Chemistry and religion both give structure and order to the universe, helping people to understand the constitution of the natural world; how, why and what results when we interact; and providing a sense of certainty and inevitability for those who trust in the principles.
• Chemical Engineering
Religious and philosophical beliefs (Christianity in Europe; Islam in the Middle East, Africa and Spain; and Confucianism in China) early on gave their followers a belief in an ordered state of the universe and sense of comprehensibility about the world. Christianity and Islam drew on classical Greek philosophies of an “ordered world.” Confucianism described an intrinsically harmonious world, with a balance between two elements of opposite qualities, yin and yang. Confucians believed the universe is made up of five elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood, which transform into each other, making the universe dynamic.
Such beliefs led to the practice of alchemy, first in China and then in the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East. Alchemists viewed their materials as expressions of the fundamental principles that ordered the world. They hoped that by manipulating those principles, they could create new substances, turn base metals into gold or distill an “elixir of life.” Alchemists developed techniques such as sublimation and distillation, as well as equipment to perform techniques and advance knowledge of the chemicals they used. Their experimentation was based on belief in the universe’s divine order.
Early Muslim scientists’ exploration of the elements led to understanding of the constitution of matter. A number of terms used in chemistry, such as alcohol, alembic, alkali and elixir, are of Islamic origin. “Alchemy,” as well as its derivative, “chemistry,” come from the Arabic word “al-Kimiya’.” Some scholars link the introduction of the “scientific method” to early Muslim chemist Jabir ibn-Hayyan.
The work of early Christian chemists such as Roger Bacon and Robert Boyle has also informed modern science. Bacon believed Christianity and experimentation went hand in hand because God created everything and imbued it with his order and harmony. Boyle saw the world as a marvelous creation of God, and also believed in objective observation in research. While experimenting with air, Boyle began promoting his atomic theory, the foundation for modern understanding of matter. He formulated what is now known as Boyle’s Law, that the volume of a quantity of gas varies inversely with the pressure when the temperature is constant. In 1661, he overturned Aristotle’s concept of the four elements (everything is composed of earth, air, fire and water), replacing it with the modern idea of an element as a substance that cannot be separated into simpler components by chemical methods. He believed that the study and dominion of nature is a duty given to man by God — based on the scriptural mandate in Gen. 1:28: to “rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth” – and that the universe works in accordance with the laws of nature, established by God for its order and control.
By the late 19th century, scientists pondering faith and new theories about the natural world such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, found evidence both of God’s plan in the elements and chemistry, and support for their faith in the sciences. Writing in “Religion and Chemistry” in 1880, Josiah Parsons Cooke, founder of the Harvard Chemistry Department, based his belief in proof of God’s plan on the premises that “everything which begins to exist must have a cause;” “that a combination of means conspiring to a particular end implies intelligence;” “that design may be traced from its effects;” and “that there are evidences of design in the universe.” Cooke believed in both the scriptural truth of Gen 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” as well as that there is “evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone.” He also marveled at the attributes of the atmosphere, whose properties seemed uniquely to serve “the welfare and happiness of mankind.” He believed that the evidences of God in nature, including the human soul, “are the only proof we have or can have of his existence.”
Chemist and author Primo Levi tackled chemistry, faith and human nature in several of his writings, most notably, “The Periodic Table,” published in 1975, in which he used Russian chemist Dmitriy Mendeleyev’s periodic table of elements as the basis of autobiographical meditations, including on his experience as a Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz during World War II. The books’ 21 pieces are each named after a chemical element, through which Levi assessed his life experience. “The properties of elements often reflect the properties of life itself — volatile, inert, lustrous, precious, poisonous, brittle …,” he wrote. “Argon” is an homage to the author’s Jewish ancestors. “Vanadium” represents Levi’s encounter with a former official in Auschwitz, who was the chief of the laboratory. “Zinc,” a “boring” metal, explores the fascist myth of racial purity.
Levi was not religiously observant, but Fascist race laws and the Nazi camps made him identify with his Judaism. Chemistry was of genuine spiritual importance to him. In “Hydrogen,” Levi wrote, “For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world… I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: ‘I will understand this, too, I will understand everything.’”
Debate will continue over the role of religious origin of life and the universe and how it ought to be taught. Polls show most Americans believe God was involved in the creation of Earth and the universe, and that they are dismayed that biblical perspectives on creation are not taught at many public schools. Researchers can understand the perspectives of religious believers, the role religious and philosophical thought has played in development of the science, and the perspectives of researchers who come from a religious perspective. Chemists also can be aware of ethical concerns in their field, such as the integrity of the research process; the environmental consequences of their work; and the health and welfare of co-workers, consumers and the community, to advance science while also protecting the environment and human life.