A Response to Stephen Hawking’s Atheism

I love science, especially astronomy and cosmology, and read about it daily and watch TV documentaries on it. Some years ago I watched a TV programme featuring Stephen Hawking, entitled “Did God create the universe?”

Initially he described the ways the church had opposed scientists such as Galileo. He then described how subatomic particles appear, disappear and reappear at random out of nothing. He went on to say that, similarly, the universe originally was very small – a singularity – hence it too could come into existence out of nothing without violating the known laws of physics. It was originally an infinitesimally small black hole which exploded in the Big Bang ultimately to form the universe as we know it. He asked whether God created the quantum laws governing this and commented that science has a more compelling explanation. His main thesis was that there was no time before the Big Bang so, said Hawking, it doesn’t have a cause. In fact there was no time in which a cause could exist. He concluded that the question “Did God create the universe?” was therefore a question that doesn’t make sense. Then he added that there is probably no heaven and no afterlife. (He will know better now).

I was both surprised and disappointed that the programme, and Hawking’s thesis, was so superficial. In passing, let me say that yes, the church did maltreat scientists at one time. But he didn’t mention that Protestantism facilitated growth of science and that many scientists have been or are Christians. Nor did he mention that science has perpetrated some evils too. Take Eugenics which was popular in the early 20th century and called for the sterilization of the mentally ill, the blind, the deaf, the disabled, etc., and led to enforced “racial hygiene.” Are we to write science off because of such disgraceful aberrations? Yet Hawking appeared to be implying religion should be written off because of the malpractice mentioned.

Hawking described creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), which Christians have always believed, then made a leap of faith to state that there is no divine being behind it. This is as much a statement of faith as saying God is behind it. What evidence did he have to prove there is no God? He said there was no time in which a cause of the Big Bang could exist, ignoring the concept that God is outside of time.

And yet theoretical physicists believe in dark matter, dark energy and dark flow without being able to prove they exist. They also hold that there could be many universes (the multiverse theory). These beliefs are purely theoretical because they work and fit in with the maths. I have no problem in principle in believing in these things. They appear to be required because of anomalies in the universe which cannot be explained by normal matter and energy. But they are statements of faith

By the same token, Christians argue that a divine creator is also required because that alone can answer the fundamental questions: Why is there anything at all? Granted everything came from nothing but why did that happen? Granted there was no time ‘before’ the Big Bang but why does that exclude an eternal creator?

Hawking might have argued that there is no scientific evidence for a divine creator. But who ordained that scientific evidence is the only allowable evidence. Can science disprove my religious experience is actually of God. It is part of my evidence for believing in God. It is a quality of experience transcending any other. It is an experience of numinous. Rudolph Otto said the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, a tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, a tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. There is also a sense of being in communion with a wholly other, a sense of supernatural presence. It is a sublime, awe-inspiring experience which is beyond comprehension.

Some people have tried to separate the numinous from religion, for example Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens etc. It is clear that, for instance, some astronomers have a sense of awe as they contemplate the universe, and I share that. In so far as that is the same as my religious experience (and that can legitimately be debated) it is evidence that human beings are worshipping creatures. Some may ‘worship’ creation rather than a creator but the sense of worship/numinous is one evidence for God. The idea that such exalted experiences together with love, altruism, personality, art, music, poetry, etc., just emerged out of the Big Bang with no cause and no divine creator is not only a statement that cannot be verified but it stretches credulity. It is far more credible that they are evidences of a divine creator.

True, science may be able to describe physiological and psychological aspects of religious experience but how can it prove that those aspects are the only cause of religious experience?

Hawking seemed to be implying that religion was caused by human beings being unable in the past to explain fearful experiences such as eclipses. However it seems much more credible that since religion is universal, it caused religious reactions to phenomena like eclipses, rather than the other way round. Why should a religious reaction to some phenomena not be an evidence of the existence of a divine creator?  What evidence did Hawking have that, since seeing an eclipse as the wrath of God is mistaken, that means the concept of God is mistaken? That certainly does not follow.

Hawking was one of the many who see scientific proof as the only proof. But, as I asked above, who ordained that the world is only scientific or only scientific questions may be asked. This attitude is narrow-minded, arrogant, scientific fundamentalism.

We might add questions about Jesus who, on a careful reading of the NT, claimed to be God. As C S Lewis said: was he mad, bad or God? If Hawking and his atheistic colleagues believed Jesus was mad or bad they are really sticking their necks out (although Hawking did not mention Jesus in this programme).

Unfortunately, some scientists who are highly qualified in their field of expertise have a GCSE level of understanding of religion, yet feel qualified to pontificate about it.

Hawking and his atheistic colleagues may think, in their rather puerile understanding of Christianity, that religion has had its day. But I have to respond that the demise of religion/spirituality is consistently behind schedule.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction