On science v. religion, Stephen Hawking nails it

In a recent Diane Sawyer interview, Stephen Hawking looks at the state of play between religion and science and sees checkmate in religion’s future:

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

Hawking has honed in on something very important: religion is really not based on faith; it’s based on authority. In other words, faith has an object, and that object is an authority. But because religious authority is not expertise, and not based on expertise, it is not really a form of knowledge. Scientific claims, by contrast, tend to be made by scientific experts, and they base their claims on reason and evidence. Thus religion and science are not compatible, and science, based in expertise and evidence (as opposed to authority and faith) will, in the competition of good ideas, ultimately win.

I think that Hawking is right. In the 19th century, a lot of atheists called the death of religion in the 20th century, and they were obviously wrong. But I think that it is just a matter of time before religion—at least religion based on faith in authority—will be discredited in the minds of most human beings. The 19th century atheists just called it early. Hawking is calling the game, but not specifying when. My guess is sometime in the 22nd century.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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17 Responses to On science v. religion, Stephen Hawking nails it

  1. andrewclunn says:

    While I agree in my desire for science to win, this view takes into account only the reality of physics and the hard sciences, ignoring the reality of neuroscience. What if human beings are predisposed to accepting reality from authority figures and culture than science? it does in fact seem that while the personal anecdote is nothing to double blinded study, and even less to a mathematical proof, it is the personal testimony that holds the most sway in the collective consciousness.

    In order for science to compete in any meaningful way with religion, it must create its own heuristics expressed through stories. In other words, it must become its own sort of religion. We see it in secular humanism, the green movement of environmentalism, marxism, objectivism, and so many others. Religion will always be with us unless we cease to be humans. Hawking is (perhaps sadly) wrong.

  2. TomH says:

    Hawking has it exactly backwards, doesn’t he? When scientists speak to the laity, they rely on authority, like any priesthood. When Christianity speaks about the resurrection, it relies on observation by witnesses and reasons from there to support the proposition that Jesus is the Christ.

    • TomH says:

      Hawking is very much out of field when it comes to philosophy. His philosophical opinions are quite incompetent.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom H:

      If there was ever a time in Christianity’s actual history that your observation MIGHT have held (for how could we possibly know?) it was in the first decade or so after the claim that Jesus had resurrected from the dead.

      Unfortunately, there is not a single piece of evidence that you could bring into a contemporary court of law in support of the claim that “Jesus rose from the dead.” (If there is something I am missing, please offer one of these data points.)

      In other words, all the “witnesses” (if, indeed, they witnessed what they imagined) are long dead, and we haven’t a clue who wrote the gospels (or when or where they wrote them, or what, exactly, they meant to do, as authors, in writing them). The most basic data points for getting at the full truth of the matter are thus unavailable to us. And yet Christians continue to “bear witness” to something for which there are only (mostly implausible) inferences.

      When five members of CDC say—“Get your flu shot”— they are not acting as a priesthood. They have data and journals, publicly accessible, for entering the debate in full and rational detail (if you have the scientific training). Thus your contrast is not just flawed, but ridiculous.


      • TomH says:

        The court of law regarding the resurrection was held in the first century, as the Bible notes. (Actually, there were two courts mentioned in Acts–one was the church (4:33) and the other was the half-Jewish Samaritans (8:25).)

        On another point, I don’t know why you think that I should accept the evidentiary rules of American or other law courts, especially when their rules contradict sound epistemological precepts?

        I think that you are being absolutely ridiculous when you assert that we don’t know who wrote the gospels. The point is that the church found them to be truthful accounts. They are teaching materials to be used by evangelists and went through quality assurance by church leaders–ostensibly, the Twelve, as the writings of the Church Fathers assert. Really, you are being quite ridiculous.

        You bring up an accurate criticism of modern Christians “bearing witness” to the resurrection. Clearly, there’s no way that Christians today can bear witness as the apostles did. Early Christianity expected careful scrutiny of any kind of testimony and teaching, which is hardly the standard fare in Christianity today, though some Christians in fact do scrutinize things carefully.

        You prove my point with the CDC asserting its authority rather than attempting to persuade the laity with reasoned argument. Then, surprisingly, after proving my point, you assert that the contrast is ridiculous.

        The point is that within the priesthood (whether scientists or church theologians), there is debate and discussion about various points. However, when interacting with the laity, often authority is asserted rather than a reasoned argument being presented.

