One Battle: A Snapshot in the Hawking-Cameron War

Much has been written and discussed in the last week about, first, Stephen Hawking’s recent interview with the Guardian.  The main bit that’s getting pulled from the interview, for those who haven’t read it, is as follows.

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.

So that’s a pretty bold statement, of course.  I agree with Hawking, though I understand the objections to his “strong atheism” here.  He has been critiqued for saying there “is” no heaven, rather than “I don’t believe in a heaven and we can’t prove there is one.”  I wonder if sometimes atheists get tired of constantly having to couch their beliefs thusly.  When Hawking says this, the natural reaction is, of course, to accuse him of having just as much faith as the religious, which is an interesting accusation from those who are indeed religious.  In any case, if asked to explain at length, he would probably say that, sure, you can’t PROVE there’s no heaven, but as we’ve said many times, you can’t prove there’s no flying spaghetti monster (I’m just going to keep using that analogy; it might be over-used, but I still think it’s apt, albeit “much-sung”), but I think most people, and most religious people, feel okay living their lives as if the FSM doesn’t exist.  And I think that’s what Hawking is saying here.

Interestingly, the most vocal opponent — or at least the one that’s gotten the most attention — has been…Kirk Cameron?  TMZ’s got a little bit on his reaction here, and it just wouldn’t be right to not give just a little bit of the Cameronian context.  His main point is a combination of “you can’t prove it!” and the argument from ignorance/straw man/internal inconsistency that is the “it’s logically impossible for something to come from nothing” argument.

A lot has been written about this, but through my link-chasing I found my way to this site, which discusses the Hawking article.  It seemed like fun to pick apart a few of the comments on this page, so we’ll see how this goes.  First, a quick-hitter:

He will find out soon enough.

The Gloating Christian is an interesting character to me.  I witnessed this a lot growing up, not realizing what it was until after I’d left the church.  Basically, the Gloating Christian has the same attitude as the poker player who has bluffed his opponent into calling his Royal Flush; it’s a smug, smirking glee that can’t wait to see the opponent realize how wrong they actually are.  I see my sister Sarah being upset by both this sort of Christian and by my characterization of them, though I don’t want to put words in her mouth.   There are Christians who pity the unsaved, and there are Christians who care for the unsaved.  Then, there is the Gloating Christian, who relishes the unbeliever’s destruction.

On to the second (selected) comment.

For someone who is so smart, he is really a moron. Sorry to say this guy has lost reality. He wants to dwell in the illusion of life that has crippled him completely, instead of seeking Heaven that will free him from all his frailities. I feel sorry for this. God gave him a great brain, but he is not using it to discover the Lord and acknowledge Him as the creator of all the cosmos. May our Lord enlighten him and remove his blinders.

That first sentence is funny.  Among those I strongly disagree with, I feel there are some idiots; I also feel that many of them are very, very smart and for whatever reason have come to totally different conclusions than me and the other much-smarter-than-me people that influence me.  I wouldn’t call the smart people I disagree with “morons,” though I’m sure you can find tons of atheists calling smart Christians morons.  So, whatever.

Anyway, a couple of ideas I wanted to touch on based on this comment.  First, there’s the whole argument from final consequences, “the afterlife is the only thing that makes this life worth living” idea.  All the old songs talk about the crippled walking  in heaven and so forth.  For me, that’s a tempting idea to believe in.  Again, I can’t say that it’s not true, I just don’t see any reason to believe that it is.  Second, this poster assumes that the only end of all intellect is to discover God.  Yet, “the mind of a child” can comprehend God to a sufficient degree to be saved.  So, from God’s perspective, what’s the point of some of us having extraordinary intellects and powers of logic?  If, after all, the ultimate (perhaps not only, but certainly most important) goal of the mind is to discover God, why create a mind that can logically and rationally understand a universe in which God doesn’t exist?  It seems to be another example of God making it as hard as fucking possible to believe in him, yet damning us for doing otherwise.  Moving right along.

Stephen Hawking: “Heaven is a fairy story…”
God: “Enjoy your fancy chair.”

Hmm.  I read a lot of atheists making really mean remarks, so I’m not going to say that I have a problem with this quote because it seems “mean.” I certainly appreciate quality dark humor (I actually think this is sort of funny, from a certain point of view), but for whatever reason it always seems weirder and more off-putting when a Christian makes this sort of a sardonic crack.  [I’m wondering if I’m setting up a double standard here, because while I argue that you don’t need religion to have morals, it somehow seems less fitting of Christians to see them make this sort of remark.  Maybe it’s the whole judging-people-by-their-own-system idea? Not sure.  Anyway…]  First, it seems strange to cast God as a sarcastic, spiteful asshole (although that might match up with his OT character); second, there always seemed to be the whole peace/love/goodwill thing, which maybe was only meant to be for other believers.  But, like the first quote, it just seems weird to me.

