The Ignorance of Stephen Hawking

While there is widespread agreement that Stephen Hawking is an unusually bright light in the firmament of theoretical physics, he shows himself to be considerably less stellar when he applies his mind to other disciplines.

In his recent book The Grand Design he made philosophical proclamations about the universe while simultaneously claiming philosophy was dead. Some trick that. And in a recent interview with The Guardian, he made this claim:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

At the outset this old trope, which bears striking similarity to Karl Marx’ claim that religion is the, “opium of the people” begs the question a bit – he doesn’t even seem to pause to wonder how or why computers would be afraid of the dark to begin with or of being shut down.

But his statement also belies a fundamental ignorance of religion, Christianity in particular. Obviously in Christianity there is the definitive belief in the existence of hell. As an afterlife experience, hell is always portrayed as considerably more horrible than this life – it doesn’t incite comfort about the afterlife at all, but a fear of eternal punishment. Now here the atheist might inject that it is this very reason for the creation of the idea of hell – to scare people into seeking ways to get into heaven. The problem is if people created heaven because they were scared of death, why would they need the idea of hell to further motivate them? And if the whole set of beliefs are imaginary, why imagine an eternity so horrible at all when one can simply be comforted by heaven?

This seems to be another case where atheists criticize religious beliefs for completely contradictory reasons – we are somehow simultaneously trying to scare people into belief and comfort them into belief. Indeed, in view of hell a belief that death is a mere shutdown of our mechanical systems might be the real attempt to ease one’s fears about death.

In addition, Christianity doesn’t hold heaven itself to be a place of mere comfort and ease. Our actions in life are understood to have eternal impacts even if we are going to heaven – we can suffer loss by our choices, or gain through right choices in this life.

As much as a Christian understands this to be true, it makes this life considerably less easy from a practical standpoint. A Christian who believes he will reap what he sows in eternity isn’t afforded the luxury of devoting himself to material comfort or selfish pursuits. He isn’t allowed to conform to society at large in terms of its customs and practices. Paul commands us in Romans 12:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Though adamant atheists are generally disliked, committed Christians are often actively persecuted and excluded. In fact the most comfortable set of beliefs to adopt in the Western world if one wants to fit in is to have a casual indifference to all things spiritual, and a devotion to physical attractiveness and material wealth. That is the pattern of this world. So being strongly committed to the idea of an eternity in heaven creates great discomfort, at least in terms of one’s daily life.

Hawking’s notion that heaven is a mere pacifier created to ease our fears of death is a sign of his ignorance of the actual concept. He should probably stick with theoretical physics which seems to be his stronger suit.

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11 Responses to The Ignorance of Stephen Hawking

  1. The Bible mentions 4 distinct versions of Hell, none of them related.

    Also, you’re talking about the concept of hell as if it didn’t have natural historical and cultural explanations–as if it didn’t arise because of beliefs in the afterlife or as a remnant of Jewish polytheism or the Hellenistic influence of thought upon Christianity.

    I think you take it for granted that hell can be explained these ways.

    You start from assuming it is already a tangible–literal–fact. This is evident in your comment:

    “The problem is if people created heaven because they were scared of death, why would they need the idea of hell to further motivate them? And if the whole set of beliefs are imaginary, why imagine an eternity so horrible at all when one can simply be comforted by heaven?”

    The fact that the concept of an afterlife, an underworld, and a hell which later gets stamped with the salvation theology of Christianity is a no brainer. It’s not that people anticipated a place for eternal suffering, but the nature of Christian theology creates a place devised especially for eternal suffering.

    Hence we get a rather morbid vision of Hell contrasted against the vision of a pristine heaven.

    Granted ALL talk of hell is purely speculation. We don’t even need to ask why, because there has never been a shred of evidence that hell is anything like a place of suffering. C.S. Lewis showed in his novel ‘The Great Divorce’ how hell was more like a separation of God. Even though this doesn’t quite line of with Jesus’ tangible example of a real place, but many Christians I know often fall back on the excuse that Jesus was merely speaking metaphorically–even though the grammar he is using is quite literal and cannot be forced into metaphorical representations so easily.

    The bottom line is, the whole notion of Christian hell is confused.

    Also, you are right–Christianity does try to scare you into belief and comfort you into belief simultaneously. That’s what the sale of indulgences was initially for–and the Church profited greatly from them. Much of the notion is confused precisely for these reasons.

    I for one, however, agree with the enlightenment philosophy of Thomas Paine, and that the entire notion that God would need to utilize any system of reward or punishment confounds his all loving all knowing nature in the first place. An all loving all powerful God wouldn’t need to reward us in order to compel us to let him save us. He would just save us with a doctrine of original salvation instead of the contrived doctrine of original sin.

