A Path to Atheism, by Paul D. Boyer

Freedom From Religion Foundation Life Member Paul D. Boyer, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1997, wrote this article for Freethought Today. Photo by Brent Nicastro.  

This brief essay records how my views about religion evolved during my first 21 years in a Mormon community in Utah, during graduate study in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, and during many subsequent professional years. At the age of 85 I am fortunate to have enjoyed a fine life on our beautiful earth, enriched with family, friends and colleagues, and to have had a successful career in science studying the chemistry of life processes. My views have changed from a belief that my prayers were heard to clear atheism. Much has been written challenging the validity of religious doctrines, and it would be presumptuous for me to feel that I could match the eloquence and thoughtfulness of earlier doubters. But for me, and perhaps for a few others, it may be of interest to outline the path that led me to my present views. Also, I feel that many do not recognize how the striking additions to knowledge acquired in the past half-century add to the rejection of the religious concepts of God 1 and a Hereafter.

This contribution is in two parts. The first recalls my views about religion during different periods of my life, as related to educational and professional experiences. The second part considers my present views, the impact of religion in our society, the clash between science and religion, and the troublesome lack of acceptance of atheism.

Early home environment. I was fortunate, as a middle child in a family of six children, to have a loving mother and father and a nice home in the attractive Mormon community of Provo, Utah. Youthful activities in a stable neighborhood abounded. The excellent primary and secondary schools gave me an opportunity for academic achievement and associated social activities. The dances in high school, or activities in the Mormon Tuesday night mutual program, helped awaken my appreciation of girls. I was born only 70 years after the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah. It was many years later before I fully appreciated the community that they provided for me.

Our family attended church and other Mormon activities, and at age 12 I became a “Deacon” and passed the Sacrament (Eucharist) in church. But Mormon doctrine was not emphasized in our home. Dad had acquired a series of volumes called The Books of Knowledge,and when I was reading them by our fireplace at night he was more likely to ask what I was finding than if I was still saying my prayers when I went to bed. The death of my mother when I was 14 weakened my belief in prayer.

High school and college. My chemistry and biology classes in high school, and not religious views or doctrines, began to give me an understanding of our earth and of how living things functioned. Most of my fellow classmates did not attend the optional Mormon Seminary classes held in a building nearby the high school but not on city property–a recognition of the separation of church and state. Tolerance of other religions seemed to have approval; there was a Congregational Church on University Avenue. But in Utah, activities of religions other than Mormonism or of non-white ethnic groups were hardly visible.

Brigham Young University, then a small and much more liberal institution than it is today, was only a few blocks from my home. It provided a quality education and a rewarding social environment. Dedicated teachers stimulated my interest in learning and I began to acquire an expanding understanding of science. Without my recognizing it, I was becoming one of the many who found education in the sciences, and not religion, was providing me with what might be called my philosophy of life.

My concerns then were not about the meaning of life or whether God exists, but what I would do after graduation. I was happy and confident, and expected good things ahead. At the age of 21, with a charming coed as my new wife (we have been married 64 years), I left Utah for graduate studies in the East. But when I got to the University of Wisconsin, I found that Wisconsin residents considered themselves in the Northwest. My perspectives about the world, why wars occur, racial questions, power, politics, and money were indeed nave.

The graduate and postdoctoral years. I was fortunate that the University of Wisconsin at Madison had an outstanding biochemistry department. I arrived uncertain as to whether I had made the right career choice. But I soon found that experimental endeavor was addictive. The privilege and challenge of devising experiments that hopefully would yield new knowledge occupied most of my thoughts and time.

Fellow students from the Mormon culture of Utah and Idaho were participants in a Madison church group. The depth of commitment to Mormonism varied widely within the group. My wife and I were on the wayward fringe. Our actions were guided by other experiences. We did not find support for Mormon theology, and earlier doubts seemed more justified. But we enjoyed our association with the group and some members have remained life-long friends. After four years, we left for Stanford University where I was scheduled for postdoctoral research on a war project.

We did not associate with a Mormon group at Stanford and the Mormon Church meetings in Madison turned out to be the last we attended. Germany surrendered, and I accepted a faculty position at the University of Minnesota.

A professional career and religious views. While we were in Minnesota for 17 years, our eldest daughter felt uncomfortable because, unlike most of her friends in our neighborhood, our family did not belong to a church. This led us to explore a Unitarian church. We found the views and goals expressed compatible with our own. Perspectives my daughter obtained about comparative religions eased the acceptance of her family. The Unitarian approach retained our approval but not our active participation.

