Proof that atheism is hot — at least from the perspective of bookstores — hit me in the local national chain bookstore last week. Just a few feet from the front door sits a center cap of new releases on sale. Amongst the dozen or so selections — Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. Considering the religious and political views of this state, that is a bold move. A significant portion of the population might well consider the placement of Stenger’s book as flaunting the devil’s work.
At the same time, the placement of the book is reflective of some of the buzz the so-called “new atheism” has been generating due to the popularity of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Among the issues they raise is why religion is exempt from the same scrutiny applied to other areas of life and society. Although Stenger does not go as far as Harris or Dawkins in condemning religion itself, he takes the ultimate analytical step in the process. He subjects the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (and, hence, the very foundation of those religions) to the scrutiny the scientific method would apply to any other hypothesis.
Stenger is fully aware of and does not hesitate to refer to the cries theists raise to this approach. Specifically, they claim that matters of faith, belief and miracles are not amenable to logic or the scientific method because they are outside science itself. Balderdash, says Stenger. You don’t need to apply science to beliefs or faith itself. Instead, it can be applied to the factual foundations of the assertion that God exists. Do the laws of physics and nature suggest that a divine hand played a role in the creation of the universe or life itself? Does scientific fact jibe with the views of life and the universe expressed in scriptures purported to be the word of God? What do scientific studies show about prayer and miracles?
This is not a book that asks, “Is God dead?” Instead, while at times waxing somewhat more philosophical, the vast majority of it is a scientific approach that challenges whether God ever existed in the first place. In making that assessment, Stenger comes away with one conclusion: the God envisioned in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions does not exist.
Stenger notes that definition is important when seeking to subject a hypothesis to scientific analysis. Thus, the “scientific God model” to which he applies analysis has eight attributes that serve as the tested hypotheses. These are not such things as omnipotence or omnipresence. Instead, they are more straightforward and quantifiable attributes such as God being the creator of the universe, authoring the laws of nature, stepping in when he wishes to change the course of events, endowing humans with eternal souls, and being the source of morality and other human values. Stenger examines each of the eight attributes in turn by looking at what he contends to be the objective and empirical evidence. In each case, he concludes that life, the universe and everything look just as they would be expected to look if there is no God.
God: The Failed Hypothesis suffers two largely unavoidable problems. The first is this is, of necessity, science writing. For some, myself included, science and science terms can cause eyes to glaze over or heads to hurt. That said, Stenger, an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, does an admirable job of trying to keep things basic enough for the average reader.
Second, those most likely to read the book are probably already members of the atheist congregation. Thus, those who most need to read and ponder Stenger’s arguments are those most unlikely to. Yet even if they do, I can hear them invoke a phrase astronomer Carl Sagan used in his 1980 public television series Cosmos: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
This latter aspect is most problematic when Stenger strays from the strictly scientific (e.g., what does the scientific evidence show about the validity of intelligent design) to the philosophical (e.g., the question of evil). In these cases, he tends to support his conclusions with rather broad strokes. For example, he writes that if religious experiences were as deeply significant as religionists suggest, “then data would exist that even the most die-hard skeptic could not ignore.” Likewise, he asserts there is no independent evidence that “any” biblical prophecy has been fulfilled and there is no “incontrovertible physical data” confirming the events detailed in scripture. Such an approach does not, however, specifically refute the arguments of theists that as much as we may prefer it otherwise, questions of God’s existence are not always going to be the stuff of hard evidence. Stenger is prepared, though, noting that the fact such evidence should have been found produces the high probability necessary to draw a scientific conclusion that the God hypothesis has failed objective and scientific scrutiny. At bottom, though, it ultimately reflects the loggerheads between the two views.
Some may find Stenger’s conclusion that “we are just a product of circumstance and chance” disconcerting, if not downright depressing. Apparently cognizant of that, Stenger’s last chapter is called “Living in the Godless Universe” and uses it to flesh out his position that belief in a deity is not a prerequisite to finding meaning, wonder and awe in life and the universe.
God: The Failed Hypothesis has its limitations and flaws. All things considered, though, it is a valuable contribution to a growing list of modern works that raise serious and legitimate questions about the basis of religion and its acceptance and impact in the 21st century.
Why should we worship a God who allows acts that we regard as unspeakable? If God has a different conception of evil from ours, then so much the worse for God. He is then nothing more than an evil potentate.
Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis