On the etymological association of atheist and scientist

I’d known for a long time that the term “scientist” had been coined in the early 19th century, but I just ran across a first-hand account of the event by the fellow who came up with it, William Whewell. The context is this: many in the science establishment of the day had been chafing at the premier British institution, the Royal Society, which had grown stodgy and was infested with politicians, bishops, and other such hangers-on, and they formed a new institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. As part of the process of establishing their identity, they struggled with coming up with an appropriate noun to describe their membership.

Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past… This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen* could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.

‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity as a philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [Whewell!] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’ — and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’—but this was not generally palatable.

That is so familiar: the deference to a classical scholar, poet, and ‘metaphysician’ (although, actually, Coleridge was no dummy and did provide thoughtful contributions), and the use of French as an insult. I would warm to the analogy with ‘atheist’, but apparently, that comparison almost sank the word. To be tangled with atheism…oh, my. Adam Sedgwick, the geologist and devout Anglican, was in a fury about “scientist”.

Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism!

It was a natural extension of the word, though, and was rapidly adopted — it was in the OED by 1840.

Sedgwick, by the way, was an interesting fellow despite being encumbered with an excess of faith. He was an important contributor to modern geology who named the Devonian and Cambrian. He was also an adamant creationist who vehemently opposed that whole new-fangled theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it…but Darwin was a former student, and they remained friends throughout their dispute. He also made this well known statement about conflicts between science and the Bible, which I rather like for reasons other than Sedgwick’s.

No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true… Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.

It’s a statement that is simultaneously scientific and anti-scientific. He’s saying that we should follow the evidence whereever it may lead, confident that we will arrive at the honest truth, which is good; however, he’s saying it to reassure himself and the audience that science will never be in conflict with the Bible. He was wrong. His problem was in failing to administer the same standards of truth and robust reason to his holy book that he was applying to science.

He wrote a review of Robert Chambers’ book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, that was a pre-Darwin evolutionary account of the history of life. Sedgwick did not like it, no sir, not one bit.

…If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!

I would remind him that “No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true”, and that if a consequence of the examination of the natural world was a revelation that “religion is a lie,” then so be it. Atheist, scientist, there isn’t necessarily a heck of a lot of difference.

*It was initially set up as a boys’ club. Women were not allowed to be members until 1853; however, about a quarter of the attendees of the early BA meetings were women. They were only allowed to attend special sessions that had been reviewed to determine if they were suitable for women, however.


  1. Glen Davidson says

    Atheist, scientist, there isn’t necessarily a heck of a lot of difference.

    There is necessarily quite a difference in the meaning of the words, because “scientist” is far more inclusive. You can be a scientist and be a member of one of a whole lot of religions, or have no religion at all.

    Plus, you may be atheist and be a loony believer in woo. That may be true in some sense with a scientist as well, but it most certainly will call that scientist’s judgment into question as a scientist.

    Glen D

  2. daveau says

    man and woman are only better beasts

    I like that. Hit the nail on the head right there.

  3. Blake Stacey says

    Google Books has the text, if anyone was curious. There’s some fascinating period writing about women in science, a few pages later on — the gist seems to be that women can do science and mathematics, but that they do it in a quintessentially feminine way. From the perspective of the time, this might’ve been so enlightened as to be shocking, even though it sounds more than a bit condescending today.

  4. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Sedgwick: “…man and woman are only better beasts”

    Daveau: “I like that. Hit the nail on the head right there.”

    Well, except for the part about “better”

  5. MolBio says

    Actually it’s not untrue. I remember at uni, there were many ways to solve an equation, but men and women tend to take two different approaches to solving it, neither is wrong, both arrive at the same answer. It was interesting.

  6. vanharris says

    Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:
    Science 3b. A craft, trade, or occupation requiring trained skill – 1660. 4. A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts … 1725.

    It took a while for ‘scientist’ to evolve from ‘science’, especially considering that ‘scientific’ was first used in a modern sense in 1589. (This actually predates the first recorded use of the root word.)

  7. Bryson says

    Sedgwick and Buckland both gave up on ‘flood geology’ after being early enthusiasts– step by step, they and the rest of the scientific community came to accept the independence of the scientific world view from religious tradition. The interesting thing (that creationists today can never acknowledge) is that if a biblical view of geology and biology really did fit with the evidence, we’d all be practicing creation scientists today.

