One of the difficulties or challenges atheists have noted is how to explain the beginning of the universe. Whereas other systems of belief seem to account for this far more easily because their worldviews allow for a creator, atheism claims no creator exists and therefore cannot be responsible for creating the universe. However, cosmologists are well aware that the finite universe begun to exist at some point in the past, which leaves atheists having to explain what, in their own view, is an uncomfortable fact of reality.
Both philosophical and scientific reasoning seems to strongly suggest a finite beginning to the universe. Philosophical reasoning shows that it is not possible to have an infinite regress of past events, and this coupled with persuasive scientific evidence from cosmic expansion and the second law of thermodynamics demonstrates why big bang cosmology is the accepted scientific model today. The big bang is responsible for bring all things into existence, as cosmologist Paul Davies has noted,
“the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself” (1).
The late scientist Stephen Hawking agreed that “almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang” (2).
How have atheists attempted to explain this? One means of explanation is to believe that the universe never had a beginning but that it has rather existed eternally. According to some contemporary atheists, “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created” (3). However, as many world argue, this view is problematic philosophically and scientifically. The majority of scientific experts do not accept an eternal universe because no such evidence in its favour has proven convincing to cosmologists. One commentator, Robin Schumacher, thus notes “atheism’s struggle,” which is “to explain how the universe is eternal when all scientific discovery shows it had a beginning” (4).
Atheists have probed at other explanations. Lewis Wolpert, for example, concedes that,
“there’s the whole problem of where the universe itself came from… How did that all happen? I haven’t got a clue” (5).
Many atheists are content with this view because it assists them in escaping the difficulty of having to explain a beginning to the universe by pushing the question into the background. It essentially puts a question that is rather uncomfortable out of view. Hawking himself explained that “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention” (6).
Many would agree with Hawking that because time (and the physical universe) had a beginning it requires an explanation, and that attempts to explain it will put one (perhaps uncomfortably) at the foot of a divine creator. Critics of atheism have also contended that to adopt a view such as Wolpert’s is to be intellectually lazy. The argument is that it simply refuses to adopt a position and explain how a specific position sits with one’s atheism. It’s far easier to sweep a difficulty under the rug, so to speak, than have to grapple with it.
However, some have tried to provide explanations which would allow for them to still be atheists, many of which have come under some serious criticism. The philosopher Daniel Dennett agrees that the universe had a beginning as well as a cause, but he argues that the cause of the universe is the universe itself (7). It’s not difficult to point out the problem with this explanation for it seems to say that the universe had to already exist in order to bring itself into existence. As such, it would have to exist before it existed, which doesn’t make sense. Further, if it already existed (which one could argue begs the question) then why would it have to create itself?
Many atheists tend to argue that the universe came into being from nothing, a view which has too reaped some criticism. The critic argues that things that do not exist themselvf cannot bring any other things into existence. Neither can a thing that does not exist bring itself into existence. A thing which does not exist has no creative power nor the essential properties to bring anything into existence. Philosopher William Lane Craig wryly criticizes the idea saying,
“suppose something could come into being from nothing. If that were the case then it is inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t pop into being out of nothing. But no-one here tonight is worried that while you’re listening to this debate a horse may have popped into being uncaused out of nothing in your living room, and is there defiling the carpet right now as we speak” (8)
Craig then compares this explanation to magic, suggesting that magic would actually be a superior explanation,
“To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is literally worse than magic. It is to quit doing serious philosophy and appeal to magic… when the magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat, at least you have the magician” (9).
The late Stephen Hawking proposed the idea that the origin of the universe is explainable by the law of gravity. In the conclusion to his book he writes that,
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (10).
Critics, despite their respect for Hawking as a scientist, have criticized his views. They argue that natural laws are by definition descriptive in the way that they describe nature and how the physical world functions. However, they are powerless to bring anything into existence. Professor and philosopher of science John Lennox explains that “Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions” (11).
An additional problem critics have noted with Hawking’s explanation is that it already assumes that something exists, namely gravity. As such, the explanation begs the question. When Hawking says “the universe can and will create itself from nothing” he doesn’t actually mean nothing in the sense of no thing which is the complete absence of space, time and matter. Instead according to him gravity already exists, and because gravity exists the universe can be brought into existence. As a result, Hawking hasn’t actually explained how the universe can come into existence from nothing.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss seems to commit the same error. According to Krauss not only can something arise out of nothing, but something will always arise out of nothing because physics tells us that nothingness is inherently unstable. The issue present here, an opponent of Krauss’s would note, is that he is no longer talking about nothing (in the sense of the absence of space, time, and matter) if characteristics such as “unstable” (or, in other cases, green, wide, or slow) are ascribed to it. True nothingness can have no ascribable characteristics, and thus Krauss hasn’t explained how space and time came from nothing, although he uses the word “nothing” in a fairly dishonest way.
A final explanation, somewhat more popular of late, is what one might term the quantum fluctuation hypothesis, which has been proposed by Peter Atkins. According to Atkins the quantum fluctuation hypothesis allows for space-time to generate “its own dust in the process of its own self-assembly” (12). As critics have responded, quantum fluctuation is not nothing in the absolute sense. Rather, it is a balanced array of fundamental forces with particular fluctuations occurring within this array. It also presupposes an existent space-time in which fluctuations can occur. Philosopher Keith Ward respond to the quantum fluctuation hypothesis,
“If time brought points into being, time must already have existed before the points. And if the points brought time into being, they must have existed before time. But to say that two things have each existed before the other is a simple contradiction. Since contradictions convey absolutely no information, the cosmic bootstrap turns out to be vacuous. Far from being an ultimate explanation, it says nothing at all” (13)
These primarily atheistic explanations for the beginning to the universe seeking to explain how it came into being are routinely and frequently employed by atheists today. Although credit is due to for attempting to explain a beginning to the universe on an atheistic worldview critics have noted how such explanations remain problematic on many fronts.
1. Davies, P. “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology,” in The Study of Time III.
2. Hawking, S. 1996. The Nature of Space and Time. p. 20.
3. Humanist Manifesto I.
4. Schumacher, R. An Examination of Atheism’s Truth Claims.
5. Wolpert, L. 2007. The Hard Cell. p. 18.
6. Hawking, S. 1988. Brief History of Time. p. 46.
7. Dennett, D. 2006. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. p. 244.
8. YouTube. The Wit of Dr. Craig – Part 7 “A random horse from nowhere defiling your carpet.”
9. Craig, W. 2010. The Best of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. .
10. Hawking, S. The Grand Design. p. 180.
11. Lennox, J. 2010. As a scientist I’m certain Stephen Hawking is wrong. You can’t explain the universe without God.
12. Atkins, P. 1992. Creation Revisited. p. 143
13. Ward, K. 1996. God, Chance and Necessity. p. 49.