A modern story about Louis Pasteur and the atheist

Curious Presbyterian has a charming story, which I reproduce below.

A story is told of a young businessman sharing a compartment on a train with an elderly gentleman.  When he noticed that the old fellow was quietly and intently praying with his rosary, the young man chided him for his ‘superstition’ and told him that science had rendered the beliefs of religion irrelevant.

“How did you come to discover that?” the old gentleman asked.

His companion didn’t really know how to answer the question fully right then and there, so he offered to send him a few texts and public lecture notes on the subject for his enlightenment.  “What’s your address?’ he asked, “I’ll send you the material via the Post Office.”  The old man rummaged in his coat pocket and produced a tattered business card that read, Louis Pasteur, Paris Institute of Scientific Research.

Louis Pasteur was the 19th century giant of microbiology who proved the germ-theory of disease and invented the rabies vaccine.  His humility certainly didn’t hinder his greatness and his commitment to science did not preclude his belief in God.

I hope this is true.  It is a very nice story.

I don’t want to be a party-pooper, and I would very much like to believe this story.  But before I give my assent, I would like to know that it is actually true.  I have grown into the habit of questioning things which I find convenient, in case they are “too good to be true.”  And the story comes with no reference, which should always make us wary.  I wonder what a search would find…

 The story comes, so Curious Presbyterian tells us, to him from Father Tim Moyle, who uses it as an introduction to an excellent article here.  There can be no question but that both repeat it in good faith.  But … is it true?  How do we know?  It does not take long to find an atheist site which claims Pasteur as an atheist.

This link takes us to a preview of Maurice Crosland, Science Under Control: The French Academy of Sciences 1795-1914, p.199 which identifies Pasteur as a Catholic, and references an anti-atheist position to Pasteur, Oeuvres, vol. 6, part 1, pp.56-7, in a discussion of fermentation at the academy of medicine, and another as Correspondance, vol.2, p.151, 154.

I have no more time to search now, but I think we must be wary.

12 Responses to “A modern story about Louis Pasteur and the atheist”

  1. Wieland

    What I found strange is the address “Paris Institute of Scientific Research”. There is no such thing and never was.
    I think it’s made up.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Well spotted.

    I’ve written to Fr Moyle and asked where he found the story. I’m having little luck finding it online.

  3. Maureen

    I suspect it’s a “famous scientist who prays the Rosary” urban legend, because I (vaguely and un-usefully) seem to recall other names being attached to it. But Pasteur certainly was Catholic and apparently did have a devotion to praying the Rosary (not unusual), so it probably rested on him.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Interesting to hear that it is a standard tale attached to various names!

  5. JC

    Details of the story may be made up, but Pasteur was definitely a very devout Catholic, which is documented on both his tombstone, and his letters, as this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
    As far as the urban legend part, there are many stories of saints which are true about a particular saint but have somehow gotten spread to multiple saints.

    Consider just how people confuse Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, the Woman of Ill Repute and the Woman Caught in Adultery in the Bible, or how people confuse quotations from Teresa of Avila, Theresa of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta (esp. since they inspired one another and often quote one another).

    People often confuse stories about saints of the same name, or saints with similar lives. I recently heard one of the nuns on EWTN’s _Truth in the Heart_ tell a story about “St. Francis” that was just a variant of St. Anthony and the fish. The incident of St. Anthony talking to the fish because no one else would listen is quite well documented, but St. Francis didn’t go around preaching, so it’s likely that “St. Francis once preached to birds because no one else would listen” is a popular variant.

    In this case, the Pasteur story goes back to at least the time of Chesterton and is backed up by a statement in Pasteur’s own letters that, “the older and wiser I get, the more my faith becomes that of a peasant.”

  6. Roger Pearse

    All true, of course. But we do need to be careful not to repeat stories which are not actually factually correct. To do so is wrong, and also brings Christians into disrepute.

  7. Brendon

    I wouldn’t say that Pasteur was a devout Catholic. In Debré’s biography, he indicatest that Pasteur was religious and “his attitude was of a believer, not of a sectarian.”

    What is clear is that Pasteur saw religion and science in a very different light. Pasteur said, “In each one of use there are two men, the scientist and the man of faith or of doubt. These two spheres are separate, and woe to those who want to make them encroach upon another in the present state of our knowledge!”

  8. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for this — interesting.

    I would certainly agree with the latter, in my humble capacity as both a scientist and an evangelical.

  9. Robil Mathew

    Well said Brendon.

    the scientist and the man of faith or of doubt ==> First is visible (visual form) and second one shapeless (the inner being). And my understanding and experience is second part helps (energises) one to shape up the first.

  10. Alphons
  11. Michele

    It seems this anecdote was good enough for G.K. Chesterton: http://francesblogg.blogspot.com/2009/03/louis-pasteur.html

    Regardless, I think that the purpose of this story was to relate the devotion and humility of Louis Pasteur, a brilliant man of science. His deep faith seems to be documented elsewhere, so whether this was a historical occurrence is immaterial in my opinion.

  12. Roger Pearse

    A falsehood cannot achieve that purpose. But it is just an urban legend.