By Musaazi Namiti
When you look at how death strikes, you realise God doesn’t know when we will die, so he can’t reserve another life for us in heaven when we die.
The recent assertion by the eminent British scientist Stephen Hawking that there is no life after death will certainly not go down well with religious people who are looking forward to eternal life.
In an interview with the British Guardian newspaper in May, Hawking said: “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.”
Some disagreed with Hawking, saying that the question of whether there is life after death “can only be answered through the compatibility of science, theology and philosophy”. One reader Paul Kokoski said science alone cannot answer the question.
Another reader calling himself Jay Smith, and writing from New York, said he does not «know whether he [Hawking] is right or wrong». He said it is all about belief and that «belief is not a cognitive attribute».
But Hawking, a severely crippled but formidably intelligent scientist, touched on a subject that occupies a central part in the lives of billions of people. Many religious people believe they have another eternal life reserved for them by their creator.
As Hawking’s comments went viral on the internet, a California-based radio and television preacher was waffling on about the imminent end of life, telling Americans and the rest of the world that May 21, 2011 was going to be the last day for mankind on earth.
The 89-year-old Harold Camping said: “On May 21, there›s going to be a terrific earthquake – way, way greater than anything that the earth has ever experienced, and that will be the beginning of Judgement Day.”
He said only a tiny proportion of humanity would be swept to heaven; the rest would be eternally roasted in hellfire.
Camping was wrong, but many people think the same way he thinks. To tell people that religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end – and encourages young people (mainly Muslims) to blow themselves up, killing not only themselves but other people they call infidels, in the hope that they will go to heaven – is a sheer waste of time. Faith leads them to believe what they believe; they do not need evidence.
One of the principal reasons people believe there is life after death is because they think their creator causes death. Yet death lurks in countless places where there are favourable conditions and circumstances for it to strike. The imaginary people›s friend called God has absolutely nothing to do with death.
But this can only be understood by people with the ability to develop some emotional and intellectual distance between themselves and ideas (of their own and of other people) in order to better evaluate their truth, validity and reasonableness. This ability is called critical thinking and, sadly, it is not everybody›s attribute.
A priest in a Ugandan village can tell mourners at a funeral of a man who drowned after his canoe capsized on Lake Victoria that God decided to take his life. It makes sense when you believe that God chose to put human beings on planet earth and decides when they should leave. But put five men on a canoe, give them life jackets, cause the canoe to capsize in the middle of the lake. The chances of the five men surviving will be very high. Great swimmers would also survive if they were on a boat and it capsized and the distance to the shore is short. But people who don’t know swimming and are not wearing life jackets will almost certainly drown.
If there is anything that example tells us, it is that we only die when there are favourable circumstances (over which we have no control) for death to strike, not because some supreme being wants us to leave earth.
When you look critically at the way death strikes, you can easily conclude that the (imaginary) supreme being does not even know when we are going to die, and therefore cannot reserve another life for us in heaven.
A good example is the accidental fatal shooting of a person or a lightning strike. In both cases people die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not pre-planned death. An exceptionally intelligent supreme being who lives in all places at the same time and knows everything that is going to happen and will happen in this universe would not let a stray bullet kill anyone because it is just a stray bullet. Yet a stray bullet will only spare life if it finds no life in its way.
Scientists like Hawking are right to say there is no life after death partly because of the way they deeply and soberly reflect on things. Hawking’s great contribution to science is because science and technology – not the people’s imaginary friend called God – have enabled him to live a meaningful life. He had been written off in his early 20s and had he lived in the developing world, where science and technology are rudimentary, he would be decades old in his grave.
A person who thinks critically has to wonder why God can reserve another life for Hawking when he failed to do something about his condition – motor neurone disease. And if Hawking were to go to heaven why would he live with people who lived perfectly healthy lives on earth? Where is the fairness?
We live in a world that is obsessed with God but we do not need God. Our imaginary friend has never solved a single problem that we have failed to solve ourselves, but we continue to believe in him and also believe he has reserved a place for us in heaven.
It is a misfortune that we will continue to live with and it is made possible by a critical shortage of critical thinking, and a tendency by billions of people to allow others to think for them, often quoting holy books that were written by ancient people (who did not even know that the sun does not move) to support their claims.
Musaazi Namiti is Al Jazeera’s online editor based in Doha, Qatar. The views expressed in this article are his own. [email protected]