If you read popular science, especially with a dollop of atheism, you’ll have read Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, as most of you know, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for helping unify two of the fundamental forces of physics—weak interaction and electromagnetism—into the “electroweak” theory. He also did groundbreaking work on the so-called “standard model” of particle physics.
Weinberg’s written a number of popular and technical books, the most famous of which is probably The First Three Minutes, recounting what physicists think happened at the moment (or, rather, nanoseconds after) the universe began. He’s a pretty vociferous atheist, and gained infamy among accommodationists for writing one of the great mantras of new atheism:
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.
I’ve just polished off Weinberg’s new collection of essays, Lake Views, published by Harvard University Press. (The name comes from Lake Austin, which his study faces.) It gathers 25 essays written between 2001 and 2008 for magazines and journals, and has a few transcripts of his talks.
It’s worth a read, I think, but I wouldn’t buy it (I took mine out of the library). It’s rather thin gruel, and, like Churchill’s pudding, lacks a theme. The essays are diverse, and he’s put them in chronological order, which is a bit annoying. An essay on nuclear war, for instance, will be snuggled up to one on atheism, or Zionism, or Einstein. One gets the impression that these pieces weren’t collected for any pressing reason, but simply to tidy up Weinberg’s oeuvre since his last group of essays (Facing Up, which was much better).
My favorites in the new collection include his pieces on Einstein’s mistakes, a good description of the idea of multiverses and how it bears on the anthropic principle, and the longest essay, “What Price Glory,” on military history (one of Weinberg’s avocations).
If you’re going to dip into Weinberg’s short pieces, though, try Facing Up first. It has some great pieces, included a nice dismantling of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about paradigm shifts, and a lot of wonderful descriptions of what modern physics has achieved.
One of the better pieces in Lake Views is the last, “Without God,” a transcript a talk Weinberg’s gave in 2008 to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard. He owns up to the difficulties of being an atheist (“Cicero offered comfort in De Senectute by arguing that it was silly to fear death. After more than two thousand years his words still have not the slightest power to console us.”), and thinks that “sophisticated” theology, which tries to dispense with a tangible, easily understood God, will eventually erode religion in America:
The various uses of religion may keep it going for a few centuries even after the disappearance of belief in anything supernatural, but I wonder how long religion can last without a core of belief in the supernatural, when it isn’t about anything external to human beings. To compare great things with small, people may go to college football games mostly because they enjoy the cheerleading and marching bands, but I doubt if they would keep going to the stadium on Saturday afternoons if the only things happening there were cheerleading and marching bands, without any actual football, so that the cheerleading and the band music were no longer about anything.
If he’s right, we should be praising Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong to the skies, but there’s the little matter of Islam, too.