electric current was discovered in animals when it was noticed by Luigi Galvani that a dissected frog leg twitched as it lay near an electrostatic generator. Many colors appeared only in nature. For example, the color purple is associated with royalty partly because the natural dye Tyrian purple could only be extracted from small mollusks in the Mediterranean Sea. It was very expensive because it took 9,000 of them to produce a gram of dye. The synthesis of this color by William Perkin led to the birth of the synthetic dye industry. Certain peptides which are highly effective in fighting a variety of bacteria were discovered when it was observed that some African frogs would heal perfectly in murky water filled with lethal bacteria. The list goes on and on.[10]

Now a trend is beginning to strengthen to systemically copy nature. The word "biomimicry" has been coined to refer to the idea of purposely copying nature to discover new inventions. The author of a book with that title sees this emerging field as the result of centuries of trying to fight nature as gradually succombing to a trend to acknowledge nature's ways as best. She points out that not only has nature already invented everything we have, it has many more inventions whose workings still evade us:

"We realize that all our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at a lot less cost to the planet. Our most clever architectural struts and beams are already featured in lily pads and bamboo stems. Our central heating and air conditioning are bested by the termite tower's steady 86 degrees F. Our most stealthy radar is hard of hearing compared to the bat's multifrequency transmission. And our new 'smart materials' can't hold a candle to the dolphin's skin or to the butterfly's proboscis. Even the wheel, which we always took to be a uniquely human creation has been found in the tiny rotary motor that propels the flagellum of the world's most ancient bacteria.

"Humbling also are the horders of organisms casually performing feats we can only dream about. Bioluminescent algae splash chemicals together to light their body lanterns. Arctic fish and frogs freeze solid and then spring to life, having protected their organs from ice damage. Black bears hibernate all winter without poisoning themselves on their urea, while their polar cousins stay active, with a coat of transparent hollow hairs covering their skins like the panes of a greenhouse. Chameleons and cuttlefish hide without moving, changing the pattern of their skin to instantly blend with their surroundings. Bees, turtles, and birds navigate without maps, while whales and penguins dive without scuba gear. How do they do it? How do dragonflies outmaneuver our best helicopters? How do hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico on less than one tenth of an ounce of fuel? How do ants carry the equivalent of hundreds of pounds in a dead heat through the jungle?

"These individual achievements pale, however, when we consider the intricate interliving that characterizes whole systems, communities like tidal marshes or saguaro forests. In ensemble, living things maintain a dynamic stability, like dancers in an arabesque, continually juggling resources without waste.... Studying these poems day in and day out, biomimics develop a high degree of awe, bordering on reverence."[11]

No wonder that these marvelous creations inspire awe and reverence; they are the work of the Almighty. When we look on any or the least of these, we are looking at God moving in his majesty and power.

One final note is the following. While the above book assumes, as do most scientists, that these wonders of nature just "happened" by themselves, there is also a growing group of scientists who recognize that no random processes could have resulted in many of these inventions. The natural inventions which must have been "designed" rather than occurring by chance are those in which each of the many parts would have been useless to the creature unless they all just happened to spring into existence at the same time.

An example of such an inventions include the mechanism which clots our blood when we are cut. The system contains a series of inhibitors which prevent blood from clotting when it shouldn't, which would cause a stroke. There are a whole series of complicated chemicals in the system which are only useful as part of the blood clotting mechanism. All of them are necessary for the system to work, and in forty years of attempts, no one has been able to explain how the system could have evolved by chance.[12]

The new millennium promises to provide many new and wonderful inventions as scientists recognize the hand of God in nature and begin to understand the principles behind so many inventions which are found everywhere in His creations.


  1. Larson, Edward J. and Witham, Larry, "Scientists and Religion in America," Scientific American 281 No. 3 (Sep 1999), pp. 88-93.
  2. Newton, Isaac. The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, [1728], reprinted in Histories & Mysteries of Man , London, 1988. Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, London, J. Darby and T. Browne, 1733.
  3. Pratt, J.P., "Newton's Date for the Crucifixion,"Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society 32, (Sept. 1991), 301-304.
  4. McLachlan, H., Sir Isaac Newton: Theological Manuscripts, Liverpool, 1950, pp. 29-35.
  5. Gould, Stephen Jay, "Agassiz in the Galapagos," Natural History, 90, no. 12 (12 Dec 1981).
  6. Agassiz, Louis, Methods of Study in Natural History, Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863, p. 14.
  7. Agassiz, Louis, "Evolution and Permanence Type" reprinted in The Intelligence of Agassiz by Guy Davenport, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1983, p. 231.
  8. Anderson, Vicki Jo, The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff, 1994, pp. 9-18. The quotes referenced in notes 5-7 were also quoted herein.
  9. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "Compensation," from Essays: First Series Vol. II.
  10. Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Wiley & Sons, New York, 1989.
  11. Benyus, Janine M., Biomimicry, William Morrow, New York, 1997, pp. 6-7.
  12. Behe, Michael J., Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Free Press, New York, 1996, pp. 74-97.