Is Cosmology a Religion for Atheists? Part 4

Is Cosmology a Religion for Atheists? Part 4

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 4

KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We are wrapping up a series on a lecture delivered by Dr. Craig in the U.K. We begin with questions from the audience.

QUESTION: I think that one of the issues that affects me when I hear about scientific explanations of any kind, including cosmology, and trying to relate it to the being of God and how we came to our existence, I like to think about our interpretation of Genesis and the Bible not in a straightforward literal sense but looking at it from a literary point of view. When you look at Genesis 1, day 4, the sun, the moon, and the stars are created after the Earth so we get something which obviously is out of sync with how science understands the beginning of our world. So when we come to think in cosmological terms about those two models that you gave and saying that there is a beginning of time on both of those models and therefore they are not inconsistent with an idea of a transcendent creator God creating the universe. That is fine as far as we can go. But we don’t learn very much about God himself in that sort of way of thinking. We need something else. If we then go to the Bible as the source documents of the Christian faith and we look at Genesis, we look at the Gospels, and we see for example . . . in the Gospels, Jesus speaks about the creation story as if it had happened, that Adam and Eve really existed. Similarly Paul in Romans will talk about Adam as a certain historical being. One could say that is just for theological argument but it seems to me that he is saying this is though Adam were a real historical being. What are we to do with trying to get an understanding of where we came from, both from the Bible, which seems to suggest that the Genesis story is something which is supposedly true, and then cosmogony and other sort of cosmological theories and other scientific theories which seem to suggest something else? How do we match this all up from your point of view in order to get a really coherent view of where we came from and where we are going?

DR. CRAIG: What you’ve asked is an enormous question! What I want to do is to refer you to my online resources about this. I teach an adult class at our church called Defenders in which we do a systematic survey of the various areas of theology and their interaction with contemporary thought, philosophy, science, and history. We have a section called “doctrine of creation,” and there is a subsection on that called “an excursus on creation and evolution.” I would invite you to look at that on our website ReasonableFaith.org. There are several weeks worth of lectures on this where I lay out, I think, seven or eight different interpretations of Genesis 1 that biblical Christians have offered. There is a wide, wide diversity of interpretations. Then I offer some assessment of these as to their strengths and weaknesses. Then when we get to the question of Adam, we also explore the historicity of Adam and Eve, whether these are historical persons, and the challenge to that that issues from population genetics today which many claim do not allow the human race to ever get below about 2,000 individuals. These are huge issues that you are raising. I would simply invite you, if you are really interested, to go to ReasonableFaith.org, click on the section called Defenders, and you’ll find there either videos of the lessons that you can watch and listen to or, if you are in a greater hurry, there are transcripts of the lessons all written out that you can read.[1] I think you’ll find they are a very responsible, balanced, and informed treatment of these questions that you are raising.

QUESTION: On Friday there was a total solar eclipse of the sun in the North Atlantic. Here in Britain, because of our weather, you could barely notice it. But thousands of years ago there was no explanation for this except to invoke supernatural powers. But as our civilization has continued, we’ve learned more and more. We’ve discovered more science. We have found explanations for more and more of what happens.[2] We have identified this point in modern physics – the Big Bang, the origin of time – and we don’t have an explanation for why that happened. But our knowledge of cosmology, of physics in that area, is very rudimentary. We don’t understand dark matter. We don’t understand dark energy. Your jumping to the conclusion that there must be a supernatural reason seems to be based on the assumption that there is no more to learn. But as time goes on we will learn more about this and we may have a very plausible answer.

DR. CRAIG: Do you understand that what you are posing is just the old God-of-the-gaps objection that I’ve already addressed?

FOLLOWUP: I don’t think you addressed it.

DR. CRAIG: But you do understand that that is the objection, don’t you? That this is just God-of-the-gaps accusation? That I am appealing to God or a supernatural entity to plug up the gaps in our scientific knowledge.

FOLLOWUP: Are you assuming there will be no new knowledge that explains that?

