Stephen Hawking Rejects Heaven – Calls It a “Fairy Story” (video)

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Stephen Hawking, brilliant physicist and author of "A Brief History of Time" is proving to be quite brilliant at pissing off members of the religious community too.

Now now kids, play nice.

In the seemingly endless back-and-forth bantering between scientists and the more faith-based, Stephen Hawking has injected us with another shot of reason in an exclusive interview with the Guardian where he calls the afterlife a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Hawking’s comments are an extension of a book he completed recently with Leonard Mlodinow called “The Grand Design.” The book discusses the latest best guess by cosmologists to explain the universe. Called M-theory, the cosmological framework attempts to combine all physical theories–such as quantum theory that explains things at the atomic and subatomic levels and Einstein’s theory of relativity that deals with gravity–into a single theory that accurately describes everything, at all scales. The unified theory that M-theory hopes to be has been the cosmological Holy Grail since Einstein. He spent the final 25 years of his life in search of a unified theory. He never found it.

One man’s Holy Grail is another man’s crucifix.

Hawking concludes the book by suggesting M-theory’s implications to our broad, cultural interpretation of the universe. The theory predicts that from nothing springs an infinite number of universes, each ruled by its own unique set of physical laws. Only universes with laws like the ones in our universe can support life–at least life as we know it–and explains why we find ourselves in this particular kind of universe. “Sponatenous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist."

And then, oh yes, he goes there: "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

In the Guardian interview which took place on May 15, Hawking expanded on his Godless approach to understanding the universe, our purpose in it, and what, if anything, comes after. It’s a short interview.

From the Guardian:

What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

You've said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?
Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

So here we are. What should we do?
We should seek the greatest value of our action.

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

What are the things you find most beautiful in science?
Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: I do not think that word means what you think it means.

The first question is referring to a seminar that Hawking was to give the day following the interview at Google Zeitgeist entitled “Why are we here?” You can watch his talk in the video below. I think it’s an interesting question because it and Hawking’s answer get to the crux of why the entire debate between reason and faith gets nowhere fast. When most people–at least in the U.S. where the debate is waged the loudest–ask about the “value” of knowing “why” we are here, they’re looking for an answer that is relevant to some “higher purpose.” If we knew why we were here we could answer the question: What is the purpose of life? Being the cosmologist that he is, Hawking avoids the metaphysical and stays resolutely in the physical. Value? Well, that can only be measured in terms of biological fitness. What value could there be to life, he seems to ask, other than survivability?

The dichotomy of scientific and faith-based approaches to the ‘big questions’ prevents any fruitful dialogue from taking place between them. Hawking’s critics argue that some questions–How did the universe begin? Does God exist?–cannot be answered with data. He disagrees. In the Zeitgeist talk, Hawking focuses on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Somewhere within the accelerator’s 27 km looping tunnel physicists hope to learn about the forces at play moments after the Big Bang–and in doing so take a peek at creation.

It's an evidence-based approach rather than a faith-based one. It's an approach that assumes there's nothing in the universe is that not at least potentially approachable by science.

What about Old Greybeard In The Sky?

Of course, no scientist would argue that science can disprove God. But what frustrates many scientists–and again brings the discussion to an impossible impasse–is the argument that science can’t touch the question of God. It’s religion, it’s the metaphysics, it’s philosophy, it’s faith. You’re equations may predict the planets, but God...He's immune to equations.

And this argument doesn’t always originate from outside the scientific community. Sometimes it comes from within, sometimes from really awesome scientific minds. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould separated reason and faith with his non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA):

“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time...: science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

Apparently, some of Gould's colleagues would rather he not speak for them. In his cryptically-titled *joke* Huffington Post essay, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” the world’s most outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, proceeds to smash Gould’s NOMA:

“This sounds terrific, right up until you give it a moment’s thought. You then realize that the presence of a creative deity in the universe is clearly a scientific hypothesis. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more momentous hypothesis in all of science.”

He concludes the article with a thought that I think is shared today by a great many scientists worldwide:

“Not only do we need no God to explain the universe and life. God stands out in the universe as the most glaring of all superfluous sore thumbs. We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.”

Dawkins' opponents: "Sorry, Dick, but 'improbable' doesn’t mean 'impossible.' You’re going to have to do better than that."

