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?

Articles by Kevin Staley-Joyce

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