Okay, last one.

And the wicked rail against God’s throne in Heaven. He has no concept about what is soon coming on the earth in judgement from his non-existent God. The Japanese would never have dreamed of atomic weapons prior to them being used on the homeland to take out Hiroshima. That was just a “man thing”. The Bible says it’s writings are all foolishness to those who are lost and perishing. This guy fits the description. Yet, God in His mercy allows him to live long after he should be dead; continuing to give him a chance to repent. That’s a loving and merciful God, full of grace and truth. This guy is full of lies.

The first bit is something that I’ve found frustrating about Christianity ever since I left it.  Because their claims are non-falsifiable, like conspiracy theorists they take any evidence counter to their belief and make it evidence that their belief is true.  Any thing bad = the devil did it!  Anything good = God is merciful!  So, by the internal logic, anyone who questions God is only doing so because they are wicked, and because they’re wicked, they question God.  Boom.  All objectors are immediately dismissed without even having to listen to their arguments.

Next, he likens God to a surprise nuclear attack.  Nice.  Again, there is evidence for this God in the OT, but it doesn’t seem to be the god that progressive Christians advocate (based more on NT passages; the beatitudes, for example [“blessed are the peacemakers”]).  This is another iteration of the Gloating Christian: “Just wait ’till our God nukes the fuck out your outsider asses!”  Without the language, maybe.  Plus, and this might be nit-picking, but it’s not like the Japanese had no idea what an atom bomb was before the Americans dropped it on them.  He makes it sound like we nuked the freaking Aztecs over here.  It was an arms race, and our side won.  For better or worse, that’s how history played out.  In reality the Japanese had a much better understanding of the situation that we have of the God situation (i.e. the Japanese had much better evidence for the Americans’ activities than we have of God’s).

After that, he goes back to his first logically-circular point that the Bible says that anyone who questions it are liars.  I mean, I could write the same thing in this blog post: PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU THAT CTFT IS LYING, AND WHEN THEY DO, IT JUST PROVES THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE AWESOMENESS OF MY SUPER-META-TRUTH!  Me saying that doesn’t actually make it any more true.  A lot of people have believed in the Bible for a long time, but it’s still just a self-reinforcing document that says, “This book is true because God says it is and God’s word is ultimate truth because this book says it is.”  Once someone is totally convinced of this, I’m not sure there’s any way to reach them other than maybe, very slowly, suggesting counter-arguments to them in hopes that maybe, at some point, they’ll at least give it a critical thought.  But when it’s, “No, the Bible is true because it says it’s true, and everything it says is true,” and when someone’s whole worldview is based on that, there’s probably very little use arguing.

Since I’ve been so long-winded since the full quote was posted, I’ll repost the very end of it again.

Yet, God in His mercy allows him to live long after he should be dead; continuing to give him a chance to repent. That’s a loving and merciful God, full of grace and truth. This guy is full of lies.

Let’s take this “should be dead” statement on a little bit.  Obviously, this commenter is referring to Hawking’s health condition, which doctors say “should have” (or “was most likely to have”) killed him in his twenties.  To my understanding, all conditions like Hawking’s exist on a bell curve, with the vast majority succumbing in an “average” amount of time, while some die very early and some die very late.  I would think that Hawking’s extended survival rate is merely a coincidence, and he happens to be on the very far-right end of the bell curve.  If he’d died at an early or even average time, he probably wouldn’t have gotten that much attention, and so it wouldn’t be remarkable that he’s vastly outlived his diagnosis, and then one couldn’t make the argument that it’s God’s will, somehow.

And, again, this is just retro-fitting the actual events to be a part of God’s will.  If Hawking had died early/on time, he would have either been forgotten or, perhaps, been God’s example for what happens to atheists, or a warning to other atheists that we never know when we’re going to die, or whatever.  But, as it happens, since Hawking has lived for so long, well, then it must be that God is showing him mercy.  Granted, this is the same God that this very author suggested was going to use the nuclear option on Hawking after he dies, and the same God who has, as part of his plan, miscarriages (God terminates 1/3 of all pregnancies, but Christians don’t rail against him like they do Planned Parenthood) child drownings, third-world hunger and disease, suicide, and so forth.  I’m really glad that God decided to let Stephen Hawking have a miracle victory against this disease while seemingly not paying any attention to millions of other people.

It’s pure retro-fitting.  The idea that “God works in mysterious ways” is just a way to justify that there’s absolutely no way that life can be predicted: why does an atheistic astrophysicist get spared while a devout eight-year-old girl in East Africa die of malaria?  It seems more likely that it’s an accident of time and place of birth.  But, we can see here, someone directly contradicting themselves in order to post hoc make the actual events make sense in their worldview.

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