World-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says flat-out that he doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe that space travel offers the best hope for our species’ immortality.
Those pronouncements came during the buildup to this week’s Starmus Festival at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where Hawking and other scientific luminaries have gathered for rounds of talks, tours and elbow-rubbing.
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo engineered an exclusive interview with Hawking, and headlined its report with his views on the origins of the universe.
In the past, there’s been a tiny bit of ambiguity: In “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking writes that the discovery of a unifying set of scientific principles known as the theory of everything would enable scientists to “know the mind of God.” But in a follow-up book about the quest for the theory of everything, titled “The Grand Design,” Hawking said the mechanism behind the origin of the universe was becoming so well known that God was no longer necessary.
El Mundo’s Pablo Jauregui asked about those two references to God in one of the questions he prepared for Hawking to answer, and here’s the scientist’s response:
“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.”
Hawking addressed the issue more delicately several years ago when he told Reuters that he was “not religious in the normal sense,” and said “God does not intervene to break the laws” that He decreed. Since then, however, there’s been a lot more theorizing devoted to the origin of the universe. Hawking now believes that an approach known as M-theory will eventually reveal the grand design of the cosmos.
“In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind,” Hawking told El Mundo.
As scientists prove that faith can relieve pain, distinguished psychologist Dorothy Rowe examines the case for and against religion
I’m not religious, but I have thought about religion all of my life. My mother never attended church but she insisted that I went to St Andrew’s Church, a cold, unfriendly place filled with cold, unfriendly people. At home, my father, an atheist, would read aloud to us from the essays of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century militant atheist.
Ingersoll’s prose had the music and majesty of King James’s Bible. I loved the language of them both. I learned how to use Ingersoll’s logic to examine the teachings of the Bible. My disapproval of the cruelty and vanity of the Presbyterian God knew no bounds, but I felt at home with Jesus, whom I saw as a kind, loving man like my father.
God had not been in the trenches, or anywhere else, with the ex-Servicemen whom I met at university. When religion was discussed, we listed the cruelties and stupidities of religion throughout history, just as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were to do 40 years later.
However, when I went to work in psychiatric hospitals, I realised that criticising religion was not enough. I needed to understand why religion becomes an integral part of a person’s life – and doesn’t cease to be so when such beliefs cause the person much pain and guilt, or lead him to commit murder, even to the point of genocide.
Although they had not recognised it, my depressed or psychotic patients were struggling with the questions that theologians and philosophers had struggled with for thousands of years. “What will happen to me when I die?” “How can I be a good person?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Siegfried, a depressed, alcoholic psychiatrist, told me about his uncle, who was in the RAF during the war. He provided the love and concern for Siegfried that was lacking in Siegfried’s parents. He said: “Then, one day his aeroplane came down a bit too fast.
“Up to that time, aged 13, I’d had some vague concept of God – I sang in the church choir every Sunday. My last memories of any contact with God was that particular night when I called Him all the filthy language I knew. I thought, if He exists, He’s a s–t.” I asked him how he felt about God now. He said, ‘If He exists, He’s a s–t’.”
Unable to find satisfactory answers about the meaning of their existence, the psychotic patients had constructed very idiosyncratic fantasies. Ella was a beautiful 16-year-old who had become withdrawn and isolated. Her parents had taken time to recognise that there was a problem because, to them, she was the perfectly obedient child they wanted.
Ella’s mother told me: “I always obeyed my parents and I expect my children to obey me.” Fearing her parents’ anger, Ella learned to avoid all spontaneous decisions and actions. She told me: “I’ve begun to wonder whether I’m the only person who’s really alive – the only living person. Everyone else is a vision. I’m living each person’s life in turn.”
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” So said Albert Einstein, and his famous aphorism has been the source of endless debate between believers and non-believers wanting to claim the greatest scientist of the 20th century as their own.
A little known letter written by him, however, may help to settle the argument – or at least provoke further controversy about his views.
Due to be auctioned this week in London after being in a private collection for more than 50 years, the document leaves no doubt that the theoretical physicist was no supporter of religious beliefs, which he regarded as “childish superstitions”.
Einstein penned the letter on January 3 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind who had sent him a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. The letter went on public sale a year later and has remained in private hands ever since.
In the letter, he states: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
Einstein, who was Jewish and who declined an offer to be the state of Israel’s second president, also rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s favoured people.
“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
The letter will go on sale at Bloomsbury Auctions in Mayfair on Thursday and is expected to fetch up to Â£8,000. The handwritten piece, in German, is not listed in the source material of the most authoritative academic text on the subject, Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion.
One of the country’s leading experts on the scientist, John Brooke of Oxford University, admitted he had not heard of it.
Einstein is best known for his theories of relativity and for the famous E=mc2 equation that describes the equivalence of mass and energy, but his thoughts on religion have long attracted conjecture.
His parents were not religious but he attended a Catholic primary school and at the same time received private tuition in Judaism. This prompted what he later called, his “religious paradise of youth”, during which he observed religious rules such as not eating pork. This did not last long though and by 12 he was questioning the truth of many biblical stories.
“The consequence was a positively fanatic [orgy of] freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression,” he later wrote.
In his later years he referred to a “cosmic religious feeling” that permeated and sustained his scientific work. In 1954, a year before his death, he spoke of wishing to “experience the universe as a single cosmic whole”. He was also fond of using religious flourishes, in 1926 declaring that “He [God] does not throw dice” when referring to randomness thrown up by quantum theory.
His position on God has been widely misrepresented by people on both sides of the atheism/religion divide but he always resisted easy stereotyping on the subject.
“Like other great scientists he does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him,” said Brooke. “It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions … but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion.”
Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion, Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”