Despite some who may otherwise, science and religion are not irreconcilable fields of study. This has, in fact, never not always been the case; throughout history there have been many a great deal of men who have not only made significant scientific contributions to their fields, but did so while maintaining their religious beliefs. Here are ten of the most significant, with religious quotes included when available.
10. José Gabriel Funes (1963 – Present)
“It is possible to believe in God and in extraterrestrials. The existence of other worlds and other life, even more evolved than ours, can be accepted without this interfering in the discussion the faith of creation, the incarnation, the redemption.”
This guy is actually the odd duck out considering he’s still alive and kicking; nice going, Funes. However we’d be remiss not to mention him, considering the Argentinian is not only an ordained Jesuit priest, but the actual current director of the Vatican Observatory, an educational institution dedicated to astronomical research sponsored by the Holy See itself.
He holds not only a Master’s Degree in astronomy but also a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy AND a Bachelor’s in theology, all from different universities. He joined the Observatory in 2000 and 6 years later was running the place. Nice resume.
On the subject of Science vs. Religion, he once stated in an interview that one of the biggest issues in its relationship was ignorance on both sides. He recommended scientists read up on the Bible to try and understand the truths of his faith, and theologians to stay up-to-date with current scientific discoveries, as to be able to effectively address the subject. In such a sense, he’s defined the Observatory as a “small bridge” between the worlds of science and the Church.
Keep on rocking, Funes!
9. Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867)
“Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”
The son of a blacksmith, Faraday became an apprentice bookbinder and seized the chance to teach himself using those same books. He entered the world of science at the age of 22 as an assistant in the laboratory of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He achieved this through the glowing recommendation of Sir Humphry Davy, a chemist who was impressed by the notes Faraday took during some of his lectures. He remained at the institute for 54 years and, while he wasn’t busy doing world-changing research, he found the time to remain active in his church, where he was an elder for over 20 years, leading the worshippers and preaching sermons that we’ll presume were highlighted by arcs of lighting.
His earlier research was into chemistry guided by his mentor, but his discoveries in the electrical area soon eclipsed it. By 1821, several scientists had tried and failed to construct an electric motor, an endeavor which Faraday naturally crushed when he went on to built two devices that produced electromagnetic rotation. Afterwards Faraday went on discover the principle of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. He’s largely the reason why electricity became viable, which scores a solid “Not A Small Deal” on the scale of scientific impact.
8. Nicholas Copernicus (1473 – 1543)
“I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God.”
Copernicus was the polish mathematician and astronomer who challenged the then current Geocentric model. His book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” placed the Sun at the center of the Universe instead of the Earth; he finished the aforementioned book shortly before his death at age 70, and it’s said he woke shortly from his coma, took a look at an advance copy which had arrived not long before, and then laid down to rest for the final time.
He most likely avoided persecution from his book by the Church due to his death. But during life he not only was a devout believer who made constant references to God within his works, but also became a canon in the Catholic Church in 1497. It remains uncertain, however, whether he was ever ordained as a priest or simply took minor orders.
7. Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884)
Mendel’s religious life was not as separate as the other scientists we’ve named in this list. He began his research into genetics during his time as a regular monk within the gardens of his monastery, and was later elected Abbot at 46 years old.
He worked as a gardener from an early age, and began his monastic life under the wings of his physics teacher, Friedrich Franz while attending the University of Olomouc. Soon afterwards, his experiments led him to his conclusions about heredity; the sum of his experiments are referred to as Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. Sadly, he mostly abandoned his scientific pursuits after he became Abbot due to the increase in his responsibilities. In addition, his successor burnt all his papers after Mendel’s death, due to taxation disputes involving the monastery. The world didn’t acknowledge the importance of his work as the father of genetics until the arrival of the 20th century.
6. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
Perhaps the most baffling entry in this list and unarguably the owner of the best name, Bacon is credited as the creator of the empirical scientific method. He also saw the clear method of scientific inquiry as a pathway to “restore mankind to Grace.” He regularly asserted that science was simply another aspect of religious belief and that discovery was an act of piety; as such, he never garnered the anger of the Anglican Church and actually enjoyed their favor. Smart move, Bacon.
