May 18, 2011— -- British physicist Stephen Hawking may believe that heaven is a mere "fairy story," but he's hard-pressed to find those who share his perspective on this side of the pond.
This weekend, the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper published an interview with Hawking in which the celebrated scientist said, "There is no heaven. ... That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Hawking has expressed similar beliefs in books and previous interviews, but the statement sparked headlines in the U.S., where a large percentage of the population believes in a religious afterlife -- both good and bad.
The 68-year-old Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, when he was 21, is not unfamiliar with contemplating the possibility of an afterlife. He told The Guardian that he's lived with the prospect of an early death for nearly five decades.
But the internationally known scientist and author 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."
In a 2010 interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, when asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, he said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
U.S. Is 'Nation of Believers,' Researcher Says
While Hawking's views on religion and heaven may be relatively consistent with the views of his countrymen, research from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests he's at odds with the prevailing American perspective.
According to a 2007 Pew study of religious beliefs across the country, 92 percent of Americans said they believe in a god or universal spirit, and 74 percent said they believe that there is a heaven.
"The first thing to know about the U.S. is that the U.S. is a nation of believers," said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.
When asked about their views on an afterlife, 74 percent of Americans affirmed their belief, with 50 percent saying they believed with "absolute certainty."
But other studies show that the world doesn't necessarily share the U.S.'s frenzy for faith.
A 2010 Pew survey found that while 58 percent of American respondents said religion was "very important " to their lives, 17 percent of British respondents gave the same reply.
"In general, the U.S., by a variety of measures, seems to be more religious than many European countries," Smith said.
That point of view has turned the book "Heaven Is for Real" -- the account of a 4-year-old son of a pastor who enters heaven during emergency surgery and survives to tell the story -- into a national bestseller
Written by the boy's father, Todd Burpo, the book is listed is as nonfiction and currently holds the No. 1 spot on The New York Times' list of bestselling Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction. It has made the list for the past 15 weeks.
Heaven is also apparently more popular than hell. While 74 percent of Americans believe in heaven, just 59 percent believe hell, Smith said.
"We also shouldn't overlook the fact that there is some diversity in the nature and certainty with which people hold those beliefs," he said. Not all people are absolutely certain of their faith, and some say they believe in an impersonal spirit over a personal god.
Only 17 Percent of British Say Religion Is 'Very Important' in Survey
David Bromley, a religious studies and sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the U.S. has historically been an exception in a more secular world.
"There is a kind of historical strength to an 'In God We Trust' kind of generic religion, which some sociologists call civil religion," Bromley said. "That belief that America is a city on a hill, God's chosen nation, the flag and God being connected -- those kinds of things have a historical rooting. So when you ask people, 'Do you believe in God?' It's almost un-American to say 'no.'"
He said it isn't surprising that books on heaven and angels succeed in our culture.
Still, while "Heaven Is for Real" remains a publishing phenomenon, it has also attracted some criticism.
In March, author and Washington Post on Faith blogger Susan Jacoby wrote, "Only in America could a book like this be classified as nonfiction."
Pointing out the difference in the book's placement on Amazon book lists in the U.S. and the U.K., she said the book's commercial success attests to the "prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans."
"In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be," she wrote. "At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary."