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Review of Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis

James Levine

Dr. Victor J. Stenger is a skilled, trenchant writer who has written many books elaborating a naturalistic, atomistic view of the universe that pointedly harks back to Lucretius. In several books his goal has been to liberate people from superstition and to encourage scientists and others to examine the big questions using science and the methods of science. His writing project has been both ambitious and successful, and while I hope that he will write many more books, in some ways God:The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist is a capstone, the culmination of Dr. Stenger's writings on theism and science.

Whether writing about physics or religion, Dr. Stenger is a master teacher, and his skill as a teacher shows in this book. God: The Failed Hypothesis is his best book on religion and, of all his books, the most accessible. Many of his other books require one to dip into mathematical equations and think hard about physics. This particular book seems to be written more with a lay audience in view, and requires less-strenuous reading.

Dr. Stenger's book is incisive in its reasoning and clearly written. I especially liked the way he has several summaries of the arguments at the end of various chapters. This way one can remember what he has argued. This technique could be pedantic, but in Dr. Stenger's hands it is very helpful.

He shows how the best evidence we have to date points to a Godless universe. Things are the way we would expect them to be if there were no God.

One of his best chapters is on the failures of revelation: how the Bible's record of prophecy is a miserable failure. Dr. Stenger gives several examples of failures of prophecy in the Old Testament. My favorite among his examples is the following:

Ezekiel 29,30. The land of Egypt will be laid waste by Nebuchadnezzar, and all its people killed and rivers dried up. It will remain uninhabited for forty years.

Dr. Stenger dryly remarks, "This did not happen."

If the Bible is the product of human beings rather than a divine author, we can easily explain its historical, scientific and moral inaccuracies. One of his funniest remarks concerns the lunar landing. If there were a being that really wanted to highlight the supernatural character of the Bible, he could have put in its pages an explicit prophecy of man's landing on the moon. Now that would be truly awesome! Instead, biblical prophecy is either vague, wrong, coincidence, a matter of ordinary prediction, or it can be more-simply explained as written after the fact. For instance, Isaiah's prophecy that Cyrus would overthrow Babylon could have been written many years after the fact by someone who wanted to give the book of Isaiah greater cachet. I found his discussion enlightening and I add that in every religion, true believers have commanded honesty and supported holy lies. Legend can easily become regarded as fact especially in preliterate cultures.

Dr. Stenger's book is distinguished by its focus on the case that science makes against God's existence. Dr. Stenger is not in the wishy-washy camp that says religion and science are about different things: science about how things work, and religion about what things mean. They are about the same reality, but religion is massively disconfirmed. One of the best chapters in his book discusses the massive amount of evidence that prayer doesn't work, disconfirming the hypothesis that there is a God who answers prayer.

I have a minor quarrel with Dr. Stenger's discussion of "nothing." Perhaps in a moment of humor he says that nothing is an especially simple sort of being, and that the universe had its origins in the simplicity of nothing. However, to say nothing exists is not to ascribe existence to any being, it is to say there isn't anything. It is a kind of logical gaffe to treat nothing as a thing. The void (or vacuum) is different than nothing. It has a scalar field among its other properties. Anything with properties is a thing, not nothing. However, this minor gaffe is relatively unimportant in a book where excellence shines, and it may not be a gaffe at all but simply a joke.

I also have a minor disagreement with another one of his arguments. He concedes too much to the theist in one argument. He says that if the total energy of the universe were not zero, it would be evidence that God created the mass energy of the universe. However, a universe with nonzero total energy would not violate the mass-energy conservation law, which just requires that the total mass-energy be constant, and we would need other evidence for the supernatural than a violation of the energy conservation laws to justifiably reach the conclusion that a tinkering intelligent designer was at work. For example, Dr. Hoyle proposed a theory, the "steady-state" theory, according to which mass-energy was spontaneously created, and Dr. Hoyle's theory violated the law of conservation of mass-energy but was still a naturalistic theory. Dr. Hoyle's theory did not presuppose the existence of a Divine Designer.

As Dr. Stenger says, the universe is as we would expect it to be if there were no God, i.e., if there were no intelligent designer or creator with a concern for humanity. He gives the theist every possible chance to score a point, saying if the mass-energy of the universe were not zero, we would have a reason to believe in God, but the theist fails to win even this point, since according to the best evidence of the astrophysicists, which Dr. Stenger presents to us, the total mass-energy of the universe is zero.

There have been many excellent books lately espousing the Atheist point of view. Which to choose? Dr. Stenger's book is on the short list of "must reads" for the person who wishes to explore atheism, whether they agree with it or not. Dr. Stenger is the soul of rationality. He offers sound reasons for his assertions and asks that nothing he says be accepted on faith. A theist will come away from his book with a greater understanding of how science works, which can be applied to questions like the existence of ESP or God. An atheist will be stimulated in his/her thinking, and will learn more about the strengths of the infidel position.

Unlike Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Stenger has some sympathy for the religious point of view. This might make his a better book to put in front of the religious person who is curious about atheism. While he is pointed in what he says, Dr. Stenger adopts a less strident tone. Unlike Sam Harris, he finds some positive things to say about the Koran. He also says some positive things about the Bible. He sees the Bible as a mixed bag, containing some wisdom, common to humanity at that time, and much cruelty and ignorance, also typical of people at that time. The Bible is not uniquely wise. For laws that govern civil society, we should prefer Solon to Moses. Humankind's holy books are what one would expect if they were products of human culture. He makes the sound point that religious people are often better than one would expect reading their holy books, because even though they won't admit it they make up their own minds about what is moral and immoral. Even though the Bible supports slavery, the abolitionists--to their credit--decried slavery.

Our conscience determines how we read what we regard as a sacred text. To quote Dr. Stenger, "In all these cases, believers clearly read the Bible to find support for moral principles that they have already developed from some other source." Only a few lunatics nowadays take seriously the Bible's support for genocide or slavery. Dr. Stenger appreciates religious art and religious music. He writes, "I hope I have made it clear in this book, that while I wish people were less gullible, less willing to believe in the most preposterous supernatural notions, I still have high regard for the basic decency of most human beings. Many people are good. But they are not good because of religion. They are good despite religion."

There is an excellent chapter on the moral argument for God's existence. Dr. Stenger argues effectively that the human moral sense is common to atheists and theists and is as we would expect it to be if it resulted from natural causes, the advantages of cooperation, and social evolution, i.e., it is as we would expect it to be if God had nothing to do with it. If God existed, we would expect theists to be more moral than atheists. There is no evidence for the greater morality of theists. To quote Dr. Stenger, "The very fact that humans have a common moral conscience can be taken as evidence against the existence of God."

In his last chapter, Dr. Stenger discusses whether America is a theocracy or is founded, as the Declaration of Independence says, on the consent of the governed, and he discusses the meaning of life. Both his discussions are important and nicely cap his book. He writes, "God is not necessary for someone to find fulfillment in contemplation or social activity. Ethical philosopher Peter Singer emphasizes that "[we] can live a meaningful life by working towards goals that are objectively worthwhile." One of the ways he suggests is quite simple, namely, to work to reduce avoidable suffering. This, he claims, is an objectively worthwhile goal that can provide inner meaning, and furthermore, can be done whether or not God exists." He also quotes Kai Nielsen to great effect: "A man who says, 'If God is dead nothing matters,' is a spoilt child who has never looked at his fellow man with compassion."

Dr. Stenger's learning is vast and he expresses his thoughts with enormous clarity, making them accessible to a large audience. He is a master communicator. One will not find a better book on the scientific evidence for atheism.

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