I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.
— Stephen Hawking
When the answer is simple, God is speaking.
— Albert Einstein
The passing of British physicist Stephen William Hawking last Wednesday got more than a few religious types remarking that the genius cosmologist would finally find out whether he was right, not only about his theories on the universe, but also in his unbelief in a Supreme Being.
Or maybe not. After all, the late Cambridge don, born in Oxford on January 8, 1942 – the 300th death anniversary of the Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei – didn’t believe in life after death.
“I regard the brain as a computer, which will stop working when its components fail,” he once said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
So, if he was right, he wouldn’t be around to think or say, “I knew it!”
Albert Einstein, Hawking’s fellow giant in science, who was also 76 on his death in 1955, likewise professed: “I do not believe in immortality of the individual.”
When science gets religion
Still, both men shared a near-religious awe at the magnificent complexity of the universe, whose workings they spent their lives working out.
“I do not believe in a personal God,” Einstein declared. “If something is in me that can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world.”
The German-born Jew, whose theory of relativity revolutionized physics, said further: “I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with the awareness of – and glimpse into – the marvelous construction of the existing world … the basics of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.”
Born to a nominally Christian family, Hawking was a non-believer at an early age, with intellectuals and atheists birthing and raising him. Arguing about Christianity with his St. Albans School classmates, he was a well-known atheist during his Oxford and Cambridge studies. His unbelief was one reason for his 1990 divorce from his devoutly Christian first wife Jane Wilde, who bore him two sons and a daughter.
Yet in his 1988 worldwide bestseller, “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” Hawking wrote that if one could know why the universe existed, “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then, we would know the mind of God.” That was, in fact, his lifelong quest: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
He later disavowed belief in a divine creator, however: “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.”
His own scientific work focused in large part on showing how the cosmos could come into being without God.
In his 2010 tome, “The Grand Design,” Hawking rebutted his past view that belief in a divine creator was not incompatible with scientific theory. Instead, he argued: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
Thus, Hawking questioned the belief of his fellow Cambridge genius, the 17th-Century mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton, who could not conceive of a supremely well-ordered universe arising out of chaos just by chance, a view that Einstein echoed in his famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
To which Hawking retorted in his 1996 book, “The Nature of Space and Time”: “Einstein was wrong when he said, ‘God does not play dice’. Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.”
In God we doubt
For all their statements about God, in response to their knowledge about the astounding intricacies of the cosmos, Hawking, Einstein, and other leading scientists of our time could say with certainty whether or not God exists.
In the quote starting this article, Hawking said God may have decreed the laws of science, while insisting He doesn’t meddle with them.
Einstein’s words after Hawking’s at the start also show a sense of the divine, especially in the awe-inspiring discoveries of science. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” the greatest scientific mind of the past century also said. And he warned: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Through the ages, other great minds of science also acknowledged the divine.
Declared a heretic by the Catholic Church, Galileo believed that God “would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”
Charles Darwin, whose ideas on evolution undermining belief in creation, acknowledged, “the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.”
And Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, an atheist-turned-Christian, wrote for CNN:
“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”
And the Lord thanked Stephen Hawking last Wednesday for his decades of worshipful science, as He freed him from the ravages of his half-century of illness. Amen.