Straddling the line between faith and rationality: can it be done?

In Sunday’s Guardian, Stephen Hawking spoke about his views of what happens to us after we die: “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.”

Hawking’s assertion makes sense to me. The concept of Heaven and Hell is not one that’s ever given me peace to consider: be a good person, and you’ll go to Heaven, but if you don’t, you won’t? It sounds like a miserable life, to be terrified of ever being human and screwing up, for fear of losing out on the reward of a peaceful afterlife. Or better yet, as in the faith in which I was raised, my family would have to pray (and buy) my way out of Purgatory with the eventual hope I end up in Heaven. And when exactly would they know they’ve prayed/paid enough to get me there?

The idea of Heaven and Hell seems like an excellent way to keep folks in line, and to create a steady income for and reliance on the Church, at least in the case of Catholicism (and I wouldn’t even try to speak for any of the other Christian faiths). But does it seem … good? Welcome? Comforting? No, it really never has, to me. Death is not something I want sugar-coated anymore than birth. They are the bookends of a life, and while I agree that both should be treated with reverence and respect, that doesn’t mean resorting to an afterlife mythology to make me feel better about it.

So, does my distaste for the Heaven of my youth mean that I wholeheartedly agree with Hawking’s assertion that we are all computers, and when we break down, that’s it, that’s all? Mostly, yeah. I do think that death is the end, that the afterlife is more or less a time for decomposition. But I also believe that energy can’t be created or destroyed – so where does the energy that keeps us alive go? I don’t know.

I believe in the Big Bang theory of creation. AND I believe that there is something greater than just gas and rock colliding and exploding, that there is purpose and reason and … something.

Judaism’s take on the afterlife depends on who you ask (you may be familiar with the expression 2 Jews, 3 opinions?). In Ecclesiastes, however, it’s pretty clear that there is space for a dismissal of notions of the afterlife from a religious perspective:

For the same fate is in store for all: For the righteous and for the wicked, for the good and pure and for the impure, for him who sacrifices and for him who does not… That is the sad thing about all that goes on under the sun; that the same fate is in store for all.

Living a good life, therefore, isn’t about reward in the afterlife. It’s about making our world a decent place to live in while we live in it. I consider myself a person of faith because of this tenet of Judaism: fixing what’s broken with the earth (Tikkun Olam) plays a huge role in the choices I make, in how I live my life. I know many non-religious people who hold very similar viewpoints. One does not have to have faith in anything other than science or humanity or the flying spaghetti monster to make good choices that benefit our world.

For those of us who continue to have faith in something else besides science, sometimes we need more. We need a conscious expression of the rhythms of the calendar. We need a concrete set of rituals that are shared among other believers. We need community in times of celebration, and in times of crisis. It doesn’t make us delusional. It doesn’t make us anti-science. It doesn’t make us any worse or better than those who don’t share our world view. It’s just … different.

And not incompatible in the least, as evidenced by my almost 11-year-old atheist child, who believes that science is entirely the way to go, but has decided he’s Jewish “for the food.”



  1. m0ff said,

    May 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Excellent post. In this highly confusing time in my life, I take your words to heart.

  2. Bambi said,

    May 17, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Sometimes you really take my exact thoughts and put them to print… err screen.

  3. Andrea said,

    May 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Well said.
    (And we’re all Jewish in part “for the food”, even gentiles. 🙂 )

  4. May 23, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Having grown up in a rather restricted religious sect, and having been predisposed to reason and logic, I can relate to what you’re saying. Things began to make more sense to me when I discovered Orthodoxy (the Christian kind, not Jewish.)

    In Orthodoxy, which, along with the Catholic Church, is the oldest Christian body, the afterlife isn’t a time of punishment and neither is this life a time to rack-up good works for a heavenly version of weighing the scales.

    Rather, this life is a time when we are attempting to prepare ourselves for becoming one with God. The expression is that God became man that man, by grace, could become god. We strive put our lives into harmony with the Trinity.

    In eternity, to the Eastern (Orthodox) way of thinking, everyone, regardless how you lived, will become one with God. Those that have prepared themselves, by striving to deny their selfish desires and learning to love all without qualification, will find this unity with God enjoyable while those who have chosen to embrace darkness will find unity with God excruciating.

    I know that’s a long answer but, to me, one that makes more sense than our Western concept of heaven and hell.

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