The Sunday Times

September 5th, 2010

Hawking’s proved one thing – religion is revived and kicking

‘God didn’t do it.” “God didn’t create universe, says Hawking.” “Has Hawking seen off God?” These were some of the hundreds of headlines last week in response to extracts from Professor Stephen Hawking’s new book about the creation of the universe, The Grand Design.

Whether by design or not, Hawking created a furore: thousands of articles and blogs, as well as stern rebukes from the religious establishment. Most impressively of all, perhaps, this theoretical physicist was top of the tweets last Friday. God and Hawking were trending worldwide, as they say on Twitter.

It is useful for those of us who imagine that an indifferent agnosticism has taken over to be reminded how much many people, even in this godless country, care about such matters. However, a lot of the fuss was a flurry of media nonsense. Professor Hawking did not say that God didn’t create the universe, still less that God doesn’t exist, although I suspect that is what he thinks.

What he said in the published extracts when discussing the multiple universe theory — the M-theory — is: “Just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit … Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

I cannot imagine why this gets people so worked up. Hawking has said only that it is unnecessary to include God in his theory and, clearly, unnecessary is not the same as non-existent. Those who believe in God, in all his ineffability, have nothing to fear from a scientific hypothesis, and a controversial one at that, which considers the idea of God unnecessary.

Hawking argues that all that is necessary is physical laws, such as the law of gravity, and believers can triumphantly ask, with all the confidence of faith: who made the law of gravity? Whenever attacked by science, as when Darwinism destroyed the religious argument for intelligent design, religion simply retreats further back, into something larger and yet more ineffable, in an infinite regress to somewhere before the big bang, beyond the reach of rational argument in the incontrovertible realms of faith.

As one of the microbloggers tweeted last week: “Stephen Hawking will never prove God doesn’t exist and the God squad will never prove he does. It’s all a load of bollocks.”

I am not a believer. It seems to me that science has pushed God so far into the outer unknowable that the idea of divinity is meaningless. We all, I imagine, have a sense of the numinous — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the fearful and fascinating mystery — that comes over us when gazing at the heavens, or listening to organ music. But having a powerful sense of the numinous doesn’t mean the numen — divinity — exists, any more than a powerful sense that a child is possessed by a devil means that the devil exists.

Nor does a sense that there must be some sort of divine meaning out there seem a good enough reason to infer a personal God and the doctrinal details of any particular faith, such as papal infallibility or the uncleanness of women or atonement as an insect in reincarnation. Rather the reverse.

My hero on such matters has always been Pierre-Simon Laplace. He was the brilliant astronomer and mathematician, sometimes called the French Newton, who was asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned the creator in his book on the system of the universe. Courageously Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

The world seems to divide into those who do need the God hypothesis and those who don’t. I have never understood why. Clearly it is not related to intelligence, although scientific rationalists would like to think so; many brilliant and highly educated people are religious, including quite a few distinguished scientists.

I suspect that brain science may sooner or later be able to explain it. Already there exists a theory that some people have a genetic tendency towards religious faith, while others don’t. There is even a theory that organ music is particularly powerful in inducing a sense of the numinous. That is certainly true for me, just as I cry at the sound of trumpets.

But whatever discoveries lie ahead about the neural circuitry of the believer, it is quite clear for now that religious faith, although outside the realm of reason, is centrally important to many people. The interesting question is whether that matters.

The traditional English view was that it didn’t. After a lot of bloodshed over minutiae such as transubstantiation — whether communion bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ — most people settled into the attitude of Elizabeth I, who did not want to “make windows into men’s souls”.

But now, in a world in which many people take religion a great deal more seriously than they used to, the question arises again. Many people, and not only aggressive atheists, have a new anxiety about the power of religious belief, and the power of religion to promote division, ignorance and evil, as well as good.

My own view is that religion is the idiom in which people do the things they want to do anyway, for good and for evil. They simply use religion to explain or justify the actions they would have undertaken for other reasons. So you get both Christian charity and bloody Christian crusades, Muslim charity and Muslim conversion by the sword, Hindu spirituality and the shameful Hindu caste system.

All these are expressions of human nature in particular contexts: religion is not the source but the justification for things — imperialism, cruelty, exploitation and compassion — which are always with us.

What has changed today is that all societies and different stages of development and their corresponding religions have suddenly been thrown together. In that case, from the agnostic or atheist point of view, religion now does matter in a way that until recently it had ceased to. Perhaps that explains all the fuss about Hawking; religious indifference is becoming a thing of the past. Bang goes the divine creator, News Review, page 6