Recently, the physicist Stephen Hawking spoke in connection with the release of a documentary about his life. In the course of his remarks, he said he could envision a time when technology might advance to the point where it would be possible to download the content of a human brain and save it on a computer, thereby providing “some form of an after life.” He went on to say that religious understandings of an afterlife are nothing more than fairy tales “for people who are afraid of the dark.” It is a topic he has discussed before, likening the body to a computer that will eventually break down and cease to function. It is a technologically updated version of previous mechanistic views of humanity which saw people as interesting machines that would eventually fail and, when they did, well, that was that.
While I find such reductionist views of humanity personally distasteful and devoid of meaning and significance, I would not wish to quibble with Dr. Hawking about whether there is or isn’t some kind of afterlife. In the end, that is a matter of faith and not of science. It is something which belongs to the realm of wisdom rather than that of empirical science.
However, I could not help but wonder if Dr. Hawking views what he understands as a fairy tale to be the substance of religious faith and tradition. It would perhaps be understandable if he did. After all, I have often found that people who are quite brilliant in some things are rather lacking in sophistication when it comes to a consideration of religion. We live in an age when religion is often defined by caricatures that are widely distributed, and so those who live their lives on the outsides of religious tradition often mistake the caricature for reality (and, frankly, so do some religious people!).
While I do personally believe that our life continues in some way after our biological death (though I would not subscribe to popularized descriptions of “heaven” and “hell”), I have to say that for me that is not the focus of my faith. For me, the heart of religion is not about the afterlife, really, but about what it means to be human. It seems to me that human beings are creatures of meaning — we seem to need our lives to be meaningful if we are to live them well, and people who can’t find meaning in their lives almost always seem quite diminished to me. Religion deals with human questions of meaning, seeking to place the human experience within a meaningful context — which includes a context larger than ourselves that some of us name “God.”
Religion also involves wisdom. Specifically, wisdom about the art of being human, including the art of being in relationship with one’s true self, with others, with creation, and with the One. Far from being a coping mechanism for weak people (as Dr. Hawking’s comments seem to imply), religion gives us the tools and framework necessary to live meaningfully and well, with a sense of transcendence and purpose. And I don’t think these are illusory: they are true in a deep, deep way that science often finds difficult to grasp.
I am not suggesting that people without religion can’t live meaningfully and well. However, when one considers the violence and brutality of so much of our culture these days, I cant’ help but wonder if more highly developed spiritual lives would not lead to a greater and deeper healing of humanity. Indeed, I don’t simply wonder about it: I believe it deeply to be true.
Nor am I suggesting that every religion or expression of religion enhances human life. There are clearly religious people and communities who have twisted their traditions in abusive and violent ways. But an entire realm of human experience should not be discarded simply because of the dysfunction of some. Anymore than we should abandon the pursuit of scientific knowledge because, in the past, that pursuit has led to horrific tragedies.
For me, there is no competition between science and religion. Rather, they are complementary areas of human knowledge and experience, and when employed skillfully (as the Buddhists like to say) they can both truly become paths for enlightenment.
I’m not interested in fairy tales either (though fairy tales can be deeply meaningful). I am interested in increasing my capacity (and that of others) for healing, wholeness, and compassion. For me, the path toward that greater wholeness — and the authenticity that comes with it — lies in religion.