Yes, Mr. Hawking, Evidence Should Determine Belief

Can God and science co-exist?

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the UK Guardian published Monday that he rejects the idea of heaven, calling it a “fairy story” for people afraid to die. Hawking also wrote in his 2010 book “The Grand Design” that he believes God was not “necessary” for the creation of the universe and that “spontaneous creation‚” instead explains existence. Hawking seems confident in his conclusion about God, but then again so do believers. Who is right? Can God and science co-exist?

As accomplished a cosmologist as Stephen Hawking is, no scientist would ever declare, “Hawking said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Scientists require evidence, not an appeal to authority.

We don’t yet know with near scientific certainty how our universe began or whether we live in just one of multiple universes spontaneously created from nothing, as Hawking argues. This sounds incredible, as do all origin stories, but at least Hawking gives scientific arguments to back up his view. In comparing science with traditional religion, the most striking difference is not the conclusions that are reached but the different methods used to arrive at those conclusions. Scientists test their own and other theories and try to find facts that support or disprove them. Traditional religion, on the other hand, usually demands blind faith and reacts negatively to facts that conflict with doctrine.

Countless scientific discoveries over the centuries have changed god beliefs. Most people no longer attribute natural phenomena like thunder, eclipses, earthquakes, and floods to supernatural causes. Scientists know there will be a total solar eclipse on Dec. 26, 2038 and it won’t be a sign of God’s displeasure with our behavior.

That science can’t disprove a god’s existence does not constitute evidence for that god’s existence, anymore than not disproving unicorns is evidence that unicorns exist. But the more science advances, the less we need attribute to a god. The French mathematician and astronomer, Laplace, did groundbreaking work on the stability of the solar system. When the Emperor Napoleon asked Laplace why he didn’t mention a creator, Laplace said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Perhaps one day a future Laplace might explain to a future Napoleon why the origin of our universe needs no God hypothesis.

Many religions survive because they don’t make statements that can be shown to be scientifically false. For instance, I can’t disprove the following statement that many Christians believe: “The Rapture is coming soon, but nobody knows when.” On the other hand, on May 22 we will all be able to disprove Harold Camping’s assertion about the May 21 rapture.

I’m disappointed that Stephen Hawking compared supernatural religious beliefs to fairy stories. At age ten, I didn’t believe in the demons, devils, and talking animals in fairy tales but I enjoyed them anyway and learned some valuable lessons from the stories. Some people do believe literally in their holy books that describe angels, demons and talking snakes, and base their lives on such stories. Even worse, these beliefs affect us all. Religious interest groups have influenced politicians to favor faith-based legislation over science-based legislation to the detriment of our education system. If only we would treat the Bible and other holy books as fairy tales. Sometimes the faith of a child in a good story is better than the faith of an adult who believes a made-up story.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

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