    Instead of the Fall–there would just be the Forgiveness. Therefore I find the whole heaven and hell dichotomy to be rather erroneous, obviously man-made, which is why when you consider the historical and cultural reasons for the concept it makes so much more sense.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Tristan, you seem uniquely capable of obfuscating relatively straight forward issues with lengthy irrelevancies. I appreciate you have thoughts about this issue, but your thoughts on the matter have absolutely no bearing on the point of the post.

    It is irrelevant how many versions of hell you think there are. It is irrelevant where you think the concept derived from or what current concepts are or whether we believe the Biblical description are literal or metaphorical. All that matters to the point is that orthodox Christianity holds that hell exists and that it is an unpleasant place to spend eternity when compared to Hawking’s idea that we simply ‘power-down’ like a computer.

    Thus if belief in the afterlife were a mere fairytale to comfort us in view of the darkness of death, there would be no motivation to have a concept of hell at all. One would simply believe that when one dies all one’s dream and wishes come true and one is in eternal bliss for eternity – and leave it at that. Obviously the afterlife of Christianity isn’t so simple, a fact of which Hawking appears ignorant.

  3. Mike D says:

    I’m shocked here. I actually halfway agree with you, Jack. I don’t think that belief in the afterlife is reducible, from an anthropological standpoint, to mere “comfort”. But then again neither is religious belief in general. Consider that many Pentecostals and Evangelicals believe themselves to be constantly under threat from evil spirits, some of which can presumably possess people and manipulate them. This fear of demonic spirits or influence can be found in indigenous tribes that fear the wrath of ancestral spirits, occultism, Wiccanism, Hiatian Vodou, and the nice Evangelical Christian church down the street. Non-believers – and by that I don’t necessarily mean atheists and agnostics, but even religious folks who don’t buy all that junk – aren’t preoccupied with it, afraid of it, threatened by it or stressed out about it. Without being convinced the contrived threats that religion fabricates, they don’t feel any need to take shelter in its beliefs or practices.

    It’s like Pascal Boyer said: “If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates.” Part of what religion so artfully does is contrive superficially plausible threats which, presumably, only accepting certain beliefs and practices can thwart. Consider the basic premise of Christianity as argued by C.S. Lewis: that there’s something fundamentally wrong with humanity, and the only way out is Jesus. That’s right: the greatest crime you committed – the one that’ll get you sent straight to hell! – was being born. There’s something wrong with you not necessarily because of anything specific you did or didn’t do, but because you’re a person. It’s a marvelously sinister contrivance to make one feel guilt merely for being, and it’s a contrivance without which Christianity has no influence.

    Religion fundamentally requires the perception of threat in order to flourish – if there’s no threat, then there’s nothing for religion to save you from. If not the immediate threat of nefarious spirits or the destruction of the civilized society and/or the Earth itself facing the wrath of an intemperate deity, then the fate of your eternal soul in a fiery abyss!

  4. Mike D says:

    Oh. I suppose I should add that Hawking wasn’t attempting to make a philosophical commentary on religious belief. Colloquially speaking, even for people who believe in hell, it’s a safe bet most people don’t believe they’re the ones who will end up there. Hell serves other purposes, as I discussed above. Generally speaking, the idea that we’ll live on somehow following our Earthly demise is associated with pleasantries like reuniting with loved ones, being free from pain and suffering, etc. So yeah, pragmatically speaking, it most certainly is a “fairy tale”.

  5. jackhudson says:

    I don’t think one has to be a Christian per se to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with humanity. I think the very fact that we are constantly seeking to ‘improve’ the human condition in various ways (often by seeking improvement to the way humans think and act) is a rather universal agreement that something is fundamentally wrong here.

    The difference is that secularists see that as a situation that can be improved by modifying external conditions, Christians (and others) see that as being a part of our nature. The secularists have yet to demonstrate their case in any experimentally verifiable manner.

  6. jackhudson says:

    Oh. I suppose I should add that Hawking wasn’t attempting to make a philosophical commentary on religious belief. Colloquially speaking, even for people who believe in hell, it’s a safe bet most people don’t believe they’re the ones who will end up there. Hell serves other purposes, as I discussed above. Generally speaking, the idea that we’ll live on somehow following our Earthly demise is associated with pleasantries like reuniting with loved ones, being free from pain and suffering, etc. So yeah, pragmatically speaking, it most certainly is a “fairy tale”.

    I think that is true of much modern Western religious thinking, much of which is really moralistic therapeutic deism. I don’t think it is traditionally true of most religous belief – in fact most don’t think one can know they are going to heaven. That is even true of many Christians.

  7. @Jack

    Actually, I agree with you–the whole hell discussion was sort of tangential in both our posts.

    I was merely responding to your mention of hell, to give it a clarification and a natural explanation, as I too found that it had nothing to do with the post and was irrelevant. By showing how the concept could be man-made, this fits with Hawking’s belief that religion is a man-made fairytale–hence the relevancy.

