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.

14 thoughts on “A modern story about Louis Pasteur and the atheist”

  1. 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. 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.

  3. 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:
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11536a.htm
    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.”

  4. 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.

  5. 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!”

  6. 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.

  7. In the study of history it is always a good idea to listen to those closest in time to the events in order to get an idea of the truth is something is contentious. The faith that Chesterton believes this story is for me a very credible source that the story is accurate. The first complaint about the title mentioned on his card is a ridiculous quibble. He was director for the Pasteur Institute of Scientific research in Paris as well as having many members ships of scientific bodies around Europe. He was also a member of Académie Nationale de Médecine. At which he was an office bearer. So to attempt to pick holes in this story says more about the sceptic than the story itself. In my opinion, the critics have issues within themselves and the story is worthy of belief based on the evidence I have read.

  8. I’m not sure about the logic here; and I think the question is one that deserves investigation. If I might respond, without offence?

    To me, your first sentence is true enough – ask those people in a position best to know.

    Sentence #2: surely we don’t want “authority” but evidence? But, if we did want authority, then I wouldn’t place any reliance whatever on Chesterton as a historical authority, because he wasn’t one. He was a literary lion; but his claims to fame are his writing, not his content. He wasn’t there. He had no sources that we do not have. And … his writing is often careless indeed. His insight is formidable, of course, and no disrespect to GKC; but that’s not the question here.

    The question of the title error: I don’t see how it matters how many different other titles he had, if the one quoted is wrong.

    Finally you finish with an ad hominem: i.e., arguing that the only reason people object is because [insert personal reason here]. Now, I believe that, AFTER we have demonstrated that a view is false, and find that people maintain it anyway, then we may reasonably explain their persistence by some personal reason. But the existence of a personal motive is not itself evidence that an argument is false. An atheist will seek out any and every argument to rebut the Christian faith, because of his personal anger at being forced to go to Sunday School as a kid (or whatever). But the validity of the arguments stands or falls on the strength (or otherwise!) of the arguments. Once we find that the arguments are just slogans and jeers – as we invariably do – then we can dismiss them, and then make reference to the fact that he is an atheist.

    So … I can’t agree with you here.

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