Dear Professor Hawking: You Stick to Science and I’ll Stick to Theology

An open letter to Professor Stephen Hawking in response to his latest comments on the existence of heaven…

Dear. Professor Hawking-
In light of your recent comments that “heaven or afterlife” is  “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark” I would like to a make a wonderful deal with you. This deal will add integrity both of our fields, science and theology. Truth be told, it’s a deal that needed to be struck back in 1632. But I digress…

Here is my deal proposal: You stick to science and I’ll stick to theology. So from now on, if you promise to keep your work focused on science and steer your scientific observations clear from faith and theology, then I promise I’ll keep my work focused on theology and keep my theological observations clear from scientific knowledge, discovery, and inquiry while encouraging others to do the same. (As a token of good faith, Kirk Cameron, this also applies to you.)

Science and theology could carry on side by side quite civilly, don’t you think? After all, theological discussion has no business making or evaluating scientific theories of physics, biology, geology, and cosmology. By the same token, science has no business informing theology, specifically the existence of God, heaven, and philosophical questions of existentialism, i.e. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our role? What happens when we die?

Professor Hawking, I have always had a deep degree of respect for you and your work, and I still do. Your theories in physics and cosmology have been an invaluable gift not just to science but to all of humanity. And your courage to face and live through the painful ordeal of ALS has encouraged and inspired generations of people, especially those with disabilities and their families. All told, your life’s work will reverberate through the annals of scientific research and knowledge for many years to come.

However, just as it surely irks you to no end when religion meddles with science, people of faith become equally irked when science meddles with religious belief. I neither need or desire a scientist to tell me whether or not God or heaven exists. Yet this kind of thing happens when the roles of science and religion get mixed up and cross over into answering questions that neither is properly tasked or equipped to answer.

We each have our separate but complementary fields of inquiry, Professor Hawking.

Science best answers the empirical questions of “what”, “where” and “how.” I look to you and others within the field of science to explain the physical make up and mechanics of the world and the universe. According to all we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, how did our world and the universe come to be as it is? What is it made of? What does it do and how does it do it? According to what we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, what will it become in the future?

Faith and theology, on the other hand, best answer the philosophical questions of “who” and “why” and the non-empirical, metaphysical questions of “what” and “how”.  Who are we? What is the purpose of the world and universe? Of what value are we and to whom? Is there a Reality (God, heaven) beyond the world I can empirically see, touch, hear, and taste? What is that Reality? How and where does that Reality intersect the physical/empirical world? What is the end? What happens when I reach my end?

So as you can see, professor Hawking, we both operate together, side by side, responding to vastly different questions and inquiries which together provide a full-color lens through which we can begin to understand the make-up and nature of us human beings, our world, and the whole cosmos. Since the days of Galileo up until now, we’ve had a hard time learning to mutually respect and accept one another. We’ve made some steps towards peacefully co-existing as separate sides of the same human ontological coin. Obviously we still have a long way to go.

Yet, you as a scientist and I as a pastor can make a deal today. We can sign a pact with which we can encourage others within our respective fields. You and your colleagues can agree to stick to science. And religious teachers, preachers, leaders, and I can agree to stick to faith and theology. I can teach and preach that ” The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1) and you can write and teach the theoretical cosmology and quantum gravitational properties of that same universe. Together, we paint one gloriously beautiful picture on the same canvas. How about if we agree to paint from our own pallets?

Respectfully Yours,

Rev. Christopher D. Owens


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Cultural Quakes

11 Responses to Dear Professor Hawking: You Stick to Science and I’ll Stick to Theology

  1. I appreciate your point that mixing religion and science is detrimental to both. I don’t think that gets said enough. I feel the same way about mixing church and state- I think a lot of folks on the church side forget that staying seperate from the state is as much about protecting the church from state intrusions as it is about preserving citizens’ rights to believe (or not) as they choose. Well-written and argued as always!

    • Thank you, Alicia! The church-state issue is similar but has some differences, too. If by “separation of church and state” you mean the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment, then amen! The state has no business establishing or granting special privilege or regard to any one religious or non-religious strain. But if you’re referring to the popular notion of separation of church and state as in, “Would you religious people just sit down, shut up or go away?” or removing all religious thoughts or convictions from public discourse then I’d have to disagree. What makes us democratic is that all voices, religious and non-religious are welcome at the table of public discourse and policy making. Just so long as the state is not establishing or privileging one tradition or sect over any other, then people of faith like you and I are free and even obligated to influence our society and government. Remember that Nazi Germany never would have risen to power if Hitler hadn’t purchased the silence of the Church. (It’s a long, but true story!)

