By Jason Boyett
You don’t expect to see “Stephen Hawking” as a trending topic on Twitter. That designation is usually reserved for the birthdays of Jonas brothers or 140-character punchlines about #liesguystell.
But Thursday, the acclaimed physicist and mathematician shot to the top of the list–and not because of another hilarious wheelchair-bound appearance on The Simpsons. Hawking hit the news cycle because The Times of London excerpted his new book, The Grand Design, on Thursday. In the book, which releases this week from Bantam Press (and which, admittedly, I haven’t read), Hawking concludes that a Creator is unnecessary for the universe to exist.
Is this news? Not really. Hawking has made it clear in the past that he’s not religious, and his ex-wife, Jane, outed him as an atheist in her biography about their marriage. But Hawking has always been careful to delineate between religion and science, and his past writings seemed to have left open a window allowing for a God-like creator. In A Brief History of Time, he wrote of man’s steps toward figuring out the universe as attempts to “know the mind of God.”
But the new book appears to have taken that religious neutrality off the table. Due to laws like gravity, noted last week’s excerpt, Hawking writes that it is entirely possible that the universe “can and will create itself from nothing.” That’s why we exist. That’s why there’s something rather than nothing. We don’t need God.
And then the backlash began.
On Twitter, mentions of Hawking and his pronouncement followed three distinct tracks. A third were users passing on a news item without comment. A third were nontheists cheerfully affirming what they already suspected to be true. And the last third were my fellow Christians, who took ugliness to a new level.
In the space of two minutes along the Twitter timeline, I dug out these gems:
• “God did NOT create the Universe”, says Stephen Hawking. To which God replied, “enjoy your chair” (@suicidecharlie)
• When Stephen Hawking dies he can tell God how He never created the universe. (@MichaelMeyers)
• If u really belive what Stephen Hawking says…then do us all a favor n go drink bleach!! (@DaOneMulatto)
• It would seem Stephen Hawking’s reason for no God is’Just because’…Because it’s all random&we have physics laws there is no God, hmm ok (@fifiifif)
• I dunno. Seems like Stephen Hawking still has a few holes to plug in his theories before he’ll be a btter physicist than God (@acesinzeroland)
I don’t personally know the people above, but a quick look at their accounts suggests that a few of them are professional Christian ministers. And they weren’t alone. There were tweets belittling the physicist’s physical ailments. Tweets chortling about how he’ll be sorry when he dies and meets God. Tweets over-simplifying his ideas and then cheerfully labeling them stupid. Tweets calling Stephen Hawking an idiot.
Like dogs backed into a corner, my religious brethren went on the attack, escalating the culture war between science and faith.
Sigh. I’m trying to keep my feet in both camps–I’m a science-fascinated believer–and nothing is more frustrating than the automatic anti-science defensiveness of other Christians.
Jesus taught slowness to anger, compassion for the sick, and love for our enemies. But even accounting for the simplicity of Twitter, and the troll-like culture of the Internet in general, we still come across as a bunch of petty, rage-filled monsters eager to discount the life work of one of the world’s greatest scientists.
A genius with a debilitating disease says something we disagree with, so we make fun of his wheelchair and laugh at his impending death. Great.
This is why people have trouble taking us seriously.
I’m not a humor prude. Sarcasm is my currency. And I enjoy a good check-out-the-robot-voice Hawking joke as much as anyone (including Hawking himself, who is also a genius at self-deprecation). But I hate the way some Christians react at times like this. And I hate that I might get lumped in with them.
So I want to apologize to Stephen Hawking on behalf of religious people everywhere. As believers in a God of justice and mercy, we’re not supposed to be heartless, ignorant jerks. But sometimes we are. I hope you’ll forgive us.
Also: you inspire me, Mr. Hawking, and your contributions to our world deserve a whole lot better than our mockery. I hope you’re wrong about the universe not needing God. But if it turns out you’re correct, you have my respect for helping us figure out the amazing environment in which we live. Thank you.
Also: you might want to steer clear of Twitter.
Jason Boyett is a writer, speaker, and the author of O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling — which has an entire chapter inspired by A Brief History of Time. Jason blogs at www.omeoflittlefaith.com and tweets at twitter.com/jasonboyett .