  8. Qwerty says

    I saw a PBS biography once of Beatrix Potter, the author of “Peter Cottontail” and other childrens’ stories.

    Prior to this she had scienfitic aspirations and worked on fungi.

    From Wikipedia:
    [Potter’s] uncle attempted to introduce her as a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because she was a woman.

  9. Blake Stacey says

    MolBio (#5):

    In a decade of higher education, I’ve seen a lot of people solve a lot of equations, and I’ve never observed a sex-linked difference in solution styles.

    My anecdote is better than yours.

  10. daveau says


    Well, except for the part about “better”

    Yeah, I thought that was a bit human-centrist, too, but still not bad for the time. Even though he meant the opposite.

  11. kafkaesqui says

    It was a natural extension of the word, though, and was rapidly adopted — it was in the OED by 1840.

    May want to rephrase that as the OED references 1840 as the first instance of use; the OED itself was not in existence in 1840.

  12. Richard Carter, FCD says

    Sedgwick was born in the picturesque village of Dent about 60 miles from where I’m typing this. A couple of years back, I visited Dent and blogged about the Sedgwick memorial there.

  13. Jaycubed says

    Actually, French Revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat coined the term Scientifiques (ie. Scientists) as a disparaging term for Savants in the late 18th Century.

    (Savants being the internationally recognized term for workers in science for at least a century prior to that time.)

  14. VermelhoRed says

    “our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen”

    Yes, exactly!!

  15. Alan B says

    Sedgwick was indeed an interesting and highly capable geologist.

    He and Roderick Impey Murchison decided between themselves to sort out the geology of the Welsh Marches (England/Wales border area) which was poorly understood. Murchison took the Southern area around Ludlow and Aymestry which turned out to be (relatively) straightforward. Sedgwick took the Northern area which was far more complicated.

    While Murchison was an excellent geologist, he relied heavily on local naturalists to guide him in his studies. These often turned out to be local clergy because they often visited their parishioners on foot and they had time to investigate the natural history of their parishes. Much of Murchison’s work consisted of travelling from area to area, often staying with the local clergy and other gentry. His strength was to be able to put together all the disjoined local studies.

    The Southern geology was younger than Sedgwick’s area and Murchison developed the Silurian system from scratch to explain it. The Silurian was named after the Silures – a Celtic tribe that lived in that area. He extended the Silurian to include as many as possible of the unidentified rocks in the area.

    Sedgwick had a more difficult task and developed the Cambrian system (Cambria being an ancient name for Wales) to explain these older rocks. He extended the Cambrian upwards and it overlapped with Murchison’s Silurian. The dispute was to last for several decades and it needed the intervention of Lapworth, Professor of Geology at Birmingham University to propose and help push through a solution – introduce a new system between the Cambrian and the Silurian which was named the Ordovician (after the Ordovices, another ancient Celtic tribe). The Devonian which is much in evidence in Wales also overlapped with the top of Murchison’s Silurian and the boundary between the two has been a matter of contention until it was the first formally defined in 1985 as a fixed point or “Golden Spike” (near Prague at Klonk – honestly: you can’t make it up).

    Murchison was invited by the Czar to investigate the geology of Russia and, reputedly single-handed, developed the Permian system to explain the rocks he found.

    This was the great time of the founding of geology as a Science. Much of British geology was mapped (by one man, “Strata Smith”), the importance of the Paleozoic (i.e. up to and including the Carboniferous was understood and what was found in Great Britain became the foundation of geology elsewhere.

    I live in the Southern area – it is fascinating to visit some of the key localities that played a vital part in the developement of a Science.

  16. tomh says

    kafkaesqui wrote:
    “May want to rephrase that as the OED references 1840 as the first instance of use; the OED itself was not in existence in 1840.”

    This whole passage is quoted in The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, including the reference to the OED. It was the only glaring mistake I noticed in a very good book.

  17. Michael says

    Very interesting…

    I was led to a search in Google books for uses of “scientist” before 1850. (I asked for only public domain books.) Google books will tell you there are hundreds of such occurrences going way way back… but — don’t believe it!

    What I found is that very many books in Google books are misdated — dates are assigned to books that are actually part of the publication address, or the library catalog number of the book. On that basis, a book published in 1907 will be listed as published in 1819. Also, Google books says that old Latin books contain the word “scientist” when in fact they contain “scientiae” (for example).

    So, you can’t trust Google books without checking for yourself!

