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Hawking: there is no heaven

Hawking: there is no heaven

Brad Hirschfield, writing in the Huffington Post reflects on the real sin of Stephen Hawking in denying heaven:

Stephen Hawking, the world famous cosmologist and physicist, declared in an interview published in the May 15 edition of England’s Guardian that “there is no heaven.” Whether he is correct or not is not something anyone can know for sure. We can believe as we choose, but we cannot “know” as a matter of fact, either way.

Having made that claim, I am probably picking a fight with both some of those who believe in heaven and some of those who do not. The believers may object to my distinction between knowledge and belief. he non-believers may object to my assertion that they cannot know if in fact they are correct. ….

In no way however, does the absence of scientific evidence for the existence of heaven mean that heaven is for idiots, as Hawking suggested in further comments to his interviewer. Having asserted that there is no heaven, the professor went on to “explain” that heaven is “a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.” That kind of denigration of other people and their beliefs is not only unnecessary, it is precisely the kind of obnoxious behavior that too many religious folk dole out to non-believers.

In denying the existence of heaven, Hawking definitely commits a sin — that of speaking badly about others. Hawking’s sin, in Jewish tradition, is called lashon ha’rah, and interestingly it is not limited to speaking falsely. Rather then being defined by the factuality of the utterance (there are other categories of transgression to cover that), lashon ha’ra is defined by the callousness, mean-spiritedness or insensitivity of the utterance, even if it is true. There is no question that Hawking crossed that line and for that he should be held accountable.


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Rod Gillis

The problem of dialogue and “dismissive” comments is that they have been, and continue to be, a very two way street. Some of the stances that religious leaders have taken on scientific issues, creationism being an example, represent an entrenched and banal ignorance. Demanding equal time for “creationism” is pretty harsh, from the perspective of science. It’s like a hospital board of directors enacting a policy that allows divining goat entrails as a diagnostic tool on par with radiology. So, when people like Hawking retort with dismissive resignation, we can respond in like manner or we can be a little less thin skinned and engage in a more cool and cerebral response. Don’t think of Steve’s comment as an insensitive first date. Think of it as a bad opening move in a friendly match of verbal Judo.

Murdoch Matthew

I wish Hawkings has stopped with calling religious beliefs “fairy tales” — or had used a less tendentious term, like “folk tales.” A case might be made for such a view. But suggesting that believers are “afraid of the dark” is dismissive. People value their beliefs, the stories, for the values they enshrine, for the art and music they inspire, for the constructive work they undergird. “Heaven” is not held up much as a lure nowadays. The Kingdom begins here and now.

Hawkings, with his difficult and precarious life, is more in touch with reality than his critics like to suggest, but on this, he strikes a jarring note. However, if our present financial and social order goes downhill as soon and drastically as many predict, fear of the dark may stage a come-back.

Rod Gillis

I appreciate June’s point. I would make a distinction between the possibilities in a science-religion dialogue and the possibilities in person of faith-Stephen Hawking dialogue. And I do appreciate Rabbi Hirschfield’s point of view. However, I don’t think I feel as put down as others do by Hawking’s comment, terse and dismissive though it is. I think there is some truth in his statement as a bald observation ( see above). However, despite Hawking’s credentials as a physicist ( and that does not make him unique) his statement is , from the point of view of religious insight, untutored and lacking erudition. Therefore the person of faith may choose to respond with an ” is not!” rejoinder, or one may instead take advantage of an opening to push back in the interests of increasing the complexity of the discussion. What intrigues me about Hawking’s position are the small clues it provides, not about his cosmology but about his anthropology. Cosmology and anthropology are entwined in myth, and I suspect also in science. I think a discussion about the kind of human being that fits Hawking’s cosmological framework is potentially interesting and important. There is also the experience that Hawking is drawing upon in making this kind of comment. Wonder what that is? For example, liberation theologians and street smart pastors both have reputations for being abrasive and impatient with middle class piety. Sometimes we have to work at getting past each others outer shells in the interests of opening things up. I point to the example of Joseph Campbell. I think his insights provide challenge and possibility to those of us who stand in the western Christian tradition–the abrasive nature of some of his writings notwithstanding.


However,it is important that there be dialogue between religion and science.

Rod, I agree, but Hawking’s statement that heaven is “a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark” is hardly an inducement to dialogue. It seems a dialogue-stopper to me.

“I am not afraid of the dark.”

“Are, too.”

“Am not.”

It’s not necessary to demean others to make your argument.

June Butler

tobias haller

IT, I would say that Theory is Myth that is true. Both are not simply statements of fact but “ways of seeing.” Thus, for example, the theory of evolution provides more than a simple collection of facts, but a way of understanding the biological realm, including yet undiscovered facts. An even better example would be Medeleev and the Periodic Table, which, well in advance of much sub-atomic knowledge, provided a predictive template for the unfolding of that knowledge.

Where Myth breaks down is when facts that run counter to it fail to undermine it. And, of course, the same thing happens in Science, and can lead to some lags in the growth of knowledge because of the tendency to “stick” with one theory rather than one that better fits with the newly discovered facts.

In this case, the argument over heaven, like that about God, often boils down to “it depends on what you mean by _____.” Heaven in the vision of people sitting on clouds and playing harps almost certainly does not exist. But a Whiteheadian “heaven” in which all of the actions and motions of the cosmos are incorporated in the consequent nature of God, to give but one example, is as much a possibility as some of Hawking’s own notions. That it is not “science” is true — it is not falsifiable. But that doesn’t mean it is false!

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