The Religious Affiliation of Physicist
Robert Andrews Millikan

Robert A. Millikan born to a clergyman of Scottish descent. Millikan was devoutly religious and wrote considerably about the importance of faith and religion in his autobiography. Seeger wrote that Millikan was probably a member of the Congregational Church.

From: Raymond J. Seeger, "Millikan, Spiritual Altruist" in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37 (March 1985): 52-54 (; viewed 26 September 2005):

The physicist Robert Andrews Millikan (1868-1952) was one of six children of a midwest clergyman of Scottish descent. His daily work on the farm and summer factory experience set a pattern for his industrious life...

In 1912 he isolated the electron and measured this elementary electric charge e (off slightly because. of the poor value used for the viscosity of air). Millikan regarded the electron theory of matter as "one of the grandest, because simplest, of all physical generalizations." He was made a member of the National Academy of Science at forty-six. The following year he made his most remarkable experiment, the verification of Einstein's photoelectric equation, with an accurate determination of Planck's constant h. In 1923 he received the Physics Nobel Prize for his work on e and h. Meanwhile, in 1917 he published some of this work (revised in 1924) and amplified later in The Cornell Messenger Lectures, which resulted in "Electrons (+ and -), Protons, Photons, Neutrons, Mesotrons, and Cosmic Rays" (rev. 1947).

...His altruistic spirit was not confined to the encouragement and strengthening of research... Millikan's altruism spread beyond academia and his country. He became increasingly concerned about the road to international peace. He favored the League of Nations, which President Taft had called a "League to enforce peace." The isolationism of the U.S., which wrecked the League, he regarded as "one of the great tragedies." As an individual, he remained a member of the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Recognizing always the need for collective security against individual madmen, he favored the highway indicated "by most of the great souls who have developed the world's greatest religions-men who like Buddha and Jesus have depended almost exclusively upon the development and use of the great spiritual forces . . . suggested by the words brotherhood, love, pity, kindness, altruism, duty, conscience, morality, words which ... unquestionably stand for just as fundamental realities in the experience of all human beings as words like matter, motion, space, energy, weight, table, rock, etc." (He admitted, "It is today as difficult to find a satisfactory definition of 'matter' as of 'spirit.' ")

"The combination of science [what] and religion [ought]," be believed, "provides the sole basis for rational and intelligent living." Science is credited with having revealed a God who works through law, thus indicating the orderliness of the universe and man's duty to live in harmony with it. "The God of science is the 'Spirit of rational order and of orderly development'-hence progress." He was convinced that "there is actually no conflict whatever between science and religion when each is correctly understood." "There has been no conflict between the two as interpreted by the best minds the world has produced."

The last chapter of his "Autobiography" dealt with "The Two Supreme Elements in Human Progress," i.e., the spirit of religion and the spirit of science. He regarded science and religion as the two great sister forces which have pulled and are still pulling the world onward and upward."

"The most important thing in the world is the belief in the reality of moral and spiritual values." "An attitude of altruistic idealism" is common in all religions, e.g., that "found simply in the life and teachings of Jesus"-"the essence of His message ... .. Never man spake like this man!" He was impressed with the Golden Rule, which, he insisted, says that "you are the sole judge of what you ought to do." (cf. A.N. Whitehead's definition of religion as "world loyalty"). Millikan believed that such action would have to be based on some kind of "faith in the ultimate good." He noted that "Einstein calls it the Intelligence manifest in Nature." "If there is a better definition of God than that 1, at least, do not know what it is."

Mindful of Job's personal dilemma, "Can man with searching find God"?, Millikan concluded his "Autobiography" with another quotation from the cosmotheist Einstein, "'It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself throughout all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.' I myself need no better definition of God than that, and some such idea is in all religion as a basis for the idea of deity."

Millikan noted that "the Christian Church is the greatest social institution in the country." There was never any mention of his own affiliation or activities, but he probably was a member of the Congregational Church. His expressed opinions, however, were more in the spirit of unitarianism than of basic Christianity. He was wont to stress the second great commandment with its altruistic object. The God of the first commandment remained aloof, impersonal, a nebulous being, unknown and unloving-quite different from Jesus' Father whom He came to share.


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Webpage created 26 September 2005. Last modified 26 September 2005.
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