Cambridge

Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

So here is the question of the day: Does it matter that famed physicist Stephen Hawking was -- as best one can tell from his complex and even impish way of expressing himself -- an atheist who still had moments when he could hint at doubts?

Does it matter that the mind that probed the far corners of the universe couldn't handle the mysteries of the human heart and that this pained him? After all, in an empty, random universe, there are no moral laws to explain the physics of love and attachment.

If you pay close attention to the major obituaries, it's also clear that Hawking's giant reputation and celebrity was the black hole that sucked some thoughtful coverage into nothingness.

On one level, I thought that some of the best material on Hawking's faith questions was found in a compact, logical sequence in The New York Times. As always, things begin with the book that made him a global phenomenon:

In “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.” He added, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
“If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.”

But Hawking kept writing and, as always, his opinions grew more provocative.

Nothing raised as much furor, however, as his increasingly scathing remarks about religion. ...
In “A Brief History of Time,” he had referred to the “mind of God,” but in “The Grand Design,” a 2011 book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, he was more bleak about religion. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper,” he wrote, referring to the British term for a firecracker fuse, “and set the universe going.”
He went further in an interview that year in The Guardian, saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

So what is missing from that version of Hawking? What did the Times skip over in its main obituary?

The answer can be found over at The Washington Post, where the main obituary wrestled -- briefly -- with a faith angle in the other part of Hawking's life that produced headlines.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Fellow journalists, have no fear. Publishers Weekly assures us that an intriguing and newsworthy new book about religion is “enjoyable” and The New York Times finds it “lucid.”

This despite being written by a heavyweight philosopher and published by the intellectually elite Harvard University Press.  

The title, “The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View,” announces that author Tim Crane, raised Catholic in Britain, is, yes, a convinced atheist. But instead of preaching to his choir he seeks tolerance and disputes the contempt for belief from “new atheists” in media-beloved books like “Breaking the Spell,” “The End of Faith,” The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great.”    

To Crane, atheists of that sort do not grasp the immensity and sheer humanity of religion, why the world’s 6 billion assorted believers are neither fools nor knaves, and why faith cannot be liquidated in our scientific age though many have tried -- whether through education, propaganda, prison, or executions.  

The Religion Guy has not (yet) read this book but alerts fellow journalists to the news potential signaled in coverage to date. Note especially the Times treatment by James Ryerson, whose Book Review columns cover university press offerings. 

Crane -- reachable via timcrane@ceu.edu --  is no slouch among philosophy professors. He just moved to Hungary’s Central European University after holding the Knightbridge chair at the University of Cambridge, and previously headed the philosophy faculty at University College London.  

He laments atheistic portrayals of religion as some unfortunate carryover from primitive civilization that tries to explain the cosmos in the way science does, as a result appearing “irrational” and “superstitious.” Instead, he figures, two natural factors underlie faith.

Please respect our Commenting Policy