Back in 2006, at the height of Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion much ado, Terry Eagleton wrote a singeing review of Dawkins’ work in the London Review of Books, the first line of which gives some indication of his general impression of it:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
Stephen Hawking is no Richard Dawkins, and by that I mainly mean Richard Dawkins is no Stephen Hawking. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hawking has indeed read the Book of British Birds. But that doesn’t mean Hawking sounds good when we read him on theology. In a decidedly Dawkinsian moment, yesterday’s Guardian published an interview in which Hawking compared heaven to a “fairy story” for “people afraid of the dark.”
You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. 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.
It’s the usual critique of religion-as-wish-fulfillment, coupled with Hawking’s philosophical materialism. But, as usual, the usual arguments are well and ready for a response. Those acquainted with Ivan Karamazov will recall his apparent belief that if there is no God, anything is permitted. One can hardly imagine a scheme for wish-fulfillment as comprehensive as that made possible by atheism. And second, if heaven is merely a fairy story peddled to believers to console them from fears and earthly suffering, why, we should ask, does the Christian tradition place so much emphasis on the possibility of hell?