Religion and Chemistry

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So when I left for Cambridge University to study chemistry, the history and philosophy of science had already been imprinted upon me. During my second year in Cambridge I began to have some doubts about whether I wanted to spend my career as a research chemist. But the problem was that I was rather good at chemistry, so was put under quite a lot of pressure to pursue a straightforward chemical career. It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed history and philosophy of science.

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There was this wonderful system in Cambridge in the early s, you could get an honours qualification in chemistry in two years. So I studied history and philosophy of science in my third year as an undergraduate and then went on to do a doctorate in the history of chemistry. Sir Isaac Newton might be surprised by the present day antagonism between science and religion. What we call natural science today was called natural philosophy then.

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It comes as a surprise in our modern secular culture that there was so much theological reflection and presentation of scientific ideas using religious language. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, said it is part of the business of natural philosophy to discuss God and his relationship to the world. So there was no separation. I began to realise that if one were to be faced with the context in which modern science was forged, one simply had to take religion into account. I certainly know scientists who are committed Christians and who in certain contexts would be happy to say so.

Your Brain on God: How Faith Affects Your Brain Chemistry

But they would also say that within the culture of science it would be considered rather weird to admit that they had those interests. Interestingly, scientists who would decline to discuss religion among their peers for fear of seeming rather weird, when they address the wider public are quite happy to go on the offensive and talk about these things. JB: Not really. A classic example is: why does anything exist at all? It seems a pretty deep mystery to most people. Another example is science and ethical values.

Science itself raises so many unprecedented ethical problems, particularly in the biotechnology sphere. The question then arises: where do we get the ethical values from? I think religious people often like to believe there are particular insights from their religious tradition. JB: That perspective has probably only become significant in the last 20 or 30 years.

What we now seem to be more confident about is that there are aspects of human nature which religious beliefs and belonging to a religious community or society can actually meet. And in some ways, it is hard to see how science can meet them, particularly for the man in the street. But even as a scientist you have deep existential concerns: Is my theory going to be accepted, is this experiment going to work?

I cannot believe that that is typical, but it is a very interesting example of how religious and existential concerns can at least in theory influence the practice of science. KS: And can it work the other way around? Can science and technology have an influence on the practice of religion? JB: When I visited Jerusalem for the first time, my wife and I were allocated in the hotel to a room that was immediately adjacent to the elevator so we were very conscious of whenever the lift went up and down.

But during the Sabbath, the elevator automatically stopped at every floor, irrespective of whether there was anybody in it. The elevator had been pre-programmed in such a way that no physical work was being done in order to go up and down, or simply to get back to your room. What struck me about that was that you could read it as obeying the terms of the law but not the spirit of the law because you were using this clever technology to evade what the commandments might say.

But more significantly, technology was not destroying religious culture, it was actually helping to maintain it. Artificial insulin is an example of a technology, rather than a belief or theory, that is life-changing. Robert Boyle is one of the leading advocates in the second half of the 17th century for a natural theology, because he thinks the study of organic systems simply produces the incontrovertible evidence of a designing and wise God.


Boyle believes there are many features of the world which are beyond human understanding. That includes a belief in an afterlife — not something that we can talk about scientifically. Most interestingly, Boyle is interested in stories about spirits, not just matter. A hundred years later, Joseph Priestley wanted to rid both chemistry and religion of spirits.

For him, we should just talk about one thing. At the time it was a fairly radical position. Priestley is a good example of a late 18th century thinker looking to rationalise chemistry and to rationalise religion. KS: Does this mark a time when scientific discoveries raised questions that seemed to contradict religious beliefs? JB: There are certain issues which recur when people try to articulate why they no longer have a strong faith. One of the recurring issues is the problem of suffering, which affects everybody in one way or another.

So he like any human being is exposed to suffering. But the key thing is that his theory of evolution by natural selection, which stresses competition and the struggle for existence, puts a spotlight on the problem. Those in theological circles did actually exploit that idea and Darwin even suggested it himself at one point.

His theory puts the spotlight on suffering, the problem which makes it most difficult to believe in a beneficent god. But then the theory almost gives you a way of justifying it. KS: This contradicts the view of a battle between science and religion or spirituality.


Charles Darwin worried about human suffering, but others saw the suffering implicit in natural selection as legitimisin. JB: I certainly could not describe myself in any way as an orthodox practising Christian. How I behave does depend to some degree on context. That feeling of acute discomfort in myself, sometimes even anger, I think is a sign that deep down I have not shed all that I once held to be important.

So I hope that in such time that I have left, I will continue at least to remain true to that aspect of the tradition.

Facebook teams up with fact checkers to tackle its science misinformation problem — but is it working? An eye-opening visit to a waste water treatment works uncovers the surprising value in sewage. Death is too horrible to bear. In self-defense, man created God, together with the comforting thought of an afterlife and religious stories that explained life and the surrounding world. These comforting myths release serotonin in the brain, a chemical that is a natural stress-reliever. Thus, the brain creates God and religion, and then feeds on its creation to offer us comfort.

Such a stark realization, of course, should send us back to a primitive state of severe anxiety. The question remains, nonetheless, concerning the truth of their revolutionary claims. And is a chemical of a different kind needed in order to criticize Tiger and McGuire?

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When we look at certain individuals who converted from atheism to theism, it does not seem that their journey was serotonin-induced. In fact, their journeys often required considerable struggle and moved from a state of comfort to one of discomfort. Let us consider C. My name was legion. Nor was Lewis lured into religion by the promise of an afterlife. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous. It is their feel-good religion. It did not bring them any joy, because it was not founded on any truth.