Scientists and Their Gods: The Question of Coherence

Can God use accidents and embarrassing pauses? He did in the life of one prominent professor.

On the first day of class at the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Henry F. Schaefer, was lecturing 680 freshman chemistry students. When he cued his assistant to demonstrate a crucial concept, the assistant wasn’t ready. Desperate to avoid “dead air,” Schaefer ad-libbed a joke—in which he mentioned having been in church the previous Sunday. By then his assistant was ready, and Schaefer resumed his lecture.

But after class, about fifty students lined up to talk to him. What was a science professor doing in church? One student remarked that a favorite high school chemistry teacher had taught with great certainty that it was impossible to be a practicing chemist and a Christian. What did Schaefer think? He gave a short reply, but didn’t have time to answer fully. The students in line overheard that conversation, and one asked if he would lecture on why a chemistry professor would believe in God. And so God used that brief exchange in 1984 to prod Schaefer into preparing “Scientists and Their Gods,” a lecture he has delivered on campuses worldwide and now appears as part of his outstanding new book, Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence?

Henry Schaefer is an ideal person to answer skeptics. First, he once was one. Furthermore, he has been nominated several times for a Nobel Prize, so no one can say he’s not a top scientist. Plus, he communicates on a popular level, making a profound case clearly, simply, and spiced with humor.

In the lecture “Scientists and Their Gods” Schaefer quotes a striking statement from physicist Robert Griffiths: “If we need an atheist for a debate, I go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn’t much use.”

Schaefer’s argument, you see, is that being a scientist doesn’t necessarily make one an atheist. Allan Sandage, for example, considered the world’s greatest living cosmologist, says, “The world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone. I am convinced that the existence of life with all its simply too well put together.”

Or take Nobel Laureate Charles Townes. He said, “To me, God is personal yet omnipresent—a great source of strength, who has made an enormous difference to me.” Even the atheist Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman admitted, “Many scientists do believe in both science and a perfectly consistent way.”

Sigma Xi, the international honor society for scientific and engineering research, polled its members about religion and found that 41 percent of Ph.D. scientists reported that they attended church on a typical Sunday. Another survey found 52 percent of biologists identifying themselves as Christians. M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman adds, “Contrary to popular myth, scientists appear to have the same range of attitudes about religious matters as does the general public.”

That’s why I’m so grateful to Henry Schaefer, the distinguished scientist and professor at the University of Georgia, for his contribution in his excellent book, Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence? One reviewer says the book “attempts to woo readers to Christ, not beat them over the head.” To obtain your copy, call BreakPoint (1-877-322-5527).

Do science and Christianity conflict? Not at all, and Henry Schaefer provides many scientific evidences of their perfect coherence.

(Originally presented on “BreakPoint with Chuck Colson,” 1/5/04, Copyright 2004 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission.)