Well, he can’t. And once again we’re brought back to our exasperating standstill.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t mean you’re an atheist. While that is true, being a scientist does make you much less likely to be a believer. In a country where 93 percent of people believe in a personal God concerned about their well-being, only about 40 percent of scientists in the U.S. are believers. If you ask only the members of the National Academy of Sciences–the all-stars of American scientists–the proportion of believers drops to an astounding 7 percent.

I suggest scientists and their faithful foes end this bickering over who’s right and focus on more manageable disputes, like the middle east peace process.

Scientists want to have a scientific discussion while those who favor faith say science is not applicable. How are you going to solve a dispute if you can’t agree on the most basic assumptions underlying it?

You’re not.

The most conspicuous illustration of science's impotence to make people think otherwise is evolution. Virtually all scientists accept evolution as fact. Despite it being taught at multiple levels of primary and secondary education (due to no small effort, at times) in the U.S., only about 40 percent of Americans think the following statement to be true: "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," according to a 2005 study. I remember seeing the graph for the first time when Alan Leshner, former editor-in-chief of the journal Science, gave a talk at our university. He said, "Wanna see something depressing?" Thirty-four countries, mostly in the west, were given the same survey. Iceland was the most accepting of evolution at around 80 percent acceptance; France 4th at about 75 percent; the U.K. 6th at 70 percent. The U.S. ranked 33rd, just edging out Turkey. (As an aside, following the talk I got into a little argument with Leshner concerning Dawkins. Leshner is no big fan of Dawkins, saying Dawkins' shrill manner arguing makes the PR side of Leshner's job much more difficult)

And so, when Stephen Hawking throws out the latest salvo into the battle between science and religion, I can only think it will raise blood pressures, raise voices, but do nothing to raise science. Despite my pessimistic condemnations, however, I think the discussion is a necessary one. Humans have always contemplated our place in the universe. We shouldn’t stop now. And who better than to offer a scientific model describing a Godless universe than Hawking? Who better to refute it on non-scientific grounds than experts of the cloth, as chief rabbi Lord Sacks recently did. Neither side should back down. Let them have their say. Who’s right? Well, we're just too hardheaded to figure that one out. We'll just have to leave it for future generations to decide.

And one can only have faith that they do.

[image credits: nasa hq photo via Flickr and Science]

image1: Hawking
image 2: Evolution
video: Google Zeitgeist

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 26 Responses

  • Joe Nickence June 13, 2011 on 7:00 am

    LOL@”middle east peace process”. Proving God exists is almost easier. I’m of the opinion that Mr. Hawking is at the stage in life where he really doesn’t give a damn what people think. Everything is solidly explainable to him mathematically, so therefore, God has no business in his equations. People that are still uncertain, and looking for that balance, will not ease their doubts talking to him.

  • why06 June 13, 2011 on 9:03 am

    That’s just sad 50% of Americans don’t believe or don’t understand evolution. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other, you can have faith and still understand evolution. We have become a nation obsessed by ideologies. That is the only way I could explain such a dichotomy within a nations borders, and what an ample choice of colors for that graph. Red & Blue, two halves of the same coin.

    • wordifier why06 June 19, 2011 on 5:51 am

      Some of the differences probably have to do with the fact that neither creation nor evolution are seriously taught or debated in any nation, but more particularly because the issue has a greater political dimension in the U.S. (skewing the results).

      I would wager you that most people who fanatically rail against people who don’t accept evolution are themselves more or less uneducated concerning evolution — and the differences between creative mutation vs. natural selection.

      Do your own test: Ask ten random people to define evolution. You’ll get a lot of halting answers from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about, regardless of national origin.

      Who knows, maybe you’re surrounded by highly educated people who have truly researched evolution. Maybe you yourself understand what that body of theory really covers. But you (and/or your friends) would be in the minority, whether they “believe in” evolution or not.

  • Ver Greeneyes June 13, 2011 on 2:36 pm

    I think religion has more to do with your upbringing and being used to thinking skeptically than it actually answering any of the big questions. Think of the common accusation by religious people that evolution implies creating everything from nothing. Leaving aside the fact that they’re actually referring to biogenesis, not evolution, what does their own religion say? God made everything and everyone. From nothing. If you seriously look at these answers, you see that they’re completely insubstantial. And that’s where faith comes in. Faith isn’t a virtue, faith is telling yourself something over and over again until you believe it’s true. It’s a way to avoid facing reality, and that’s self-indulgent and dishonest.

    • why06 Ver Greeneyes June 13, 2011 on 10:10 pm

      I completely agreed with this. I had a very bad encounter with religion where I was left trying to force myself to hear god for hours on in. I would go as far to say what I went through was more akin to a cult worship then anything substantive. Whatever it was it turned me off of religion forever. I tell people I’m still a very spiritual person, but not religious in the slightest.

      I love this quote: “Faith isn’t a virtue, faith is telling yourself something over and over again until you believe it’s true. It’s a way to avoid facing reality, and that’s self-indulgent and dishonest.”

      Because its true and I’ve experienced it first hand.

    • wordifier Ver Greeneyes June 16, 2011 on 6:04 am

      Speaking from the perspective of someone who does have faith in God, I can tell you that your assumptions are opposite of my experience.

      A genuine (Christian) faith relationship is not a blind, anti-skeptical trust. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If you think reading words purported to convey God’s instruction and purpose for mankind isn’t challenging both to your personal sense of self as well as to your framework on the way the world works and materialist human claims that fly in the face of spiritual essence, then you’re not thinking about the text you’re reading.

      You say “what does their own religion say? God made everything and everyone. From nothing.”

      In the first place, “religion” is not a personified living entity — it doesn’t ‘say’ anything per se. As to the claims of Genesis and of John, the claim is not, as you suggest, that God created the universe out of “nothing” (though this is a common atheist suggestion).

      Christians teach and believe that God is an eternal totality from whom all creation proceeds — God did not arrive on some vacant “nothing” and then extract something out of it. God, who is considerably more than nothing, is the source and author of creation.

      Now for you, if you don’t believe any God exists, then of course you must suppose that the universe sprung from nothing. But for me, as I trust in an eternal and life-giving God, all essence and meaning and truth and eternity predates creation as you or I would measure it physically speaking.

      You might say that we foolish religious people claim that metaphysics precedes physics, while you claim that nothing precedes physics. It’s a difference of opinion, but don’t say we believe God pulled something from nothing. God is the everything from which creation as we experience it comes.

      I do agree that faith isn’t a virtue if you are talking about a faith of blind acceptance. But that’s a poor description of my faith. I have a faith informed by a personal and ongoing relationship with God and in the course of acquiring understanding and experience in my life. Genuine faith is not the product of telling yourself over and over that something’s true. It’s what remains after you’ve recognized and appropriately measured all the things of this world that fail.

      It’s not a way to avoid facing ‘reality’ — it is not even a ‘way’ at all. It is an abiding hope in things unseen — not just any random things, but the things which bear truthful spiritual reality, that test your heart and its inclinations when confronted with the demands of spiritual leadership as opposed to slavish devotion to material reward.

      Throwing in the terms “self-indulgent” and “dishonest” seem completely petty and argumentative: It sounds like you are telling yourself something over and over again in order to believe it’s true.

      Just because you have a poor relationship with the Almighty doesn’t mean that everyone who does have an informed, mature, abiding faith is some kind of petty, pedantic, blind fool that you claim them to be. If you do think so, I recommend you consider the blindness of Saul before he became Paul.

      Trusting in eternal God rather than the obviously mortal failings of earthly ambitions might be dubious to you, but you should not regard those who have that faith as having some kind of tendency for spiritual blindness. That’s a shallow understanding of sincere religious faith.

      • IPV4 wordifier June 16, 2011 on 9:20 am

        “A genuine (Christian) faith relationship is not a blind, anti-skeptical trust”

        Really? yet you believe jesus was born of a virgin.

        • wordifier IPV4 June 16, 2011 on 3:41 pm

          From my point of view, believing in virgin birth is not an anti-skeptical kind of trust. Weighing the body of evidence in total, particularly the consistency with prophesies of Isaiah, I accept it as fulfillment of one of several evidentiary miracles foretold in scripture and consistent with God’s sign to the world of godly incarnation.

          Now if Jesus has been given a normal birth, performed no publicly witnessed miracles, professed no great truths, gave no commands, and offered nothing different from the Judaic religious establishment, would you then say it were possible he was the manifestation of God?

