It’s the first Friday of the month, which means it’s time for another guest post about the history of the theory of atoms from physics professor and my dad, Dean Zollman. Here, we find arguments about religion and science that will sound awfully familiar to modern readers.—Kim

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanToday, some Christians accept a literal interpretation of Genesis and thus reject certain scientific constructions such as evolution and cosmology. The situation was little different 2,000 years ago as the early Christian philosophers and theologians contemplated the compatibility between their beliefs and the concepts of atoms as expounded by Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and others.

As I have discussed in previous posts, the Greeks who developed the ideas about atoms stated that the atoms were indivisible and indestructible. An indestructible atom has always been here; it was not created at any particular time in history. This fundamental property of the Greek model of the atom comes in direct conflict with a God creating the universe as described in Genesis.

Cave in Cappadocia

A church cave in Cappadocia from about from about 1000 AD. (Photo by Dean Zollman)

As an example of early Christian thinking, Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia, also known as Saint Basil the Great, (c. 329 – 379) stated, “Those who were too ignorant to rise to a knowledge of a God, could not allow that an intelligent cause presided at the birth of the Universe; a primary error that involved them in sad consequences. Some had recourse to material principles and attributed the origin of the Universe to the elements of the world. Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and ducts, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’” (Homily 1 in The Hexaemeron) St. Basil thus saw atoms and a God who created the universe as incompatible ideas.

(Off topic: I enjoy quoting St. Basil because I visited Cappadocia last July. The ancient churches were caves carved in the soft stone. Many of these structures can be visited. So, maybe I stood in a place where about 1,700 years earlier St. Basil was explaining why the Greek atomists had the wrong idea.)

Creation was only one of several reasons that early Christians had trouble with the idea of matter being made of atoms. For example, another was the atomists view that the material that we can experience is created by atoms randomly colliding with each other. The random part is the problem. God was not random in the design of the heavens and earth.

Then, there is the Eucharist—body of Christ but atoms of bread. I don’t know enough theology to even try to touch that one.

With the rejection of the concepts of atoms almost disappeared from Western thought for the next 15 centuries. Most historians of science say little or nothing about the concept of science during this extended time. Bernard Pullman in The Atom in the History of Human Thought says, “We could even have symbolized this state of affairs by leaving a few pages of this book blank.”

Fortunately, the concept of atoms did not get lost. A few Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers continued the scholarly thought of the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus. We will take a look at some of them during the next couple of posts.


What Are Things Made of? Depends on When You Ask.

Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received three major awards—the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and American Association of Physics Teachers’ Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.