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Photo of Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Posted: 15 March 2018

The death of Stephen Hawking has evoked a range of positive tributes among Christian leaders, scientists and thinkers online. Professor Hawking, one of the world’s best known and most celebrated scientists, had contrasting things to say about religious faith during his life. In his bestselling book, A Brief History of Time (1988), he famously said: ‘If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.’ But in 2014, he firmly declared himself an atheist and said, ‘What I meant by “we would know the mind of God” is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury paid tribute to Hawking on his Facebook page: ‘Professor Stephen Hawking’s contribution to science was as limitless as the universe he devoted his life to understanding. His was a life lived with bravery and passion. As we pray for those who mourn him, may he rest in peace.’

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, tweeted, ‘We thank Stephen Hawking for his outstanding contribution to science. As a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science, he will be missed and mourned there, too.’

The Pontifical Academy of Science, which promotes work in the mathematical, physical and natural sciences, tweeted, ‘We are deeply saddened about the passing of our remarkable Academician Stephen #Hawking who was so faithful to our Academy. He told the 4 Popes he met that he wanted to advance the relationship between Faith and Scientific Reason.’

Tom McLeish, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of York, paid tribute in Christianity magazine: ‘While we may sorrow over Hawking’s rejection of God, the Creator who is and loves and gives – rather than just “explains”, we may nevertheless be thankful to that God for the gift of one who articulated, even in unbelief, that our biblical calling is indeed to know God’s mind, to look into nature with the same love and insight as its creator, and to live with courage using the gifts we have rather than surrendering to our incapacities.’

On the day the news of Stephen Hawking’s death broke, the Church Times tweeted: ‘Keith Ward wrote for us in 2010 on #StephenHawking, arguing that his hypothesis was closer to theology’s than he realised.’ Keith Ward, the philosopher and theologian, who has specialised in the relationship between faith and science, had written an article, Hawking is not far from God, in which he argued that the scientist had failed to note ‘the amazing positive convergence between tradi­tional theological beliefs about God and modern cosmological beliefs about the origin of the universe.’ He concluded his article, which was a response to Hawkings’ then-new book, The Grand Design, by saying: ‘The Hawking hypothesis is very much closer to the God hypothesis than he thinks. Physics does not need God, but God explains very well why physics works.’

Professor David Wilkinson, the author of God, Time and Stephen Hawking (2002), said: ‘There is sadness at his death, admiration for a remarkable life story, admiration for his remarkable works of science, and a thankfulness for some of the things he discovered about the universe. He reminded us who are of faith of the weakness of any “God in the gaps” or deistic view of God, and pointed theologians towards a God with the universe in the palm of his hand.’

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Christian-atheist divide, Richard Dawkins posted a thoughtful and moving tribute to his fellow-scientist: ‘“Silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” Wordsworth was writing of Newton, but he might have been foreseeing the silent face of Newton’s great successor as Lucasian Professor.’

Photo of Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: lwpkommunikacio under CC BY 2.0

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan