Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009; Peers

JH: Having cast Compton as a theological liberal, are you aware of any American conservative physicists of the time who contributed to the big questions?

TD: I can’t think of any at the moment, although this might mean only that I haven’t done enough work yet on that period to know who the others were. The combination of terms you used—American, [religiously] conservative, and physicist—together with the requirement that they contributed to the big questions, pretty much narrows it down to none, though again I stress that we don’t have much detailed knowledge of the religious beliefs of American scientists from the first half of the last century. Here, “we” doesn’t mean simply “me,” it means the fairly small community of scholars who study American science—or American religion—in that period. It’s an area that’s just wide open for scholarly work, and that’s one of the main reasons I was so excited to discover the pamphlets.

Now, Jack, if you’re willing to relax your conditions a little, then I might be able to come up with some names. For example, if you don’t insist that a physicist “contributed to the big questions,” then Columbia physicist Michael Idvorsky Pupin might be a possible answer. He was a very famous scientist in the 1920s, but his scientific reputation came from inventions in electrical engineering (which made him wealthy) and not from discoveries in fundamental physics. Some of his fame derived from his activities on behalf of the Serbian nation during World War One, when he was effectively the spokesperson for Serbia in the United States. He was also famous as a writer; his autobiography, relating the story of a penniless immigrant who became a professor at Columbia who advised President Wilson about the creation of Yugoslavia, won a Pulitzer Prize. Theologically, he was a devout Serbian Orthodox believer with orthodox views on the divinity of Jesus and the divine creation of the universe.

Perhaps you were thinking only of Protestant scientists, Jack, when you said “conservative,” in which case the most famous conservative Protestant “scientist” of the period was probably Howard Kelly, a surgeon who taught gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins. Perhaps he counts as a scientist, or perhaps not; but obviously he wasn’t a physicist. I cannot think of a conservative Protestant physicist from that time who was as eminent as Kelly or Compton. Even if you were simply thinking of traditional Christian believers, not necessarily Protestants, then it’s still hard to think of an example. Would Victor Hess count? He received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1936, he worked briefly in the United States in the early 1920s, and as far as I can tell (I have not studied him carefully) he was a devout Roman Catholic. However, he was born in Austria and moved permanently to the United States only in 1938, in order that his Jewish wife could escape the Nazis. I don’t think he counts as an American, for our purposes here. American Catholics of that generation, generally speaking, just didn’t become top scientists at all, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here.

To the best of my knowledge, all of the leading Protestant scientists from the 1920s and 1930s, including physicists, were theologically liberal, by which I mean (for example) that they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus or the bodily resurrection. Compton is just one of many I could name; Robert Millikan, a very liberal Congregationalist, held a concept of God that was similar to that of Einstein and even more “liberal” than Compton’s notion of God. Both Compton and Millikan contributed to the big questions, and both were conservative politically, especially Millikan, but neither came close to being a conservative in religion; they were modernists, not fundamentalists. Interestingly, one of the most liberal politicians of his day, William Jennings Bryan, was a fundamentalist Presbyterian. The contrast with our own day that is suggested by these comparisons is not often noticed.

A much more important contrast with our own time, in my opinion, is illustrated by the ASA itself. We do have among our members some world-class scientists, including a few physicists. (I don’t want to start naming names here, because I am genuinely concerned that I might forget to name someone I ought to name and current ASA president I don’t want to slight anyone.) I can think right away of two Nobel Laureates who are not ASA members, though both have been keynote speakers at our annual meetings and both are orthodox believers as far as I know: Charles Townes and William Phillips. Let me make my point by taking the spirit, if not the letter, of your question, Jack. In 2010, there are in the English-speaking world (not just the United States) a significant number of world-class scientists (not just physicists) who are traditional Christians, by which I mean people who can say the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without crossing their fingers. Some are Americans, such as Francis Collins or Donald Knuth; others are English, such as John Polkinghorne or Brian Heap; at least one (George Ellis) is South African. Here now is my point, which answers your question as well as I can: there was no one like them in the United States between the two world wars, when the rancorous fundamentalist-modernist controversy was raging. That is when Compton did most of his writing about science and religion. At that time, the leading scientists were all or nearly all either unbelievers, pantheists who considered themselves Christians (such as Millikan), or more traditional theists who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus but also considered themselves Christians (Compton). I state that somewhat tentatively, for reasons already given; the more my research continues, however, the more confidence I have in it. The contrast between the Scopes era and our own is stark—and (in my opinion) in favor of our own era. It’s a much better time to be a traditional Christian in the sciences. Despite the claims of Richard Dawkins on the one hand or Philip Johnson on the other hand, orthodox Christians can fully embrace—and and greatly succeed at doing–modern science. It didn’t look that way in the 1920s and 1930s, as far as I can tell.

Sorry for another overly long answer. Your next question, Jack—

2 comments to Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009; Peers

  • Randy Isaac

    I’ve been pondering this for the last few weeks since I read your response. Why does there seem to be such a dearth of theologically conservative Christians in the physics community in the 20’s and 30’s? There may be several possibilities:
    1. They were there but didn’t publicize their faith
    2. Theologically conservative people tended not to go into physics or perhaps science in general
    3. Interest in physics correlates better with more liberal thinking

    I’m not sure any of these are satisfactory. Why do you think this is so?

    I also wonder whether this is a change from the 19th century? If so, what brought about such a change? Is the pendulum swinging back? Why?


  • Ted Davis


    This is a very good question. First, the state of affairs you refer to was not narrowly confined to physics, but (as far as I can tell) involved scientists in all fields. Among those Christian scientists who wrote about science and religion at that time, there were hardly any traditional Christians–hardly any who could have said the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.

    Was this just an absence of visibility? Perhaps so; perhaps there were a large number of Christian scientists with traditional beliefs, and they just didn’t write about this so we can’t see them easily when we look back today. This is possible, but unlikely. We know (for example) that around 1930 nearly all of the “eminent” scientists who were religious (a fairly large subset of the “eminent” scientists at the time) were either Unitarians (and thus by definition not traditional Christians) or else members of “liberal” denominations (the survey I am thinking of used that term). Virtually none were Baptist or Catholic, for example. I know of only two “fundamentalists” who were eminent scientifically, and one of them was a actually physician not a laboratory scientist.

    This is not true today, not at all. Why was it true then?

    Perhaps b/c the intensity of the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy drove many people, even very thoughtful people, out of the middle. There are more options today, religiously, and thus more places where scientists and other Christians can find comfortable places in which to dwell.

    There were scads of scientists in the 19th century who were traditional Christians, including the top geologist in America (James Dwight Dana) and the greatest American scientist around the Civil War (oceanographer Matthew Maury). The pendulum has indeed swung back, though only part-way. What accounts for this great shift? Many factors, IMO, including evolution as one of those many factors. (It’s a mistake IMO either to reduce this to evolution or to ignore evolution entirely.)

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