Victor J. Stenger. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Amherst: Prometheus, 2012. See here to buy the book.
Victor Stenger was a particle physicist, a philosophy professor, and an atheist. Years ago, I checked out from the library one of his books: God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. But I did not finish the book because, quite frankly, I did not understand it: it was way over my head. Or it threw a lot of information at me at once that I had a hard time digesting. Last Sunday, I saw Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith at my local library, and it looked to me like it would be easier for me to understand. Not only did it look like it would offer a robust and lucid critique of the cosmological and fine tuning arguments for the existence of God, but it also went through the history of science, which I figured might be good for me to know, as someone who may eventually teach religion. I decided to check out the book, and I finished it yesterday.
The book was definitely worth reading for the history. While Stenger ultimately argues that religion has retarded the progress of science, he does interact with contrary points-of-view. The book had a lot of the usual atheist critiques of religion that one can find in a variety of places—-that religion has no evidence for its claims, that the Bible has problems, and that the religious right is dangerous. But I did learn things from this book that I either did not know before, or that I knew vaguely. I learned about how animals can be superstitious, and how more advanced animals appear to have a sense of morality. I also learned about studies that indicate that the brain actually acts in a certain way before humans consciously make decisions, and Stenger wrestles with the question of whether this means that humans lack free will.
There was a lot in the scientific parts of the book that were difficult for me to understand, since the natural sciences are not one of my areas of aptitude. As for Stenger’s discussion of the Big Bang and the question of whether the universe had a beginning, which I somewhat understood, I was not entirely clear about whether or not Stenger believed that the Big Bang marked the beginning of our universe. Stenger discussed the Big Bang in seeking to refute the cosmological argument, the argument that the universe had a beginning and that God was the beginner of it. On the one hand, Stenger seemed to argue that the Big Bang was only the beginning of our universe, but that there could have been previous universes going back infinitely, and there may be other universes still. On the other hand, Stenger also seemed to question that the Big Bang even marked the beginning of time and space (my question: even for our universe?), and he defended the argument that the Big Bang could have come from a quantum vacuum (which is something, not nothing) by saying that the universe could have always existed and did not necessarily have a beginning. Does Stenger define “universe” differently based on what he is arguing: he means our universe in some cases, and at other times means everything that exists and has ever existed?
Stenger addresses the philosophical question of whether there can be an infinite regress going backwards, for how can we arrive at the present if the past goes on infinitely? Apologists argue this to say that the universe and time had to have a beginning, which they attribute to God. I was satisfied with some of Stenger’s answer to that. He said that, according to theism, God goes back infinitely, and he questioned whether creation can occur outside of time, for how can there be a “before” and “after” creation if it was occurring outside of time? Ultimately, though, I was not satisfied with how he addressed the infinite regress. That does not mean that Stenger was unimpressive, for his scientific arguments may very well hold water, and there may be natural ways to account for the universe and life. While a lot of his scientific discussions went over my head, in reading them I was amazed by how the universe is—-particularly by how time can go forward and backward. (Stenger says, for example, that we may have tunneled out of a previous universe, and, from its perspective, it tunneled out of us, since its time goes backward.)
Stenger is sometimes characterized as one who believes that science disproves God’s existence. I thought that he believed that when I saw the title of the first book of his that I checked out: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. He does not seem to go that far, though, at least not in God and the Folly of Faith. He does not believe that there is proof for God’s existence, or that God is necessary to explain the universe and life. He says at one point in the book that, if scientists were to discover God in the future, then they would believe in him, implying perhaps that he does not utterly dismiss the possibility, from a scientific perspective. He is also open about times when science has gotten things wrong in the past, and yet he prefers an approach that changes with new evidence over the dogmatism of religion. There are many times, though, when he seems to maintain that God’s existence is unlikely. If there were a God, would not there be some evidence for him? And, considering the chance that exists in our universe, would there be a God who plays dice with the universe—-who throws the dice and lets what comes up come up, as opposed to being one who consciously and with forethought designed things the way that they are? Stenger finds that unlikely.
In my opinion, Stenger’s discussion about morality was probably the weakest in terms of supporting atheism, and yet I respected him more after reading it. Stenger does take some good jabs at religion, as when he points out the apparently immoral parts of the Bible (i.e., slavery). Yet he, and also atheist Sam Harris, seem to question whether evolution can provide a solid explanation for certain aspects of morality. Ultimately, Stenger settles on saying that, as animals become more complex, they develop more of a sense of morality, and, for Stenger, God is not necessary for those animals to become complex because the simple becoming complex occurs often in nature. Stenger in this book is critical of giving science to the scientists and giving the field of morality to religion, for he believes that science has something to contribute to the field of morality. I agree with him on this, even if he seemed to acknowledge that science so far has had limits in providing a foundation for certain aspects of morality.
Stenger has other discussions as well, as he addresses a scientist who tries to find a scientific explanation for the miracles of Jesus, the question of whether religion has practical benefits, near death experiences, and attempts to apply concepts of physics in a spiritual or New Age direction. Overall, he is skeptical of these things. He does seem to acknowledge that religion can contribute to a positive attitude and, in the process, greater physical health, but he also believes that atheists can be healthy, too. Moreover, he maintains that atheism can give people a humbler and better sense of their place in the universe. Religion will still be a part of my life, for it gives me comfort and direction, but I still found that Stenger made worthwhile points for me to read.