Where science seeks to be a universal, measurable and quantifiable explanation of how our world works, religion steps in where science cannot reach to explain those things that cannot be measured by science. The big questions such as who/what created the universe, who/what created us, and our purpose on this earth cannot be answered with cold, hard, scientific fact. Any answer to those questions, by necessity, crosses into the realm of religion and personal belief. The big bang theory is just one more story among many others that can be used by people to explain why we are here.
Most creation myths are cosmogonies, narratives that describe the original ordering of the universe based on observable facts and contemporary ways of thinking. They describe a cultural group’s sense of its past and significant relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe, traditionally through symbolism and metaphor (Leeming & Leeming, vii). Just because science has given us a new way of viewing ourselves in relation to the wider universe, it does not mean that there cannot be alternative perspectives on how we came to exist as we are. Science and religion are perfectly capable of existing side by side in people’s perceptions of the world, especially when they believe in an ultimate reality that can transcend science (Leeming & Leeming, vii).
Over the years, science has not actually been able to contribute much more than religion in terms of understanding the ultimate origins of the universe. Leeming & Leeming (1994) credit Philip Freund and other cosmologists with pointing out that “many creation theories of modern science are marked by the myth of a ‘beginningless beginning’… a pre-creation universe in which something existed as a basis for the form eventually taken by the cosmos” (“Creation in Science”, p. 61). In Hawking’s story, this is the singularity that is created from nothing and spontaneously explodes to create the universe.
While the “beginningless beginning” may not sound like much of an explanation for the creation, it can have a profound effect on beliefs about why humans exist. The clearest evidence that Hawking’s program is at its heart just another creation myth comes from his own concluding statement, where he extrapolates the effect of not having a creator god.
We are each free to believe what we want. It is my view that the simplest explanation is, there is no god. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that I am extremely grateful.
For Hawking, his belief in science as the ultimate guide for the way the universe works means that humans have no explicit purpose, but were instead an accident, a natural consequence of the progression of matter over time. The laws of nature are an impersonal, unconscious creator that cannot care about or interfere with what it has created.
The assertion that there was no god that created the universe, however, does not necessarily exclude the possibility of a god that created humans, as Hawking claims. There are many creation stories in which the gods that create humans come along after the world is created. Take the Greek creation myth the Theogony for example, which says that Gaia, the earth, was spontaneously born from chaos, but went on to create the Titans who yielded the Olympians, of whom Zeus was instrumental in the creation of woman (man had been spontaneously generated somewhere in the midst of the story). Other stories have the creation of the universe and the creation of man as having little if anything to do with each other, because the earth is often a given before the creation of people, such as in many native American stories.
If Hawking had truly set out to explain the Big Bang Theory as scientific fact, then he could have easily left his concluding statement out and still had an engaging explanation of a scientific concept that is sometimes difficult to understand. However, since the purpose of his program was in fact to answer the question, “Did God create the universe?” Hawking needed to tell a story, not present scientific fact.
For more information on creation myths from around the world and their commonalities, please refer to:
Leeming, D. and Leeming, M. (1994). A Dictionary of Creation Myths. New York; Oxford University Press.