Professor Stephen Hawking made it his life’s mission to explain the great mysteries of the universe—and perhaps no mystery is greater than how the universe came into being.
Hawking died at 76 on Wednesday, after spending most of his life living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition he was diagnosed with when he was 21. Given only a few years to live at the time, Hawking’s longevity was considered somewhat of a miracle—if only one of modern medicine, as his first wife Jane Hawking, a Christian, told The Telegraph in 2015.
“When I think that it has been 52 years since Stephen was first diagnosed, that to me is a miracle. OK, it may be a miracle of modern medicine and Stephen’s own courage and perseverance but it is also quite simply a miracle,” she said.
Hawking, however, did not believe in miracles of any kind and described himself as an atheist, most notably in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2014.
The scientist’s position on the existence of God, until then, were seen as somewhat blurred between agnosticism and atheism. In his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, Hawking wrote that achieving a “theory of everything” would be “the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”
This contrasted with his 2010 book The Great Design, in which he said that the idea of God was “not necessary” to explain the origin of the universe as the laws of physics offer enough of an explanation. That statement that was seen as a change from his previous position on God and the universe as, in an interview with Reuters in 2007, Hawking said “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science,” conceding that “the laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”
Hawking later allowed for the possibility of identifying God with the laws of nature, but rejected the idea of “a human-like being” with whom one has a personal relationship. “When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible,” he told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in 2010, a few months before the publication of The Great Design.
In the course of that interview, he also argued for the superiority of science over religion. “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason,” he said. “Science will win because it works.”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Hawking also shared his view on life, death and what comes next. “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.”
Hawking’s response to El Mundo finally dispersed any remaining doubts as to his beliefs. “In the past, before we understood science, it was logical to believe God created the Universe. Now, however, science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant when I said we would know God’s mind was that we would know everything that God would understand if he existed. But there are no Gods,” he said.
“I am an atheist. Religion believes in miracles, but these are not compatible with science,” he said.
As a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Hawking presented his ideas on the origin of the universe at various scientific conferences organized at the Vatican over the years, where he met Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on various occasions.
In 2006, the physicist recalled Pope John Paul II discouraging scientists from studying the creation of the universe as that was God’s work and joked about the pontiff ignoring he had presented a paper at the conference precisely on that topic. “I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo,” Hawking said.
Hawking kept speaking about his no-boundary proposal on the creation of the universe at the Vatican even a decade later. “Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless because there is no notion of time available to refer to,” he said at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2016.