  18. Die Anyway says

    PZ appended: “…determine if they were suitable for women…”

    That reminds me of the PBS NATURE show I watched last night. Before it came on there was a warning that the show contained material of an adult nature. It was an animal show about predators and prey, their different musculature, strategies, evolutionary arms races, and about males fighting for dominance and breeding rights. I kept waiting for the nekid ladies that would make it “unsuitable for children” (although why that would be unsuitable for children I’m not sure either). It was a fairly good show although it had some of the evolutionary misstatements that are typical of this fare. But I would have let my kids watch it were they still young and at home. Nothing objectionable. Lions gotta eat too.

  19. Donnie B. says

    Sedgwick spoke too soon when he said:

    Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other.

    Consider these statements: “Light behaves as if it’s made up of particles.” “Light behaves as if it’s a wave.”

    These are both true, but at first blush it seems they both can’t be right.

    Still, I suppose if you add enough qualifiers they can be reconciled. At least we can say that each is true when observations are made in certain ways and not others. The quantum world remains hard to grasp on an intuitive level, and if nothing else, seems to force us to accept some conflicting truths.

  20. Knockgoats says

    Sedgwick, and his chum Buckland, are among my favourite scientists, because they show up modern creationists (I was going to say “shame” modern creationists, but they are shameless) as the liars and frauds they are: S&B were and remained creationists, they were initially convinced geology would vindicate the biblical acccount of a world-wide flood, but eventually accepted the evidence that no such flood had occurred. The whole episode also shows that supernatural causes, and even Biblical evidence, are not excluded a priori by science: rather, they have been weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

  21. Knockgoats says

    “Light behaves as if it’s made up of particles.” “Light behaves as if it’s a wave.”

    These are both true, but at first blush it seems they both can’t be right. – Donnie B.

    No, they are both false, and so not a counterexample to the consistency of true statements with each other. Light behaves as if its made up of quanta, which are neither waves nor particles: what they are is (provisionally) defined by the equations of quantum mechanics.

  22. Joffan says

    Presumably the analogy between “scientist” and “artist” is that a scientist studies the sciences just as an artist studies the arces.

  23. Menyambal says

    Why can light not behave as both waves and particles? I spend a lot of time on water, which is a whole lot of particles, but I see waves on water a lot, and have seen where a wave smashed too many water particles through a town.

    I know that light is not waves through particles, and I know that there is more than just waves in water. But I do know that the light wave/particle business never bothered me. I just assumed it was a matter of scale.

    Quantum, on the other hand, I do not understand. But I see no reason to distrust it, as there are some damn strange things that I do know that do happen.

    (Just wanting to make clear: I am not disagreeing with quantum, I was just disagreeing with a wave/particle dichotomy.)

  24. Alan B says

    My parents met at University. Both my mother and father were university educated as pharmacists in the 1930s, my mother receiving a B. Pharm. and my father an MPS – Member of the Pharmaceutical Society which allowed him to be recognised as a “Pharmacist” – educationally equivalent to a B. Pharm. plus 2 years (IIRC) training in a retail pharmacy. There’s a good story there about his in-service training sometime.

    My mother’s intake was the first where women were allowed and 3 were accepted out of 70 or so male students. Right from the start the 3 of them were NOT accepted by the other students and many of the lecturers. The pressure became so bad that one of them dropped out before the end of the first year. IIRC, the other female student did not survive to the end (escaped to get married, I think).

    Right up to the final year my mother had to work through negative comments, dissected worms dropped down her clothing, being generally ignored and a whole range of (non-violent) abuse. She was, again IIRC the first woman at her University to get a B. Pharm but she did open the way for others.

    As I said, this was in the 1930s and things were only starting to open up for women in applied sciences such as Pharmacy.

  25. Aquaria says

    I did not know this, PZ. Thanks for the info.


    Hey, things were only marginally better for women in health professions 40 years later in East Texas, from the crap my mother put up with as a nurse anesthetist.

  26. MadScientist says

    @Donnie B: The “particle vs. wave” is really very silly because people were thinking about mechanical waves – which of course could only exist due to the particles there, so those statements are really not mutually exclusive. Unless of course you would consider statements like this to be in conflict:

    (1) The Empire State Building appears to be very tall.

    (2) The Empire State Building appears to be made of concrete.

    The only historical interest in the war about light was how influential people did their very best to condemn other peoples’ ideas without ever contributing anything substantial to the ideas. As the Quantum theory developed (the very early days with Max Planck) Louis de Broglie thought of looking for the (unfortunately named) “wave properties” of the electron and he found it pretty much as he expected it. Later on people would do the same for the proton (thanks to particle accelerators).

  27. David Marjanović says

    But I do know that the light wave/particle business never bothered me. I just assumed it was a matter of scale.

    It’s not. Even a single photon still behaves as a wave as well as as a particle, complete with going simultaneously through both slits in a double-slit experiment and interfering with itself.

  28. tdanielmidgley says

    I sometimes catch myself conflating atheism with science; for example, when I use scientific arguments and atheistic ones s if they’re the same thing.

    It’s sometimes made me wonder why I find such a close link. Then I realised, but of course. Science is atheistic. We don’t assume gods or angels are twiddling our results. So science does have a close relationship to atheism. It’s our method.

  29. chicagomolly.myopenid.com says

    Sedgwick: Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism!

    I read this less as a theological gripe than as a revulsion against inventing new words by adding the -ist suffix to old ones. Of course he says bestialize, but we can’t be consistent all the time, can we?

    Way back when I was taking a sophomore Psych course our professor, whose position on the spectrum was far from the behaviorist end, got quite cranky over the plural form behaviors. He wouldn’t hear it; it wasn’t a word, it was jargon; nobody ever uses it and nobody ever has. So there.

    Well, being a snarky little soph who was really into Willy The Shake, I remembered a line from Julius Caesar, Act I Scene ii, and lobbed it in his direction.


    Vexed I am

    Of late with passions of some difference,

    Conceptions only proper to myself,

    Which give some soil perhaps to my behaviors;

    That’s when I learned that snark doesn’t always go over well with professors.

  30. efrique says

    tdanielmidgley @29

    I sometimes catch myself conflating atheism with science; for example, when I use scientific arguments and atheistic ones as if they’re the same thing.

    Perhaps because both involve the application of skepticism; it’s just that atheism is the application of skepticism to religious claims.

  31. defides says

    The Cambridge University Museum of Earth Sciences is named after him – The Sedgwick Museum.

    At one stage I supplied the museum with steel cupboards lining a l-o-n-g corridor from floor to ceiling, to house some small portion of the millions of specimens there.

    Hey, my small contribution.

  32. csrster says

    It’s worth pointing out that the term “gentlemen” excludes a lot more than just women.

  33. DB says

    CAUTION: Pedantry ahead (though sincerely motivated).

    About the origins of the word scientist, PZ claims

    I just ran across a first-hand account of the event by the fellow who came up with it, William Whewell

    But the quotation that follows was not written by Whewell; it was taken from an article whose author is identified as Mrs. Somerville. (Like Blake Stacey #3, I too used Google Books to find the passage. Full citation: “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences”, Mrs. Somerville, The Quarterly Review, v. 51, p. 59, John Murray, London, March & June 1834.)

    Moreover, as PZ signaled with [brackets], Mrs. Somerville does not name Whewell as the “gentleman” who coined the word “scientist”.

    Anyway, PZ: Were you referring to another first-hand account, penned by Whewell himself? Did you mistake Somerville for Whewell? More generally, do you have a better basis for the widely accepted claim that Whewell coined scientist?

  34. DB says

    OK, so I should have spent another five minutes with Google before embarrassing myself by cluttering PZ’s blog with my pedantry. First off, the quotation was indeed written by Whewell, who coyly refers to himself as the “ingenious gentlemen” behind scientist. Quoth Wikipedia:

    English philosopher and historian of science William Whewell coined the term scientist in 1833, and it was first published in Whewell’s anonymous 1834 review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences published in the Quarterly Review.

    And I should look up this article on my next trip to the library:

    Dennis Danielson, How a new name embodied ideals of connection and inclusiveness.
    Nature 410, 1031 (26 April 2001)


    Although histories of science routinely mention the birth of our word ‘scientist’ from the pen of William Whewell a mere 167 years ago, revisiting the social and literary moment of that birth offers a fresh glimpse of the word’s worthy parentage and generous potential. The social events most directly related to Whewell’s invention of ‘scientist’ were the first meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), in York (1831), Oxford (1832) and Cambridge (1833).

    I welcome further pointers to the origins of scientist. Exactly how, I wonder, do we know that the word sprang from Whewell’s brow in 1833, as everyone says?