In memoriam: Steven Weinberg was FFRF’s first ‘Emperor’ award recipient

Steven Weinberg accepts FFRF’s Emperor Has No clothes Award from FFRF founder and President Anne Nicol Gaylor in 1999.

Nobel Prize laureate and theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, 88, died in Austin, Texas, on July 24.

Weinberg was the first official recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, which he accepted in November 1999 at the annual convention in San Antonio, Texas.

Weinberg received the honor for a widely reprinted remark at a conference in April 1999 in Washington, D.C.: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, 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.”

Weinberg was born May 3, 1933, in Bronx, N.Y., the only child of Frederick and Eva (Israel) Weinberg. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1954. There he met Louise Goldwasser, his future wife, who became a University of Texas law professor. They married in 1954 and had a daughter, Elizabeth.

Weinberg began his graduate study at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute). He completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1957.

In 1979, Weinberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Lee Glashow “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current.” This was one of the most significant scientific advances in the second half of the 20th century.

He has received many other awards, including the national Medal of Science in 1991. He was also a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. Known for his writing, Weinberg received the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is awarded to the researcher who best embodies “the scientist as poet.”

Weinberg has written hundreds of scholarly articles and textbooks such as The Quantum Theory of Fields and Cosmology; the more popular works The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe and Dreams of a Final Theory (which contains a chapter called “What About God?”). 

Weinberg was outspoken about his lack of religion and encouraged other scientists to be more vocal in their opposition to religious ideas. He said, “As you learn more and more about the universe, you find you can understand more and more without any reference to supernatural intervention, so you lose interest in that possibility. Most scientists I know don’t care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists. And that, I think, is one of the great things about science — that it has made it possible for people not to be religious.” 

He added, “The whole history of the last thousands of years has been a history of religious persecutions and wars, pogroms, jihads, crusades. I find it all very regrettable, to say the least.” He wrote in The First Three Minutes: “Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

In 1999 he became the first recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. He began his acceptance speech, “I enjoy being at a meeting that doesn’t start with an invocation!” He said, “Nothing has been more important in the history of science than the work of Darwin and Wallace pointing out that not only the planets, but even life can be understood in this naturalistic way.”