Mencken vs. Millikan: Why the Phrase Religious Scientist isn’t Always an Oxymoron

The mystery quote in yesterday’s post was from the incomparable writer H.L. Mencken. Below is the complete quote, which is part of a series being posted on the blog Why Evolution is True. In this particular passage, Mencken refers to Robert Millikan, a famous physicist who constructed a clever experiment to measure the charge of the electron for the first time.

Millikan was also a devout Christian and apparently too much of a church lady for the taste of H.L. Menken, who argued that the pious can’t be real scientists. Mencken used the dismissive term “technicians” to describe religious scientists.  

Here’s Mencken:

The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mothers’ milk. The theologians, with no such dualism addling their wits, are smart enough to see that the two things are implacably and eternally antagonistic, and that any attempt to thrust them into one bag is bound to result in one swallowing the other. The scientists who undertake this miscegenation always end by succumbing to religion; after a Millikan* has been discoursing five minutes it becomes apparent that he is speaking in the character of a Christian Sunday-school scholar, not of a scientist. The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea, however fundamental it may seem to be, for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is

always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the Thirteenth Century, but this yielding is always done grudgingly, and thus lingers a good while behind the event. So far as I am aware even the most liberal theologian of today still gags at scientific concepts that were already commonplaces in my schooldays.

Thus such a thing as a truly enlightened Christian is hard to imagine. Either he is enlightened or he is Christian, and the louder he protests that he is the former the more apparent it becomes that he is really the latter. A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation. It is, to be sure, possible to imagine any of these dogmas being true, but only at the cost of heaving all science overboard as rubbish. The priest’s reasons for believing in them is not only not scientific; it is violently anti-scientific. Here he is exactly on all fours with a believer in fortune-telling, Christian Science or chiropractic.

I came across a very different perspective on religious scientists in the fascinating book “Free Radicals” by physicist/science writer Michael Brooks.  The subtitle of the book is “The Secret Anarchy of Science”. Science is marketed as a cool, rational process, but in reality, Brooks writes, scientists often act irrationally and sometimes triumph despite being addled by egomania, strange beliefs or psychedelic drugs.

Charles Darwin is conspicuously absent from this book, but there are a number of pages devoted to Robert Millikan: “The series of experiments the desperate Millikan then performed were to cast a lasting shadow over his scientific integrity,” wrote Brooks in a passage describing an ongoing controversy over Millikan’s alleged fudging of data. Millikan’s detractors say he believed he was right and he saw only the data he wanted to see.

Free Radicals reminds readers that scientific advances sometimes require creativity and vision. And because science is a collaborative effort, irrational people can sometimes make creative leaps even if they can’t see the big picture. Their ideas may fail to conform to experiment and be relegated to the dumpster of history, but sometimes, despite all kinds of irregular practices, they turn out to be right.