        But, I think that we perhaps ought to discuss the nature of the fields of interest. Theology by its nature relies on revelation, though our investigation of the revelation is incomplete. Science investigates nature rather than revelation, and its results are likewise incomplete. Theologians and scientists both would say that progress is being made in their respective disciplines. We also have seen numerous examples of error in both disciplines. Error is part of the human condition. Appealing here to your literary streak, doncha know?

        You may be relying on some ignorant metanarrative in your analysis, perhaps promulgated by some ignorant Christians about how to view the Bible as some simplistic authoritative text. However, the Bible texts are sometimes quite nuanced and often expect us to conduct careful investigation of our own. I think especially here of the recommendation of the Bereans, who were praised for carefully examining Paul’s teachings, rather than for stupidly accepting them.

        Yes, the biblical instruction is frequently at odds with contemporary anti-intellectual “Christianity.”

      • santitafarella says:


        The Bible’s veracity is what is in question, and yet you are using the Bible (stories from the Book of Acts) to prove the Bible. But the Book of Acts, like the gospels, are useless as evidence because we have no idea who wrote it, where the author got his stories, when he wrote them, where he wrote them, or why he wrote them. The same problem adheres to the gospels. We don’t have access to the authors, and neither did the Christians after the first century. The Christians preserve some folklore about the authors of the gospels, but we have no clue (nor did they) as to the actual truth of the matter. We don’t even know exactly what genre the gospel authors were writing in. Did they mean, for example, to be taken literally? Where, in their writings, did they think they were writing history, and where myth or folklore? Were they imitating classical authors, or echoing Hebrew Bible narratives (thus embellishing their stories)? We simply don’t know. And since we don’t know it is not sensible to treat them as evidentiary of anything historic. Add to this the fact that the NT resurrection narratives are hopelessly confused and contradict one another, and we have one first class mess (if your goal is to find out what really happened around 30 CE with regard to Jesus).

        And here’s a reality check: the resurrection of Jesus violates physical law. People don’t rise from the dead. And if one ever did, we would need extraordinary evidence to accept the overturning of all of our background knowledge about physical law and what happens to people after they die. When it comes to the gospels, we don’t have such an evidentiary threshold. It would be nice if we did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be assured that at least one person conquered death?

        But, alas, we don’t have that. If you want to believe it anyway, fine. But don’t call it a reasonable inference based on data. There simply isn’t any (or at least there isn’t any that doesn’t evaporate under a bit of critical scrutiny).

        The author of the gospel of John wrote: “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe.”

        I regard that as bad epistemic advice. You apparently do as well. Most Christians through history, and prior to the Enlightenment, were content to believe without evidence. The pressures of Baconian empiricism have tied contemporary Christians up into intellectual knots (trying to put the resurrection of Jesus, for example, on empirical grounds). But trying to put the resurrection on empirical and historic grounds is a fool’s errand.

        Faith, of course, is not culturally acceptable in intellectual circles. It is based on authority. And it comes from a priesthood. And contemporary Christians don’t like to admit that they have no more basis for believing in their book than the Muslims have in believing theirs (or the Mormons, theirs).

        It’s embarrassing in the 21st century to believe things absent evidence and reason. And it should be. I appreciate your attempt. You’re obviously in a difficult position. But I think that you are overattached to a failed hypothesis.

        Once reason fails, there is still hope against hope: faith (if you need that form of whistling in the dark).


  3. TomH says:

    I would say that repeatable experimentation is quite reliable when confirmed by more than one research team. I have to add that condition because of so many cases where experimentalists have published fraudulent work and because of the financial incentive to make hyperbolic claims about one’s experimental research.

    Experimentation should have practical applications and provide technological benefits. Along this line, I have started a new company based on my research in optics long ago and am in the process of getting a patent. The product would appear to be similar to a “Star Trek” medical tricorder in terms of power, handiness, and providing immediate results.

    • santitafarella says:


      I agree with you that individual experts can be tainted by bad motivations and prejudice (or just be crazy). The solution to this is not to dismiss experts as a whole, but to distinguish between experts who have (or do not have) credibility. One easy way to do this is to find out what the community of experts thinks of the individual expert in question: is he or she respected in his or her field?

      Furthermore, I think you need to distinguish between individual expert pronouncement and consensus pronouncements of a field (such as biology). You must posit a conspiracy theory—or collective delusion, corruption, or prejudice—when you simply reject the consensus position of an entire field. I think that is a very difficult position to support.


