Steven Weinberg on Religion and Science

by Douglas O. Linder (2005)

Teachers at the Bronx High School in New York encouraged young Steven Weinberg’s interest in science and, by 1949, the sixteen-year-old decided he would like to make a career out of theoretical physics.  Weinberg would eventually win the Nobel Prize in physics for developing a theory that unified electromagnetic force and the so-called weak interaction, two of the four fundamental forces.  He is celebrated as the “the world’s most authoritative proponent of the idea that physics is hurtling toward ‘a final theory,’ a complete explanation of nature’s particles and forces that will endure as the bedrock of all science forevermore.”  Among scientists, if not the general public, Weinberg ranks as an intellectual icon even above British physicist, Stephen Hawking. 

In his The First Three Minutes, Weinberg’s attempt to describe the first three minutes of our universe’s existence, he argues that the search for scientific truth can give meaning to life: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”  According to Weinberg, the better we understand nature, the more the scientist’s “sense of wonder” has expanded as he or she grapples with the remaining mysteries. 

Science, Weinberg believes, has changed our values and beliefs in ways that can scarcely be overestimated.  “Nothing in the last five hundred years has had so great an effect on the human spirit as the discoveries of modern science.” While Weinberg finds the discoveries and liberating and believes “the night sky is as beautiful as ever,” others claim that the sense of “magic” they once experienced has been replaced by a sense of sadness. 

Ever the secular rationalist, Weinberg is known among scientists for his outspoken opinions on the subject of religion.  Weinberg told a New York Times interviewer in 1999, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” His hostility to religion seems to have grown.  “As time has passed,” he observed, “my feelings have gotten stronger and stronger.  I really dislike religion intensely.” 

On one major question, however, Steven Weinberg is in complete agreement with Phillip Johnson and many fundamentalists.  Weinberg believes that evolution, if taught properly, will reduce a student’s sense of his or her “own special importance.”  Weinberg argues that science and spiritual matter cannot “be kept in separate compartments.”  That is a good thing, according to Weinberg, because it means science can “help each of us grow up as an individual.”

Weinberg is scornful of those who describe science as just one way among many of finding truth.  Science, Weinberg insists, is not merely a belief system and certainly is not, as philosopher Paul Feyerabend suggested, “a superstition.”  Science is the path to truth, Weinberg thinks, and he is not shy about showing his irritation with philosophers who disagree.  In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, Weinberg asserted: “I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.

Weinberg, like Darwin, has devoted much of his professional life to thinking about origins.  In Weinberg’s case, however, the origin that that has commanded his attention is that of the universe in which we find ourselves.  “The weight of scientific evidence” generally has favored some sort of origin to the universe, which Weinberg notes gives “some comfort to those who believe in supernatural creation.”  Some cosmologists have suggested, however, that ours is a universe without a true beginning; there is, they say, “only an endlessly fluctuating universe that here and there occasionally begins a local expansion.” 

In his 1997 essay, “Before the Big Bang,” Weinberg describes a meeting he and other physicists had with Al Gore, in which the scientists tried to sell the Vice President on the value of funding the Super Collider.  Just as Gore left the meeting, he turned back in the room to ask if the scientists “could tell him what happened before the Big Bang.”  They had no satisfactory answer.  (Al Gore, incidentally, is not the first politician to take an interest in scientific questions about origins.  The defense in the Scopes case introduced a letter written by President Woodrow Wilson to one of its scientific experts, W. C. Curtis.  In his letter to Curtis, Wilson wrote, "It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised. Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution.")

A lot has happened since Al Gore and the physicists talked about the Super Collider.  Florida election officials counted a lot of chads and scientists, using the Hubble telescope, counted a lot of new galaxies.  Most relevantly, though, several cosmologists have developed theories, based upon recent measurements of the universe, that purport to answer the Vice President’s question.  One popular theory suggests that the Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years ago when “transition bubbles of ordinary zero-energy empty space …formed here and there, like bubbles of vapor formed by boiling water.”  Our known universe, according to this theory, exists inside just one of these bubbles.  All that we see through even our most powerful telescopes, extending distances of billions of light years, “would be just a tiny part of the interior of one of these bubbles.”  If this theory is correct, it follows that there are perhaps billions of other “universes,” formed (and maybe still being formed) by other Big Bangs occurring in “countless other bubbles,” all outside of the ability of us to ever see.  The answer to Al Gore’s question, if this theory is correct, is that before the Big Bang there were other Big Bangs going on in a “universe-of-universes” that might be “infinitely old.” 

For now, we can say no more.  Weinberg writes, “We don’t know if the universe is infinitely old or if there was a first moment; but neither view is absurd, and the choice between them will not be made by intuition, or by philosophy or theology, but by the ordinary methods of science.”  As Weinberg sees it, the bubble theory favored by many cosmologists today is “the third step in a historical progression” that began in 1584 with the discovery that our own sun is but another star, and continued in 1923 with the discovery that are own galaxy is but one of countless many such galaxies.

To most observers, our universe (and especially our planet, of course) seems almost perfectly suited to produce just the sort of intelligent life we represent.  So perfect are conditions for life, in fact, that many people have been led to argue that the universe must have been intelligently designed.  At a recent conference, Weinberg compared our existence to a player in a poker tournament who finds he has been dealt a royal flush.  The hand might be blind luck, but there is another possibility that comes to mind: “Namely, is the organizer of the tournament our friend?” 

