Robert Boyle was one of the founder of modern experimental science in the 17th century. His book, the Sceptical Chymist, broke with medieval alchemy to lay the foundations for modern chemistry. Unlike previous, Aristotelian Natural Philosophers, Boyle believed that the universe was composed of atoms. This theory was viewed with great suspicion in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it had originated with the ancient Epicureans. These considered that the universe had been created by chance without the intervention by the gods, although they did not deny their existence completely. It was thus considered an atheist doctrine. Boyle himself was deeply religious, and bequeathed a legacy to set up a series of annual lectures arguing for and promoting Christianity. He also attempted to argue for Christianity and the compatibility of the Christian faith with the new science in his book, The Christian Virtuoso. Many of the arguments he advanced there are still valid today.
In the book’s preface, Boyle states that
‘I could scarce avoid taking notice of the great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those, that aspired to pass for wits, and several of them too for philosophers. And on the other side it was obvious, that diverse learned men, as well as others, partly upon the score of their abhorrence of these infidels and libertines, and partly upon that of a well-meaning but ill-formed zeal, had brought many good men to think, that religon and philosophy were incompatible; both parties contributing to the vulgar error, but with this difference, that the libertines thought a virguoso ought not be a Christian, and the others, that he could not be a true one’.
He then argued that, whilst some atheists used science to oppose religion and Christianity, truly devout people would find in science even greater reasons to believe and praise the Lord:
‘And I deny not, but that, if the knowledge of nature falls into the hands of a resolved atheist, or a sensual libertine, he may misemploy it to oppugn the grounds, or discredit the practice of religion. But it will far much otherwise, if a deep insight into nature be acquired by a man of probity and ingenuity, or at least free from prejudices and vices, that may indispose him to entertain and improve those truths of philosophy, that would naturally lead him to sentiments of religion. For, if a person thus qualified in his morals, and thereby disposed to make use of of the knowledge of the creatures to confirm his belief, and increase his veneration of the Creator (and such a person I here again advertise you, and desire you would not forget it, I suppose the virtuoso, this papers is concerned in, to be) shall make a great progress in real philosophy; I am persuaded, that nature will be found very loyal to her author; and instead of alienating his mind from making religious acknowledgements, will furnish him with weighty and uncommon motives, to conclude, such sentiments to be rational and just’.
Boyle then goes on to quote the founder of the experimental method, Francis Bacon, whom he acclaims as the ‘first and greatest experimental philosopher of our age’
‘that God never wrought a miracle to convince atheists; because in his visible works he had placed enough to do it, if they were not wanting to themselves’.
Boyle himself was not impressed either by contemporary atheists’ grasp of the new science, or their arguments in favour of atheism. He states
‘I must own to you, that I do not think there are so many speculative atheists, as men are wont to imagine. And though my conversation has been pretty free and general among naturalists, yet I have met with so few true atheists, that I am very apt to think, that men’s want of due information, or their uncharitable zeal, has made them mistake or misrepresent many for deniers of God, that are thought such, chiefly because they take uncommon methods in in studying his works, and have other sentiments of them, than those of vulgar philosophers. And in the next place I must tell you, that having through the goodness of God, chosen my religion, not inconsiderately but upon mature deliberation, I do not find those virtuosi, you call atheists, such formidable adversaries, as those that are afraid to hear them do, by that apprehension, appear to think them. And indeed I have observed the physical arguments of the atheists to be but very few, and those far enough from being unanswerable.’
These arguments still apply today. From the statements made by very vociferous atheist scientists like Dawkins and Steven Weinberg, you could be mistaken for believing that all scientists were atheists, and indeed true scientists could only be atheists. Yet a Gallup poll made nearly a decade or so ago recorded that the proportion of religious and atheist scientists had not changed since the poll was first made a hundred years previously. Even then the number of theist scientists had surprised the researchers, who had confidently expected all the scientists to be atheists. Now the religious scientists are not in the majority, but they still form a sizable number equal to the number of atheists in science. There is a group, Christians in Science. James Hallam, the Roman Catholic historian of science who blogs as ‘Bede’ in Bede’s Library and the Adlibitum website, was an atheist until he studied physics and university and found just how unlikely it is that the cosmos does exist by chance. It can astonish you just how scientifically active and accomplished some of these religious scientists are. Yet you mostly don’t hear about them, because they’re mostly just interested in doing science, rather than using it like Dawkins and co. to promote atheism. So it’s important to bear Robert Boyle’s comments in mind the next time Dawkins or the comedian Robin Ince try claiming science for atheism.
Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 119-29.