5. Ferdinand Verbiest (1623 – 1688)
“It has pleased us especially, to learn from your letter with what wisdom and seasonableness you have made use of the profane sciences for … the advancement and benefit of the Christian faith: employing them to repel the false accusations and calumnies which have been heaped upon the Christian name …to restore to religion not only its former liberty and splendor, but to inspire it with the hope of daily progress … ” – Letter from the Pope to Verbiest.
Verbiest, a Flemish missionary envoy for China, spent many years in prison after losing a public astronomy competition, until his release after an earthquake destroyed part of it, around the same time the Imperial Palace caught fire and a meteor passed over the sky (you can’t make stuff like this up.) Having received the celestial message, Chinese authorities swiftly released all their prisoners until a trial was convened, and Verbiest was one of the few who wasn’t exiled.
When he wasn’t busy being imprisoned, he wrote around 30 books on subjects ranging from astronomical instruments to faith; once he was appointed the Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory by the Emperor, he frequently tutored geometry, philosophy and music. He’s most famous for allegedly constructing what is believed to be the first ever self-propelled vehicle.
4. Ányos Jedlik (1800 – 1895)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that electric cars are a rather recent invention, but the truth is that the concept is almost as old as the first vehicles themselves. The first electric motor was built in 1827 by Jedlik – by then an engineer and physicist – who referred to it as a “lighting-magnetic-self-rotor”.
Jedlik became a Benedictine monk at 17 and remained in the order for the rest of his life, doing lectures at several schools. Although his electric motor was revolutionary, it wasn’t until many decades later that he premiered the dynamo, by mentioning it in passing while writing an inventory of the university. That document serves as proof that he was actually the inventor although, historically, credit has been shared by Siemens and Wheatstone. Business as usual in science.
3. Athanasius Kircher (1601 or 1602 – 1680)
“Nothing is more beautiful than to know all.”
The baby amongst 9 children, Kircher was a German Jesuit scholar often referred to as the “last Renaissance man” and brilliant enough to be compared with Da Vinci. His intellectual arrogance was without limits; during his time, there was seldom a field he didn’t cover in one of the 158 texts of his published works, which were distributed over 44 volumes.
Not content with being a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, geologist, physicist, chemist, and historian, he also did research on optics, magnetism, Egyptology, was an adept musician, and was fluent in 11 languages. Since he decided being awesome at everything wasn’t enough, he also cultivated fame for indestructibility, surviving everything from storms at sea, plagues, gangrene and volcanic eruptions, most of which he did while traipsing around in his Jesuit garb, which we’re confident saying wasn’t built for adventuring.
One of his obsessions was attempting to unite science and theology he joined the Society of Jesus because he believed that would be the choice most conductive to developing his intellect, due to their vast network of information exchange.
2. Francesco Lana de Terzi (1631 – 1687)
Terzi was another suicidal Jesuit who made the first serious attempt to build a flying vehicle “lighter than air,” even if the concepts on which he based his model were mistaken. In his own words, he intended to “fabricate a ship that walks upon the air on oars and sails.” Regretfully, or perhaps best for his physical health, the technology to manufacture the required parts wasn’t available back then. Other parts were simply physically impossible and, as such, he couldn’t test his vehicle. For his efforts however, he garnered the title of “Father of Aeronautics.”
1. André Tacquet (1612 – 1660)
Talk about far-reaching research. Born in Antwerp, Tacquet was described as “a gifted but somewhat delicate child.” Tacquet studied mathematics, physics, and logic under such renowned teachers as Gregory St. Vincent, after entering the order at 17. He studied Theology at Louvain and was later ordained in 1646, remaining dedicated to both his Order and church during the entirety of his life.
His works were translated into several languages, and his discoveries introduced several of the preliminary concepts necessary for Leibniz and Newton to perfect the system of calculus. Yes, Tacquet is partially responsible for the suffering of non-mathematically minded high-schoolers everywhere, but there’s still no denying the transcendental nature of his work.