Richard Feynman wrote of an interaction with his father that would form the foundation of his theological beliefs. The quote in full is below:
“Now, look at those humans. Here’s one human standing here, and all these others are bowing in front of him. Now, what’s the difference? This one is the pope” — he hated the pope anyway. He said, “This difference is the hat he’s wearing.”
Did he say it? Yes. This line appears in a chapter of his own book, What do you care what other people think? The name of the book was what his wife would write on his pencils to remind him to forget about social norms.
Though the book was published in 2011, he made the quote to his friend, Ralph Leighton, who later took all of his anecdotes and stories and turned it into a book.
He Said It. So What’s the Story?
In his legendary 1985 book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Feynman states that it was well known in his hometown that, by the age of 12, he was already a devout and committed atheist. However, as Jewish men are not bar mitzvah‘d until the age of 13, he was still required to attend Sunday school at his local temple.
The class, Feynman said, consisted of the Rabbi or teacher coming in and him immediately being difficult and objecting to the theological claims of the teacher. Even though Feynman was but a child at the time of the quote, the line underscores the tension that underscores the debate between religion and science.
Stephen J. Gould, for example, famously believed that the two were, in his words, nonoverlapping magisteria. In fact many great contemporary scientists, Francis Collins comes to mind, are deeply devoted and committed believers.
Atheists such as Sam Harris, argue that “beliefs influence other beliefs” and that therefore scientists who profess religious affiliation should be removed from positions of influence within the science community. A position he stuck to in his controversial op-ed for the NY times where he objected to the appointment of Francis Collins to the head of the NIH on these very same grounds. Harris, for his part, would stick to his guns in a separate blog post titled THE STRANGE CASE OF FRANCIS COLLINS which he posted on his website on August 6, 2009, after hearing pushback from the op-ed.
Be that as it may, we don’t expect this tension to be going away anytime soon.