In an age when even some bishops are near atheists, "man doesn't believe in God" is hardly headline news.
Unless, it seems, that man is Professor Stephen Hawking. It seems that every subject has its authorities, and in the case of religion, physicists are the new prophets, deposing the religious leaders whose vested interests debar them from being objective observers. As for philosophy, that's dead, or so Hawking says.
Believers know that when physicists talk about God, people listen. That's why the minority of physicists who hold broadly conventional Christian views have become such important players in religion's fightback against the idea that science has pulled the rug from under their feet.
If top scientists such as John Polkinghorne and Bernard d'Espagnat believe in God, that challenges the simplistic claim that science and religion are completely incompatible. It doesn't hurt that this message is being pushed with the help of the enormous wealth of the Templeton Foundation, which funds innumerable research programmes, conferences, seminars and prizes as a kind of marriage guidance service to religion and science.
But why on earth should physicists hold this exalted place in the theological firmament? For some, such as the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it's all down to a basic confusion. Indeed, it can almost be reduced to a linguistic mistake: thinking that because both physicists and theologians study fundamental forces of some kind, they must study fundamental forces of the same kind.
Sacks is right that such a conflation is fatal to faith, since if science and religion really are battling for the same terrain, religion is going to get wiped out. In a fight to understand how the universe works, Bible study is bows and arrows against the hi-tech artillery of Hubble, the Large Hadron Collider and the human genome project.
If, as Sacks argues, science is about the how and religion the why, then scientists are not authorities on religion at all. Hawking's opinions about God would carry no more weight than his taxi driver's. Believers and atheists should remove physicists from the front line and send in the philosophers and theologians as cannon fodder once again. But is Sacks right? Science certainly trails a destructive path through a lot of what has traditionally passed for religion. People accuse Richard Dawkins of attacking a baby version of religion, but the fact is that there are still millions of people who do believe in the literal truth of Genesis, Noah's Ark and all. Clearly science does destroy this kind of religious faith, totally and mercilessly. Scientists are authorities on religion when they declare the earth is considerably more than 6,000 years old.
Most sensible religious commentators agree. But they insist that religion is no longer, if it ever was, in the business of trying to come up with proto-scientific explanations of how the universe works. If that is accepted, science and religion can make their peace and both rule over their different magisteria, as the biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it.
But it's not quite as simple as that either, and a careful look at Stephen Hawking's apparent change of heart shows why.
The coverage of Hawking's dismissal of God has largely ignored the fact that his position has shifted minutely, if indeed it has shifted at all. People have been making a lot in the past few days of Hawking's famous sentence in A Brief History of Time: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be a triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God."
It wasn't until this week that I realised how many people had failed to see this was clearly a metaphor. I should not have been surprised. Having their metaphors taken literally is an occupational hazard for scientists. How many times has Richard Dawkins, for example, had to explain that when he said genes were selfish, he was not attributing desires or motives to them?
Hawking's "mind of God" was never anything more than a metaphor for an understanding of the universe which is complete and objective. Indeed, it has been evident for some time that Hawking does not believe in anything like the traditional God of religion. "You can call the laws of science 'God' if you like," he told Channel 4 earlier this year, "but it wouldn't be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions."
This reflects an inconvenient truth about science that religion would prefer to ignore. For although it is true that science doesn't rule out a role for religion in providing meaning, or a God who kick-started the whole universe off in the first place, it does leave presumed dead in the water anything like the God most people over history have believed in: one who is closely involved in his creation, who intervenes in our lives, and with whom we can have a personal relationship. In short, there is no room in the universe of Hawking or most other scientists for the activist God of the Bible. That's why so few leading scientists are religious in any traditional sense.
This point is often overlooked by apologists who grasp at any straw science will hold out for them. Such desperate clinging happened, disgracefully, in the last years of the philosopher Antony Flew's life. A famous atheist, Flew was said to have changed his mind, persuaded that the best explanation for the "fine-tuning"of the universe – very precise way that its conditions make life possible – was some kind of intentional design. But what was glossed over was that he was very clear that this designer was nothing like the traditional God of the Abrahamic faiths. It was, he clearly said, rather the Deist God, or the God of Aristotle, one who might set the ball rolling but then did no more than watch it trundle off over the horizon. This is no mere quibble. The deist God does not occupy some halfway house between atheism and theism. Replace Yaweh with the deist God and the Bible would make less sense than if you'd substituted Brian for Jesus.
So it is not true that science challenges only the most primitive, literal forms of religion. It is probably going too far to say that sciencemakes the God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam impossible, but it certainly makes him very unlikely indeed.
It is not that physicists are authorities on religion, for whom we look to pronounce the last word. Indeed, they are not necessarily the best people to think through the implications of their science for religion, so philosophy may not be dead after all. But to think that their findings, and those of other scientists, have nothing to say about the credibility of religious faith is just wishful thinking.
In the scientific universe, God is squeezed until his pips squeak. If he survives, then he can't do so without changing his form. Only faith makes it possible to look at such a distorted, scientifically respectable deity and claim to recognise the same chap depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For those without faith, that God is clearly dead, and, yes, science helped to kill him.
Julian Baggini is the editor of 'The Philosophers' Magazine'
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