  2. Edmund Metheny

    I don’t know how to say this without coming on strong, but I disagree with this vehemently.
    Science is the study of the physical universe. Consequently, much as religion has stated otherwise in recent years, and as you did in your post, science is very much about “why” questions. Why does mass generate gravity? Why is it warmer in the daytime than at night? Why is the universal gas constant [8.314(15)][J/molK] and not some other number?
    The idea that science should stay out of religion, or religion out of science is unsupportable. Do you really want to go back to the days when Christianity largely believed the world was flat, that God brought down earthquakes and floods as punishment against sinners? Because that is the concept that Christianity had of God before science stepped in and explained how – and WHY – these and many other natural events occurred.
    Also, are you willing to give up influencing science? Will you stay out of the abortion issue? Given the claim by many Christians that morality is theologically based, will the church move away from attempting any sort of moral suasion on scientific development? Where do you draw the line between science and theology?
    And in fact you gain nothing by this. Nothing. Because if you do separate science and theology, Hawking is free to make exactly the same statement. Why? Because from a purely scientific standpoint his statement (while perhaps a bit sensationalist) is highly defensible. There is no observable evidence that any such place as heaven exists. There’s no data on it and therefor no way in which we can reject the null hypothesis with any degree of confidence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist, but from the scientific view no evidence = no confidence.
    [Don’t any of you give me that “well lots of people believe it, so that must count for something, right?” Wrong. That’s a fallacy.]
    To me this all sounds, well, petulant. Some well-known physicist gives a sound bite to pump his book sales, and suddenly Christians go bonkers over it. It all sounds to me like some kid on the playground saying “MOM! Stephen Hawking was MEAN TO ME!” Several months ago, back when Hawking’s latest work “The Grand Design” was heading for publication and it was announced that Hawking stated within that God was not necessary to explain the universe, I recall the religious community getting quite up in arms about the whole thing – without even waiting for the book to be published so they could see what evidence he was putting forth to support his statement. It seems like religion is all too ready to ask science not to meddle in its affairs (unless the science is from some crackpot like Walter Brown) but never seems interested in actually returning the favor.
    I do find it interesting, in a mildly humorous way, how vehement the attacks on Hawking by the religious community are now, given that only a few years ago he was one of the darlings of the religious community. Back when he published “A Brief History of Time” the religious loved him.

    • Edmund, as always thanks for a (vehemently) passionate reply.
      I think you might have misread or I was unclear (or both!) what I meant about the “why” question. Clearly there is a scientific “why” of causality such as Newton’s Third Law of Motion and there is a philosophical/theological why that is existential, i.e. “What is the purpose of _________?” Science has no business answering that latter question any more than religion has any business defining scientific causality matters. An example: to the question, “Why are we here?” Science would give an answer based on the geology of planetary formation, the chemistry of atmospheric conditions, and the biology of evolutionary adaptation. That’s science’s lens. Religion might say (at least some of us) that we are here by God’s good purpose to bless and care for the rest of creation and to know and glorify God. That’s religion’s lens. To the vast majority of theists, the two lenses are not incompatible. They both lend to our knowledge and appreciation for how we got here and why.
      Ethics, as in what we should do with what we know and what we can do, is a place where science and faith meet, yes. That’s a very good point. But I don’t see where this violates my argument. Einstein’s science creates E=MC2. Religion/Faith seeks to influence what to do with that kind of knowledge, like do we use it to build and wield weapons of annihilation or not? Yes, medical knowledge knows how to abort a living fetus. Faith/religion grapples with whether or not to use this kind of knowledge, and if so, under what circumstances?
      As for Hawking, he’s got theological views (or not!) like everyone else does. I welcome him to express those as an individual… not a scientist. Or at least he could preface his theological statements with a delineation between his scientific and his non-scientific personal views. And I can see how he could come to his conclusions about God and heaven if he chooses to look at the universe from a purely scientific lens that discounts any kind of spiritual/metaphysical reality. Science doesn’t go there. So why should it? If science strictly operates within the realm of empiricism, as it should, then what business has science to leap beyond that to tell the rest who operate within both physical and metaphysical/spiritual realities who or what our God is or isn’t?

    • Edmund, I agree entirely with you. Moreover, I find the idea of separate, protected realms for religion and science to be particularly insulting, not only for the artificial boundaries religion seeks to impose when it starts feeling cornered by evidence, but because religion claims, both implicitly and explicitly, that “its” realm is the more important one.
      No matter how much playground it allows to science — and history has shown us clearly that it’s however much playground science can wrestle for itself from the playground bully — religion will always claim the choice spot. Alas for the bully, science has shown itself to be extremely effective at explaining the universe.
      Finally, religion and faith have never shown themselves to be inherently better at “influenc[ing] what to do with that kind of knowledge” than secular humanism, philosophy, non-religious ethics, etc. More powerful due to numbers, maybe, but certainly not more enlightened overall. There are great religious *and* non-religious ethicists, but overall progress in our societies has been primarily driven by the Enlightenment and secular humanism.

