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The New AtheismReview - The New Atheism
Taking a Stand for Science and Reason
by Victor J. Stenger
Prometheus, 2009
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Nov 17th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 47)

The word "new" on the cover is white on a red circle of colour, several times larger than the other words in the title; and all capital letters. "Science" and "reason" in the sub-title are also large and all caps. Apparently the cover designers want us to notice that what's inside is new, and that the author will use science and reason to direct us to the new in the new atheism.

We find a clear statement of definition in the seven steps (toward enlightenment?) given on Page 160. The first five are definitions of scientific naturalism from theologian John Haught.

  1. Apart from nature, which includes human beings and our cultural creations, there is nothing. There is no God, no soul, and no life beyond death.
  2. Nature is self-originating, not the creation of God.
  3. The universe has no overall point or purpose, although individual human lives can be lived purposely.
  4. Since God does not exist, all explanations, all causes are purely neutral and can be understood only by science.
  5. All the various features of living beings, including human intelligence and behavior, can be explained ultimately in purely natural terms, and today this usually means in evolutionary, specifically Darwinian, terms.

To these tenets of scientific naturalism, the new atheists would add the following:

  1. Faith in God is the cause of innumerable evils and should be rejected on moral grounds.
  2. Morality does not require belief in God, and people behave better without faith than with it.

Stenger offers these seven statements as constituting the New Atheists' position. For him naturalism equals materialism, and he agrees that science may not be the only way to understand and explain the world. He also states that these statements are not dogma because science and atheism must never be dogmatic. "The very nature of the scientific method eschews dogmatism. And atheism strives to rely primarily on scientific method, where it can be applied." (161) Consider #6: is it faith in God that is the cause of innumerable evils? Or is it faith in particular interpretations within religious movements that cause those evils? Why should faith in God be rejected on moral grounds? Stenger argues, along with the other new atheists, that such faith is underdetermined; there is a lack of evidence for the existence of God and hence rationality itself finds such belief immoral. He would agree with W. K. Clifford who in a famous essay, originally published in Contemporary Review, 1877 wrote:

The harm which is done by credulity in a man is not confined to the fostering of a credulous character in others, and consequent support of false beliefs. Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth of one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other's mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe things because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? Will he not learn to cry, "Peace," to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are. So closely are our duties knit together, that whoso shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. (Source

Clifford's essay is of course not new, but the new atheists take much of their notion of ethical epistemology from him and from that romantic poet, Coleridge, who cautioned, "He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all."

Theists have argued against the atheists that applying any materialistic, scientific theory to explore a spiritual question, such as the existence of God, is just wrong-headed. Stenger argues here, as he did convincingly in God: The Failed Hypothesis [review] that "God exists" is a proposition that science can examine and test, and that if true there must be some discernable evidence to support the claim. If we take it that the claims of religion are indeed truth valuable propositions then Stenger is right – those claims do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. But, are the statements about gods and after-life and the like statements of fact? God talk always reminds me of the famous essay by John Wisdom (called simply "Gods") in which he tells the story of a garden and two people viewing it. One postulates a gardener and the other does not. No evidence can persuade the believer that there is no gardener although the two are looking at the same set of facts. God talk may be a different language game in the way that rules of baseball, constitutions, and statutes are not true or false, but constitute and regulate a game.

One of the central claims of the new atheists is that "faith, which is belief without supportive evidence, should not be given the respect, even deference, it obtains in modern society." (15) Stenger also argues against attempts to split the intellectual world into two magisteria as Stephen Jay Gould suggested, and as Descartes' mind/matter split was intended to accomplish. Theists counter with the claim that science itself is dependent on faith. A close analysis of faith would be a useful contribution from the new atheists, but instead they tend to stipulate a definition which is then easy to attack. "Belief without evidence" does indeed sound empty and absurd. Yet in ordinary language we talk about having faith that our car will start on a cold morning, or having faith that our spouse will be, well, faithful.

Stenger provides a useful review of Bart Ehrman's work on the literature of the Bible in chapter six. Ehrman has written widely about the Bible, tracing the origin of the stories and placing them in a context that illuminates them as story while diminishing them as Truth. Stenger also uses Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, a detailed study of the origins and beliefs of Mormonism, as a good example of a recent faith-community which does not stand up to sceptical analysis and offers support that is a good example "of absence of evidence being evidence for absence." Stenger concludes that "Mormonism is not just wrong, it is provably wrong." And that is the thesis of the book: religion is not just wrong it is provably wrong."

The book is readable, requires no special expertise in science or theology, and is a review of the contributions to the debate between atheists and theists by the NEW atheists: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Stenger.

Let me close with a quote from Carl Sagan:

"Those who raise questions about the God hypothesis and the soul hypothesis are by no means all atheists. An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible, and considering the enormous emotional energies with which the subject is invested, a questioning, courageous and open mind seems to be the essential tool for narrowing the range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence of God."— "The Amniotic Universe," Broca's Brain

So, what's new? Not much. As Qoheleth saith: "There is nothing new under the sun."



© 2009 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. He is the author of Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation.


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