Hawking, who died last week at age 76, was about as pure an atheist as they come. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he once told the Guardian.
When he died, Hawking figured, his mind would go to the same place as the Siri app on that iPhone you dropped in the bathtub. Nowhere. Nothing. He would just be over.
These were Hawking’s beliefs, insofar as the most famed scientist of our time believed in anything he could not study and prove. And yet, a Facebook hoax and thousands of gullible people refuse to let the physicist rest in oblivion.
“Before he died, Stiph Hawkins [sic] who did not believe in God requested to visit the Vatican,” read a caption with a photo of Hawking with Pope Francis. on a Catholics Online Facebook page. “’Now l believe’ was the only statement he made after the Holy Father blessed him,” the post concluded.
This is not even a quality hoax, as hoaxes go. It was published March 14, shortly after Hawking died, and was shared nearly 15,000 times over the subsequent week, not counting fake news stories and knockoff tweets. As the fact-checking site Snopes explained, everything about the post is phony, except for the photo.
Hawking did meet Pope Francis at the Vatican — but in 2016, nearly two years before he died. The physicist didn’t request the visit; he went there as a member of a papal scientific committee, which he had served on since the 1960s, according to the Catholic Herald.
To public knowledge Hawking has never said he believes in God and has repeatedly said the opposite. He was in Rome that year to present his notion of the (ungodly) origins of the universe, just as he had presented lectures before three other popes in his role on the Papal Academy of Sciences, whose mission is “to honour pure science wherever it may be found.”
Just because Hawking was a strong nonbeliever does not mean he was a particularly didactic one. He respected the church’s centuries-old effort to marry faith and science. He simply saw no need for the former — at least for himself.
“I believe the simplest explanation is there is no God,” Hawking once said, as Lori Johnston recounted for The Washington Post. “No one created the universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife, either.”
The Rev. Robert Spitzer once tried to square the Jesuit notion of God with Hawking’s hardcore logic and empiricism. “God is the reason why existence itself exists,” the priest said on CNN, according to the Catholic Herald. “God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate that Stephen Hawking is talking about.”
But Hawking really wasn’t interested in debating the issue. Like most physicists, he thought space, time and the universe as we know it originated with the Big Bang, billions of years ago. What happened before that explosion? It didn’t matter to Hawking, because it was outside the universe we live in, and therefore irrelevant to it.
“Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory and say that time began at the Big Bang,” he wrote in a lecture titled “The Beginning of Time.” That’s a long way from “Now I believe,” as the fabricated “Stiph Hawkins” was quoted as saying on Facebook.
Snopes reminds us that famous religious skeptics often appear in dubious conversion stories after they die. It happened to the evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, the astronomer Carl Sagan and the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens.
In Hawking’s case, Snopes wrote, the lie appeared on an infamous Facebook page that poses as a repository of mainstream Catholic news stories. If you click through the news feed you’ll end up at websites on which appear 10-foot demons and “10 FACTS ABOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT THAT MAY SURPRISE YOU.”
It’s ironic, and sad. A fake news feed makes a poor tomb for the legacy of a man who valued knowledge and truth. Not that Hawking should mind now, any more than your dead iPhone.