Cosmologist Stephen Hawking's statement that heaven is a "fairy tale" has sparked animated discussion among believers and non-believers, including a vocal response from Christian actor Kirk Cameron.
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail," Hawking told the Guardian last week. "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Hawking, 69, an award-winning scientist, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was 21. The Guardian wrote that "the incurable illness was expected to kill Hawking within a few years of its symptoms arising, an outlook that turned the young scientist to Wagner, but ultimately led him to enjoy life more, he has said, despite the cloud hanging over his future.
"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first," he said.
Cameron questioned the scientist's science in a scathing response that has been picked up by multiple types of media outlets, including numerous blogs and newspapers, wire services and others. You can see a smattering at Fox News and E! Online.
"Professor Hawking is heralded as 'the genius of Britain,' yet he believes in the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything and that life sprang from non-life," Cameron said. "Why should anyone believe Mr. Hawking's writings if he cannot provide evidence for his unscientific belief that out of nothing, everything came?"
Hawking's view is not one widely embraced by most Americans, according to a 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life in which 92 percent said they believe in a God or universal spirit and 74 percent said they believe that heaven exists. Only 59 percent of the Americans questioned said they believe in hell. In a different poll by Pew in 2010, 58 percent of Americans said religion was "very important" to them.
That's in line with a poll this week by USA Today conducted in direct response to Hawking's remarks. As of Wednesday afternoon, asked if Hawking is right about heaven, 42 percent agreed with him, while 58 percent disagreed.
It's not the first time Hawking has been controversial.
"In his book Grand Design, Hawking caused a revolt when he said that the Big Bang created the world and dismissed the idea of God," Marina Wagner Peleaz wrote this week in Time Magazine. "In light of numerous studies, which suggest that our emotions and thoughts are underpinned by neuroscience, his beliefs make sense, but that's not to say there's no room for further speculation."
Some bloggers, including Rob Kerby, senior editor of BeliefNet, writes that it's "not the first time that Hawking has been wrong." He writes that "Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind not so long ago disproved Hawking's adamant contention that, when black holes disappear, they take along with them all information that ever existed inside them. On July 22, 2004, Hawking had to concede to hundreds of colleagues at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin that Susskind was right."
As Hawking uses science to discount thoughts of heaven, others are using science to link religious belief systems to health. Duke University, for example, has a Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health dedicated to research on the connection between faith and well-being. And that connection has been said to exist in some pretty unusual places. Kelly George of the Atlanta Health Trends Examiner, for example, recently wrote about about "faith-based diets," and the power of prayer to heal.