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Hey, Did You Know Stephen Hawking Thought There Is No God?

Illustration for article titled Hey, Did You Know Stephen Hawking Thought There Is No God?
Photo: AP

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Correction: The title of Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book is The Grand Design, not The Great Design. We regret the error.

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post

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DISCUSSION

poetjunkie
Poetjunkie

I was raised a southern Baptist and one thing that always stuck with me from the time I was a kid until this very moment is: Why are we supposed to matter?

We (I) was raised to believe that the universe, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE, was here for me... revolves around me, and us, and was created with meaning FOR us, and if I just ask nicely enough, just care enough, I can ask the Almighty above for things that run counter to how the universe works. And if I prayed enough? God would answer. I was taught that I was blessed with free will, and that God is an all-knowing, all-loving being.... and yet if I didn’t make the exact pre-approved choices by a book written (and rerererere-written) over the last 2,000 years, then I would forever be thrown into a pit of hellfire, to suffer for all eternity. I have free will, only as long as that will bends the knee to a violent, sexist, racist, homophobic, antiscience set of philosophies...

I remember being about ten years old, and asking my Sunday school teacher, “Why did God give my Mom cancer and send my brother to prison or make my Dad blind?” (All true things) And she just looked at me and said, “Because God works in mysterious ways, and it’s not for us to understand. You just have to pray on it and God will answer you in time.”

I knew I was gay when I was around eight years old, and admitted it to my youth pastor when I was 14. On his advice, I entered into “prayer therapy”, which I now understand to be conversion therapy. For nearly two years, I met with the head of my church, the head of my youth program, and a rolling contingent of “prayer partners” for hours at a time, three days a week... hours and hours of my childhood spent in cramped rooms being taught that my gaynes was evil, that I could never truly understand my sins because I was unwittingly and willingly giving in to the will of Satan because of the homosexual thoughts in my head. I was a virgin, terrified of who I thought I was, and I said to my pastor, “But what if I never have sex with another man? I’m a virgin, so why is it a sin if I never have sex?”

He looked at me and shook his head, saying, “That’s still the sin. Who you are in your heart will always be a lie and a sin against what God commands.” I still have the Bible I grew up with (plus three others, a Quran, an intro version to the Talmud, etc).... my Bible is FILLED with highlighter marks, underlined and circled pssages, and huuundreds of sticky notes where I can flip through, seeing the person I was 20+ years ago trying so, so desperately to understand who they were, and why they were afflicted with such a “sickness of the soul”, as my pastor loved to say. I spent so many years being taught to hate myself, falling asleep every night knowing in my heart I was going to Hell, praying I’d die in my sleep and thinking suicide was what God demanded of me because of how deeply I’d not only shame myself, but my family.

And I still remember the last time I went to church. I was listening to the music and sermon on Easter service, looking at the delerious displays of joyful faith around me, and the thought just hit me: Why? Why was I participating in something that caused me so much hurt and harm? Why was I listening to the hateful, hateful rhetoric that not only my pastor espoused, but that the people claiming to be “lambs” around me shouted and snarled as well? I was being taught to hate, to judge, to embrace shame at something I had felt since before I even had a sex drive, while also being told that that was how true believers acted. During my conversion sessions, I’d ask why, and my prayer partners would speak to me as though I’d thrown acid on their Mothers. I was a kid, and I only wanted to know why the history books I read contradicted EVERYTHING I had been raised to believe; why books from other religions hated me and the religion I was raised in; why God commanded genocide and child murder and child rape and sacrifice and punishing of women...... I started asking why, and I was punished. I was taught that I’d burn forever. I was told by other teachers at other churches I attended (to try and find a new home) that Satan put the question of Why in my head, and that only those who followed Satan would question so deeply.

It broke me. Words, stories, books, have been my passion since I was five years old. I read EVERYTHING, and I love what words can teach; their history and power... and the day I quoted a passage to my pastor in a conversion session, and he looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t understand what you’re reading. The Devil is leading you to these thoughts,” something in me broke. And before you say, “But you just had a bad pastor”, just... don’t. I cast my net wide, and I’ve yet to find a truly compassionate person of faith willing to set aside what they already believe in order to understand the existence of another person. Please don’t get me wrong, people of faith: I’m sure you’re kind, to a point. I’m sure you’re understanding... to a point. But as soon as that point causes you to truly brush up against your religion in an uncomfortable way, it seems like so many fall back into the comforting arms of, “Well, I don’t have to understand everything, I just have to believe.”

I know this post is way, way too long, but my family has been ripped to shreds by its own religion. I look at the state America is in and every. single. time. the problems originate in religion. I read history books, look at the world around me, and can not help but see that almost every single issue is because of people’s personal faith. I’ve never been comforted by the idea of a god or a religious dogma or a sense that “this all has to mean something”. Because why should any of this mean something? The clouds and the trees and the ants don’t cry out for a god, and they don’t seem to demand faith... they just simply are. Jupiter keeps spinning the the asteroids spin in their orbits. Why isn’t existence enough? Why isn’t this planet and this one life enough? Teligion is codified greed, and we’ve all been raised to believe it’s the be all and end all.

I call shenanigans. <3