Chapter 1: Introduction: The Vocation of The Scientist

Christianity and the Scientist
by Ian Barbour

Chapter 1: Introduction: The Vocation of The Scientist

Among the members of the Royal Society of London in the seventeenth century were many of the founding fathers of modem science. The charter of the Society directs its members to pursue their work “to the glory of God the Creator and the advantage of the human race.” Can the scientist today share such motives in his work? Of contemporary scientists, 70 per cent believe in the existence of God and 40 per cent are church members.1 Do such beliefs have any relation to scientific work?

There are of course no specifically Christian laws of science. Religious faith has nothing to say about the valence of oxygen or the mass of the electron. The boiling point of sulfur does not depend on the investigator’s philosophy of life. But there are a number of aspects of the vocation of the scientist to which religious perspectives are relevant. Being a Christian geologist does not mean finding oil on church property. It means serving God and man in the daily work of geology. Our task is to analyze what this implies in terms of the practical problems of the job.

Many books have been written about science and religion in general, dealing with ideas and issues in the abstract. This volume, however, looks at persons and their existential lives. It is concerned with the scientist himself, the man with two areas of loyalty: dedication to science and commitment to God. How do these two loyalties interact? At what points does he confront ethical choices in his job? What are his motives in his work?

To picture the man under consideration we may describe him by his subject, his habitat, and his goal:

His subject: natural science. This inquiry is limited to work in the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy) and the biological sciences (zoology, botany, agriculture). Medicine, engineering, and the social sciences each raise distinctive issues which are not discussed here. But within each of the natural sciences is a variety of workers: the technician carrying out routine operations, the teacher training a new generation, the research expert making new discoveries or developing industrial applications.

His habitat: industry, government, or education. In industry the scientist finds higher salaries, the satisfaction of seeing practical results, and sometimes better research facilities. In education he finds salaries lower but usually enjoys greater independence; he has more contact with people, and often a chance to combine teaching and research. Government projects are intermediate between industrial and educational jobs in both salary and freedom.

His goal: pure or applied science. Fundamental research, sometimes called pure science, aims at understanding the natural world; it issues in the basic concepts and principles of science. In contrast, applied science is concerned with technological applications which are useful in man’s life. It yields new processes, new materials, devices, and machines, primarily under the sponsorship of industry. But there is no sharp line between pure and applied work, and each is dependent on the other.

People choose careers and continue to work in science for many reasons. Often such decisions are less a matter of deliberate choice than of chance and circumstance. A person may have been influenced by family expectations, or the inspiration of a gifted teacher, or a specific job opening. Moreover, scientists seldom talk about their motives; they are likely to insist that the place in which they work is a LABORatory, not a labORATORY. But whether men talk about them or not, they do have a variety of motivations. For some, income or prestige is a major goal. For scientists, work is seldom, however, simply a means to earn a living. Undoubtedly the desire for recognition, particularly the respect of fellow scientists, is an important stimulus. The symbols of success and some of the temptations of the job will be examined later.

A central motive in any job is the expression of one’s interests and abilities. Most scientists find great enjoyment in their work, whether it is the excitement of a new discovery, the satisfaction of developing an “elegant” theory, building a useful piece of apparatus, or watching a student really grasp the solution to a problem. In such activities there is opportunity for creative self-expression and continued growth. A person is likely to be happier himself and to make his greatest contribution to society if he works in a job which utilizes his natural aptitudes rather than in one for which he has little interest or ability.

The biblical understanding of vocation encourages a person to serve God in whatever useful work he can do best. “Calling” or “vocation” means primarily the call to acknowledge a relationship to God, and to live in responsible obedience to him wherever one is. Hence it also means a call to a particular task, and response to God in one’s daily work. The Reformers denied any sharp division between “sacred” and “secular,” and rejected the idea that the work of the clergyman is inherently superior to other callings. They emphasized the significance of the layman and the meaningfulness and dignity of labor. A leveling of occupations is reflected in Luther’s writing: “Even a small work, even a maid cooking and cleaning, must be praised as a service to God far surpassing the holiness and asceticisms of all monks.” Contemporary Protestantism has seen a rebirth of this concern for the role of the layman and the relation of work and faith. Many authors 2 have written of the compartmentalization of life today and the danger when religion is confined within the four walls of the church. Man’s response to God takes place within a wider community and is expressed in the life of the world.

There are many ways in which one might try to formulate the various elements in the calling of every man. We will describe it in terms of four aspects: the vocation to serve human need, to seek truth, to work for a better society, and to worship God. These responses are interrelated — for example, the pursuit of truth may be a form of both service to man and appreciation of God’s creation. In prophetic religion, concern for the need of the neighbor and concern for justice in the social order are seen as precisely the kind of worship most acceptable to God. Though these aspects of a man’s calling are interrelated, we shall consider each in turn as it is expressed in the work of the scientist.

The following chapter is an analysis of the vocation to serve human need in relation to applied science. Science has improved health, raised standards of living, and alleviated suffering. If love of neighbor is not a sentimental attitude but actual response to human needs, science can obviously be a potent instrument of good will. But technology has had destructive as well as constructive consequences. To what extent is a scientist responsible for the uses to which his inventions are put?

In Chapter 3 the vocation to seek truth is considered, primarily in terms of fundamental research. Most scientists are driven by intellectual curiosity and the desire to know, as much as by interest in practical applications. A recent survey found “intellectual satisfactions” rated by scientists as the most important source of satisfaction in their work, with “the social value of their work” rated a strong second.3 What are the strengths and limitations of the pursuit of knowledge, and its relation to religious perspectives?

In Chapter 4 the specific case of the science teacher, with some of his opportunities and problems, is examined. Chapter 5 concerns the unique ways in which the scientist, both as citizen and as specialist, can express the vocation to work for a better society. The final chapter deals with his vocation to worship God, and the impact of technical work on his personal life and religious beliefs.

Other occupations also provide channels for serving human need, seeking truth, working for a better society, and worshiping God. There is urgent need for dedicated and able psychologists, statesmen, and ministers, for example. Men in various jobs can work side by side, each understanding his activity as a particular expression of the same fourfold calling, and each dedicated to making some contribution to their common goal. Our concern here, however, is with the person who does have abilities and interest in science, and these are presupposed in all that follows; for without them a person would neither survive the competition of university training nor contribute significantly through scientific work.

The initial duty in applied science, research, or teaching is to do the job well: to design an airplane wing that will hold under stress, to find a valid equation for chemical equilibrium, or to help students gain sound understanding of metabolism. There are no Christian laws of science, and there are of course many outstanding scientists who have no interest in religion. So we must ask: What are the particular motives of the Christian in each aspect of scientific work? At what points might his religious faith make a difference? What problems arise because of his loyalty both to the scientific enterprise and to God?


1. “The Scientists,” Fortune, October, 1948, p. 106.

2. R. L. Calhoun, God and the Day’s Work (Association Press, 1957); J. O. Nelson, ed.,. Work and Vocation (Harper, 1954).

3. Science and Public Policy (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), Vol. 3, App. 3.