Every so often a religious conservative will pull out a list of all the famous scientists who believed in god. Sir Isaac Newton is one of their favorites. Newton is perhaps the smartest man to ever have lived, yet he believed in god. The religious person will take this “evidence” and go “A HA! Look! Even famous and brilliant scientists believe in god, therefore my religious faith is justified and true!”
There are, however, several things wrong with this assumption. A keen observer will quickly notice that many of the religious scientists the modern day religious zealots will try to claim lived and died a long time ago. Newton got as far as was possible in his day an age. He developed the theory of gravity. He had no knowledge of the theory of cells, or atomic theory, the theory of evolution, or the theory of relativity. Of course he believed in god, there was nothing else at the time to fill in the gaps that would be filled by later generations of scientists.
You see, the major flaw in the believer who advances this list makes is in the assumption that his definition of god is the same as those scientists he claims are on his side. The definition of god and attitudes toward worship have changed over the years. Centuries ago churches and monasteries used to be centers of scholarly research. Indeed, many of the great early scientists were religious men from this tradition. Unfortunately, over those centuries the prevailing attitude in the church has shifted from one of intellectualism and study to one of anti-intellectualism and the wild emotion. (I say prevailing attitude because this is how popular religion currently acts. There are still religious believer who hold to the older more honorable tradition of scholarship)
In short, the faith of the scientist a religious person is attempting to claim “as one of their own” in no way resembles the modern day religious person’s faith. In fact, I’d go so far to say that the believing scientists of old would be appalled at the willful ignorance of the modern believer attempting to claim them.
But what about modern day scientists? Unlike in times before biology, nuclear physics, molecular biology, psychology, neuroscience, etc, the majority of modern scientists are atheist or at least hold some type of liberal belief system. There are, however, plenty of scientists, some very brilliant, who believe in god. A perfect example is Francis Collins, head scientist in charge of mapping the humane genome. I must point out that these modern religious scientists do not hold the same faith as our hypothetical religious conservative attempting to claim them. In fact, if they did hold that type of fundamentalist faith, they would not be scientists.
You may be quick to jump up and shout “No true Scotsman! No true Scotsman!” but let me explain. In order to be a scientist and to do science you must follow the scientific method. The scientific method requires that conclusions come last, and are only reached on the basis of sound empirical evidence. If the physical evidence does not conclude what we want it to conclude, then we must abandon the conclusion we want for the conclusion that is. This is antithetical to religious faith that starts with the conclusion “god exists and he made everything” and then goes about trying to cherry pick evidence to fit this conclusion. (For this sole fact alone is why religion and science are incompatible, regardless who anyone might wish to dress the two up)
But what about those scientists who are scientists doing real science who yet believe in god like Collins?
One word: Compartmentalization.
People compartmentalize many things, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. It helps deal with cognitive dissonance by separating the conflicting concepts into two separate spheres. Everyone is capable of doing it, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you’re not being intellectually honest. A brilliant scientist might put on his science hat and go to work on Saturday, only to take off that hat and put on the “good christian” hat and go to church on Sunday. This doesn’t change the fact that he is a brilliant scientist, only that he is not applying the same mental vigor to what he believes. People can do this for a number of reasons, though I suspect the most common one is that they are afraid to look behind the curtain for fear of what they might find. Their life as a believer suits them just fine. They have the support and respect of family and friends, and they are comfortable in the community. Not wanting to jeopardize that by examining their faith too closely, like they would examine anything in the lab, they put it in a special mental box and mark it “out of bounds.”