It's not surprising that Stephen Hawking thinks there is no heaven or afterlife. It's what most scientists think.
But I admit to having experienced a moment of pique at seeing him describe it as a 'fairy story for people afraid of the dark'. And that the national newspaper that elicited the comment considers it so newsworthy that it makes it into a banner headline on page 3, as well as prominently displaying it above the masthead.
The remark expresses the usual contempt for people who believe things 'for which there is no evidence', and atheist readers of the rationalist Guardian will gladly assent. Useless to explain that for some of us it's a belief arrived at over a period of years, from a long process of reading, researching and reasoning. Or that others understand it experientially. We've tried to explain this, many times, in all sorts of ways, but it's a brick wall. For many people it's an unquestioned dogma: afterlife can only ever be an irrational belief,
And where does this idea come from - another of Hawking's remarks - that people who believe in a continued existence after death, for whatever reason, are not living fully in this one? Why does one have to be an atheist to value life properly?
One somehow expects top scientists - the exceptional minds that for some reason the world considers somehow to hold the ultimate secrets to human existence - to express themselves more diplomatically. Like Einstein. Or like Hawking himself, when he talked of 'knowing the mind of God', and then politely explained he only meant it metaphorically. For pragmatic reasons, if nothing else - after all, it wastes so much of their time to take sides in public controversy.
Perhaps he's just had enough. That would be understandable. He's lived, as he says, close to death for five decades, so he's had a lot of time to think about it. He got criticised by religious types for his reasoned rejection of a creator God in his last book The Grand Design. He's been seriously ill and has been working hard to prepare a public lecture tomorrow on 'Why we are here'. Perhaps he's tired of being diplomatic.
The Guardian got to pitch six questions to him, and I'm not sure they got much back - apart from this. Another of the questions elicited this cryptic response:
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those Societies most likely to survive. We assign them a higher value."
There's been a lively debate on the Guardian blog about what this means.
Michael Prescott has had an interesting discussion on what Osama bin Laden might be experiencing on having finally arrived in the next world. As a matter of principle I try not to speculate about such things, but actually I do. I wonder what convinced atheists like Hawking will experience. A deep sense of surprise?
Bertrand Russell - another Great Brain - said that if he went to heaven and God demanded to know why he didn't believe in him, he would say: 'Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence'. Russell didn't find evidence in mathematics, although some people do. What sort of evidence for God would Hawking find in space?