‘Fairy story’ religion under fire again

Stephen Hawking, the world's most famous living physicist, has given a rare and explosive interview. By calling the afterlife “a fairy story”, he has reignited debate between science and religion.

He’s studied the deepest mysteries of space, and the very beginnings of time. Now, Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair-bound scientist who became famous for his book A Brief History of Time, has sparked controversy by giving his views on religion. Belief in the existence of the soul after death, he says, is a superstitious myth, for ‘people who are afraid of the dark.’

The fight between science and religion goes back hundreds of years. In the 17th Century, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was put on trial for writing that the earth orbits the sun. The weight of evidence was conclusively in his favour, but the Roman Catholic Church disagreed. The Bible, they said, clearly stated that the Earth stands motionless at the centre of the Universe. Galileo doubted the word of God, and was therefore a heretic.

Galileo was condemned, but it soon became clear that his theory had been right. Religious belief had fought with scientific enquiry, and although it won the battle, it lost the war.

Today, the tables are turned. Science has unlocked the secrets of the cosmos. It has split the atom, cured more diseases than any miracle and taken men to the moon. It has also gone an incredible distance towards answering the biggest question there is: why are we here at all?

Now, a growing number of scientists believe that religion has had its day.

When the world was full of mystery, they say, it made sense to believe in primitive superstitions. We thought gods – or God – caused everything, from thunderstorms to sickness to the rising of the sun. Now we know better. All these mysterious phenomena now have scientific explanations. We can explain why rain falls and why the sun rises. We can explain how humans evolved from primitive life forms. We can even explain, through evolutionary psychology, why humans have a natural tendency to invent religious beliefs.

Religion, on the other hand, doesn’t do explanations. Instead, say critics, it simply tells its followers to blindly believe. Science has given us beautiful and highly effective models of how the world works. These models leave no room for God.

Faith in retreat Religion has retreated a long way since Galileo’s day. Few clerics still claim that the world was literally created in seven days, or that Adam and Eve were really the first humans, as it says in the Bible.

But is there now no space for religion at all? Despite what high-profile atheists say, the case isn’t closed yet. After all, if theoretical physics tells us anything, it tells us how deeply mysterious the universe still remains. There are still scientists who perceive this mystery, and call it ‘God’.

You Decide

  1. Can religion and science coexist?
  2. Does everyone have a right to their own religious beliefs, even if you think they're wrong? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Class debate: Can science answer all of life’s questions? Prepare arguments for one side or the other and make your case to your class.
  2. One of the greatest ever fights between religion and science was over Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Do some further research on the subject – why was evolution so threatening for some religious believers?

Some People Say...

“No one should ever believe anything based on blind faith.”

What do you think?

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