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Michael Faraday: Christian and Scientist

Michael Faraday: Christian and Scientist


Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was an English scientist (in the terminology of the time he was called a natural philosopher) who made critical contributions to the electromagnetism and electrochemistry fields. Judged as one of the leading experimentalists in science ever, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. Called the father of the electronics revolution, he also did critical work in chemistry (Ludwig, C. 1978. Michael Faraday: Father of Electronics. Herald Press).

Faraday’s scientific discoveries are legion and have fundamentally changed science and industry. He discovered the basic concepts that led to the electrical revolution including electromagnetic induction and electrostatics. Faraday also invented a crude electrical motor and an electrical generator ( Epstein, S. and B.1971. Michael Faraday: Apprentice to Science. Garrard Publishing Company p. 96). From his work in this area the modern electric motor was invented. Two of his more important inventions are a process of producing liquid chlorine and a process for isolating benzene from gas oils. To achieve these feats Faraday had to develop new isolation techniques that are still used by modern chemists.

Faraday also demonstrated the use of platinum catalysts that led to the whole field of modern catalytic chemistry. Faraday even coined the terms anode, cathode, cation, anion, electrode, and electrolyte, all foundational to chemistry. His work also laid the foundation of the whole electroplating industry (Epstein, 1971, p. 125).

In 1845 Faraday discovered that many materials exhibit a weak repulsion to a magnetic field, a phenomenon he named diamagnetism. Faraday also discovered the Faraday effect, the process in which the plane of polarization of linearly polarized light can be rotated by the application of an external magnetic field aligned in the direction the light is moving. In 1862 Faraday used a spectroscope to detect the change of spectral lines by an applied magnetic field (Hirshfeld, A. 2006. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. Walker & Company). The equipment available to him was insufficient to obtain a definite determination of a spectral change, but Pieter Zeeman continued Faraday’s work using an improved apparatus. Zeeman received the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics for his success, and in both his 1897 paper and his Nobel acceptance speech, Zeeman acknowledged Faraday’s work.

Faraday stressed that the scientific method demanded intellectual honesty. He worked to require scientists to submit their results for the critical appraisal of their colleagues to winnow out the personal or ‘observer-effects’ from objective, natural phenomena. Today this process is called peer review. He argued that scientists must always keep in mind that humanity makes all people, including scientists, to be active promoters of error due to our preconceptions.  Faraday maintained that scientists need to understand that objectivity requires observers to be aware of the effects of emotions and desires on their observations and conclusions, lest they see the world more by the projections of their own hopes and fears than by reality.

Faraday was a member of a small conservative Christian church that separated from the Church of Scotland. Its members believed the truth of the Bible must be understood to mean as literal a reading of the text as possible. His church had no established clergy, and members were a fellowship that stressed the Bible was central to their beliefs and life conduct. Thus Bible study was central to their teaching. Faraday’s Christianity also required that he express his faith in both the smallest details of everyday life as well as the greatest. Faraday historian Colin Russell wrote that Faraday

was greatly sustained throughout his life by his happy marriage to Sarah, as well as his weekly visits to … church. One friend of his, John Tyndall, attributed Faraday’s apparently boundless energy and strength during the week to “his Sunday exercises,” adding that “he drinks from a fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for the week” (Russell. C. 2000. Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith. Oxford University Press. p. 45).

Faraday was committed to a God-given universe whose laws demonstrated both economy and elegance, and the construction of the atom is an excellent example of both this economy and elegance (Russell, 2000, p. 48). Our modern understanding of the atom’s construction that allows the chemical elements to exist eloquently supports Faraday’s view of a created universe.

In the late 1960s, a private memorandum written by Faraday was discovered in a library. This document clarified his ideas on atoms:

Unlike his published papers, it contains several references to God, one of which wondered whether God could not as easily put “power” round point centers as he could about material nuclei. His belief in an all-powerful God led him to the idea of point centers, and thus of fields around them. Professor Trevor Levere of Toronto, who discovered this document, remarked that these new ideas “fitted in with the world picture imposed by his religion.” Thereafter, as one writer put it, “Faraday was, quite literally, at play in the fields of the Lord” (Russell, 2000, p. 100).

His religious beliefs were a critical factor in his enormous success in science. Faraday accepted the conclusion that the book of nature was written by God in a language that could be understood by all intelligent adults. Faraday maintained that, like the Bible, the book of nature is open to anyone who wanted to read it. Russell wrote that when a bookbinder as a youth, Faraday was “surrounded by books all day at his work,” and it was at this time that he “began to long for knowledge and for an encounter with truth about nature, just as his … faith assured him” science allowed him to access the truth about God. He believed that Christianity and science were

twin partners in an enterprise that had been recommended long ago by philosopher Francis Bacon, who wrote of the two “books” of Scripture and nature. Many years later Faraday himself spoke of “the book of nature” that was “written by the finger of God” (Russell, 2000, p. 26).

Faraday studied nature as diligently as he studied the Bible, and a major reason he studied nature was to learn about nature’s creator. Russell concluded that, although

Faraday was in a class of his own where science was concerned—a giant among pygmies—he was typical of many gifted scientists in his synthesis of science and Christianity, in his strong confidence in the authority of Scripture, and in his simple faith in Christ. For them, and for him, the task of scientific exploration was not only exciting and satisfying. In a very real sense it was a Christian vocation. Nothing less than this can enable us to understand the life and achievements of Michael Faraday (2000, p. 117).

Even though Darwin published his work on evolution near the end of Faraday’s life, several very good reasons exist to conclude that Faraday rejected Darwinism. In 1859 :

Darwin published his book The Origin of Species, which many have seen as undermining such a confident faith. The remarkable thing is that Faraday says nothing about evolution that implies any kind of unresolvable problem. Though by now his physical condition was deteriorating, he could think clearly for much of his time and express himself eloquently where that was necessary. His silence on Darwin’s work is highly significant. Like many physical scientists, he may have dismissed evolution as “only a theory.” More probably his faith was so strong that nothing, even in science, could shake it (Russell, 2000, p. 115).

Actually, Faraday said much about his religious beliefs, and Darwinism was directly contrary to his core beliefs, a fact that Faraday was no doubt keenly aware of. As one who interpreted the Bible as literally as possible, many students of science conclude that Faraday could not accept Darwinism. The teachings of his small fundamentalist church included a strong

emphasis on God’s creation as purposeful and harmonious, designed for man’s well-being. He had an abiding faith in the Bible and in prayer. Unlike Newton, however, he made little attempt to “harmonize” his science with his Biblical faith, supremely confident that the two were both based on divine truth and were necessarily in agreement. … He fully believed in the official doctrine of his church, which said: “The Bible, and it alone, with nothing added to it nor taken away from it by man, is the sole and sufficient guide for each individual, at all times and in all circumstances (Morris, Henry. 1988. Men of Science Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible. Master Books. p. 37).

Hirshfeld concluded that Faraday’s scientific “investigations were more than a joyous commune with nature; they were a sincere attempt to discern God’s invisible qualities through [understanding] the very design of the world” (2006, pp. 5-6). In pursuing his research, his “greatest desire was to stay in harmony with the Creator” by learning more about his creation (Ludwig, 1978, p. 192).

Among his many honors was membership in the Royal Society of London, making him “Michael Faraday, FRS.” He was also elected to the Paris Academy of Science and many other important scientific organizations (Epstein, 1971, pp. 105, 122). His awards include the Rumford and the Royal Medals. Some of the many books he published are so well researched that they are still in print today (Faraday, 1960; 2008; 2010a; 2010b). Most all his writings were excellent, well-illustrated, and well-written scientific works that are still very useful today.

Faraday was thus one of many scientists who explored science motivated by his belief that God’s wisdom could be found by exploring God’s creation. His exploration resulted in a scientific revolution that changed our world.

Jerry Bergman
February 2011

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