This is pretty funny: Last night’s World News With Diane Sawyer closed with a story pitting the physicist Stephen Hawking against a 12 year old boy from Nebraska. Hawking has recently given interviews declaring that “heaven is a fairy story” and “science makes God unnecessary.” Meanwhile, the kid claims he saw Jesus during a near-death experience he had at the age of four. It was the ultimate in silly media smackdowns – and nobody won.
Both the fundamentalist Christians and the fundamentalist atheists are lining up to defend their causes. The interesting thing to me is how much the scientist and the boy have in common – both are hugely ill-equipped to speak with any authority on these subjects.
The kid’s father, a pastor named Todd Burpo, has written a bestselling book called Heaven Is For Real based on his son’s purported afterlife experiences. This means the Burpo family has a financial and an ego stake in a simplistic Christian view of spirituality. But Hawking, also a bestselling author and a celebrity scientist to boot, has earned an international reputation and presumably a comfortable bank account from advocating pure rationalism and materialism. Sorry, but he can’t be “scientifically objective” about a worldview that he’s dedicated his whole life to.
From what I’ve read, Hawking has never personally and seriously investigated prayer/meditation; hasn’t studied the great spiritual classics of the West and the East; and has never contemplated the words of great 20th century teachers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Merton, Huston Smith, the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a very few. If he did, he’d understand the scientific method was never designed to quantify, qualify, or remotely comprehend spiritual states of reality. (Physiological responses to certain types of meditation have been observed, though).
So I call the match this way – Heaven Boy: 0, Hawking: 0. They’re both pulling stuff out of their ass when it comes to the question of God.