It’s amazing how otherwise brilliant human beings can say such stupid things. Stephen Hawking, who by most definitions of genius is a genius, gave a talk recently at Caltech and decided to use the opportunity to steal a line, however unwittingly, from Martin Luther:
Indeed, in a speech at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., on Tuesday night, he made jokes about God’s supposed power and omnipresence.
“What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” asked Hawking, clearly not afraid of meeting a reddish man with a fork and a tail.
Being a scientist, Hawking has faith only in scientific explanations.
Faith? Why would you need faith? I’m assuming that’s the journalist’s interpolation. (And for the record, Luther’s reported response to the question What was God doing before the creation of the universe? was “Cutting sticks to cane people who ask idle questions.”)
Now it’s easy enough to dismiss the kind of hubris on display here. Hawking, in fact, can prove nothing in regard to how life began. He may speculate all he likes, but he should understand that some of us will construe such idle musings as something short of dogma. My ilk (and yes, I have an ilk, and a damn fine ilk it is) are composed of old-fashioned types who prefer our science all experimentation, double-blind studies, and falsifiable results. (Isn’t that always the tack atheists take with Christians—that we cannot falsify our assumptions?)
We are all beneficiaries of scientists’ pursuing their vocation of studying the physical universe and discerning its workings. I am very grateful for air conditioning and antibiotics and vaccines. (For the record, Jonathan Edwards, who no doubt qualifies as a “fundamentalist” according to the limited taxonomic range of the average materialist, died testing out a new smallpox vaccine. And even more to the point, it was Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, who first proposed the Big Bang theory, and Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, who invented the science of genetics. But I digress.)
Yet the Hawkings of the world, those who cringe at the thought of crude religion’s encroachments on the sterile world of scientific inquiry, have this strange tendency to veer from the physical to the metaphysical, whether they realize it or not. It’s not enough to posit the universe’s birthday by means of the Friedmann equation. They must also try and peek behind the curtain of time itself and declaim life ultimately an accident, and therefore of no ultimate meaning.
I have to laugh at Hawkings’ invoking “the inquisition.” It’s almost as if he wished he really could be persecuted for his ideas, as if that would lend them more substance or legitimacy. What’s the fun in everyone hanging on your every word as if it’s holy writ when you’re convinced there are no gods and every text is subject to supersession and deconstruction?
Oh for the days when there was something really at stake! When hoary clerics would show you the instruments of torture and demand recantation! You might actually have to think a little harder about what came out of your mouth…
Don’t get me wrong: as a Protestant, I have no interest in reviving Church Inc., its canon lawyers as eager to protect its patented doctrines as Apple is its smartphone swipe gestures.
But it would be nice if there was some authority to draw fine lines between what’s real science and what’s just another kind of magical thinking.