    I mean, your whole section on whether it makes sense to posit and evil hell to scare people into heaven has no bearing on Hawkings comments. Many religious beliefs are psychologically fulfilling–i.e., rewards in heaven, eternal life after death, existing in a plane of total love, knowing that you’ll see loved ones again, etc. But it can easily be explained as a psychological aspect of human wishful thinking–and much more resembles a fairytale than what we know about how reality actually works.

    So I thought I would comment on the fact that there are natural explanations for the concept.

  8. jackhudson says:

    I was merely responding to your mention of hell, to give it a clarification and a natural explanation, as I too found that it had nothing to do with the post and was irrelevant. By showing how the concept could be man-made, this fits with Hawking’s belief that religion is a man-made fairytale–hence the relevancy.

    But it completely contradicts his idea that men make up ideas about the afterlife to comfort themselves.

    I mean, your whole section on whether it makes sense to posit and evil hell to scare people into heaven has no bearing on Hawkings comments. Many religious beliefs are psychologically fulfilling–i.e., rewards in heaven, eternal life after death, existing in a plane of total love, knowing that you’ll see loved ones again, etc. But it can easily be explained as a psychological aspect of human wishful thinking–and much more resembles a fairytale than what we know about how reality actually works.

    But if the purpose of such stories is to comfort oneself about the finality of death, then it would be much more straight forward to posit that life after death is merely the fulfillment of one’s desires – not potential punishment or the consequence of one’s moral choices. So neither the Christian concepts of heaven or hell fit into this category.

  9. Mike D says:

    I don’t think one has to be a Christian per se to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with humanity. I think the very fact that we are constantly seeking to ‘improve’ the human condition in various ways (often by seeking improvement to the way humans think and act) is a rather universal agreement that something is fundamentally wrong here.

    I have no idea what you mean by saying that we aim to “improve the human condition”, or where you get this idea that it’s ubiquitous that people think there’s something inherently wrong with humanity. Countless biologists today are demonstrating that altruism and empathy evolved with us.

    The difference is that secularists see that as a situation that can be improved by modifying external conditions, Christians (and others) see that as being a part of our nature. The secularists have yet to demonstrate their case in any experimentally verifiable manner.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about here. Can you specify, with examples, of what you mean when you claim that secularists try to improve the human condition by modifying “external conditions”? What is it, exactly, you feel needs experimental verification? When has the religious notion that humanity has a “sinful nature” been proved by experimental verification?

  10. jackhudson says:

    I have no idea what you mean by saying that we aim to “improve the human condition”, or where you get this idea that it’s ubiquitous that people think there’s something inherently wrong with humanity. Countless biologists today are demonstrating that altruism and empathy evolved with us.

    Social programs, science, advanced education, political solutions, etc are all purposed with adding to the human experience something we lack. We are the only organism that is not content with mere survival – consuming and mating. We are constantly seeking to change our condition, whether it is modifying the environment around us or some internal condition. If we are fine as we are, there would be no reason to do this.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about here. Can you specify, with examples, of what you mean when you claim that secularists try to improve the human condition by modifying “external conditions”? What is it, exactly, you feel needs experimental verification? When has the religious notion that humanity has a “sinful nature” been proved by experimental verification?

    Sure – I think many of the social programs we have are a good example, even in the half-measures we see in the US – it’s basically an attempt, by changing baseline economic conditions or educational measures to improve the lot of humanity with the implicit assumption that this will improve humanity itself.

    And I think thousands of years of wars, crime, the very necessity of law and government is plenty of evidence that humans are inherently a selfish, greedy, violent bunch.

  11. Justin says:

    For me, it all goes back to the cross. If Jesus was who he said he was, and rose from the grave, then we have to take hell seriously, because he mentions it more than any other person in the Bible.

    You can certainly trace the development of the idea in Jewish thought, from sheol to hades to gehenna. The question is whether their they invented it, or discovered it. Secularism, and its focus on materialistic explanations for everything, often overlooks the fact that many things that are claimed to have been “invented” were merely “discovered”. It’s the genetic fallacy, however, to claim that the manner in which we come to hold a belief makes it true or false.

    Mike said:

    Countless biologists today are demonstrating that altruism and empathy evolved with us.

    This also is irrelvant. Well, not quite irrelvant. What would really be bizarre is for God to demand empathy and altruism from us and then not create us in a way that we’re wired to have that capacity. And certainly, this “evolved” empathy doesn’t rise anywhere near the level that Christ commanded. To show that level of altruism and empathy takes a conscious effort, not biological programming.

    But, speaking of biologists, I read an article recently that many criminals have a severely undertrained ability or capacity for empathy. They said that if one chooses to be more empathetic, the brain responds and the part of the brain that is responsible for empathy develops further. In other words, how we’re wired at birth isn’t the final word, and we can train our brains to be more empathetic. Strict biological evolution does not tell us whether or not we ought to do so, however.

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