Stephen Hawking is an Atheist? Who Cares?

There are lots of atheists out there, but when Stephen Hawking denies the existence of God, headlines ensue and people take notice. They shouldn’t. The theological beliefs of leading scientists vary over time. Aristotle was a polytheist, Newton a monotheist and now, it seems, Stephen Hawking advocates for atheism. But this means nothing. To assume that the theological beliefs of scientists have climaxed with atheism shows ignorance about the history of science and the theological beliefs of its pioneers.

We associate science with real truth. Some naively believe that scientists only uncover permanent, unchanging truths about the nature of the universe. Therefore, we conclude that their theological views are unchanging and permanent, too. But part of the history of science is the history of changing minds. This is scary for those in search of certainty. Yet believing the theological views of scientists will continue to change is more rational than assuming that the theological speculations of scientists have come to an end in our era. For atheists, believing that scientists have discovered “real truth” about religion makes them feel special since it allows them to consider themselves “enlightened.” But Hawking’s atheism is about as permanent as Aristotle’s polytheism.

Scientists still lack convincing answers to many big questions, especially those about the origins of the universe. When asked, many, including Hawking, use the Big Bang Theory (actually first proposed by a Catholic priest, Father Georges Lemaître) to understand the origin of the universe. But what existed before this? If the Big Bang Theory accurately explains our world’s origins, who or what created this tiny dot from which all matter emerged in a time period of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second? Hawking himself gives a rather unconvincing account of the origins of the universe: In a speech last year when describing how the universe could have been created without God, he joked, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” This is far from satisfactory for the intellectually curious because this question still persists: if the world exists without a creator, how did it get here?

Hawking essentially admits he has no ideas how the universe began, or what existed before the Big Bang. No contemporary scientist does. For most of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages, the intellectual elite of this time period, the mere existence of the universe proved the existence of God because if there is no creator, how did we get here? St. Thomas Aquinas most forcefully made this argument in his “Five Proofs” (Quinque Via) for the existence of God. In one proof, Aquinas argued, “whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” Who can deny that all motion in the universe has a first cause?

 

Aquinas’ ideas were so powerful for so long, even most eighteenth century “Enlightenment” philosophers supported deism (the belief in a god who plays no active role in the universe) over atheism. The leaders of the most secular movement in history, the architects of the “Age of Reason” found atheism irrational. Voltaire and Thomas Paine, two great enemies of Christianity, believed in God because they thought this rationally explained the origins of the universe.

And why would we trust scientists to teach us about theology, anyway? When analyzing the theological speculations of modern scientists, we must recognized that more so than their predecessors, modern scientists study only the physical, material world, so they are predisposed to believe in a lack of immaterial substances. Before the eighteenth century, science and theology were united fields. From the dawn of science until the eighteenth century, science was usually practiced by deeply religious, spiritually inclined people. The first great astronomers of the ancient era were Babylonian priests. The greatest experimental natural philosophers of the Middle Ages, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, were trained clergyman. Most members of the seventeenth century Royal Society, like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, were committed Christians. They believed in Scripture, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.

But that changed during the Enlightenment, when a divide emerged between theologians and the students of nature. The significance? Science and theology became more separate fields of inquiry, so those who study science no longer study anything spiritual, predisposing them to suggest a world void of spiritual substance. In other words, anyone who strictly studies material phenomena will be less inclined to believe in the existence of spiritual substances. Naturally contemporary scientists are more likely to be atheist than theologians, for example. It’s the nature of their field, at least in the twenty-first century. Does anyone doubt that theologians—those who have dedicated their professional careers to studying theological questions—are more likely to believe in God? We must recognize both sides have biases implicit in their fields of study, provoking a certain viewpoint.

Change is inherent in the discipline of science and the theological musings of its leading members. Why would we think this would stop? From Aristotle, to Newton, to Hawking, this lineage won’t end. Change it a lesson of history. It can only be stopped by God. It may make atheists feel good to know that their ideas have support from leading scientists, those whom twenty-first century Western culture deems the intellectual elite, but to assume this won’t change is to assume science won’t change. The theological views of today’s scientists are not monolithic. They are merely contemporary expressions, and like past contemporary expressions, they will change.

Editor’s note: The image above is a painting of Isaac Newton (1643-1727).

David Byrne

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David Byrne earned his doctorate in intellectual history from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). He can be found @ReaganBiography on Twitter.

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