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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

18 September 2009

Review of The New Atheism, Victor Stenger

The New Atheism fills a needed gap in the literature begun by Sam Harris in End of Faith, in that it actually addresses all the fleas, and attempts at legitimate rebuttal, that have surfaced in response to the books by Dawkins et. al.. Stenger begins with a solid summary of the works of the "Four Horseman", as well as those by himself and Dan Barker, that also incorporates census data on just how many nonbelievers exist worldwide. This portion of the book, and those dealing with suffering and morality, aren't novel, although they serve to round out the scope of the material.
The key portions of Stenger's book are the rebuttals of Haught, D'Souza, and the ilk who have made legitimate attempts to address the arguments of the New Atheists (at least tried to blow enough smoke in front of them so as to create doubt in those arguments). As I had no interest in purchasing or reading the drivel perpetuated by religious apologists, it is useful to see from whence their arguments might come, as well as to have those arguments examined in clear language. Stenger is concise to the point of almost being too brief in some parts, but manages to address a number of apologetic claims. One can almost imagine a Gish gallop of religious argument that demands rebuttal as the author replies to them. Perhaps more importantly, and more interestingly, Stenger addresses the fine-tuning arguments from physics that previous atheist authors have not touched, ably eliminating that from the viable apologetic arsenal. For clarity's sake, Stenger's refutation amounts to pointing out the the apologists' argument fails to take into account that varying one physical constant actually varies the others and leads to conditions that are still suitable for the organisation of matter and life in some form, although not necessarily life as we know it. The assertion of the theists is thus reduced to special pleading based on the anthropic principle. Furthermore, Stenger poses the multiverse theory, among others, as a manner to resolve the problem of fine tuning. He also points out that the idea of a pre-Big Bang singularity, the point where theists like to insert a deity as a first cause, has been dis-proven in physics since Hawking's Brief History of Time in 1988. William Craig Lane and Dinesh D'Souza still cling to this argument, as do many of their supporters, so Stenger's submission of quantum tunneling from yet another universe as the cause of this universe, supported by publications of both his own and Hawking's, serves as an important nail in that coffin. By simply citing a zero energy beginning to the universe, which is empirically supported, much of the fine tuning argument evaporates of its own accord.
Stenger also devotes a chapter to the mind, as he believes that may be the last real battleground where theists seek to insert god. While scientific notions of mind still have explanatory work to do, Stenger asserts that, as with the evidence of an interventionist deity, the presence of a dualistic mind, that is a mind that arises separately from the matter of the brain, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. The latter phrase is useful in maintaining an agnostic stance toward natural phenomena, however the author makes the valid point that the absence of evidence that should be there if a hypothesis were true disconfirms that hypothesis. This holds true both for a deity that intervenes in the universe and the existence of a (insert religious term for soul here).
The remainder of Stenger's book is devoted to explaining the nature of science, debunking Mormonism and explaining the history of religious phenomena, placing Christianity and Jesus in the proper historical context of an axial age (wherein numerous cultures at the same stage of civilisation had thinkers who professed moral codes), and, surprisingly, agreeing with Sam Harris that Eastern philosophy, once stripped of supernatural pretence, serves as a viable source of morality. In particular, the author seems to admire the eightfold path of Buddhism as a moral code, although he also supports the aspects of Hinduism and Taoism that demand a reduction of ego as a means of living a morally fulfilled life.
While not entirely novel, Stenger's work is concise and well-written, with enough newly presented notions to be worthy of a read. Thanks for the early birthday gift, Mom.


  1. I will put it in the queue, although it's going in behind Breaking the Spell, The Greatest Show on Earth and a whole lot of course requirements. A short essay of Strenger's appears in The Portable Atheist, but that's my whole exposure at this point. I'm interested in any good popular account of physics, as the so-called anthropic principle seems to be the new(ish) battleground for most theistic apologists. One need not be a physicist to see the logical tendentiousness of their arguments, but I generally reply to such assertions with something along the lines of, "Well, that's interesting, but I'm hardly going to Confession over it." I'm not a physicist, or even popularly educated in physics, so for me to try to argue about something on which I am so ignorant would put me in the same camp as the apologists (who, it bears note, are never physicists either). And I don't like that camp; I get poison ivy there.

    My lack of belief, rather, is a basic extension of observation: the rational causality of the events immediately around us and through the annals of recorded human history. The academic sciences offer a great deal of help in broadening the debate and refuting theism on many levels, but, strictly speaking, I'd probably still be convinced without them. I'm pretty much sold by Hume, and he was writing 100 years before Darwin.

    But as importantly, I'm simply not greedy enough to need to go past the Deist tradition. I don't find it logically compelling, but I'm not terribly interested in ruling it out, either. In fact, if Dinesh D'Souza, this Haught fellow you mention, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Alvin Plantinga would all get together and agree that God crafted the physical constants of the universe and then decided to take a nap for the next 14 billion years, we would be witnessing a truly monumental Step Forward, as they would at that point have conceded every meaningful aspect of traditional religion. And to return to the the 18th century (as well as the theme of my upcoming book), I don't think the Deist Thomas Jefferson and the atheist Hume would have found all that much to disagree about, at least in terms of philosophy. Deism may well still be (and probably is) wrong, but it's a really harmless sort of wrong, as it is atheistic at the level of everyday human affairs including (most importantly) human morality.

  2. I'd gladly accept your Step Forward, if the Deist position weren't used as a crowbar to insert (name of deity here) into morality and everyday human affairs. The Jeffersonian version of Deism doesn't bother me in the least, I was in that camp for quite a while, and even the mosquitoes aren't all that bad,
    Interesting take on the sciences. Probably owing to a difference in educational preferences, I took almost the exact opposite route, wherein my exposure to science brought me to the position of Hume before I'd read his arguments. Joseph Campbell's examinations of religion as a human cultural phenomenon certainly aided this, and I find the philosophical arguments equally powerful at this point.
    Logical consistency by not talking about things you aren't educated in? How date you be so reasonable?!