Is Cosmology a Religion for Atheists? Part 1

Is Cosmology a Religion for Atheists? Part 1

Dr. Craig delivered a lecture in the UK on a film about Stephen Hawking. The series concludes with more questions for the audience.


Transcript Is Cosmology a Religion for Atheists? Part 1

KEVIN HARRIS: Today we begin a series on Dr. Craig’s lecture on a film about the life of Stephen Hawking that he delivered at Highfield Church in Southampton in the U.K. Many have told us that you listen to these podcasts on the way to work or school or on the Reasonable Faith app, so we wanted to make the audio available here as well as the video with slides and illustrations that you can get on YouTube and on our website. Let’s begin with a great introduction by Dr. Peter May who was co-leader of Highfield’s Reasonable Faith course and the author of The Search for God. Here is Dr. May.

PETER MAY: Welcome everybody. It’s great to have William Lane Craig in town again in Southampton on his way back to Atlanta. This past week he has been in Birmingham where he has delivered the Cadbury Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Birmingham. They have been a fairly erudite set of lectures; it stretched my mind considerably. Sometimes I even understood parts of it! We had a very different type of lecture last night – it was a public lecture in Birmingham – which was largely filled with sixth-formers to hear him talk about the book that has really made him famous which is his research on the kalam cosmological argument. He unpacked that wonderfully bringing it up to date with current issues before a very enthusiastic young audience.

Bill’s association with Birmingham started in the 1970s where he did his first PhD under the supervision of the late John Hick. He went on to do a second PhD in Munich under Wolfhart Pannenberg. The first PhD was in philosophy. The second was in theology. Under Pannenberg he particularly studied the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. These two special interests have shaped his research and writing ever since.

The original plan was that Bill agreed he’d come give us a talk. We didn’t really sort of fine-tune that idea. We just let it hang. Then this film came out. I thought, “A-ha!” If you’ve seen the film you will know right early on this question of cosmology being defined as a kind of religion for intelligent atheists. I thought that is a good provocative title for Bill to address. The film is an interesting film. It is a love story. But it is also a love story with a tragic note. Romantic love meets compassionate love with this strange and debilitating illness of Stephen Hawking which eventually broke up their marriage. But the film also braces the greatest science story of our generation concerning the origins of the universe. It is introduced early on in the film and the issues hang throughout the film. This has implications for all of us. What is this universe about and who are we? What is our place in this cosmic drama? So Bill has agreed, in his visit this week, to address some of the scientific, philosophical, and theological issues raised by that film. When he’s finished speaking there will be an opportunity to ask him questions.

So, welcome to Highfield. Let’s now welcome Bill.

DR. CRAIG: Before I begin, let me just say that we have had a wonderful week in Birmingham giving the Cadbury Lectures and to speaking there. We are delighted to climax and finish our trip with this event in this beautiful setting here at Highfield. I am looking forward to a stimulating evening with you this evening.[1]

In the award-winning movie, The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking introduces himself to his wife-to-be, Jane, as a cosmologist. When Jane asks what that is, he replies, “It is a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.”

That remark is both provocative and revealing. Cosmology is obviously not literally a religion. It is a branch of astrophysics which studies the large-scale structure of the universe. If one is a naturalist (that is to say, someone who believes that all that there is is space-time and its contents) then in a sense someone who studies the universe is studying the ultimate reality. This is the same project in which the theologian is engaged except that for the theologian the ultimate reality is God not the universe. The theologian has a wider, more encompassing, view of reality than the naturalist since he believes in a reality that transcends the universe. The universe is a subordinate reality which is created by God. For cosmologists who are theists – for example, George Ellis, who is perhaps the world’s leading cosmologist who is also featured in this film – cosmology is therefore not a kind of religion but rather the scientific study of a subordinate reality. But for the naturalist it is easy to see how cosmology could become quasi-religious.

Cosmology is divided into two sub-disciplines, which once again have intriguing parallels in theology. The first sub-discipline is cosmogony which is the study of the origin of the universe. Parallel to this is the theological locus, or category or doctrine, of creation, particularly creatio originans (or “originating creation”). Christian theology holds that God created the universe from nothing a finite time ago. Therefore the universe is not eternal in the past but had a beginning.

The second sub-discipline of cosmology is eschatology which is the study of the future fate of the universe. Those of you who are familiar with theology will recognize immediately that this term is actually borrowed from theology for the theological locus or doctrine of the last things is called eschatology. Once again theological eschatology is broader in its scope than physical eschatology for while physical eschatology studies the future fate of the universe, given the laws of nature and present conditions, theological eschatology also comprises broader themes such as the state of the soul after death, the resurrection, the new heavens and the new Earth, and heaven and hell. Once again we can see how the naturalistic cosmologist studying cosmogony and physical eschatology might think of himself as engaged in a sort of religious pursuit.

While physical eschatology makes a brief appearance in the movie The Theory of Everything, it is cosmogony that dominates. The film focuses on two cosmogonic theories which Stephen Hawking has defended. The first being the standard Big Bang model based entirely on the General Theory of Relativity. The second being the so-called “no boundary” proposal which Hawking developed in collaboration with James Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, based on the incorporation of quantum physics into the standard model to yield a quantum theory of gravity. The film explores the alleged theological implications of these two theories.

So that we might better understand these alleged theological implications, let me say a bit about these two approaches to cosmogony.[2] First, the standard general relativistic model. Prior to the 1920s, scientists had always assumed that the universe as a whole was stationary and eternal. Tremors of the impending earthquake that would topple this traditional cosmology were first felt in 1917 when Albert Einstein made a cosmological application of his newly discovered gravitational theory – the General Theory of Relativity. To his chagrin, Einstein found that General Relativity would not permit an eternal, static model of the universe unless he fudged his equations to offset the gravitational effects of matter. During the 1920s, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman and the Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître by taking Einstein’s equations at face value came up independently with models of an expanding universe.

In 1929 the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, through tireless observations at Mt. Wilson Observatory, made a startling discovery which confirmed Friedman and Lemaître’s theory. He found that the light from distant galaxies appeared to be redder than expected. This “red-shift” in the light was most plausibly due to the stretching of the light waves as the galaxies are moving away from us. Wherever Hubble trained his telescope in the night sky he observed this same red-shift in the light from the distant galaxies. It appeared that we are at the center of a cosmic explosion and all of the other galaxies are flying away from us at fantastic speeds!

Now according to the Friedman-Lemaître model, we are not really at the center of the universe. Rather an observer in any galaxy will look out and see the other galaxies moving away from him. This is because, according to the theory, it is really space itself which is expanding. The galaxies are actually at rest in space, but they recede from one another as space itself expands.

The Friedman-Lemaître model eventually came to be known as the Big Bang theory. But that name can be misleading. Thinking of the Big Bang as a sort of explosion could mislead us into thinking that the galaxies are moving into a pre-existing, empty space from a central point. That would be a complete misunderstanding of the model. The theory is much more radical than that.

As you trace the expansion of space back in time, everything gets closer and closer together. Eventually the distance between any two points in space becomes zero. You can’t get any closer than that! Space and time cannot be extended further back than that. So at that point you’ve reached the boundary of space and time. It is literally the beginning of space and time.

To get a picture of this we can portray our three dimensional space as a two dimensional disk which shrinks as you go back in time. Eventually the distance between any two spatial points becomes zero. So space-time can be represented geometrically as a cone. What’s significant about this is that while a cone can be extended indefinitely in one direction, it has a boundary point in the other direction. Because this direction represents time and the boundary point lies in the past, the model implies that past time is finite and had a beginning.

Because space-time is the arena in which all matter and energy exist, the beginning of space-time is also the beginning of all matter and energy. It is the beginning of the universe.

Notice that there is simply nothing prior to the initial boundary of space-time. Let’s not, however, be misled by words.[3] When cosmologists say “There is nothing prior to the initial boundary,” they do not mean that there is something prior to it, and that is a state of nothingness. That would be to treat nothing as though it were something! Rather they mean that at that boundary point, it is false that “There is something prior to this point.”

The standard Big Bang model thus predicts an absolute beginning of the universe.

In the movie, the standard model is described in the following exchange between Hawking and Jane:

Stephen: . . . if Einstein is right, if General Relativity is correct, then the universe is expanding, yes?

Jane: Yes.

Stephen: So, if you reverse time, the universe would get smaller.

Jane: All right…

Stephen: So, what if I reverse the process all the way back to see what happened at the beginning of time itself?

Jane: The beginning of time itself?

Stephen: The universe, getting smaller and smaller, denser and denser, hotter and hotter as…

Jane: …as we wind back the clock?

. . .

Stephen: . . . Keep winding! You’ve got to get back to the beginning of time . . . Keep winding . . . until you get -. . . . A spacetime singularity.

The standard model thus predicted an initial singularity. There were, however, suspicions that since the real universe is not perfectly similar to Friedman and Lemaître’s ideal model, their prediction of a singular beginning to the universe would ultimately fail. Perhaps the distribution of matter and energy in the real universe is not homogeneous enough for the universe to shrink down to a singularity. In 1970, however, Hawking in collaboration with Roger Penrose of Oxford University proved that the assumption of ideal homogeneity was irrelevant. The Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems showed that so long as the universe is governed by General Relativity our past must include an initial singularity.

Such a conclusion is profoundly disturbing for anybody who reflects on it. For the question cannot be suppressed: Why did the universe come into being? Sir Arthur Eddington, contemplating the beginning of the universe, opined that the expansion of the universe was so preposterous and incredible that “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it – except myself.”[4] He finally felt forced to conclude, “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”[5]

In a scene deleted from the final cut of the movie, Jane and Hawking reflect on the implications of the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems:

Jane: Isn’t it amazing? This is poetry . . .

Stephen: Well, it’s black hole theory.

Jane: . . . Time began, at a certain point . . . there was a moment of Creation . . .

Stephen: . . . yes . . .

Jane: . . . This is God’s work!

Stephen: I think you’ll find that the equations are mine . . . but . . . good point!

The standard Big Bang model thus predicts an absolute beginning of the universe. If this model is correct, then we have amazing scientific confirmation of the theological doctrine of creation out of nothing.

So is the standard model correct, or, more importantly, is it correct in predicting a beginning of the universe? Despite its empirical confirmation, the standard Big Bang model will need to be modified in various ways. The model is based, as I’ve said, on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. But Einstein’s theory breaks down when the universe becomes shrunk down to subatomic proportions. We’ll need to introduce quantum physics at that point, and no one is sure how this is to be done.

KEVIN HARRIS: We are out of time but we will pick it up next time as Dr. Craig discusses the second cosmogonic model mentioned in the film. Later on in this series, Dr. Craig takes some questions from the audience. You don’t want to miss a minute of that. We’ll see you then on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[6]



[1] 4:57

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:04

[4] Arthur Eddington, The Expanding Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 124.

[5] Ibid., p. 178.

[6] Total Running Time: 20:24 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)