In 1963, we moved to Los Angeles where I continued my research in biochemistry at UCLA. For many years I had regarded basic Mormon theology as critically flawed. A primary doubt was the validity of heavenly messengers to Joseph Smith and his purported direct revelations from God. I learned that a history professor at UCLA, Fawn Brodie, had published a book about Joseph Smith in 1945 entitled No Man Knows My History. The perspectives she presented seemed to substantiate and justify my doubts about the founder of the Mormon Church.

However, it was not the specific doctrines associated with Mormonism or whether Joseph Smith was a faker, but a much more basic rejection of all religions that I was developing. More and more I doubted the validity of the concept of the God of Christianity or of gods with any religion or other beliefs. To me, it seemed that God was created by man, not man created by God. This basic rejection grew as science provided amazing and wonderful information about our earth and life and the universe. Such knowledge has not come from present or past religions. In the past there have been frequent and ugly conflicts between religious views and views arising from the experimental approaches of science. The intellectual darkness of the middle ages resulted principally from religious zealots using their power to banish and kill. The use of observation and experimentation to gain knowledge, as fostered in the Greek civilization, was suppressed. Such remarkable men as Copernicus and Galileo lived lives of fear and of oppression by religious authorities. Over and over, expanding scientific knowledge has shown religious claims to be false. Religions adapt and change in order to foster their survival. But in our country, most of them retain a belief in God, and this is taken as a norm by most of my fellow citizens.

Before my time, the enlightenment coming from science led many thoughtful men and women to question the concept of God. It is a tribute to them that they reached their conclusions without the remarkable scientific knowledge attained since I embarked on a scientific career. This striking attainment has resulted from the collective ability of the human mind in a civilization that supports scientific inquiry. My participation in these revealing undertakings has given me an appreciation of how the knowledge acquired provides new and powerful support for the view that God, as proposed by Christian and other faiths, does not exist.

Three areas of this more recent scientific knowledge warrant special consideration. One is the nature of the universe in which we exist, as provided by powerful astronomical observations and their interpretations, and as related to the requirements for life. The second is the discovery of the fascinating and definitive chemical basis of heredity and evolution. The third is the recognition of the basic chemical processes of life and that these are present in all organisms, from the simplest living forms to humans.

Religious views of scientists. If the more recent accomplishments in the areas of science mentioned above warrant the rejection of a belief in God and a Hereafter, it might be expected that such developments would be accompanied by a marked increase in the proportion of American scientists that have abandoned such beliefs. A recent survey appraised if this is so. The criteria used were (1) did the scientist believe in a God who could respond to prayer, and (2) do humans have some manner of existence after death. On this basis, at the present time the majority, some 60% of American scientists, are atheists. It is somewhat disappointing that this is about the same percentage as found in a similar survey 90 years ago. 2 It seems that the impact of recent scientific discoveries has not penetrated the thinking of scientists in general.

Importantly, the survey showed two revealing characteristics of the beliefs of scientists. One was that, as noted in the earlier survey, the belief in God and in a Hereafter dropped considerably as the level of scientific achievement increased. This drop in the religious beliefs as achievement increased was even more apparent in the recent survey. Selection as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences represents a pinnacle of achievement for American scientists. In the recent survey, only 10% of the members of the Academy retained their religious beliefs.

There was also an instructive difference among scientific disciplines of Academy members. For example, about 16% of mathematicians retained their religious beliefs, physicists retained less, and only about 5% of biologists believed in God and a Hereafter. It is striking to me that those who study life processes have the least belief in a deity. Among my molecular biologist colleagues there are very few who are not agnostics or atheists.

The impact of scientific progress–nature of the universe. As mentioned above, scientific accomplishments of the past 60 years add compelling evidence against beliefs in God and a Hereafter. The detection and the properties of the radiation and particles reaching our planet have revealed the existence of billions of galaxies and much information about how cosmic events occur. Recognition of the vastness of the time and space of the universe gives rise to feelings of wonder. The truths revealed by science may indeed be awesome, but do not warrant creating God for explanation.

The cosmological advances reveal the important fact that the same chemical elements recognized on earth exist throughout the universe. Stars and planets in the Milky Way galaxy and all the other galaxies have the same type of matter that we recognize in our solar system. The chemistry of elements and the physics of subatomic matter are universal properties. Only a select few of the chemical elements have the properties that make life possible. Numerous compounds containing carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and nitrogen (N) form most of the non-skeletal parts of our body. The combination of H and O, water, is an exceptionally remarkable substance and is widely recognized as a must for possible life. Compounds of C, H, O, and N similar to those in our body are found in meteorites–samples of cosmic materials. Similar compounds are very likely the base for extraterrestrial life.