      • TomH says:

        Unfortunately, the political methods of the scientific establishment are often at odds with the methods of experimentation. It is fairly common for the scientific establishment to reject/suppress new ideas because they oppose the existing accepted ideas of influential members of the scientific establishment. This is hardly limited to contentious areas such as evolution, but may be found throughout many disciplines. These problems may disappear eventually, but that may take decades or centuries. In the meantime, do we still rely on experts? I have been harmed by scientific experts who told my parents to remove my adenoids because the experts believed that the adenoids were the useless remnants of evolution. Many doctors today still do the same thing regarding the appendix and recommend yanking it out if the opportunity presents itself. The examples of the adenoids and appendix show that consensus is hardly a reliable indicator. And should we consider the opinion of science news writers, who are sometimes at odds with experts in a field? It’s not as if we usually read the journals, but receive filtered info.

        I think that it takes a solid foundation in epistemology before we can judge adequately how much weight to give to expert opinion on a matter. You seem to recommend accepting expert opinion on blind faith. I think that you need to think about this a bit more.

  4. andrewclunn says:

    Here’s the video for reference:

  5. TomH says:

    I should add that Hawking fails to note the tendency by many theologians to accomodate their theology and reading of Genesis to evolutionism. This is hardly an argument from authority by theologians. Rather, the science establishment relies very heavily on authority when making their “divine” pronouncements. Of course, they leverage the entire authority of the supposed science monolith to include statements with little or no evidentiary backing, including anthropogenic global warming. Those of us with scientific training are able to discern the degree of evidentiary support for various claims and discount hyperbolic claims.

  6. TomH says:

    And finally, you all probably realized that my general point is that the distinction between religion and science is not as clear cut as is often portrayed.

  7. TomH says:


    You have expanded the scope of your skepticism beyond the gospels to the book of Acts. It’s quite difficult to have any kind of reasoned discussion with someone who keeps changing the scope of the discussion. Please tell me what in the Bible you consider to be well-established. Perhaps Pauline authorship of the Pauline epistles? And are you an extreme skeptic about historical documents in a general sense? Is your extreme skepticism restricted to the Bible or do you carry it beyond the Bible? Your characterization of the gospels and Acts as useless because they lack the characteristics of the sort of evidence you accept marks you as an extreme skeptic. A more moderate (though perhaps equally rigorous) skeptic would consider the historical context and what was expected of documents from the period and judge based on the standards of the period. For instance, such a skeptic might use the same methods as used when examining Xenophon’s Anabasis, Caesar’s Commentaries, or Josephus’ Antiquities.

    As regards your assertion that the accounts of the resurrection are contradictory, I think that you will have to provide an example of a logical contradiction (“A” vs. “not A”) before I will agree to your statement of things. I am generally aware of the gospels and some of their divergences, which are not really problems for those who understand the epistemology of testimony (perhaps from having a fair amount of experience dealing with witnesses). I suspect that you are adding some unstated requirement to NT documents that they don’t present their story in some way that you would do it if you were God. Also, perhaps you are adding a requirement that they must be judged as if they were inspired, which seems superfluous to the question of their accuracy and hence irrelevant.

    Finally, let’s consider the statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe.” From the context, Jesus is admonishing Thomas for doubting the testimony of the other apostles. Jesus is relying on a Jewish understanding of testimony here, which is essential to the reader in order to understand much of the New Testament. Jesus is not discounting empirical evidence or relying on authority. You have misread the passage. Jesus is asserting that eyewitness testimony from those heavily immersed in the Jewish context of 1st century Palestine is perhaps the strongest human evidence possible.

    Now lets look at how testimony is used in science. As I have indicated before, experimental evidence implicitly requires confirmation before it is accepted by researchers. In the research community, it is understood that researchers generally repeat one another’s methods. Absence of evidence against a research report over a period of a year or so is evidence in favor of that report. Negative testimony by a researcher, otoh, is powerful evidence against accepting the initial report. But this is all implicitly understood by researchers.

    Reliance on testimony undergirds all experimental research. At some point, on many small details, we have to rely on the testimony of others–perhaps regarding the purity of a chemical, or the calibration and marking of a weighing scale, or their story about digging up a fossil, etc. Hence, not only is science not independent of testimony, but without testimony we couldn’t possibly do science. I could write a great deal more about this, but Steven Shapin has already done an adequate job of it. I recommend reading a couple of his books–“A social history of truth” and “The scientific revolution.”

    Now let’s consider how history regardes evidence. Of course, in history, documentary evidence undergirds the framework of history. One aim of history is to get at the actual empirical evidence, though generally second hand. Experimentation, otoh, offers the possibility of first had verification. However, the reality is that for most of us, we have to rely on second hand evidence when it comes to science. It hardly seems reasonable to take the experimental expectations of science and apply them to history, which is what you have been doing.


