Over at ABC News, Ki Mae Heussner reports on a Diane Sawyer interview of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking with this contentious headline: “Stephen Hawking on Religion: Science Will Win.” This is an unfortunate banner. During the interview, Sawyer asked if religion and science could be reconciled. Hawking’s response was profoundly unhelpful:
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
Science and religion — neither of which exist as entities that have agency (i.e., they are abstract concepts) — are not in a contest. Therefore, neither science nor religion can “win” anything.
What Sawyer should have asked was whether positivist inquiry can explain or account for religion. What Hawking should have said is: “Yes. We are already able to explain the brain-mind functions that result in supernatural thinking. Humans have created bodies of belief and practice — which today we call religion — that depend on these brain-mind functions.” Neither Sawyer nor Hawking seems to understand that science and history, working together, are largely capable of explaining religion.
With this in mind, let us look at this excerpt from Heussner’s report:
“What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God,” Hawking told Sawyer. “They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”
Here is where Hawking’s ignorance of religious history comes into play. Not all peoples at all times have conceived of a singular God who is human-like. In fact, we can trace the genealogy of this idea or particular concept of God.
Few if any hunter-gatherers or foragers believe in anthropomorphic or human-like gods and spirits. Instead, they tend to perceive the entire world and everything in it as being animated by spirit or spirits. Because all humans were hunter-gatherers until approximately 10,000 years ago, it is fairly safe to assume that anthropomorphic gods-spirits are a more recent development. And indeed, we find this to be the case.
The idea of anthropomorphic or human-like gods originates in the earliest city-states located in Mesopotamia and the Levant. This was no accident. The elites and rulers of those city-states found it useful to conceive of gods in human terms — the earliest theologians (who always served earthly kings and rulers) reasoned that the earthly order was a reflection of the spiritual order. Because there were kings and rulers on earth, there must be kings and rulers in the spirit realm. And because kings and rulers on earth were humans, they thought that the kings and rulers of the spirit world must be like humans.
It was in this milieu that some groups, the Hebrews in particular, began to conceive of a high god who ruled over other gods. The Babylonians had a similar idea about the supremacy of their high god. Over time, the Hebrews extended this idea and began to claim that there was only one God whose name was Yahweh. For those interested in this history and progression, I recommend Roy Rosenberg’s superb article, “Yahweh Becomes King.”
In the meantime, it would be helpful if physicists kept their mystical and religious ideas to themselves. They always seem to be commenting on things that have nothing to do with space, time, and the cosmos.