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Stephen Hawking's Sin In Denying Heaven

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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. Sorry, but that's just that way it is.

To be sure, there is no scientific, fact-based, evidence for the existence of heaven. The inability to know that something exists however is not evidence that it does not exist. It's simply reason, for those who limit their understanding of the world to purely rational and scientific ways of knowing, to explain why they do not believe in the existence of heaven.

While nobody should belittle or demean such purist rationalism, like all purists, those who assume that any one way of knowing the world, or of understanding life, tend to miss out on many things. The pure rationalists may find it hard to fall in love, dream big dreams, create/appreciate non-representational art, and, quite ironically, do certain kinds of scientific and philosophical research that demands imagining that what we currently know or even can currently conceive of knowing, should define the limits of what we can do or attempt to do. It's their loss, but hardly makes them foolish.

On the other hand, those who believe in heaven would do well to admit that theirs is in fact a belief, a knowledge that comes from sources other than the rational and scientific worlds. However much they believe in heaven, that belief is not testable like gravity or even trust-able like evolution, which although not provable, is a reliable theory that is both falsifiable (it hasn't been) and offers the best possible scientific account for the world as we know it.

Ironically, the discomfort with admitting this, as is often the case with believers, evidenced by their claims that there "really is" such evidence, is that their obsession with "proving" the existence of heaven simply suggests that they believe more in scientific rationality than they do in their own professed faith. Rather than admitting, with the kind of humility faith ought to create, that there are many ways to know the world, such arguments meet the arrogance of pure rationalism with the foolishness of pure faith.

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.

Personally, I am agnostic about the whole "heaven thing," or perhaps cautiously believing, would be a better way to describe what I believe. It just seems narrow-minded to me to declare that the years we spend here are all that there is. It also seems arrogant to assume that a relatively new and still unconfirmed belief, the idea that this is all that there is, is definitely correct. But that's me.

Whatever one thinks about the existence of heaven though, it seems that once again the real issue is not what may or may not occur in the next life, but how we treat each other and speak to each other in this one.