    A Social History of Truth


    The Scientific Revolution

  8. santitafarella says:


    You brought up Acts as evidentiary, not me. I just responded to your assertion. But I don’t mind narrowing the subject to just the gospels. Let’s take Luke 24:6 and compare it to Mark 16:7. Luke, clearly knowing Mark, has blatantly changed what Mark claims that the angel said at Jesus’s tomb. In Mark 16:7, the angel commands the disciples to go into Galilee, telling him “there they will see him.” But Luke turns the angel’s command into a MEMORY: “Remember how he spoke to you in Galilee (of his resurrection)?”

    Why did Luke do this? Because ALL of Luke’s resurrection stories take place in and around Jerusalem. For reasons we can only speculate on, Luke does not want the disciples leaving Jerusalem. It messes up his version of the story. So he changed Mark’s angel-statement from a COMMAND to go to Galilee to see Jesus resurrected into a RECOLLECTION of what Jesus in Galilee said OF his resurrection. In Luke’s version the apostles meet Jesus in Jerusalem, not Galilee (see Luke 24:33; and Acts 1:4). By contrast, Matthew follows Mark’s narrative and puts the disciple’s encounter with Jesus in Galilee (Matthew 28:16).

    Here’s another example of the questionable (even dubious and fanciful) nature of gospel resurrection narratives: Matthew 27:51-53. Immediately after Jesus’s death Matthew has this very, very strange “Night of the Living Dead” story that he includes in his gospel. Matthew says that there was, immediately following Jesus’s death, an earthquake and “many bodies of the saints which slept arose” and entered Jerusalem, appearing “unto many.” It’s so wild, I’ll quote the full passage:

    51And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;

    52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

    53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

    I’d ask you a simple question: do you take this story as a historical occurance?

    I don’t. Why? There are numerous obvious reasons. First, outside of this one gospel, no other ancient writer knows anything about this (not even as a rumor). It is as if a UFO had descended on Jerusalem and absolutely no one, apart from Matthew, thought it worthy of marking in historical memory. An occurance of this dramatic nature would have changed everything in history. But not even the other gospels know the story.


    Obviously, the tale is fanciful.

    And even if we held the story as possibly historical, we must ask a simple question: where did the author get it? We simply do not know. If Matthew believed that the story was true, and not a bit of folklore, we will never know what evidence or testimony convinced him that it was true. We have only a spectacularly implausible tale.

    Matthew has other stories of similarly poor quality and credibility. See, for example, Matthew 28:11-15, in which the author circulates a conspiracy theory around which Jews are said to have tried to cover-up the resurrection of Jesus. Why would they do this? Where did Matthew get the story? How does he know the details of the story? How do we know whether he is just spreading an ugly rumor about malevolent Jews that he is in a religious quarrel with? None of this is discoverable.

    What I’ve given you above is evidence that:

    1. Luke willfully manipulated Mark.
    2. Matthew makes up wild stories that almost certainly have no basis in reality.

    This is not me being an “extreme skeptic.” This is me being a critical thinker. I’m looking at ancient documents and concluding, reasonably, that what they say is not to be taken at face value.

    I’d ask you three simple questions:

    1. If Luke is a careful “historian,” why is he so loose with quoting one of his sources (Mark)?
    2. If Matthew is to be trusted as a narrator of “history”, why should anyone believe that Matt. 27:51-53 is true?
    3. If Matthew is willing to promulgate a scurrilous rumor about Jews (Mt. 28:11-15)—a conspiracy theory based on nothing that he informs us about—why should we trust anything else that Matthew has to say? Isn’t it an ugly thing to tell such a story on people and not name your sources or how you know that they did such a terrible thing? It suggests to me that Matthew was not somebody who worried all that much about getting his facts straight before promulgating a story. Nor was he worried that people might spread his story without knowing anything more than what he told them in his book. It strikes me as icky and unethical behavior. It is not the behavior of a fair minded or objective spreader of historical events. Instead, it is clear evidence that the author of “Matthew” (whoever he was) had a very low regard for verification (either getting it for himself or distributing it to others).


  9. Josh Kelley says:

    While he paints with a very broad brush, there is a lot of truth in what Hawking says — Christianity is based on God as the authority and author of creation. Reason and observation are handmaidens to theology (to borrow from an older expression), which is why many great scientists and philosophers have not found their Christian faith to be an obstacle to observation.

    Where I disagree with him is his unqualified prediction that science will win out (NB: I have not seen the interview). Intellectual honesty demands the qualification “If there is no Authority, then science will win.” But if in fact God does exist, then science must be content to serve at his side.

    Granted, that is a pretty big “if”!

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