          Of course you wouldn’t: Your position is not of skepticism, but of presupposed rejection. Being skeptical is a natural action of the thinking mind, it is for me just as it is for you. But if you utterly reject possibility, particularly such a blatantly obvious possibility that an immortal, all knowing God could ordain the world as He sees fit beyond the rules he has boxed you into, then yours is a blind faith in a non-existent nothingness, plainly contradicted by the miracle of creation all around you.

  • mklod June 13, 2011 on 7:36 pm

    Who is right? You’re asking the wrong questions.

    In the spirit of the future singularity, death will eventually become a major selection event, and one side of the argument will simply fade away, along with the argument itself.

  • Black Bloke June 14, 2011 on 12:45 am

    Why report on this a month late?

    • Keith Kleiner Black Bloke June 14, 2011 on 1:20 am

      We don´t always claim to be the first to a story, or even aim for that. However, we do attempt to be one of the BEST to cover a story when we do cover it.

  • SaintWells June 14, 2011 on 11:32 am

    It is a simple and quite acceptable reasoning that rationalizes form time to time ,
    when one fails to figure out what and who God actually is and can not comprehend how in all unknown and inexplicable universal wonders God did it , a secret recipe/formula older than time itself , one often denies it’s existence , and also Gods omnipresence.
    We pray for those that the light of time shall enlighten and illuminate only greater understanding and lead them to joy and fruitfulness as they are instruments in Gods creation as are we serving a purpose greater than ourselves .
    May only peace and happiness be upon those , for they encourage us more than they know .

    • IPV4 SaintWells June 16, 2011 on 9:19 am

      Which god are we talking about here: thor,zeus, herculeus , odin,atum,Horus,Vishnu..etc??

      • wordifier IPV4 June 19, 2011 on 5:45 am

        If you refer to mere “god” by conventional English grammar you could be referring to any of the false gods you mentioned. If we are discussing “God” then we mean the eternal, personal God of Abraham, Isaac, etc.

        But of course you knew this, and are merely asking the question to imply that diversity of opinion undermines the certainty of truth.

        In a manner of conventional mathematics, 2 + 2 = 4. Of course one can conjure alternative number systems and mathematics to render that formula false, but in the conventional understanding 2 + 2 does not yield 3 or 5, it yields 4.

        There might be a great diversity of opinion among children as to which answer is the correct one, but the breadth or diversity of their opinion does not materially influence which answer is demonstrably correct.

        Hopefully this helps clear up some confusion. : )

  • quadnets June 19, 2011 on 4:35 am

    I am both a Christian and a scientist. In my view, Hawking and Christian fundamentalists have very similar kinds of thinking. Each side thinks that their “book” has a monopoly on knowledge and that disagreements with the other side means that the other side is blind. I don’t see any conflict between these two ways of knowledge. What I see is a dispute over claims to cosmological authority.

    • wordifier quadnets June 19, 2011 on 5:38 am

      Hawking is not quoting a book. He’s offering a most cynical, pejorative analogy regarding believers. That’s worth noting.

      Trotting out the tired axe of “Christian fundamentalists” is cheap and wrong, IMO. Do you have core principles? Do you subscribe to any fundamentals? I sure hope you do, for your sake both as a scientist and as a Christian.

      It’s not the mere existence of disagreements that compels me to see those who disagree as misguided or wrong, as you suggest. My opinions are guided by a serious devotion to discerning the merits of an issue. Analysis and observation of substance in issues, not reactive opposition to conflict, compels me to distinguish right from wrong.

      While I agree there ought be no presumed general conflict between these “two ways of thinking” (if you mean science and faith), in this article there is an evident conflict between someone who interprets cosmology only through instrumentation and sensory feedback as opposed to someone who interprets cosmology by a personal search for meaning in God’s universe.

      Hawking’s basic comments reveal a spiritual poverty in his thinking: He sees us as biological machines, doomed to destruction. If these quotes are accurate, ti seems he has no real understanding of questions that have dogged philosophers for ages — regarding morality, eternity, and the possibilities of man.

      Hawking is quoted saying: “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

      The logical flaws in this statement are varied and immense.

      From a literal standpoint, there is heaven and afterlife for many broken down computers; some are restored to a new life, some have their files and software transferred to a new machine (rarely do we upgrade to a new machine while throwing away all prior data and personality of the old machine), while perhaps others are tossed in the junk heap, never to be seen again.

      The true unpacking of this analogy shows a greater consistency with a Christian conception of the possibilities of life, afterlife, and eternal death than with Hawking’s narrow sense of the possibilities.

      Hawking’s statement “[heaven] is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark” conveys his naked bias, but it is a pejorative statement that misrepresents what heaven is to faithful people.

      Hawking’s own statement, in fact is a “fairy story” of sorts for people afraid of the impending possibility of their judgment. Substituting a secular “eternal darkness” after death neatly closes one’s mind to the consequences of sin and death.

      What Hawking fails to face his cynical proclamation is the possibility that death is not just a portal to nothingness, but a portal to God and His eternal judgment.

      As it should be no surprise I do then disagree with the article’s summary that Hawking’s dismissal “underlines his firm rejection of religious comforts.” In fact the picture he has painted is the easy route. Christian faith is a profound challenge to one’s heart and soul that requires reconciling one’s mortal and sinful nature with God’s profound universe, moral architecture, and designs for eternity.

      • quadnets wordifier June 19, 2011 on 7:32 am

        Thanks for your reply.

        Fundamentalism is of continuing interest to me. Luther, Newton, and Jefferson were fundamantalists. Luther was a Biblical fundamentalist. Newton was a mechanical fundamantalist. Jefferson’s legal fundamentalism was learned from Blackstone and is reflected in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

        In terms of religion, I believe that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, I have life in his name. (See John 20:30-31.) My belief is more experiential or experimental than intellectual. There is a Light Within each person that I know as Jesus Christ and that I develop through study of scriptures and through activities with other persons sharing similar concerns. This is a kind of belief that is common among Friends (Quakers).

        As to Hawking’s “book,” I was referring to the Mechanical Cosmology started by Descartes and championed by Hawking. Hawking has a famous book too, “A Brief History of Time.” I do not believe that the history of time is exhausted by reducing it to a spatial variable in geometrical constructions. The history of time in music, for example, requires a more lengthy review. I doubt that the history of time in jazz can be summarized in mathematics.

        • wordifier quadnets June 19, 2011 on 11:13 am

          Thanks for your reply too.

          Your examples seem to change your earlier use of the term, or at least expand its meaning. What’s your core definition of fundamentalist, and does it apply consistently to “Christian fundamentalists” you remarked about and to the examples you’ve offered here?

          If I look just a bit closely at the claims implied, I find colloquial and technical problems with your examples:

          If you think Luther a fundamentalist, consider Gerhard. If you think Newton a fundamentalist, read Leibniz. If you think Jefferson a fundamentalist, ask Hamilton.

          I have no complaint about your statement of faith. It’s that pesky word “fundamentalist” that offers up the spectre of some brood of reactionary Bible gangsters, when thrown about too easily — as opposed to a principled people with whom you disagree.

          Anyway in my experience all too often the term “fundamentalist” is co-opted to mean “extremists” to mean “a group I don’t agree with and therefore wish to speak poorly about.” It becomes part of a dialogue arms race in a war of pejoratives.

          I haven’t read Mechanical Cosmology, but your argument seems reasonable enough there.

          What sort of science do you practice?

          • quadnets wordifier June 20, 2011 on 6:14 am

            I appreciate the conversation.

            I think of “fundamentalism” as an assertion of authority on the basis of texts, methods or principles that are supposed to be identical with ultimate, even cosomological, reality, e.g., “universal laws of physics, absolute space and time,” “inalienable rights, endowed by their Creator,” “infallible text that is the word of God.”

            The political fundamentalist statement is one Jefferson got from Blackstone, who was mimicking Newton. Newton used a Euclidean presentation for his authoritarian purposes. Each fundamentalist claims to speak as and for the highest authority and to assume the mantle of that authority.

            Luther was a fundamentalist who used scriptural authority to oppose hierarchical authority. I do not recognize the name Gerhard. I am not familiar with the works of Liebniz or Hamilton, but they do not strike me as fundamentalists in the sense that I use the term.

            My use of the “fundamentalist” was borrowed from Jerome Frank, “Law and the Modern Mind” (1935), who was participating in and discussing the conceptual revolution that took place in American jurisprudence during the 1930’s. “Legal fundamentalists” were superseded by judges who evaluated practical consequences of their decisions in terms of “national policy.”

            The Mechanical Cosmology is my sarcastic label for the Modern Scientific View (another sarcastic label) espoused by Hawking, Dawkins, Dennett, et. al. in their authoritarian mode of discourse.

