Wednesday, January 23, 2008
[Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar 1910 – 1995]
Over eight months ago, I asked a question “Can anyone find an example of a single prominent atheistic leader who was kind, honest, and sober and had a stable family life?”
One fellow blogger offered the following answer: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Fortunately, there is one biography of Professor Chandrasekhar in print and I bought a used copy (my library doesn’t have it).
Let me point out that first of all, Chandra, as he was often known, does not satisfy all of my criteria. He was not an atheistic leader in the sense of being a leader of the atheistic community or movement, which is what I meant. He never publicly advocated atheism. However, he is as close as anyone has come to answering my question. He was honest and sober and had a stable family life (one marriage, but no children). He may have been kind as well. Chandra seems to have been almost the ideal scientist: brilliant, hard working, devoted completely to discovering the secrets of the universe. And he did call himself an atheist.
There is an interesting postscript to this, however.
Between 1977 and 1991, the author of Chandra’s biography, Kameshwar C. Wali, recorded many conversations with him. Some of these conversations are published verbatim at the end of the biography.
On page 305, Chandra states “I don’t really have a sense of fulfillment. It does not seem to me that the pursuit of science results in feelings of contentment or peace. Would faith and simple beliefs bring inner peace and harmony? I’m not sure. However there is a marvelous story by Balzac called ‘The Atheist’. In this story, an atheistic doctor is seen attending church services twice a year with great devotion. Someone asks him why. He explains that he does it out of respect for a simple water carrier who was a pious man who had helped him when he was young. He, the doctor, wishes that he had the faith of that water carrier. Likewise, for myself, religion cannot save me because I don’t have faith.” [This has been slightly paraphrased for the sake of brevity and clarity.]
Indeed, in that story, Balzac has the atheistic doctor declare “I swear to you, I would give my whole fortune if faith such as Bourgeat's [the water carrier] could enter my brain.”
This was the attitude which one the greatest of scientists, a world famous Nobel Prize winning physicist, an atheist but an honest man, had in the last years of his life. Perhaps this helps us to understand why a pious Jew recites the prayer each morning “Blessed are you Lord who has not made me a gentile”.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 4:38 PM