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.


29 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:
    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. Thank you for this — interesting.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. I’ve been looking up for this story. Most of the links I’ve found are about Pasteur reading the Bible, not praying with his rosary. One of the links I found said it was part of a Biography written by Vallery-Radot, I look for the book in french but didn’t find the story on it (https://archive.org/details/laviedepasteur00valluoft). I’m starting to think it is false. Anyhow, Pasteur was a strong believer and has lots of interesting quotes.

  12. False? or not documented well enough to be proven right? It seems that we have to have proof for everything now a days. Anyway, I don’t know either if its false so I ended up on this website to see if the story was true or not. But maybe it does not matter and what matters is what you take away from it. Lets stop trying to Atheist pleasers.

  13. “False? or not documented well enough to be proven right?” You are right Cromwell, we just don’t have proves but it doesn’t changes the meaning of the story. 🙂

  14. The meaning would be right we just couldn’t use Pasteurs name or say it is a “real life story”…

  15. Not at all, it would just be a fictional story with a nice message because I wouldn’t use Pasteurs name or say it is a “real life story”. Hey Roger, I am with you, I love truth, I just happen to also like openly fictional stories, that’s not a lie.

  16. It’s possible that Pasteur had many such chance meetings with both believers and non-believers. It doesn’t stretch credulity that he would be sitting on a park bench by a university, for instance, and encounter a student claiming that science ‘made the God thing obsolete.” One quote (paraphrasing) from a biography: “I could only hope that I had the faith of a simple Breton peasant.” He experienced many tragedies in his life, children dying, etc. Yet he seemed to retain his faith in God.

  17. It doesn’t seem true to me. For as much as I could search, I couldn’t find definite proof of this fact. I don’t agree with Adriana about the story carrying a nice message even if we don’t mention Pasteur or that it is not a true story, because the message conveyed by it, that even a genius man of science like Pasteur acknowledges that science doesn’t preclude his believe in God, is only valid if actually happened to someone that albeit being very knowledgeable in science, still is very faithful in his religion. If the story is told as fiction, why should one believe on the lesson taught, if it is not factual? If the story is about a common man and not an illustrious man of science, how can we be certain the science indeed doesn’t preclude the faith in God without being an authority in science?

    Because things look pretty and nice, it doesn’t imply they are correct.

  18. Adriana says:
    May 12, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Not at all, it would just be a fictional story with a nice message because I wouldn’t use Pasteurs name or say it is a “real life story”. Hey Roger, I am with you, I love truth, I just happen to also like openly fictional stories, that’s not a lie.

    But this story without the “a real story” bit is meaningless. It is conveyed as an example / evidence that even a wise scientist can be devout in spite of the student’s misgivings. But if the story is not true, then it isn’t an example at all. It’s just something some people may feel good listening to because it gives a false impression of validation.

  19. Funny!… how Presbyterians, who have an inherent bias against Catholicism, the Virgin Mary and her Holy Psalter (the Rosary) would doubt a French scientist’s devotion to it .

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