The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Can A Scientist Believe (Thirty Years Later)

For the ears, you can listen to an audio recording of this presentation. [high fidelity audio playable under all personal computer operating systems via VLC media player, Microsoft Windows Media Player with the codecs for FLAC et al, OS X QuickTime with the XiphQT plugin, etc., on many Android-based mobile devices, and on iOS-based mobile devices via apps such as FLAC Player or Golden Ear]

Can A Scientist Believe (Thirty Years Later)

presentation at Adult Forum by
Edward M. Arnett, R.J. Reynolds Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus
November 24, 2013


  • “Can a Scientist believe” Will’s question thirty years later
  • Me and three others
  • Some definitions (handout) Note pivotal issue of supernatural
  • Science and religion
  • Personsal
  • Definitions
  • Conflict model
  • Draper
  • US Scientific Elite (NAS poll vs US public)
  • evangelical atheists
  • Coexistence model
  • some religious scientists
  • American public
  • Creationism


“Can a Scientist Believe” title of First Adult forum proposed to me by Will Willimon (in 1985?).


Scientists do believe that the natural material world around us can be understood through the application of causality and logical analysis to repeatable (public) empirical observations.


Science has nothing definitive to say to say about the many aspects of life that cannot be studied this way.

Obviously, the supernatural world cannot be approached scientifically.

Scientists do not have to think scientifically about everything!


Science and religion have cooexisted in tension in my head all my life.

I’ve participated in a church community since I was twelve. Baptised as an infant.

Attended worship 95% of Sundays. I’m one of only four members of the regular non-medical Duke faculty who go to Duke chapel. Where are the others?

I’ve read the Bible with varied degrees of appreciation, curiosity and skepticism all my life.

I say the creed with varied degrees of conviction. I believe in the trinity.

Am I a Christian?

I’ve been interested in chemistry since I was ten. I belong to the scientific elite.

The Warfare Thesis

A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1874, By John W. Draper, Methodist Minister, first president of The American Chemical Society

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, 1896 Andrew Dickson White, co-founder and first president of Cornell University.

Religion - A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency, and which is related to specific patterns of behavior.

Science- Knowledge about and study of the natural world based on facts learned through reproducible experiments and observations.

Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not part of science.

Science cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces may play in the world.

Supernatural - That which cannot be explained by science or the laws of nature: seeming to come from a god or magic.

Comparison of Survey Answers among National Academy of Sciences Scientists (400 in 1914 and 517 in 1998) return rates 70% and 60% respectively from Larson and Witham, Nature, 294, 394(1998).


Belief in a personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.5 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
Belief in human immortality
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Perhaps surprisingly, scientists in the "hard sciences" such as physics and chemistry are significantly more apt to be religious than those in the “soft sciences” such as sociology. Psychiatrists are least religious. No data on people in the humanities.

Some "Evangelical Atheists"

Christopher Hitchens God is not great

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

Note quotation from Albert Einstein, "The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle .... in their grudge against the traditional opium of the people cannot bear the music of the spheres."

Some quotations from Albert Einstein

"God does not play dice with the universe", referring to probability in quantum mechanics

"I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation."

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"

"God is a mystery, but a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of Nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver, but how does this lawgiver look? Certainly, not like a man magnified."

Intelligent Design?

He served on the board of the First Humanist Society of New York and was a strong supporter of Ethical Culture.

Stephen Jay Gould, eminent paleontologist, historian of science

Rocks of Ages    Non- overlapping Magesteria

"Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people."

Francis Collins

Director of The National Institutes of Health and the National Genome

The Language of God

The Language of Life

Evolution- the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.

One of the best established facts in science. The central unifying basis of all contemporary biology and related fields.

Creationism - The religious belief that life, the earth and the universe are the creation of a supernatural being as described in the book of Genesis. Basically Bible Centered and anti-evolutionist.

American Public Opinion

All of the mainline churches support theistic evolution, but 75% of protestant ministers reject evolution, believe that Adam and Eve were literal people, 65% believe that the earth
is 6000 years old. 61% say that science does not conflict with their religion And 84% say that science has positive effect on society,
But: 46% of American public believe in Creationism
Of these 25% had postgraduate education compared to
52% high school or less, 32% believe in theistic evolution, 15% believe God had nothing to do with it.

Conclusion: many Americans are confused and poorly educated about both science and religion.

Some Comparisons of Beliefs of US Public

In over 1500 denominations

Different polls, apples and oranges, beware!


Christian 71.7% 78.4% 59.4%
Atheist ? 1.6% ca5%
Agnostic ? ? 2.4% ca15%
No religion 7.7% 12.1% 24.7%

"Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society while in 2013 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?"

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Secularism is the practice of the absence of God.

Quote from Aldous Huxley?

Apologies to Brother Lawrence