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Reflections on my career


Science and religion
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I happen to be a moderately religious person; not... I mean I'm not in any sense a theologian or somebody who really knows a lot about religion, but I... I go to church and I have a feeling that it's a great thing that churches and synagogues and mosques exist in the world. They are communities of the kind that make people better on the whole, and certainly in Princeton we have about 25 churches and they're full every Sunday, in addition to a couple of synagogues and I don't know if there's a mosque on the highway not far away. In any case, this is an important part of our lives and I'm very happy to be a part of it. My grandsons goes to the little Sunday school at the church where we go and so they're learning Bible stories and I think it's good that people learn these stories when they're young so they have some feeling for the culture even if they don't believe the religion. That the... Christianity is very much a part of our culture and at least they should know what the Bible is about. So I'm happy to belong to that, and the church also plays an important social role in this community. It's about the only institution that really ties the community together and takes care of aged and sick and poor people, so I'm all in favour of religion as an institution. And at the same time, I find it doesn't make any conflict with my science; that religion to me is really not about belief, it's about belonging, it's about a way of life, and so I don't find the slightest difficulty in being a religious person in this sense and being a scientist. And so that's... maybe a slightly unusual combination. I mean, most of my friends either tend to be total agnostics who have no interest in religion at all, or else are... worried about conflicts between science and religion. The more religious people that I know mostly have difficulties in harmonising science and religion. So I'm... I find my situation is rather unusual, so I like to explain this. I suppose that's the main reason that I go to meetings, to try to point out to people that you can be both; that the conflicts are in a way very artificial and they... conflicts only arise if you have... if you try to make religion into a science or if you try to make science into a religion, both of which are very un... unsatisfying. Both mistakes, of course, are frequently made. The fundamentalists try to make religion into a science, and the... a lot of the more extreme what you might call science worshippers, in which I include Einstein; Einstein was one of the worst of those, that he made science into a religion and he said quite explicitly that for him science was a religion, there was something sacred about it, and that I think is a cause of a great deal of difficulty, and caused him to take a very narrow view of science.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Princeton University, Albert Einstein

Duration: 3 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008