Stephen Hawking, the famed cosmologist and former holder of a chair once held by Isaac Newton at Cambridge University, is releasing a new book (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow) that explores the origins of the universe. Entitled The Grand Design, the book is already courting controversy with one of its central assertions: that the presence of a god is not necessary to explain the universe. In a widely quoted advance excerpt, the book states:
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. It is not necessary to invoke God to … set the Universe going.
This promises to be a fascinating book! I look forward to reading it. It’s release date in the USA is set for September 7.
Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation … The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the Universe came into being.”
A couple of comments about that: first, I’m not so sure that I agree with Rabbi Sacks and his assertion that the Bible leaves the question of the origin of the universe alone. As a piece of evidence to the contrary, I would like to introduce Genesis 1:
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And so on. In the Biblical worldview, this is how the universe and the Earth were formed. God did it. End of story.
I don’t doubt for one minute that Chief Rabbi Sacks is well acquainted with the Book of Genesis and its rather prominent location at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible. I think he may have been alluding to something else, something rather remarkable: when it comes to the macroscopic explanation of how the universe operates, science now provides the dominant narrative, and most people, even religious leaders, accept it.
I grant that there are some big exceptions to this, but to a great degree science as it is practiced in the world today is accepted by Western religions. In the USA we still have problems with creationism, theocratic politicians, and charlatan faith healers who can cost people their lives. These conflicts continue to have serious consequences and represent a threat to religious freedom and science. But even so, many major religious denominations embrace science now rather than stand in its way. This is a monumental change for any denomination that continues to hold particular texts, such as the Bible, to be inerrant or sacred.
Nevertheless Chief Rabbi Sacks is defining religion down when he acknowledges that the Biblical creation story of Genesis is no longer necessary as a cornerstone of religious belief. There was a time when all the mysteries of the universe were perceived to be explained by the Bible. Pioneering scientists such as Galileo were recognized as threats not only because they gave information that contradicted the teachings of the church but also because they had a method of obtaining knowledge, a scientific method, that is, that circumvented the prevailing religious methods such as studying the Bible.
And when Sacks states that “religion is about interpretation,” he also reveals something very problematic, for indeed, religion is about interpretation, and as it stands now we have thousands of different religious interpretations for how the world works, many of them contradictory. Which is correct? The only method of interpretation that is self correcting and informed by the systematic work of thousands of people dedicated to advancing knowledge is science. That doesn’t mean that science always gets it right, but when it’s wrong, it is eventually corrected, and it must always be based on evidence.
Another religious critic of Hawking, as quoted in the same CNN article, argues:
“The ‘god’ that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing,” said Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
“Hawking’s god is a god-of-the-gaps used to plug present gaps in our scientific knowledge.
“Science provides us with a wonderful narrative as to how [existence] may happen, but theology addresses the meaning of the narrative,” he added.
He is defining religion down as well, as he has completely let go of the fact that religion once provided the overall explanation for the world around us. Like Rabbi Sacks, he acknowledges that science does, in fact, have most of the answers in hand already about the mysteries of the universe, and he even preempts the possibility that Professor Hawking will fill this picture in even more completely with his book, stating that “theology addresses the meaning of the narrative,” and therefore there is a continued necessity for religion in a scientific world.
But is this true? Does theology really address what science means to the rest of us? Or does it merely assign meaning? With so many contradictory and conflicting religious narratives, it’s hard to see the overall value in any single given narrative vis-a-vis science or even secular humanism, which does not layer supernaturalism onto that which is naturally observed.
I’m not arguing that Stephen Hawking has somehow made religion obsolete with this book; in my less diplomatic moments, I might make the argument that science as a whole has been working on this over the last several centuries, and this new book is another brick in that wall. But I do wish to point out that theologians such as those quoted here are stretching farther and farther to show that religion still has a unique purpose in the world today. And when they have already conceded such a substantial part of the battle, admitting already that science is capable of solving the greatest questions of how the universe operates, then is it so far-fetched to imagine that they may concede the rest someday?