Here's Why Stephen Hawking Says There Is No God
Stephen Hawking believed that there is a "grand design" to the universe, but that it has nothing to do with God. With continual breakthroughs, science is coming closer to "The Theory of Everything," and when it does, Hawking believes all of us will be able to understand and benefit from this grand design. Let's take a look at the life, work, and worldview of the late Stephen Hawking who was widely acclaimed as one of the most brilliant minds in the world.
Stephen Hawking Says, “I’m an atheist.”
Before his death at the age of 76 on March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking was generally considered one of the smartest people on Earth. He was a world famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist who received many honors for his work in the field of cosmology, quantum physics, black holes, and the nature of spacetime.
So, when Hawking said that God didn't exist and added the sentence, "I am an atheist,” to his statement, the world took notice.
Hawking made this controversial statement in 2014 during an interview with Pablo Jauregui, a journalist from El Mundo, a Spanish language newspaper. Read the full quote below:
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
When Did Hawking Become an Atheist?
Hawking has probably been an atheist from an early age. His family was nominally Christian, but in reality, they were intellectuals and atheists.
As a school boy at St. Albans school, he argued with his classmates about Christianity. During his college years at Oxford and Cambridge, he was a well-known atheist.
His first wife, Jane, whom he married in 1965 and divorced in 1990, was a devout Christian. It is clear they were never on the same page about religious matters, and this was perhaps one of the reasons why the two decided to go their separate ways.
Hawking’s statement denying the existence of God should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Throughout the years, Hawking has made many statements in opposition to religious beliefs. A few are listed below:
- “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
- “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
- “We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is; there is no God. No one created our universe, and no one directs our fate.“ This leads me to a profound realization that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
Did Hawking Ever Say Anything Suggesting Belief in God?
Hawking has made some ambiguous statements about God. For example, in his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, he discusses what it would mean if we were to ever discover why we and the universe exist. He wrote, “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then, we would know the mind of God.”
This statement has been misinterpreted by some to mean the Hawking believed in God. In the El Mundo interview, Hawking made clear that this quote was only a metaphor:
“What I meant when I said we would know 'the mind of God' was that we would know everything God would know if there were a God, which there isn't."
Do Scientists Tend to be Atheists?
Stephen Hawking had lots of company among his peers with respect to atheism. According to surveys, as many as 93% of top-tier scientists do not believe in God. In comparison, about 83% of Americans believe in God.
Nature magazine conducted a survey in 1998 among members of The National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious group of top scientists. They found that only 7% of these scientists believed in God. Further, they showed the group of believers was shrinking when they compared their study to prior studies of a similar nature (28% in 1914 and 15% in 1933), so perhaps the proportion of believers is even lower today. (Nature 394,313:23 July 1998)
A similar study was conducted among British scientists, specifically the Fellows of the Royal Society of London. Among the British population as a whole, 42% believe in a personal God, but among British Scientists, only 5% do. (Evolution and Outreach, December 2013 6:33)
Did ALS Influence Hawking’s Religious Beliefs?
Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. This causes the brain to be unable to initiate and control muscle movement. It eventually leads to total paralysis.
At the time of diagnosis, Hawking was given only two years to live. He defied that prediction and lived to the age of 76. During the latter half of his life, he was almost totally paralysed and used a voice synthesizer to speak, which he controlled with a cheek muscle.
Some have said that Hawking’s long life was a miracle. Hawking did not believe this, saying, “Religion believes in miracles, but they are not compatible with science.”
Thus, Hawking's illness played no part in his view toward God: just as he does not need God to explain the existence of the universe, he does not need God to explain his survival. Hawking attributes his longevity to a fierce will to live and a stubborn desire to not let his illness keep him from having a full life. Hawking has said:
“However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there's life, there is hope.”
Adhering to this motto, Hawking lived his life as normally as possible. He had three children with his first wife Jane, remarried in 1995 to his caretaker Elaine Manson (they divorced in 2006) and continued to write, teach and lecture up until his last days. Hawking has received numerous awards and honors for his work, and is the author of several books intended for a general audience, including an autobiography.
Hawking’s scientific achievements may have even been fostered by his illness. Being unable to live a normal physical life meant he could devote himself to the inner life of the mind. Also, the feeling that he did not have long to live likely spurred him to work harder in order to accomplish as much as possible in the time he had.
How Does Hawking Explain the Universe?
In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, written with co-author and physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking takes the reader on a journey from the earliest beliefs about the creation of the universe to the cutting edge of modern cosmology, which includes quantum physics, string theory, multi-verses, and M-theory. Together, these theories are bringing us close to what scientists call, “The Theory of Everything," one theory that unifies all.
