Sarah Sands: Scientists have physics licked, but they can't grasp the divine

Sunday 05 September 2010 00:00 BST

The revelation that God did not, after all, create the universe went largely unnoticed last week. I clocked the cover of The Times's science magazine: "The End of the Universe by Stephen Hawking". But the kettle was boiling and I didn't want to be late for work, so I thought, perhaps later.

Hawking's book solves the mystery of the universe. In Twitterverse essence, he concludes that the world was created from nothing. So there was no need for a designer. There is no God.

Other newspapers did not altogether ignore this turn of events, but it was eclipsed by the Newer Testament of Tony Blair and by the rights or wrong of sharing a hotel room with your boss.

In some ways "No God" fulfilled the criteria of a news story. It was controversial and there were plenty of experts ready to be quoted. God is a short word, so handy for tabloid headlines. Maybe what stopped it getting the full William Hague treatment was that it was tricky for news editors to establish veracity. They may be clear-minded and cocksure as a breed, but even they know when they are out of their depth.

By contrast, scientists such as Hawking or Richard Dawkins believe that their knowledge is absolute. There may be a few known unknowns to tie up with a bit of string theory, but these are quite unlike those laughably unknown unknowns that constitute faith.

Somehow, different races, or cultures, or sensibilities or economic theories may legitimately co-exist, yet atheist scientists refuse any freedom of conscience to people of faith. The scientists are the evangelists now, and everyone must be forcibly converted. As Dawkins said to The Times's religion correspondent: "Either there is a God or there isn't. You really can't use "what feels right for me" as an argument.

Why not? The blazing champion of atheism, Christopher Hitchens, gave a television interview, posted on YouTube, about his steadfast rejection of faith, even in the shadow of savage cancer. He is courageous and witty but also compassionate. Asked about the people who are praying for him, he does not denounce them in the Dawkins manner. He says that he hopes it helps them.

To Hawking and Dawkins, people of faith are cowardly and stupid. They are the flat-earthers.

I wonder if it is possible to be blinded by science. Can you be so transfixed by physical laws that you miss the meaning of them?

I was not so shocked by Hawking's claims that science is God, creator of all things. But I baulked at his dismissal of philosophy. I wish I knew as much as men of science about why we live. But it is hard of Hawking to forbid human understanding of what life means.

Like many in the Church of England, I have a very diffident faith. I am moved by churches, especially country ones, I love hymns, and I feel that Christianity is part of the ancient fabric of Britain. My strength of belief comes and goes like digital radio reception, but I have experienced the profound peace and beauty of something that feels like truth.

The final scene in the BBC's brilliant exposition of contemporary faith, Rev, shows the urban vicar, played by Tom Hollander, jolted from his crazed doubts to a quiet seriousness as he beholds the mystery of a dying woman. Quiet contemplation of divine mystery. It is too strong a human impulse, even for the gigantic brain of Hawking.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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