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Apr 26 2012

Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith by Victor J. Stenger

Victor Stenger has had a long career in experimental high-energy physics. He has become a prolific writer on the intersection of science and religion and I have referred to him frequently in past blog posts, especially to material in his 2007 book God: The Failed Hypothesis. Stenger is an unabashed ‘new atheist’ who thinks that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible and does not shy away from saying so bluntly. The title of his latest book (and its subtitle The Incompatibility of Science and Religion) leaves the reader with no doubt as to where he stands. The book was released this month and I have just had the pleasure of reading it. It essentially updates and expands on the arguments of that earlier one.

The complexity and diversity of life used to be the main evidence for the existence of god. Many new atheists are biologists and have argued against the existence of god from the point of view that the theory of evolution by natural selection essentially did away with the need to postulate a supernatural entity to explain how the diversity of life came about. They have been so successful in doing so that sophisticated religious apologists and theologians have pretty much given up on fighting evolution directly and conceded that evolution is sufficient to understand life.

Some sophisticated religious apologists (theistic evolutionists and intelligent designers) continue to try and argue that life shows the need for god, weakly arguing that god works through the process of evolution without specifying how that happens or explaining why a god would go to all the trouble of acting so covertly as to give the convincing impression of being absent. Other religious apologists have shifted their focus to other areas of science. Many of the arguments that they now make for the existence of god are based on recent developments in physics and thus have consequences for how the laws of physics operate, especially in the areas of particle physics and cosmology.

Stenger is in a good position to refute those arguments and to make the case that science and religion are also incompatible from the physics point of view. Stenger started his research career in 1959 and thus has been an active participant in many of the major developments that have taken place over the last fifty years. Being an experimentalist, he is firmly grounded in the empirical world and takes a no-nonsense approach. And like the best experimentalists, he has a solid grasp of theoretical physics as well. Another of his strengths is that he is cautious about what can be inferred from the evidence. While not shying away from where evidence and reasoning leads, he does not overstate the claims.

The first 125 pages of this approximately 325-page book consist of a historical review of the interplay of religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas, starting with those of the early Greeks. I found that part particularly interesting since he provided much information that I had been previously unaware of. This survey takes the reader through Darwinian evolution and up to around the year 1900, which is usually the marker of the advent of modern physics, with the birth of quantum mechanics, relativity, and cosmology.

The next 75 pages of his book are a bit heavy going. Stenger tries to explain the basis for the key scientific ideas in those areas, especially those that have implications for religion such as the origins of the universe, the indeterminancy principle, entropy, and information theory. In this section, sometimes Stenger tries to do a little too much. To combat those religious apologists who try to bamboozle people with physics to make their case, he feels obliged to explain the physics ideas that are involved in order to show how they are being misused to advance religion. I fear that his explanations of the physics may be too superficial for physicists, too familiar to those who have read the many science popularizations that are currently available, yet remain too difficult for those without a physics background for whom the ideas may still remain obscure. Stenger also gives perhaps a little too much historical detail (names and dates and anecdotes) that distracts from the main narrative. For those not too familiar with physics, I recommend just plowing through his physics explanations without trying to understand it all, ignoring the digressions and asides and focusing instead on the main conclusions as they pertain to religious arguments.

Things get easier in the next 75 pages of the book, where Stenger systematically attacks the religious, pseudoscientific, and superstitious ideas that are all around us, marshaling the evidence against them and using his keen reasoning and logical powers to show why none of these things have any merit. In the process, he deals with the nature of time, entropy and information, the afterlife, the origin of life, near death experiences, reincarnation, the efficacy of prayer, the paranormal, eastern mysticism, morality, consciousness, the mind and soul, free will, and meaning and purpose. Given the broad scope, it is necessarily superficial in parts but he provides citations for those who want to go into more depth on any of the topics.

In the last 50 pages, Stenger tackles the general issue of atheism and spirituality, the incompatibility of science and religion, the harmful effects of religion, and the adverse political and social consequences of religious beliefs. He makes the new atheist case that accommodationism (the idea that nonbelievers should not criticize ‘moderate’ forms of religion for fear of alienating their adherents and pushing them into the fundamentalist camp) is a futile strategy and that all forms of religious and supernatural beliefs need to be combated.

Stenger has a laconic, just-the-facts, writing style. But while he provides few rhetorical flourishes, he more than makes up for it in terms of depth of knowledge. He has read widely and provides copious references to the sources of his information and arguments. This book is almost encyclopedic in the range of topics it covers and this may be its greatest strength, even if it has to pay the price of skimming over some sections. It is the kind of book where, when confronted with a topic, one can look it up in the index, read the relevant sections for a good quick overview of the main issues involved, and look up the citations for more detailed information.

I can see myself using this book frequently in just such a reference manner and can recommend it to those who would find it convenient to have the scientific case against religion dealt with in a single source by someone who knows what he is talking about.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Tim

    Terrific review, Mano. I especially appreciate how you break down the book by pages.

    This book sounds like a real tour de force. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  2. 2
    mnb0

    Victor is with Mark Perakh one of the two best writers for TalkReason. His writing style is crystal clear, always to the point and easily understandable. I’m going to buy this book; if the translation lasts too long in English.

    “Many of the arguments that they now make for the existence of god are based on recent developments in physics and thus have consequences for how the laws of physics operate.”
    I don’t understand this. Though I have not studied physics at a University I’m as a qualified teacher maths and physics quite familiar with Quantum Mechanics (Copenhagen interpretation). It was when I learned Heisenberg’s Indeterminancy (better than Uncertainty indeed) Principle that I decided to call myself an atheist. I don’t see how one can combine Indeterminancy with any causal god. And we know Indeterminancy works – ask the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Such apologists either lie or don’t understand; either way they talk out of their hats. As a teacher I am very capable of showing that; but I need the Stengers and Singhams to give me the necessary information.
    Yes, I have read most of your articles on your old site. Everybody should do that, to protect him/herself against religious bullshit about physics.

  3. 3
    raven

    Victor Stenger is one of my favorite authors.

    I’ve read a lot of his physics influenced books. I don’t understand all of the physics but that is OK. I can always read them again. And again.

  4. 4
    Peter A.

    Your comment that, ‘…without… explaining why a god would go to all the trouble of acting so covertly as to give the convincing impression of being absent’, needs, I think, to be explained by you. Specifically, I am thinking of what it would take to convince someone who is not open to the possibility of there being anything other than what is either obvious, or revealed easily by our five senses, that there may – perhaps, just possibly – be so much more to reality than just what we can detect.
    For many people throughout the world, God, for lack of a better term, is NOT ‘giving the impression of being absent’ at all; the existence of God is taken for granted, and is as obvious to them as the ground beneath their feet. For these people the concept of God makes perfect sense, and the notion that everything just popped into existence for no reason, with no purpose, by accident against hopeless odds, is incomprehensible precisely because it is so bizarre.

  5. 5
    smitisan

    Another physicist writing about something totally outside his field. There’s a reason these matters are called “supernatural” today, and metaphysics back in the day. If there is a god, and I’m not saying there is, he she or it doesn’t exist in time and space, and isn’t subject to human measurements, including those of justice and ethics. In the same vein, though, it has to be pointed out that the manner of this god’s existence would be so entirely unlike any definition of “reality” we could come up with that probably the Sufi admonition that silence is the most we can say about it is probably best. Religions, of course, will have to say something. And that’s where the problem is, not in the existence or no of god, but in the really silly ideas people cling to.

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