This book doesn’t play coy about belief in God. Right away, on page 8, Hawking writes “M-Theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or God. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.”
Something from nothing? It doesn’t immediately make sense. We have this reaction because, at the level that humans experience the universe, we see cause-and-effect. But cause-and-effect does not exist on the quantum level in the same way that we experience it.
At the end of the book on page 180, Hawking sums everything up:
“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
In the El Mundo interview, Hawking said:
“When people ask me if a God created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking directions to the edge of the earth; The Earth is a sphere; it doesn’t have an edge; so looking for it is a futile exercise.”
What Was the Response From the Religious Community?
As might be expected, there was a huge outcry from religious leaders offering vigorous rebuttals to Hawking’s statement that God did not necessarily create the universe.
Their arguments were weak, petty, and often showed little to no understanding of science. They even sometimes misquoted Hawking in order to set up straw men to knock down. The rebuttals boiled down to, “God exists because I say so.”
The Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said “Belief in God…is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.” (DailyMail.com 9/23/2010)
The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, said, “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. The Bible simply isn't interested in how the universe came into being." (DailyMail.com 9/23/2010)
Some said that Hawking did not disprove the existence of God, but this comes as no surprise. No one can prove or disprove the existence of an immaterial, invisible being. What Hawking did do is show how the universe could come into existence without a Prime Mover to set things into motion.
Others said that you cannot get something from nothing and everything has to have a cause, with God being that cause. I don’t think these critics actually read Hawking’s book, because he explains these points.
Thjere were some Christian publications which took aim at scientists themselves, claiming that God is merely the laws of the universe as physicists understand them. The Christian Post wrote: “Hawking’s redefinition of ‘nothing’ in no way removes God (and actually introduces us to something like God), but instead only reacquaints us with the standard debate between two eternal ‘somethings’–the uni/multiverse and God.”
Some pointed out that string theory and M-theory are not accepted by all scientists. This is true, but that doesn't mean that Hawking is wrong. Many scientists do accept these cutting edge theories, and the fact that some do not does not disprove them. The methodology of science is based around postulation and experimentation.
Finally, some tried to discredit Hawking by attacking his character rather than his work. For instance, Hawking has said life might exist on other planets, and that these "aliens" might be hostile to Earthlings. His antagonists retort that there is no proof of this, so everything Hawking says must be wrong. They try to conflate mere musings (that many other scientists have also speculated about) and his scientific work.
Should Hawking Have Stuck to Science and Left God to Theologians?
Some critics have stated that Hawking should have stuck to science and left God to theologians.
But Hawking did stick to science.
His views about God are informed by his study of science. Hawking was not discussing theology, which would encompass issues like whether God is one or three, whether God cares about the eating of pork, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Hawking had nothing to say about theological issues, for theological issues assume the existence of God or Gods.
Hawking’s opinion about God is a scientific opinion. Since the laws of physics can explain the creation of the universe, there is no need to have a Supreme Being to create it. Hawking explains that we do not need a God who is outside spacetime and who Himself was created from nothing to create the universe. God is superfluous.
The Grand Design
The book is written for a general audience. Even if you don’t understand all of it, you, like me, will get the gist of it. It is liberally sprinkled with illustrations and even some corny jokes. (For instance, a discussion of cosmic microwave background radiation notes that it could only heat your food to about 3 degrees above absolute zero, so it might not be very useful for making popcorn.) You don't need to have a PhD in physics to enjoy this book. But, I'm sure the physics majors will get a lot out of this book as well.
Why Was Hawking’s Funeral at a Church?
There were 500 invited guests at Stephen Hawking’s funeral held on March 31, 2018 at St. Mary the Great Church in Cambridge, England. Although Hawking was an atheist, the family chose the Church of England funeral service customarily given to longtime fellows at Cambridge University. (Hawking did his graduate work at the University and was a fellow at the University for 52 years.) About 1000 people lined the streets to view his funeral procession.
The Hawking family arranged and paid for a three-course Easter weekend meal for the homeless at the Wesley Methodist Church in Cambridge served on the day of his funeral. The tables were adorned with flowers and a card reading, “Today’s lunch is a gift from Stephen… From the Hawking family.”
Hawking will be cremated and his ashes will be interred at London’s Westminster Abbey near the remains of the renowned scientist lsaac Newton.
What Do You Believe?
Which of these statements comes closest to your own beliefs?
A Video of the "El Mundo" Interview in which Hawking Talks about His Atheism
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Catherine Giordano