This Actually Is a Review of Victor Stenger’s New Book


Right. So. I promised a review of Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Here it is.

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

I kid. Although Mano Singham’s review is actually very good and straight-up and I recommend it. I’ll be playing the funny to his straight, as it were. Also, I’ll be focusing more on readers’ questions than on a regular old review.

I just want to start with a few words from the Doctor:

That’s pretty much how the vast majority of his book struck me. It’s lots and lots of physics. Proportionally, it’s probably not that much physics – there’s lots of other stuff in there, like the history of science and the birth of religion. There’s a big bit on Darwin and evolution, and what bad news that was for religion. There’s purpose, and transcendence, and neurology. Lots and lots of philosophy. Geology, even so! And awfully bad news for the woomeisters. Physics itself takes up a mere two chapters, along with mentions in several others. It’s just that those two chapters loom over the rest. As I said before, it’s been a long time since I studied physics, and those chapters were a tough slog. Tough, but fun, and I probably learned more in them than I had from all sorts of reading before.

So there’s the book in a nutshell, say a walnut. Here it is in a filbert: science is bad news for religion, the two aren’t compatible at all – no, not even the vague spirituality-type religions – and if you’re looking to physics to support your ideas about the supernatural, you’re barking up the wrong damned tree. Not even quantum supports your religion. It’s natural all the way down.

Right. On to reader questions.

Brad wished to know if it included a rebuttal of the idea that science depended upon the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to flower. Why, yes. Yes, it does: there’s a section called “Did Christianity Beget Science?” The answer, astonishingly, is no. Do try to contain your shock. Enjoy watching Victor trample all over the notion.

Kele Cable says, “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.” True. However, mercifully little math. And the physics isn’t beyond someone who’s recently dipped in to tomes like A Brief History of Time. He really did try to dumb it down

Chris Hallquist says, “You say he’s read “On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat,” but has he read both the book of that title by Scotus and the one by Eriugena? Because if he hasn’t, then whichever one he hasn’t read, that will turn out to be the real one you need to read.” I get the impression from the text he has read and contemplated both, but of course, there’s some other book he hasn’t read that will invalidate every argument against religion until he’s read that one, and once he has, there will be that other other one, and so on, apologetics without end.

Graham wished to know if Victor credited Susan Blackmore’s work on NDEs. He did indeed, extensively. Dying to Live was cited several times: I counted at least three substantial mentions, and one walks away with the impression that Victor thinks very highly of Susan indeed.

Graham additionally wishes to know how Victor handled the case of China and its failure to develop science. Victor was spending most of his time on Christianity and the West, but he does argue (albeit briefly) that in China, strict government control stifled the development of science. He says that it was the “new openness in Europe that made science possible.” In other words: totalitarian states, whether theocratic or otherwise, are anathema to the birth of scientific thought.

Graham goes on to ask, “What does he say about Penrose’s ideas about quantum theory and consciousness…?” I’m afraid that, in a section entitled “The Quantum Brain,” Victor hands Roger his ass on a plate. I don’t think he’s impressed by the whole quantum brain thingy, and argues very effectively against it.

Right, then. That does for the reader questions, and excellent questions they were, too. We should do this more often. It’s more fun than a plain ol’ book review. It also makes me pay more attention to the text, which is all good.

You can stop here, if you like. I’m going to go on about some of my favorite bits.

In the Preface, Victor points out something rather important: “The conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason…. The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason.” He also points out that reason and logic need outside input. “Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.” Sums that up nicely, and also allows me to have a more fruitful conversation with my best friend, who prides himself on his ability to reason, yet can’t reason his way out of the Christian faith.

I loved what Victor said about NOMA: “Most nonbelieving scientists want to just do their research and stay out of any fights over religion. That makes the NOMA approach appealing because it allows these scientists to not worry much about what religion is or how it affects our social and political world. In my view, though, these scientists are shirking their responsibility by conceding the realms of morality and public policy to the irrationality and brutality of faith.” No mercy for NOMA. Me likey. He also asks an excellent question: “And if religion doesn’t work in the sphere of nature, why should we expect it to work in the moral or other spheres?” Why should we, indeed?

For those who insist there must be some vital force or other, Victor brings the hammer down in the chapter entitled “Purpose:” “None of the life sciences has ever found any difference in composition between living and nonliving matter. A living cell is made of the same quarks and electrons as a rock.” Sorry and all that. Some folks seem mightily disappointed that this is so. But, being a geology addict, I think it’s rather awesome we all share the same quarks and electrons.

One of the most powerful statements in the book comes in “Metaphor, Atheist Spirituality, and Immanence,” in response to the folks who claim that God is all-loving, but not one of the other alls, therefore God. “If God isn’t all-powerful, then he hasn’t the power to alleviate all suffering. If he isn’t all-knowing, then he may not know about every case of suffering. Notice, however, that science eliminated the suffering due to smallpox without being aware of every case and without being omnipotent. Certainly any benevolent god worth his salt could do a better job in easing suffering.” My italics. That, I think, is a knockout punch to the argument that a god of some sort exists and wants the best for all of us.

The book finishes with a powerful closing argument: “Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life…. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.” Exactly. And Victor knows religion will never do that without help from the non-believers.

This book is an excellent tool for applying the needed pressure. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, it’s a tough go in some places. But there’s a lot of value in here. I found it clarifying my thoughts and, despite feeling like I hadn’t learned a thing during the reading, I’ve come away with a much better understanding of physics than I had before. It’s well worth your time.

Comments

  1. redpanda says

    The church I was brought up in tackles the problem of suffering with the idea that God has to let sin run its course, so that after this is all said and done everyone will know where rebellion ultimately leads (here), and understand for all eternity why toeing the line is the only way to do things.

    But they’re really inconsistent about applying it, and only insist on the “hands-off” idea when bad things happen. When God helps them find their keys in the morning, then praise the LORD!

  2. redpanda says

    I do have a specific question about the book, though.

    Does he support the idea that religion has always been opposed to scientific progress? Because from what I’ve been reading it seems like the real story is rather more complex and most modern historians of science don’t support the idea of the two themes having always been intrinsically opposed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_thesis

    • F says

      Many of the more interesting and extinct religions relied heavily on science-like investigation, engineering, and data and intelligence gathering to do their thing. But they suppressed knowledge of these things outside their own use wherever possible. And the mystical mathematical religions retarded further research outside of applying it to the Platonic universe or the Jain or Hindu cosmology. Arabic science and rediscovery had its day, but that was eventually mostly stomped.

      Religions were not always necessarily trying to stomp out science or history or other knowledge, but they rarely supported it materially, and certainly not by their delivered worldviews.

      Religion itself is always contra-science at heart, by definition, whether or not it hold any opinion whatsoever on actual science being done in the world.