The facts about the universe raise penetrating questions about common religious beliefs. If God created earth, was this separate from creation of the universe? If God created the universe, does God continue to interact with different parts of the universe in as detailed a manner as with earth and humans? Does the God reside on earth–if so, where? Does God reside in space? In a heaven? If so, where is heaven and what is it composed of? What means are used for communication? Do Godly communications travel faster than the speed of light? If so, how? If not, how could God communicate throughout the universe? How does God function if not based on chemical and physical properties of elements that from scientific evidence exist throughout the universe?

The chemistry of heredity. The discovery some 50 years ago of how information passes from parent to offspring is widely considered as the most important accomplishment of biological research in the past century. Over a century ago it was clear that genes in the chromosomes of living organisms in some remarkable way provided the information for creation of new organisms, from such sources as minute wafting dandelion seeds or the sperm and egg cells of humans. Subsequently, it was found that the information was conveyed by a substance known as DNA, which has A, T, G and C components 3. The three-dimensional structure of the long DNA molecules, as in chromosomes, was revealed. This and the known chemistry of the components gave the first insights into a chemical basis for transmission of the extensive genetic information necessary for replication of an organism. The achievement set the base for splendid subsequent studies showing how the genetic code was read, how it was used for making all the components of cells, and demonstrated many important aspects of inheritance, development and evolution.

Recently the sequences of the A, T, G and C letters in the entire human genome have been obtained (about 2.9 billion letters!). Every human person has the same genes, but small differences in the A, T, G, or C sequences in our chromosomes determine our individual inherited differences. Genetic diseases result from a wrong A, T, G, or C being present. Oxidative damage or radiation may cause a change in a sequence or an error may occur when DNA is replicated. The sequence changes are called mutations. Mutations are likely to be deleterious, but sometimes may be advantageous. Evolution results from inheritable changes that permit or even improve survival.

The remarkable understanding of how genetic information is transmitted makes it possible to observe and explain evolutionary changes of microorganisms in short time periods. Such scientific demonstration that evolution occurs is in addition to the already convincing evidence for evolution as the fundamental source of biological variation. It is disheartening that many Americans do not accept the concept of evolution. To ask that religious concepts of how earth and human beings were created be included in school instruction is utterly unjustified. That evolution occurs is way beyond reasonable doubt, almost as certain as that the earth orbits around the sun. Regrettably, in many of our schools, evolution is inadequately taught.

The chemical explanations of genetic inheritance also do away with vitalism, the concept that biological reproduction is not explainable by scientific principles of chemistry and physics. The science underlying inheritance provides no support for, and makes highly unlikely, the existence of what religion calls a soul. There is no genetic code for a soul.

The chemical unity of life. My biochemical researches have focused on the understanding of enzymes, the biological catalysts for the myriad of chemical processes essential for life. This has given me insight into the striking similarity of essential processes in all life forms. My studies concerned how the energy obtained from using the oxygen you breathe is captured to make a chemical compound called ATP 4. All life forms use ATP in energy-requiring processes. Similarly, the exceptional DNA role in inheritance is biologically universal, from the simplest single-cell microorganisms to the most complex organisms, mammals. Higher organisms may have more genes, but the genes of bacteria and insects are similar in structure and function to those in higher organisms. The extensive and complex requirements for the processes of biological life are found in the simplest organisms. In a supporting environment, such as found on our earth, the development of higher forms of life, including humans, is a logical result.

The clash of science and religion. The view is sometimes expressed that science is neutral about whether or not God exists. Scientists may tend to express or not challenge such a view, because denying the existence of God may be detrimental to public support of science and education. Although science cannot prove that God and a Hereafter do not exist, the extensive understanding of life, the world, and the universe provided by science makes their existence highly unlikely. As mentioned earlier, if they exist they must be made from matter as found in our universe. To postulate that God and a Hereafter are made out of nothing is untenable. To be able to maintain their beliefs, religionists may argue that somehow belief and knowledge are essentially different, so that one does not depend on the other. But to postulate beliefs that require existence of entities that are scientifically unfeasible is irrational and groundless. Science, properly recognized and interpreted, leads to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely that God and a Hereafter exist.

The maintaining of beliefs separate from knowledge is not confined to religions. Various other beliefs that cannot be disproved by science can nonetheless be rendered as highly unlikely. For example, a belief that earth is visited by “flying saucers” containing alien beings is not proven to be false by science, but is recognized as very likely false because of the knowledge and assessment provided by science. The use of similar logic to assess religion leads to atheism.