DR. CRAIG: Not at all! All I am claiming is that the best evidence of contemporary cosmology supports that religiously neutral statement: “the universe began to exist.” There is no God-of-the-gaps involved in that at all. If the evidence should suggest that the universe didn’t begin to exist, well and good. But so far as I know the evidence lines up very, very strongly in support of that statement which is a scientific statement, not a theological one. So why do you resist the evidence of modern science and refuse to follow the evidence where it leads?

FOLLOWUP: Well, it is not positive evidence. It is negative evidence. It is evidence of the gap.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, no, no. But it is not negative. The Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem, the red shift, the microwave background radiation – this is all positive evidence that the universe is not past eternal. In fact, Alex Vilenkin, who is a very prominent Russian-American cosmologist from Tufts University, gave a talk at the 70th birthday celebration of Stephen Hawking in Cambridge two years ago in which he surveyed the models of contemporary cosmology.[3] Vilenkin’s conclusion was that none of these can be past eternal. He said “all the evidence” we have says that the universe began to exist – that’s a direct quote. I was struck by that statement because it would be significant if he said, The evidence for a beginning outweighs the evidence against a beginning. But he didn’t say that. He said, All the evidence we have says that the universe began to exist. There isn’t anything on the other side of the scale. So why not follow the evidence where it leads?

FOLLOWUP: You have not mentioned the multi-universe.

DR. CRAIG: No, I haven’t tonight but that is only because . . .

FOLLOWUP: Does each one have their own god?

DR. CRAIG: . . . that is only because I was responding to the film, The Theory of Everything, and contrasting these two models – the Hartle-Hawking model and the standard model. But in my published work of course I address multiverse models and multiverse scenarios. I would refer you again to my published work on this where these issues are thoroughly discussed. Particularly the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology which is published by Wiley-Blackwell in Oxford. I have an article in there with the physicist Jim Sinclair in which we discuss these sorts of models and whether or not they can be past eternal. If you are interested in following it up, take a look at the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology and the article that I’ve co-authored there with Sinclair.

QUESTION: We kind of started out by considering cosmology as a religion. Maybe we need to widen that to all of science. I reflect that it is actually quite a good religion in that it provides an explanation of what we see around us and all those sorts of things that a religion does. I wonder if you could just reflect with us where you think it particularly falls down as a religion because quite a few religions don’t have a god, not all religions promise eternal life, and so on. So why is it a bad religion?

DR. CRAIG: Well, as I said, for the naturalist I can understand how it would be a sort of quasi-religion.[4] That was the opening part of my talk tonight. But I am not a naturalist so in that sense I think it is an inadequate religion. It doesn’t really have a hold of the ultimate reality. But even when assessed on its own terms, I guess here is what I would say. It lacks any explanation of why the universe exists rather than nothing, and I think that its eschatology puts a question mark behind the meaning of human life and existence in the way that Bertrand Russell did. So it ultimately leads to despair and meaninglessness and absurdity. I guess I would see those as fundamental failings of the religion of cosmology.

QUESTION: I’d like to pick up a bit on the Bertrand Russell quotation, but in the context of the whole of your talk up to that point was about current scientific theories and knowledge that support the need or the existence of a Creator. Then Stephen Hawking had this question put to him where he ended up saying But whilst there is life, there is hope basically. I just wondered what your opinion was, because to me there is a fundamental difference between the being of being (if you see what I mean) that created the universe, and there being a God who cares about human beings. It seemed to me that Stephen Hawking was going from a scientific statement to a humanist statement. Are we not sometimes, at being Christians, tempted to assume that a Creator God would also be one that cared about human beings?

DR. CRAIG: I don’t know if we are guilty of assuming that. Certainly those of us who are Christian philosophers will not make that sort of leap. What I’ve talked about tonight would be common property to Christians, Jews, Muslims, even Deists who don’t believe that God has revealed himself in any way. If you were to ask me, “Why are you a Christian theist?” then I would shift gears and I would begin to talk about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is was, who he claimed to be, and the credibility of his resurrection from the dead which, as Peter said, was the work of my doctoral thesis at the University of Munich. It would be on the basis of who you think Jesus of Nazareth was or is that will form, I think, the crucial transition to a Christian theism rather than just a generic theism. I haven’t talked about that tonight, but again, in my work like On Guard or Reasonable Faith that work that I did at the University of Munich comes into play in trying to move beyond mere theism to Christian theism.

FOLLOWUP: I am still not quite clear about your purpose in choosing the quotation from Bertrand Russell which seemed to, in the face of Stephen Hawking’s humanistic statement, give this hopeless view which to me doesn’t preclude God as a Creator but does preclude God as Christians understand him.

DR. CRAIG: You are absolutely right. What I was trying to do there was say that Hawking’s statement “While there is life, there is hope” sounds very optimistic and cheery but I think honestly is sort of like whistling in the graveyard. I think Russell, also an atheist like Hawking, and a keen philosophical thinker, saw more accurately the implications of atheism and particularly of physical eschatology on an atheist worldview. That was the point that I was trying to make. Hawking’s optimistic view, I think sits very ill, very uncomfortably, with naturalistic, atheistic cosmology, and here Russell saw more courageously the real and hopeless implications of atheism and physical eschatology without God.[5]

QUESTION: My question relates to the motivations that scientists have for their research. Do you think scientists like Stephen Hawking and indeed Christian scientists (not necessarily just atheist scientists) do themselves a disservice by going out to try and prove a point that God is necessary or unnecessary? Or do you think they should do the science just to try and find more about the universe which we live in, and then afterwards discuss its implications?

DR. CRAIG: If I understood correctly, was the question, “Do I think that scientists are doing a disservice to us by going beyond their science and beginning to draw theological implications from their work?”

FOLLOWUP: Yes.

DR. CRAIG: No, I don’t. Not at all. What I think they do us a disservice is is not studying some philosophy before they do it! But I envy them – their physical expertise in cosmology and astrophysics. I think it is wonderful. I want to hear from them. But many of these men have a disdainful attitude toward philosophy. In The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, on the first page they declare that philosophy is dead and thereby have insulted all of their colleagues at Cambridge University in the philosophy department by saying that this discipline doesn’t deserve to exist. I think this is just enormously naïve. The first third of the book then goes on to discuss the philosophical question of realism versus anti-realism in science! So, yes, I value their input. I want their input. But they need to exert the same effort to understand philosophy that I, as a philosopher, have exerted in trying to honestly understand physical cosmology.

FOLLOWUP: Do you think that Stephen Hawking could have been more productive as a scientist if he hadn’t been so obsessed with trying to prove that God wasn’t necessary?

DR. CRAIG: I would never say something like that because I can’t speak to his personal motivations. That would be inappropriate, and I’m not a psychologist or psychoanalyst. He does say that some other attempts to avoid the Big Bang were motivated by anti-theological motives. Fred Hoyle was very candid about that and his own motivations. But with respect to Hawking, no, I wouldn’t say that, and I wouldn’t presume to judge in that way.

PETER MAY: Bill, thank you very much for a wonderful evening.

DR. CRAIG: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

PETER MAY: Thank you all for coming, and particularly for those who asked questions. We had some very good questions tonight. I’ve got a deep conviction that in our world dialogue is absolutely essential to try and understand each other’s viewpoints and to weigh and consider. The church for far too long as spoken from pulpits six foot above contradiction and hasn’t heard what people are saying and thinking. Bill is wonderful and engaging with the issues that are being expressed and considered by many people in the world. Thank you again, Bill.[6]


[1] See Defenders Series 2, section 9 titled “Creation and Evolution” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/s9 . There you will find 21 lessons that cover the topics Dr. Craig refers to.

[2] 5:04

[3] Lisa Grossman, “Why physicists can't avoid a creation event,” New Scientist 11 January 2012

[4] 10:03

[5] 15:04

[6] Total Running Time: 19:15 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)