      • Let me try another stab at this: We don’t need science to do the work of religion, i.e. telling us that there is or isn’t God. Conversely, we don’t need religion doing the work of science, i.e. telling scientists that the world was created in 6 days, not over time over the course of billions of years. As for which perspective is more important, is the question all that necessary, especially since science seems to think its more “truthful” or accurate than religion, and vice versa. I think the contest is most of the problem. Again, I see scientific knowledge and religious knowledge as two sides of the same ontological coin. They each operate from very different perspectives.
        As for the Enlightenment and secular humanism being inherently better than religious systems, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in that basket, either. The Enlightenment produced the likes of Nietzsche and Marx whose philosophy spawned Fascism and Communism. The lesson: strip humanity of any notion of God and the soul, and the results are no better and even far worse than even the worst of religious systems’ corruption.
        Bottom line: people who live in a purely scientific, empirical perspective may think we theists are childish dolts for believing all this “fairy tale” stuff about God and heaven. At best they may be sympathetic towards what they perceive to be a “psychological need” in people like us to believe it. Gee, thanks. (And then they turn around to talk about religion being condescending!!) Whatever… If that’s what Hawking thinks, bully for him. I just don’t need him preaching that from his place as a scientist any more than he needs religion to affirm or deny his scientific claims. We can work together and need to, yes. That’s a valid point that you and Ed have made very well. But work partners have to be careful not to overstep, and our history has been filled with too much overstepping, including Hawking’s latest comments.

  3. Christianity produced the likes of Dominic de Guzmán and Martin Luther whose philosophies spawned Tomás de Torquemada’s inquisitorial zeal and Oliver Cromwell’s puritan purges. There is no doubt that any set of ideas can be taken straight to disaster. (Besides, both Nietzsche and Marx also brought worthwhile ideas, regardless of what happened later.)
    Living in a “purely scientific, empirical perspective” is precisely what you’re proposing to non-theists. But the tools of reason, exploration, reflection, analysis, evaluation, and systematic doubt are perfectly well suited to the task of examining questions of purpose and meaning. The difference is that faith and religion tend to look backward for a set pre-existing instructions, while humanists look word and accept the responsibility of constructing meaning.
    In the end, we know very well that religion will continue, for the immediate future anyway, to want to shape the directions in which science and the human spirit are allowed to explore, while reason will continue to question and attempt to shine some light in all corners. In other words, I don’t think it’s likely we’re going to change our minds based on this particular approach. I find no help in organized religion, and you probably find none in science, on the matter of purpose and meaning.

  4. Carol

    Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
    –Albert Einstein, “Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

  5. Garywood

    It does sound like such a fair agreement – “lets stick to our own areas”. I think in reality it’s just theology realising that science is just slowly taking its place, realising that the scientists are often a lot smarter than the theologians, and trying to cling onto some position of authority in society.
    The reason why I personally listen to very little theologians say is that they’re really not interested in actually learning about reality- they’re only interested in rationalising (often very well) what they already think they know.
    I would perhaps be willing to accept your proposition if I really thought that the existence of God, heaven, and meaning in the universe were really theological matters rather than scientific- it just isn’t so. I’d agree with Richard Dawkins that the existence of any particular God is in PRINCIPLE a scientific claim. It’s either true or it isn’t. If Jesus wasn’t the son of God, christianity is quite simply wrong- and everything christian theologians have ever said is essentially worthless (or just useful by accident). You can try as much as you want to make the virgin birth into a theological claim but in fact it’s a claim about biology.
    So I would summarise by saying that theology is inadequate in answering these questions, it’s just useful in rationalising your position once you’ve chosen your answers to them. (i.e to what extent has theology explored the question of whether the universe might be completely purposeless?)
    Science might be currently inadequate in answering them as well but has a far better track record at making progress.

  6. Shanna

    Honestly, I don’t see why religion has to try and interfere with the lives of people who aren’t religious or even spiritual. I don’t care if you religiously sacrifice babies and eat them. Really, I don’t. So if I don’t want to believe in some “faith” that has been proven wrong time and time again by science, I’d like to not be told what to think by some superstitious nut job.

  7. Sophie Lagacé

    “I don’t care if you religiously sacrifice babies and eat them. Really, I don’t.”
    Um, I do! Religion freely chosen as an adult, harming no one is fine with me. But as soon as it involves coercion, indoctrination or harm to others, I object.

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