Postulates of various gods over the past centuries when much less scientific knowledge was available are more understandable. There is now much more reason to reject primitive concepts. The impact of the extensive knowledge about life, the earth, and the universe that has been made available to our citizens in the last half century should have shattered remaining beliefs about God and a Hereafter. It is incongruous that the importance and impact of the present information has not penetrated more deeply into the thinking of the citizens of our country. When will they breathe the fresh air of truth? Are scientists partly at fault? Should we have been on the rooftops shouting: Look what science has found?

Religions in the world. If religion is considered to mean belief in a supernatural god or gods, then in the past nearly all human groups developed religion. This has resulted from the human desire to explain the world around them and what happens to them after death. As humans gain more and more knowledge from scientific approaches, it has become increasingly apparent that none of the beliefs in gods has any merit. If no God or gods exist, then obviously no religious doctrines or codifications based on beliefs in gods can be valid. Further, in view of the variety of Christian religious doctrines, each often supported by ardent believers, it is illogical and pretentious for any one religion to claim it is a true church of Christ and that other religions are wrong.

The United States appears to have a much larger portion of its population which adheres to religions than other developed nations. We need to escape from this. The well-financed and thus powerful religious right of our country is dangerous. Like religious crusades of the past, it is driven primarily by lust for power and money. Were it not for the weak but essential checks and balances in our society, the religious right would readily assume control of our educational institutions and limit scientific inquiry. And the large number of people who believe that God specifically blesses America detracts from developing more rational foreign and military policies. We need to find other ways, not dependent on religions, to provide beneficial social support and interaction of individuals. In the past, the success of human evolution was probably greatly aided by a tendency to function and survive in groups. It is likely that our need of supporting group activities is in part inherited. In a better future, one hopes that associations and interactions arising from what is sometimes termed secular humanism will supplant religious-based functions.

Tyranny of the majority. Separation of church and state is a widely recognized goal of our country, but those who strive for such a goal face a tyranny of the religious majority. This was well illustrated recently when the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a decision that the words “under God” should not be included in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by school children. In an uproar, both the Senate and the House of Representatives rapidly and nearly unanimously condemned the Court decision. To maintain public support, politicians in our country routinely invoke prayer or tend to close speeches with “God bless you.” A confirmed atheist has little chance to win an elected office because of religious bias.

The customary acceptance of God in writing, speech, and social interactions tends to promote the continuance of religious beliefs. Peer group pressure is strong. The appearance of “In God We Trust” on our money has a definitive religious connotation. The granting of tax relief to religious groups makes a strong statement of government support for religious beliefs.

We are far from separation of church and state in our country. Unfortunately, it will likely take a long time for such separation to occur, and it may never occur. Our country is only a bit over two centuries old. History tells us that a nation’s power tends to rise and fall. Internal and/or external forces may cause the United States, like others before us, to lose power and relevance. But I retain an optimism for a future where society’s beliefs are based on sound knowledge, where we have sustained a pleasing environment, and where humans have moved toward a more sensible and enjoyable life.

Paul D. Boyer, a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997. Born in Provo, Utah, he received his undergrad degree from Brigham Young University, and did graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1943. He worked on wartime medical research at Stanford, and, when drafted by the U.S. Navy, became “the only seaman second-class with a nearly private laboratory.” After the war he became a professor at the University of Minnesota. He and his wife Lyda had two daughters, Gail and Hali, and a son, Douglas. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Sweden in 1955. He was named director of the Molecular Biology Institute at UCLA in 1965.

1 The designation God with a capital G refers to the Christian concept or entity, for example, as appears on our money in the slogan “In God We trust.” The designation god, not capitalized, refers to the other proposed supernatural entities akin to God or with other powers, for example, the gods of ancient Greece, of the Mayans, and of the Hawaiians.

2 Scientific American, Sept. 1999, E. J. Larson and L. Witham, Scientists and Religion in America.

3 DNA denotes deoxyribonucleic acid, known to be an exceptionally long linear molecule containing four components, A (adenine), T (thymine), G (guanine) and C (cytosine) arranged in different orders. These arrangements in two long DNA molecules twisted around each other provide the information for different genes. As cells divide, the DNA separates into individual strands, and each strand serves as a template for formation of a new twisted DNA for each new cell.

4 ATP denotes adenosine triphosphate. Energy is required to make ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate. The ATP as it is cleaved to ADP and phosphate drives muscle contraction, nerve conduction, biological transport and syntheses, and other functions.

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