Allan Sandage

It is often assumed that religious belief diminishes in ratio to scientific knowledge. “You’d expect,” begins one Newsweek article on the subject of God and science, “that the more deeply scientists see into the secrets of the universe, the more God would fade away from their hearts and minds.” There are many striking counterexamples to this assumption—but few more striking than that of Allan Rex Sandage.

Allan Sandage was one of the most important astronomers of the twenthieth century. He began his career in cosmology in the 1940s as a protégé of Edwin Hubble (the astronomer who discovered the expansion of the universe) and, after Hubble died of a heart attack in 1953, Sandage continued Hubble’s ambitious research project of measuring the size and age of the universe.

By some accounts Sandage was a difficult man—it was said that you were no one in astronomy if Sandage had not stopped talking to you. But an uncooperative attitude did not prevent him from making numerous groundbreaking contributions to cosmology. It was Sandage, for instance, who worked out the first reasonably accurate values for the elusive Hubble constant and the age of the universe (!) and Sandage again who discovered the first quasar.

For over forty years until his retirement in 1997, Sandage was regarded as the world’s foremost observational cosmologist and chalked up numerous further contributions to his field: publishing influential papers and improving all aspects of the cosmological distance scale—both within our own Milky Way and beyond to distant galaxies. The accolades and awards accordingly followed, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize—the Nobel of the astronomy world. In 1991, the New York Times noted that Sandage was now popularly referred to as, “the Grand Old Man of Cosmology.”

It was known, meanwhile, that Sandage was a “practicing atheist” as a youth and in a culture of glib scientism the assumption that an astronomer of his expertise and stature would have no truck with the supernatural may have been a fairly natural one. However, in 1985, at a Dallas conference on the theme of science and religion, Sandage surprised his academic peers by taking a seat among the panel of theists. In the context of a discussion about the theological implications of the Big Bang, he then revealed that he had converted to Christianity at the age of fifty. [1] “The world is too complicated in all parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone,” Sandage would explain in numerous subsequent articles on the subject of science and religion. “We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.” [2]

The conversion of Allan Sandage is a testament to the strength of the evidence for theism from modern cosmology and a dramatic counterexample to the belief that increases in scientific knowledge invariably reduce belief in God.

 

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 [1] Interestingly, a young Stephen Meyers was in the audience of this conference. Meyers relates that it was this shocking volte-face by Sandage that inspired his research into the evidence for design in the structure of the cell.

[2] See the Argument from Cosmic Teleology, which I summarise here, and the Argument from Adequation, which I summarise here.

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