Niels Bohr

The Religion and Political Views of Niels Bohr



Bohr was part Lutheran, part Jewish by heritage. He ultimately became agnostic.

Political Views

Bohr helped Jews escape Nazi-occupied Europe and contributed to the Manhattan Project. His contributions to physics are widely recognized and still drawn from today.


Niels Bohr was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. He died in 1962 of heart failure in Copenhagen.

Bohr was baptized a Lutheran, which was the religion of his father's family. However, his mother came from a wealthy and influential Jewish family.[1] Bohr's parents were married in a civil ceremony,[2] indicating they weren't very religious. But it was also likely the result of them being from different religious backgrounds.

Nevertheless, Bohr's biographers seem to agree that his family was not religious, though Bohr himself showed an interest in religion as a child.[3] Prior to his marriage to Margrethe Nørlund, Bohr "quietly resigned" from the Lutheran Church. His wife, who remained a Lutheran until after the wedding, said Niels no longer "was taken" by it.[4] She seemed to be on the same page, saying:

And for me it was exactly the same. [Interest in religion] disappeared completely.[5]

Consequently, Bohr is widely considered an atheist.[6] However, I can't find anything definitive from Bohr indicating he outright rejected any sort of higher power. He did once write about the difference between science and religion, mentioning that "the idea of a personal God is foreign to me," but went on to explain that science and religion use language differently, not that one is right and the other wrong.[7]

What seems more likely is that Bohr, being the brilliant scientist he was, realized that knowledge and certainty is tricky, maybe impossible. He said:

The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.[8]

That's an understanding of epistemological paradox that would indicate agnosticism rather than atheism, which is a rather rigid philosophy.

The West thanks you, sir!

Bohr's scientific brilliance happened to come about parallel to World War II. Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany for the bulk of the war. During this time, Bohr arranged for many Jewish scientists to be hidden throughout Denmark or assisted their escape to Sweden. He also donated the money from his Nobel Prize to the Finnish war effort. When it was revealed that the Nazis were going to arrest Bohr, he and his family also fled to Sweden, where Bohr managed to convince the King of Sweden to publicly announce that his country would harbor Jewish refugees.[9]

Bohr was then recruited by the U.S. and Britain to work on the Manhattan Project–the initiative that would ultimately create the atomic bomb.[10] It is no stretch to say that the end of World War II can be credited in part to Bohr and the other scientists on the project.

Perhaps none of this amounts to any sort of political ideology–which is what we tend to examine here at the Hollowverse. But my view is that Bohr was faced with a decision: totalitarianism and intolerance or freedom and openness–and he chose the latter. His contributions to science and society will likely never be forgotten.

What do you think of this?

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