Stephen Hawking was instrumental to my atheism

Last week, Stephen Hawking passed away at 76. Sean Carroll wrote a wonderful piece on Hawking's scientific contributions, which are many. Hawking was also a provocateur of the religious, famously opining in A Brief History of Time,
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
Hawking was discussing what he called the "No Boundary Proposal," also known as the Hawking-Hartle State. Now, theologians have famously disputed the plausibility of Hawking's proposal. It was, essentially, just a mathematical exercise. Absent a quantum theory of gravity, we really have no idea what the boundary condition of the universe is (or is not). Hawking did not prove that God does not exist. He didn't disprove the existence of a Creator. And yet, this No Boundary concept was hugely influential in my shift from agnostic theist to atheist.

This is for one simple reason: for my entire life, I believed strongly that logic entailed that the existence of the universe defied scientific explanation. It had to have "come from" something else—something like a vastly, incomprehensibly intelligent and powerful mind. I've since come to argue against this idea at the conceptual level (see here, here, here, and here), but Hawking's humble theorem expanded my perspective simply by demonstrating that is was in principle possible to view the existence of the universe in purely descriptive, scientific terms. The idea of a Creator, though perhaps not "ruled out" by science, is not a scientifically or logically necessary concept. We have no way of knowing yet whether the Hawking-Hartle State is correct, but we do know that it is at least plausible.

As someone who grew up in the evangelical church, someone who thought it was irrational and absurd to even consider a universe without a Creator, this was a very powerful and disruptive idea. Theologians have derived comfort from the fact that the No Boundary Proposal is speculative, and that's fair. God hasn't been ruled out. But the necessity of a Creator has certainly been undermined, and Hawking isn't the only physicist to have explored such a concept (Alexander Vilenkin, to name one of my faves, has done fascinating work in quantum cosmology as well—though his ideas are very different from the Hawking-Hartle State).

I read A Brief History of Time in 2008, some nine years after deconverting from Christianity. I rapidly became an atheist. I don't know that the book was the sole reason I became an atheist (my reflections on design and morality were paramount as well), but Hawking's influence on my perspective was undeniable. When he passed away last week, the loss had a personal sting. I admired him greatly, and I will miss his wit, charm, and remarkable intellect.


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