Harold C. Urey: Science, Religion, and Cold War Chemistry

Urey studies a Moon globe. Urey’s theory of the Moon’s origin was a motivating force behind the Apollo lunar program. (Robert Glasheen Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego)

Urey studies a Moon globe. Urey’s theory of the Moon’s origin was a motivating force behind the Apollo lunar program. (Robert Glasheen Collection, Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego)

The “Intellectual Revolution”

Before World War II, Urey firmly believed that the world was improving with the help of science. His own field of chemistry, he told audiences in the 1930s, aimed to “abolish drudgery, discomfort, and want from the lives of men and bring them pleasure, comfort, leisure, and beauty.” A world of leisure, abundance, and peace would be the natural result if scientists were left to their work, their ideas applied to peaceful projects instead of the machines of war.

In the midst of the Cold War—through which many of his colleagues continued to work on weapons of mass destruction—Urey was no longer convinced that science possessed its own moral compass. In his “Intellectual Revolution” speech, first given in 1953, Urey presented a less optimistic view of the history of science and its effects on society. It was the story of two worlds—that of the scientist and that of the public. While the scientists produced knowledge at an increasingly rapid pace, the public only slowly absorbed and adapted to this new knowledge. For Urey the failure to adjust properly to these changes could have dire consequences, similar to those the world had witnessed in Germany and Russia.

The great discoveries and developments of the 20th century, Urey believed, deserved even greater scrutiny than those of the Scientific Revolution or the Darwinian Revolution. The latest revolution concerned the very nature of life and the universe. Copernicus had ousted humans from the center of the universe, while the discoveries of radioactivity and DNA had shown humans to be possibly just one among millions of conscious and intelligent life forms in a universe where planets like Earth might exist in great numbers. Urey worried that the public took the wrong message from science’s successes: emphasis on the practical applications of science had led many to become amoral materialists. Survival in the Atomic Age required a rigid moral compass that science alone could not provide.

The problem boiled down to religion. Urey was convinced that in order for science to work scientists themselves had to be honest and moral. Before the war Urey had believed that the practice of science shaped the morality of the scientist; nature would reveal its secrets only under the right conditions. Objectivity required self-sacrifice and sublimation. But by 1953 Urey’s ideas had changed. Scientific training could only select the objective, honest person, not create that person. The source of these ethics was the community. In the West the ethical code was that of Judaism and Christianity. Even if scientists themselves might tend toward skepticism, they had nonetheless been raised and trained in a society within which these religions still held sway.

It was no coincidence, Urey argued, that modern science had originated and flourished within religious societies. After all, he explained, the great religions “emphasize the greatness of men, their very great capacities to understand and assume responsibility rather than their mere animal characteristics, and the greatness of the universe, and they admonish men to think of great things and to act in great and noble ways.” The Ten Commandments, Urey claimed, dictated the terms of good research: “‘Thou shalt not lie.’ You must not lie about or misrepresent your data. ‘Thou shall not steal.’ You do not assume that you have done work which others have done.” He even went so far as to say that he did not believe “science could originate nor be maintained in a community which does not generally subscribe to and practice [these commandments].”

But as much as science seemed to depend on religion, there was little that science could do to preserve religion. Science could provide an honest and even inspiring view of the universe, but “it gives little to the ordinary non-scientific citizen which enables him to meet the spiritual needs of life.” Only religion could meet these needs. The problem was severe given the unstable nature of the Cold War world, a world faced with the possibility of nuclear war. In such a world, he argued, “It is so necessary that some inner well of strength be stirred and maintained for all men as individuals, for most occasionally, for some continuously.”

Urey presented “The Intellectual Revolution” to audiences several times during the Cold War. It ended with a plea: “The drift from that high and moral life taught to us in the past must be arrested, and we must not think that this scientific and engineering century can be built strong and true in any respect without adherence to the virtues taught in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. I urge all of you to try to fit the new concepts of science into the ancient teachings of religion to which we owe so much.”

The problem of retaining the traditional morals of Western religions continued to bother Urey for the rest of his career. By 1959 Urey had begun to argue that the world needed a “great prophet who can accept the facts of science and at the same time can give inspiration to fill this great void.”

Scientists could not provide a religion for the Atomic Age, but with the help of the new prophet—along with religious thinkers willing to substitute science for superstition—they could still contribute. The new religion would require the most complete and inspiring view of the universe possible, and scientists had an essential role to play.