July 5, 2022

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Religious faith as inspiration for some scientists

Many are the scientists who, before their discoveries, feel alone as a small gear more than a long chain of other discoveries. In turn, these discoveries are not only the result of their intellectual effort but also of chance, of the so-called serendipity. For example, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, Nobel Prize in Physiology, felt some guilt for receiving all the recognition of his discoveries, when many of them were born of chance and good luck. Mathematician Paul Dirac considered that his ideas had rained from the sky because he was not even able to know exactly how they came up.

Other scientists, in addition to believers, reached some of their great findings precisely inspired by their religious beliefs, or even by reading the Bible.

Despite the strong tensions we currently find between religious faith and scientific evidence (a survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States revealed that 85% rejected the idea of   a personal God), many of the great scientists of the past they were spurred, inspired and even intellectually molded by their faith in God, which allowed them to reach certain scientific findings.

For example, although the work of Nicholas Copernicus was condemned to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum , the list of prohibited books of the Catholic Church, Copernicus claimed that God could be better known if he penetrated nature, so he did not have inconvenient in separating the Earth from the center of the universe, because all of nature was the Temple of God and could be conceived as a unity in diversity.

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Similarly, surgeon William Harvey, inspired by the orbits of the Copernicus planets, articulated in 1628 the theory that the human body had a circulatory system that reflected these orbits, also under the prism that God would use a system of unity in diversity. For Harvey, then, the heart was the beginning of life, just as the sun is the heart of the world.

Some religious sects, such as Methodists and Evangelists, who promoted discipline, perseverance, and rigor, inspired inventors of steam engines such as Newcomen (Baptist) or Watt (Presbyterian), as well as scientists such as John Dalton (Quaker), founder of atomic theory.

The father of electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, undoubtedly reached some of his groundbreaking findings thanks to his unquestionable religious faith, as it belonged to the Sandemanians, a sect that literally read the Bible. Faraday was not folded to any preconceived idea that was not the ones transmitted by his Sandemanian reading of the Bible, and that was a great advantage for him. Thanks to that strangely privileged position, given that those readings were not really a reliable source of scientific evidence, Faraday discovered the magnetic field that occupied the empty space around a magnet.

Faraday was almost the only person of his time who considered the importance of empty space as regards the laws of attraction and repulsion between electric charges maintained at a certain distance or the gravitational attraction from one point to another between masses. In 1844, it was already speculated about atoms when reflecting on the nature of matter, arguing that God could have ordered the existence of round points in space and, according to the Bible, would have completely filled space with them. Thus, empty space, for Faraday, was not likely, and all forces had to be perfectly adjusted by divine providence so that everything would be self-contained and matter and force conserved: forces can be transformed by interacting with others, but they cannot be created or destroyed by the human being. For Faraday, everything was connected symmetrically.

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Therefore, religious faith could be a source of inspiration as legitimate as drugs (James and Mullis), visions (Tesla) or dreams (Loewi and Kekulé).