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Apr 25 2012

This Isn’t A Review of Victor Stenger’s New Book

God and the Folly of Faith. Cover Art credit Prometheus Books.

I’d actually like to do that book justice. I’ve read it. I’m still digesting it. I can tell you my foremost thought whilst reading it: “Damnit, Victor, I’m a geologist, not a physicist!” It’s been a long time since I’ve read up on physics. The middle chapters, in which he drills down pretty deeply into physics, put my brain through the kind of workout that still leaves you wobbly days later.

My second thought throughout most of the book was, “Ha ha ha, the quantum woo people are gonna hate this!” No mercy. No quarter. Beautiful.

However. Like I said, still digesting. I’ve got bits highlighted for further contemplation, and when I get a spare moment (ahaha I am teh funneh), I’ll scribble down a few notes and get round to saying something that might actually be vaguely interesting about it all and persuade you that you, too, must put your brain through the same experience as mine. Because you know you want to. Unless you’re a quantum woo person, or the kind of religious believer who sticks your fingers in your ears down to the knuckle and screams “Lalalalanotlistening!” until the bad heathen goes away, that is. In that case, you’ll probably hate it. But if you’re a science-loving sort who’s disgusted with the ways various religions and spiritual beliefs try to claim science totes vindicates their position, only to howl that science is nasty and reductionistic when it fails to support them, but then turn right round and claim that science just wuvs woo, then yes: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion will suit you right down to the ground. Especially if, like me, you groan and roll your eyes whenever someone piously brings up NOMA.

Right. So. The reason I bring it up now, before I’m ready to write a deep and profound and, in places, mildly critical review (really, Victor? All the atheists who ever existed, and you couldn’t find one single solitary woman for your list of famous atheists? Really?), is because of this: Salon just published a howler of an article in which some jackass claims science supports near death experiences, and the afterlife is proved. Evidence: “like, y’know, this woman named Maria had this near death experience-”

And I’m all, “Stop. Just stop.”

I should not have to repeat the tired old “plural of anecdote is not data” line. The editors at Salon should already know this. But we’ll be generous and pretend they have not heard it, and the fact that a bunch of stories written up in fancy language is not science is a fact they were, until just now, unaware of. We will give them that slight benefit of the doubt. Then we will quietly hand them Victor Stenger’s new book, which could have saved them from experiencing massive amounts of embarrassment and publishing something which has made them look like Huff-Po (and if you know anything about Huff-Po’s tendency to publish the most gawd-awful tripe draped with sciency-looking words and attempting to pass itself off as science, which is about as convincing as someone putting a box over a bicycle, painting it gold, and calling it a Porche – hold on. This sentence is wandering off uncontrollably, so let me rephrase: if you know anything about Huff-Po’s tendency to publish rancid bullshit, you’d know that’s quite a lot of embarrassment, and is best avoided).

You see, Victor has a whole section dedicated just to Maria and the Shoe. We learn that not only can Maria and the Famous Shoe She Saw While Dead cannot be verified, we also learn that Maria’s Miraculous Seeing of the Shoe wasn’t actually miraculous. Not unless you count the fact that in the story, no one is reported to be blind, including Maria, and the famous shoe could be seen from her room.

I’m reminded of a line from the Qabus Nama, quoted in The Walking Drum: “Our senses perceive things which do not impinge upon our awareness, but lie dormant within us, affecting our recognition of people and conditions.” Yes, even people in the 11th century knew we sometimes notice stuff (like shoes on ledges visible from hospital rooms) which we don’t consciously realize we’ve noticed. People who really really want NDEs to be true, however, do not seem to know this. Intriguing.

So, yes, the Salon folks needed this book. They needed it badly. They needed it foremost for the section on NDEs, of which the anecdotal Maria’s anecdote is just one small part, one pellet in the buckshot cartridge that blows NDEs to smithereens as it were. They also needed it to help them figure out how to sift woomeisters from people who know what the shit they’re talking about. One of the first clues, which I don’t recall being explicitly stated in this particular book, but have learned from prior experience is a good rule of thumb: if someone co-wrote a book with Denyse O’Leary, you probably shouldn’t trust a single fucking thing they write ever again. (If you have no idea who Denyse O’Leary is, this sums her up quite well.) Victor provides many other clues. Together, they add up to a clue-by-four, with which editors everywhere should whack themselves when being presented with some pablum claiming science has “proven” some sort of spiritual bs. I mean, yes, it’s infinitesimally possible science will someday find cold hard evidence proving something we thought was supernatural – but there’s “evidence,” and then there’s evidence, and editors need to know the difference.

Since they don’t, you do. So I suppose what I’m saying is this: I’ve sort-of just reviewed Victor Stenger’s new book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion; it’s not perfect but it’s extremely useful; and you should go read it forthwith. Especially if you like seeing Dinesh D’Souza and quantum woomeisters in general thoroughly paddled.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Brad

    In my youth I read the book: “The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy” by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton, which purportedly demonstrates “how the flowering of modern science depended upon the Judeo-Christian worldview of the existence of a real physical contingent universe, created and held in being by an omnipotent personal God, with man having the capabilities of rationality and creativity, and thus being capable of investigating it”.

    Sounds like Stenger’s book discusses a wider variety of topics, but does it include a rebuttal to this idea from a historical perspective?

  2. 2
    chriskg

    What? There are women atheists? I’m going to the wrong meetings. (snark)

  3. 3
    Kele Cable

    I just started reading Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (I got it for $4 for Kindle on a sale) and like this book it sounds like, there is just a ton of hard-to-understand physics in it. I realized that there would be a lot of math in it (and for which I am thankful for in principle) but it’s hard for me to follow and the text itself is full of jargon. I think I get the point but I can’t provide any details to the argument. I’m not sure if I would even benefit from rereading it either. This is all a shame because I really like Stenger’s overall argument regarding the existence of God. Maybe he needs a second writer to help the lay reader…

  4. 4
    Karen

    OMG, we got her to admit, in print, that she’s a geologist!!! Oh happy day! Oh frabjous joy! Dana is a geologist!

    Seriously, now if only I could talk you into attending the Pacific Section SEPM field trip in the fall, where we learn what the hell is going on with the Salinas valley in central California…

  5. 5
    Stacy

    I can tell you my foremost thought whilst reading it: “Damnit, Victor, I’m a geologist, not a physicist!”

    True story: Vic Stenger lectured at CFI-Los Angeles, where I volunteer, a year or two ago, and I got to meet him. I mentioned that I’d read his book Quantum Gods, and enjoyed it, though the discussion of quantum mechanics in the book was largely over my head.

    Stenger looked troubled, and said something like “But I thought I made it quite clear!” (I could tell he was really thinking, but I dumbed it down as much as I could!)

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