God And No-God Mongering: A Cycle Of Science Vs Religion Begins Anew : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Stephen Hawking has been accused of God mongering and no-God mongering. Ursula Goodenough laments that this marks another round of discussions in which science and religion are placed in mutually exclusive camps.
NPR logo God And No-God Mongering: A Cycle Of Science Vs Religion Begins Anew

God And No-God Mongering: A Cycle Of Science Vs Religion Begins Anew

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently asserted the universe was created without divine intervention, departing from his previous stance. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images hide caption

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Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

To monger means to broker, to deal in a special commodity. It’s usually used pejoratively, as in fear mongering.

In his book The Whole Shebang, the gifted science writer Timothy Ferris suggested that cosmologist Stephen Hawking was engaging in God-mongering, when in the book Brief History of Time he speculates that the discovery of a unified theory of physics could lead to understanding “why it is that we and the universe exist,” which in turn would be “the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”

During his pan of Hawking’s just-released book, The Grand Design, in yesterday’s New York Times, reviewer Dwight Garner notes that this time around, Hawking is effectively engaging in no-God mongering when he concludes that the creation of our universe “does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.”

“Spontaneous creation,” Hawking writes, “is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to ... set the Universe going."

There’s actually some logic behind Hawking’s apparent reversal. On the premise that there’s only one universe, the extraordinary “fine-tuning” of its physical parameters can lead one to the anthropic notion of a “Fine-Tuner.” By contrast, the multi-universe concept propounded in The Grand Design suggests that all sorts of tunings have been tried out during the course of “spontaneous creation,” leading to the notion that our universe just happened to hit a sweet spot all on its own.

Garner grumbles that the mongering has everything to do with selling books, and he has a point. In recent years, scientists have written both God-mongering and no-God-mongering books that have enjoyed blockbuster runs, with The God Delusion, as one example, already selling many millions of copies in two years.

I confess that I find it wearisome to contemplate yet another round of diatribes from the two sides of the God aisle. The headlines are already starting to appear: “Stephen Hawking to God: Your Services Are No Longer Needed; God to Hawking: You So Don't Get Who I Am.”

One source of discouragement is the realization that these exchanges serve to polarize rather than clarify because neither side has any interest whatsoever in listening to what the other has to say.

But in the context of 13.7, it is also discouraging to realize that, yet again, the premise will be propagated that science shouldn’t be messing with religion and vice-versa, that they should leave each other alone, that they are “non-overlapping magisteria."

Garner in fact quotes Ferris along these lines. Following his God-mongering comment, Ferris writes: “Cosmology has more than enough to do trying to figure out how the universe works without also flattering itself that it is going to tell us why. Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive… [It doesn’t] seem likely or even desirable to imagine that they are headed for some sort of rapprochement. This may be an instance where good walls make good neighbors.”

I’ll grant that when a religious trajectory becomes a religious system, then it also tends to become conservative in the interest of self-maintenance. But religious trajectories are not inherently conservative, and indeed the religious impulse can be highly creative, particularly when persons are provisioned with a novel Mythos – like our scientific understandings of nature — to explore for its religious implications.