About the discipline
In their own ways, mathematics and religion are both used to solve real-world problems. While they may come at problem-solving from different points of view, they share a study of abstract concepts and are both based on the idea that objects are unchanging and that truths are certain and universal. Some religious beliefs have adopted mathematical ideas for religious or metaphysical purposes. Others have considered specific numbers and shapes to have mystical powers and divine meaning. Some people would argue that math itself is a religion, because of mathematicians’ belief that nature is simple, comprehensible and to be understood.
Founding principles: Pythagoras (582-507 B.C.), known as “the father of numbers,” also contributed to philosophy and religious teaching. While best known for the Pythagorean Theorem (a squared + b squared = c squared), he also founded the mathematical, mystic, religious and scientific society called the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras and his students believed that through mathematics, everything could be predicted and measured in rhythmic patterns or cycles. They found beauty in numbers, which informed a worldview that included music, mathematics and an order and meaning to the world based on numbers and shapes.
Religious interests also motivated innovators such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, who developed advances in mathematics to understand the structure of the Cosmos and God’s plan. Devout Christians, they saw their scientific work in religious terms and also incorporated math into their religious understanding. This worldview attributed divine character to mathematics because it is part of the structure God has used to create the world. Mathematics with religious overtones is also seen in Chinese number mysticism and the fields of theological geometry and the philosophy of mathematics.
Another example is the storied “golden ratio” in mathematics, praised by Pythagoras and considered by some to be the “divine proportion.” The golden ratio expresses the relationship that the sum of two quantities is to the larger quantity as the larger is to the smaller. The golden ratio appears in art, music, philosophy, psychology and architecture. It is sometimes used to portray an ideal proportion as dictated by or found pleasing to the Divine; some believe it is also innately pleasing and psychologically satisfying to the human mind and eye. Studies of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, show these buildings may be built according to the “golden ratio.”
Religion and invention: Religious thinkers have contributed to mathematics for centuries, impacting the math we use today. It is believed that the Indian mathematician Baudhayana discovered the Pythagorean Theorem around 800 B.C., about 300 years before the Pythagoreans. Hindu texts about the geometry of altar construction, dating to 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. or earlier, contain large amounts of geometrical knowledge, developed for religious purposes. The method of expressing all possible numbers using a set of 10 symbols emerged in India, around the middle of the third century B.C. Known as Brahmi numerals, some based on Sanskrit letters, they developed into the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 used today.
Systems such as algebra, Arabic numerals, the decimal system and concept of zero were transmitted to Medieval Europe from the Muslim world. As Islam spread in the 7th century, blending of old and new and Eastern and Western ideas led to advances in physics, astronomy, medicine and mathematics. Arabic numerals – known as “Indian numerals” in Arabic because they originated in India – made mathematical tasks easier. The works of Al-Khwarizmi (Alghorismus), from whom the mathematical term “algorism” was derived, were translated into Latin and other European languages. Alghorismus created astronomical tables, laid the groundwork for algebra and found methods to address complex mathematical problems such as square roots and complex fractions. His experiments measured the height of the earth’s atmosphere and discovered the principle of the magnifying lens. Trigonometric work by Alkirmani of Toledo was translated into Latin (from which we get sine and cosine functions).
Issues today: Some scientists are using scientific data and principles, such as laws of probability, to attempt to prove or disprove the existence of God. Each side of the long-standing debate uses the universal language of mathematical probabilities to argue its point. In “The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth” (2004), Stephen Unwin uses the Bayesian analysis – a math equation developed more than 200 years ago by European philosopher Thomas Bayes – to calculate the probability that God exists, concluding there is 67 percent “probability” that God does exist.
Those who use Bayes’ theorem in this way assign numerical values to the likelihood of religious experiences and beliefs, considering various factors. University of Oxford professor Richard Dawkins makes a case against this use of the theorem in his book, “The God Delusion” (2006), arguing that the equation is sound but the numbers used are based on “subjectively judged” experiences “turned into numbers for the sake of the exercise” (page 106).
Mathematicians have explored and debated spiritual aspects of mathematics for centuries, and continue to do so. Other recent books that explore the topic include “Mathematics in a Postmodern Age: A Christian Perspective” (2001) and “The Divine Challenge, Mathematics and the Divine” (2004). Mathematicians and others continue to see a divine hand in the complex and simple truths of mathematics; as well as evidence of a world that functions solely by its own, non-divine, laws.
Researchers could study whether religious faith impacts interest in mathematics or theories of mathematics; or how people believe using math to prove or disprove God impacts their religious beliefs or worldview. Researchers could examine whether belief or disbelief in divine origins affects the work ethics or other lifestyle beliefs and behaviors of mathematicians or others working with math. They could also look at whether different faiths, or lack thereof, have an impact on beliefs about mathematics and how it is utilized around the world.
