In what would be somewhat of a revelation had the late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking not been one of the world’s most famous atheists—and spoken or written on the topic on numerous occasions—media outlets are playing up that Hawking’s final book Brief Answers to the Big Questions contains the assertion that there is no God.
CNN, Fox News, the Telegraph, CNET, Yahoo News, and numerous tabloid publications have all led with headlines centered around a quote from the book in which Hawking wrote, “Do I have faith? We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God... No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either.”
It’s a strong opinion, to be sure, but it is not new at all. As recently as 2008, Hawking had described himself as “not religious in the normal sense” in that he viewed the universe as governed by the laws of physics first and foremost. But by the 2010 release of his book The Grand Design, Hawking had shifted to writing outright that fundamental laws like gravity meant it is “not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” In 2014, he publicly described himself as an atheist in an interview with El Mundo, suggesting religion is a form of superstition:
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.
So this is not exactly new information. It would be way more surprising if Hawking had a deathbed conversion to faith, as some hoax articles claimed earlier this year.
While Hawking’s religious beliefs (or more accurately, the lack of them) are notable, the new book also contains his arguably more pressing concerns about the global threat to science and education posed by far-right populism and “reckless indifference” to the long-term threat to humanity posed by climate change and nuclear warfare.
Of course, Hawking being regularly inclined to pontificate on doomsday scenarios in his latter years, the book also has passages with dire warnings regarding artificial intelligence and genetically-modified “superhumans” that could trigger “significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete.” (Hawking had rightful concerns that genetic modification research could lead to a resurgence of the eugenics movement.)
Hawking’s atheism may ruffle some feathers with true believers, even though he was never a particularly militant one along the lines of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. But as far as scientific controversies go, Hawking’s career is rich with ones having more to do with almighty physical forces than spiritual ones. For example, take his gambles that black holes destroy information, thus seemingly violating the current understanding of quantum mechanics, or that the Higgs boson could never be found. When research was published throwing the weight of the evidence against his position, Hawking conceded both bets.
Correction: The title of Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book is The Grand Design, not The Great Design. We regret the error.