In response to these arguments, Weinberg points to the  “anthropic principle,” which he calls “a nice non-theistic explanation of why things are as nice as they are.”  The principle, in its weak form, states “that the laws of nature must allow for the appearance of living beings capable of studying the laws of nature.” To fully explain the universe we find ourselves in, Weinberg suggests, we might have to resort to “a stronger form of the anthropic principle.”  It may be that the “final theory”—the theory that explains all of the laws of nature—turns out to be “the only logically consistent principles consistent with the appearance of intelligent life.” In other words, the physical laws that govern our particular universe might be highly improbable—improbable to the point of seeming almost impossible—but, given enough time and enough universes being created, a universe with laws such as we find in ours was bound to come along sooner or later. As one cosmologist put it, “Our universe is just one of those things that happens from time to time.”  It should not be surprising then, according to the anthropic principle, that we find the laws of nature that we find, because those laws are precisely the ones necessary for us to exist and for us to be able to ponder such a mystery.

The anthropic principle is, Weinberg admits, “an unconventional hypothesis.”  He claims to be “not that fond of anthropic reasoning.” He would be “much happier” if he could explain why the laws of nature have to be precisely what they are, but acknowledges that task might be impossible.  Science might well turn out to lack the means ever to prove or disprove the anthropic hypothesis, but it is just the sort of strange principle that physicists such as Weinberg must consider if they are ever to fully explain man’s existence.

As for the Big Bang itself, Weinberg expresses little doubt that it occurred.  He calls it “almost certain to endure.”  The event is consistent with our understanding of the laws of physics, he notes, and has been “confirmed by the discovery of relics of the early universe.”  The most significant confirming evidence came from the 1965 discovery of microwave radiation and, later, the spectrocscopic measurement of various isotopes of the lightest elements in interstellar matter.  In ten years time, the Big Bang evolved from a controversial theory to one generally accepted by astrophysisists. 

Weinberg writes that his understanding of the origins of the universe leaves little room for miracles or for a designing intelligence—at least any one that “has some special concern with life, in particular human life.”  The human mind, so central to most religious persons’ belief in God, is to Weinberg much like next week’s weather—a difficult-to-predict product “of impersonal laws acting over billions of years.”  He sides with fellow physicist Richard Feynman who once said of the universe, “The theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

Weinberg has a ready explanation for those to point to what seems to be evidence of conscious design, such as the just-right radioactive state of carbon or the very low energy density of empty space (the small “cosmological constant”).  Without these and other unlikely conditions, the design proponents observe, life would be impossible.  Weinberg asks why should we be surprised to find perfect conditions for life: “In all other parts of the universe” where perfect conditions do not exist, “there is no one to raise the question.”  To Weinberg, these sorts of arguments about design are like someone exclaiming, “Isn’t it wonderful that God put us here on earth, where there’s water and air and surface gravity and the temperature is so comfortable, rather than some horrid place, like Mercury or Pluto?”  The only thing that would convince Weinstein of the reality of intelligent design is “a miracle or two”—but he hasn’t seen any yet and doesn’t expect to.


As one reads the words of William Jennings Bryan in his closing speech in the Scopes trial, the last speech the Great Commoner ever wrote, the realization comes: Bryan doesn’t care whether evolution is true or not.  What worries Bryan is the effect evolution has on the religious faith of those who fully understand its implications. 

Bryan writes, “How can an honest teacher conceal from his students the effect of evolution on Darwin himself?”  Evolution is the dangerous doctrine “that has caused so many scientists and so many Christians to reject the miracles of the Bible.”  Bryan, in the last few minutes he planned to talk to the Scopes jury, would have told them the story of a prominent nineteenth-century biologist named George Romanes.  Romanes began his studies of evolution (with, as he saw it, its “virtual negation of God”) as a Christian and ended them as an agnostic. Romanes, writing in his Thoughts on Religion, lamented, “The universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness.”  Bryan, in perhaps the most moving passage of his summation, quotes Romanes on the pain that accompanied his loss of faith: “I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it—at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible.” Seeing a lesson in Romanes’s experience Bryan warns, “Evolution is deadening the spiritual life of a multitude of students.”  It is, he concludes, “a dogma of darkness and death.” 

Along with turning man loose in an uncaring universe, Bryan planned to tell the Scopes jury, evolution erodes moral responsibility.  “Psychologists who build upon the evolutionary hypothesis,” Bryan says in his summation, “teach that man is nothing but a bundle of characteristics inherited from brute ancestors.”  The “doctrine is as deadly as leprosy,” he says.  “It may aid a lawyer in a criminal case, but it would, if generally adopted, destroy all sense of responsibility and menace the morals of the world.”

Bryan ends his summation with a call to the jury to “uphold the laws of Tennessee” and protect “the religion of the school children.”  If they do, Bryan promises (and one can easily image his old voice rising as he does so), “millions of Christians will call you blessed” and “sing again that grand old song of triumph:  Faith of our fathers…holy faith—We will be true to thee till death!”


Some people wonder why Weinberg seems so determined to refute claims that the world is the work of a benevolent designer.  The answer he gives is that “on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful.”   Weighing the jihads and crusades against evangelical campaigns to end slavery, Weinberg concludes religion has done humanity more harm than good.  He has no interest in maintaining “a constructive dialogue” between science and religion.  Weinberg asserts provocatively, “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.” 

Weinberg predicts that the biggest impact of advances in physics will be cultural, not technological.  He looks forward to the day when people comprehend “that nature is governed by impersonal laws, laws that do not give any special status to life, and yet laws that humans are able to discover and understand.” 

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