- “The Role of Mathematics in the Science and Religion Discussion” by P. Douglas Kindschi. Paper prepared for “Science and Religion: Global Perspectives” June 4-8, 2005.(.pdf)
- June 4-8, 2005, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute
- “Math: Gift from God or Work of Man? Mathematics, Religion and Evolution in School Curricula” by John Allen Paulos
- “Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith” by Daniel J. Cohen and Tony Crilly. Victorian Studies, Winter 2008, Vol. 50, No. 2, Pages 336-337.
- Perlovsky, Leonid I. “Science and Religion: Scientific Understanding and Mathematical Modeling of Emotions of the Spiritually Sublime(.pdf).”
- “The Banach-Tarski paradox or what mathematics and religion have in common” by Volker Runde, 2002.
- Seneta, Eugene. “Mathematics, religion and Marxism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.” Historia Math. Vol. 31, No. 3 (2004): 337-67.
- “Math Professor Wins a Coveted Religion Award” by Dennis Overbye. The New York Times, March 16, 2006.
- “Group sees glimpses of divinity in math.” The Boston Globe, July 28, 2007.
- “Math + religion = Trouble; Actually, since Pythagoras the relationship between men of numbers and the Deity has been more along the lines of love-hate, but it’s a rich vein” by Ron Csillag. The Toronto Star, Jan. 26, 2008.
- Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study. T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans, (eds.). Elsevier Science, 2005.
- Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and His Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier. Cornell University Press, 2006.
- A Passion for Mathematics: Numbers, Puzzles, Madness, Religion, and the Quest for Reality. Clifford A. Pickove. Wiley, 2005.
- Interdisciplinary Research, section “Mathematics and Religion: Processes of Faith and Reason” by Allen F. Repko. SAGE, 2008.
- Where mathematics comes from: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. George Lakoff. Basic Books, 2001.
- Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Theory. Loren Graham, Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–from the Babylonians to the Maya. Dick Teresi. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
- Philosophy of Mathematics. Stephen F. Barker. Prentice-Hall, 1964.
- God: The Science of Christ and the Unseenby James Defares. CreateSpace, 2010.
- A Christian Perspective on the Foundations of Mathematics. R. L. Brabena. Wheaten College, 1977.
- The Faith Equation: One Mathematician’s Journey in Christianity by Marvin L. Bittinger. Literary Architects, 2007.
- Logos: Mathematics and Christian Theology. C. Henry Granville. Associated University Presses, 1976.
- More Precisely: The Math You Need to do Philosophy. Eric Steinhart. Broadview Press, 2009.
- Mathematics in India. Kim Plofke. Princeton University Press, 2008.
- Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry. Fukagawa Hidetoshi and Tony Rothman. Princeton University Press, 2008.
- What is and What Will Be: Integrating Science and Religion. Paul Budnik. Mountain Math Software, 2006.
- Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. Edward Grant. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
- Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith. Daniel J. Cohen The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
- Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. John Allen Paulos. Hill and Wang, 2009.
- Mathematics in Indigenous Contexts project (pdf)
- “Social constructivism in practice: case study of an elementary school’s mathematics program” V. Svec and Lynn M. Cowen. Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, Jan.1, 2005.
- Brooks, Melanie Carol. “Religious Conversion to Islam and Its Influence on Workplace Relationships in American and Egyptian Schools: A Case Study.”Educational Policy. Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan. 2010): 83-109.
- Jett, Christopher Charlie. “‘I Once Was Lost, but Now Am Found’: The Mathematics Journey of an African American Male Mathematics Doctoral Student(.pdf).” Journal of Black Studies. (Apr. 19, 2011).
Codes of ethics
- American Mathematical Society – Code of Conduct(.pdf)
- AMS – Ethical Guidelines
- The Mathematical Association of America – Code of Ethics
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics – Professional Standards (membership required for access)
- Mathematics and the Liberal Arts
- Indian Mathematics, Mathematics in the service of religion: I. Vedas and Vedangas
- Mathematics and the Spiritual World (Psychology & Religion Research Group)
- Mathematics and Religion PowerPoint(.pdf)
Professional associations and faith groups
- Affiliation of Christian Engineers
- American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin
- Association of Christians in Mathematical Sciences
- International Muslim Association of Scientists & Engineers
- Theological Perspectives on the Science of Economics. Paul Oslington, University of New South Wales/Australian Defence Force Academy
- Relating Theology and the Natural Sciences to Contemporary Issues. Dr. J Schaefer. Marquette University