            Thanks for asking about my own work. I have a novel alternative approach to brains that is quite different from that of the Mechanical Cosmology. Please see the sitemap: My work as a lawyer is at

            • wordifier quadnets June 20, 2011 on 5:17 pm

              I would suggest that “fundamentalism” at its core is not the assertion of authority; it is first a belief in certain truths or principles. The attachment of advocacy, or the scope of authority of those truths, are additions to (not the centerpiece of) the fact of fundamentally held beliefs.

              Looking for a moment at the original comment I objected to: “Hawking and Christian fundamentalists have very similar kinds of thinking. Each side thinks that their “book” has a monopoly on knowledge and that disagreements with the other side means that the other side is blind.”

              Stephen’s fundamentalism is not really on display here; merely his cynicism. As for a Christian who holds to fundamental truths explicated through scripture, others may or may not agree with him on every point, but it is still wrong to make the presumption that the Christian views the “other side” as “blind” (even though Stephen makes it clear he does view the other side as blind).

              Unfortunately, a lot of people will give Stephen credit by mere argument by authority: “Well he’s Stephen Hawking, one of the smartest people in the world, so he must be right.” Furthermore, culturally speaking many people ignorant of a mature, informed Christian faith will simply believe (by blind faith oddly enough) in the worst caricature of the ever-popular fundamentalist Christian bogeyman that is bandied about without a shred of sincerity.

              Heaven help us when we make gods of cynics, and fail to cross-examine by persistent examination the philosophical claims feeding this ignorance.

              If you torture a word enough, it will provide you with a false confession. I think that’s the result in this case, where if you simply decide to, you can defensibly call anyone a fundamentalist. But I think there is more value here in explaining what you mean by comparing these people, and in using the term.

              A perfectly valid, and I would say more sound, argument can be made that the Church in Luther’s time was fundamentalist, and that Luther himself was a reformer. That’s how we label him historically, on the whole: He was a major participant in what we commonly refer to as the Protestant Reformation. Strict etymologists might differ on the point, but that’s the common understanding.

              Of course you could also make the argument that Luther had some different fundamental ideas. But if you follow this pattern of word smithing, you may as well just label everyone a fundamentalist and call it a day. My point then is not to define one person as fundamentalist, as an abstract truth, but rather far more important to explain what you mean by definition, comparison or contrast (not just to take two parties that disagree and juxtapose them as irreparably “fundamentalist”).

              To view the world through a prism of “Each fundamentalist claims to speak as and for the highest authority and to assume the mantle of that authority” is to improperly associate attributes and possibilities which are not, nor should be, considered mandatory attachments.

              I believe in certain eternal principles, for example. Does this make me a fundamentalist? In the common sense of the term, yes. Does it therefore follow that I claim to speak as and for the highest authority and to assume the mantle of that authority? Well, that’s not clear at all. Much depends on the nature of the fundamentalism you are referring to, and my own nuanced relationship to it.

              For example I believe in a personally just God of reconciliation by grace. Should this fundamentalism be equated with belief in a fundamentalism that emphasizes depersonalized conquest through force and violence? Heaven forbid.

              • quadnets wordifier June 21, 2011 on 7:48 am

                I don’t see any point in disputing over word use. I am a practical person and I use words for practical purposes. They are tools, not totems.

                My use of the word fundamentalism is based on the original example of Christian fundamentalism that was first stated about 1910 in formal publications and that is in current usage in a community of people who call themselves fundamentalists. Characteristics that I find important are assertions of authority based on an infallible text that is supposed to be identical to reality. The same characteristics appear in forms of legal thinking that have been, in some measure, superseded. I see the same characteristics in the thinking of many scientists, such as Hawking. Many other scientists do not employ such forms of thought or expression and may even find them repugnant.

                I do not see the Roman Catholic Church as incorporating such principles of fundamentalism. Its claim to authority has different bases, such as the apostolic succession. The teachings of Augustine (“On Christian Doctrine”), among others, lead away from Biblical fundamentalism. Historical sifting is a method that fundamentalists do not employ because they stand on the primacy of the texts.

                I like to use words to sharpen perceptions and to make distinctions, rather than to construct large-scale conglomerates. For me, the word fundamentalism identifies a specific mental attitude that I find abusive and that appears in much the same form in religious, scientific, legal, political and social discourse.

