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When Physicists Clash: Brian Keating on the Atheism of Steven Weinberg

Photo: Steven Weinberg (third from left) with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, by Croes, Rob C. / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL , via Wikimedia Commons.

I listened to our friend the distinguished UC San Diego cosmologist Brian Keating on a fascinating “Into the Impossible” podcast about the atheism of physicist Steven Weinberg. Keating calls Weinberg, who passed away in July, “the guest I most regret not having” on the show. Weinberg, a Nobel laureate, was known in part for his acid statements about religion, such as:

I can hope that this long sad story, this progression of priests and ministers and rabbis and ulamas and imams and bonzes and bodhisattvas, will come to an end. I hope this is something to which science can contribute … it may be the most important contribution that we can make.

As Keating observes, that’s a pretty pathetic — or worse than pathetic — objective for a scientist to claim for his profession. Professor Keating calls himself an agnostic and he notes at the end his respectful disagreement with Stephen Meyer about intelligent design and the evidence for the God hypothesis. Yet he also paints a wonderfully eloquent, and sweet, picture of what he sees in the beauty and order of the universe, and in the brilliance of scientists like Weinberg, that leads him to the conclusion of there being a “benevolence” behind nature: “to say there are no signs of a benevolence and almost a designer is really, I think, even from a lay person’s perspective, a very trivial, simplistic, sophistic, notion that I would have thought better of [Steven Weinberg].”

A Heartfelt Tribute to Weinberg

“Almost a designer”? Interesting choice of words. It’s remarkable to hear such a frank discussion. With regard to Weinberg, Brian is not speaking ill of the dead — a good half of the podcast is a heartfelt tribute to the late physicist. And he will make you want to pick up a copy of Weinberg’s famous little book, The First Three Minutes. The podcast is audio only and you can listen to it here or on Brian’s website. It’s well worth it.

As an aside, Keating seems at one point to take issue (if I understand him correctly) with the very idea of scientific evidence for the existence of God. He thinks that would undercut (again if I’m not misunderstanding him) the virtue of faith. He uses the Hebrew word here, emunah. Would God deliberately withhold objective evidence of Himself from us so that we can practice faith? What’s so special about scientific evidence, as opposed to the signs that Keating himself recognizes, that God would withhold it in particular? I’d like to hear Brian discuss that question, perhaps on another podcast.