                Of course, you are going to use the word as you like.

                • wordifier quadnets June 21, 2011 on 1:37 pm

                  “I don’t see any point in disputing over word use.”

                  If you are sincere, then refrain from disputing. 😉

                  “I am a practical person and I use words for practical purposes. They are tools, not totems.”

                  Poetic alliteration won’t rescue your inversion of the facts. A master carpenter knows each unique tool has its essential uses and properties. An anthropologist recognizes that totems are practical abstractions with more allegorical than literal qualities.

                  “My use of the word fundamentalism is based on the original example of Christian fundamentalism that was first stated about 1910 in formal publications and that is in current usage in a community of people who call themselves fundamentalists.”

                  Really, what community self-states themselves as “fundamentalists” these days? I am under the distinct impression it’s a word used externally to label people as bigots. Furthermore, it’s not a term commonly used with any real understanding of the 1910 PCUSA doctrines.

                  “Characteristics that I find important are assertions of authority based on an infallible text that is supposed to be identical to reality.”

                  What you’re describing goes way beyond the 1910 PCUSA statement of essential doctrines. So are we talking about a 1910 concept of fundamentalism, or a modern one? What’s your singular definition, for the purposes of your statement comparing Christian fundamentalists and Hawking?

                  “The same characteristics appear in forms of legal thinking that have been, in some measure, superseded. I see the same characteristics in the thinking of many scientists, such as Hawking. Many other scientists do not employ such forms of thought or expression and may even find them repugnant.”

                  I get the sense you are intent on sorting thinkers according to a liberal-conservative paradigm, rather than examining the substance of claims in each case to determine which fundamentals have merit and which do not.

                  To classify people according to how rigorously they adhere to certain tenets… I believe would be an error in qualitative judgment. May God forbid that we should so lack discernment that we equally discard doctrines of heaven and hell on the basis of similar claims to authority.

                  The Roman Catholic Church did indeed, in Luther’s time, adhere to principles of fundamentalism. A difference however was that they insisted on a fundamentalism interpreted through the authority of the church magistrate. Pushing for the primacy of an individual’s relationship with God through scriptural understanding was without a doubt a reformist position in contrast with the Roman church’s fundamentals.

                  If you do take a practical approach to your use of the term “fundamentalist,” I think you can see this. It would be similar to the use of the term “conservative” which in the modern American context many mean one (or many) things, while in a broader philosophical context, or in a relative framework, it may mean something entirely different.

                  “I like to use words to sharpen perceptions and to make distinctions, rather than to construct large-scale conglomerates.”

                  Then you should take “fundamentalist” for its sincere, original, philosophical meaning — which is in fact the meaning implied by the 1910 PCUSA doctrinal statements (even though the terms “fundamental” or “fundamentalist” do not appear there once). Don’t subscribe to the “fundamentalist bogeyman” that is itself a conglomerate that improperly dumbs down people into a poor understanding of Christian faith.

                  “For me, the word fundamentalism identifies a specific mental attitude that I find abusive and that appears in much the same form in religious, scientific, legal, political and social discourse.”

                  That’s quite a conglomerate, sir. 🙂

                  “Of course, you are going to use the word as you like.”

                  No, and let me explain why. That’s one of the classic, fundamentally flawed ways in which the relativist describes the idealist. It is the relativist who uses a word as he “likes;” it is the idealist who conforms his will to the essential meaning of the word, whether he likes it or not.

                  As you probably gathered… I am an idealist. 🙂

  • idiotsavant13 June 26, 2011 on 7:28 pm


  • idiotsavant13 June 26, 2011 on 7:47 pm

    All I’m saying is… if I leave this planet, I want it to be on my terms…

  • idiotsavant13 June 26, 2011 on 8:37 pm

    pdf file coming soon…

  • Prasad N R May 10, 2015 on 7:24 am

    Well, let us just hope that this article construes science to the ‘practical existing science’. God may not be immune to equations either- for example, there are several solutions for the same equation the outcome of which is determined by real science.

    “We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster” and “Well, he can’t. And once again we’re brought back to our exasperating standstill.” simply mean a lack of knowledge yet. It is more like judging an answer without getting the question right – the question should start from within- inner self.

    Finally, it is perhaps the time to dissolve this very concept of religion before another world war breaks out.