The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reasonby Victor J. Stenger
In recent years a number of bestselling books have forcefully argued that belief in God can no longer be defended on rational or empirical grounds, and that the scientific worldview has rendered obsolete the traditional beliefs held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The authors of these books—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher… See more details below
In recent years a number of bestselling books have forcefully argued that belief in God can no longer be defended on rational or empirical grounds, and that the scientific worldview has rendered obsolete the traditional beliefs held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The authors of these books—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger—have come to be known as the "New Atheists." Predictably, their works have been controversial and attracted a good deal of critical reaction.
In this new book, Victor J. Stenger, whose God: The Failed Hypothesis was on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007, reviews and expands upon the principles of New Atheism and answers many of its critics. He demonstrates in detail that naturalism—the view that all of reality is reducible to matter and nothing else—is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, from the most distant galaxies to the inner workings of the brain that result in the phenomenon of mind.
Stenger disputes the claim of many critics that the question of whether God exists is beyond the ken of science. On the contrary, he argues that absence of evidence for God is, indeed, evidence of absence when the evidence should be there and is not.
Turning from scientific to historical evidence, Stenger then points out the many examples of evil perpetrated in the name of religion. He also notes that the Bible, which is still taken to be divine revelation by millions, fails as a basis for morality and is unable to account for the problem of unnecessary suffering throughout the world.
Finally, he discusses the teachings of ancient nontheist sages such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius, whose guidelines for coping with the problems of life and death did not depend upon a supernatural metaphysics. Stenger argues that this "way of nature" is far superior to the traditional supernatural monotheisms, which history shows can lead to a host of evils.
The New Atheism is a well-argued defense of the atheist position and a strong rebuttal of its critics.
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The NEW AtheismTaking a Stand for Science and Reason
By VICTOR J. STENGER
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Victor J. Stenger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneATHEISM ON THE OFFENSIVE
Religion is a disease. Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE)
THE GODS PEOPLEWORSHIP
Many nonbelievers will tell you that they are not "atheists" but "agnostics." Although they see no evidence for God, they reason that we can never know whether or not God exists. After all, they say, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." How can we possibly know that a god does not exist who is hidden from us so that we have no proof or evidence either way?
For example, an impersonal god may have created the universe and then left it alone to follow its own path, governed by the natural laws that it built into the universe, perhaps along with a large element of chance. This doctrine is called deism. As I discussed in my previous book, Quantum Gods, such a god who, in Einstein's famous words, "plays dice with the universe" might be impossible to detect.
Einstein often used the word "god" in his philosophical statements, but made it clear that he did not believe in a personal god. When pressed he said he believed in the "god of Spinoza," who is basically a metaphor for the order and structure of the universe. This doctrine is called pantheism. A related doctrine is panentheism, in which god includes the physical universe and whatever else there is. Pantheism simply gives the name "god" to the sum of reality and is empty of any religious content that can be used to guide people's lives or ritual that can be used to provide inspiration. The god of the Jewish kabbalistic tradition is panentheistic and religiously significant. However, neither of these views plays an important role in modern religious thinking.
Over the ages the most common form of god worship has been polytheism, the worship of many gods, usually representing various objects in nature from the sun and moon to animals and humans. Today, Hinduism is the only truly polytheistic religion practiced by a large number of people, although technically it is called henotheistic in that there is only one absolute reality, Brahman, and the various gods of the Hindu pantheon are merely representations (avatars) of this one reality. Muslims consider the Christian Trinity polytheistic, and Catholics pray to a whole constellation of saints who in another time would be called gods. In his documentary film Religulous, Bill Maher hilariously interviews a "senior Vatican priest" standing outside St. Peter's who tells him that Jesus Christ is only sixth on the list of heavenly personages that Italian Christians pray to.
But, such differences aside, the god that more people currently worship than any other is some variation on the personal god of the Jewish Torah, Christian Old Testament, and Muslim Qur'an. He is called YHWH in the Torah and Old Testament, and Allah in the Qur'an.
I will, for simplicity, often refer to this god as the "Abrahamic God," or just "God," which should be understood to refer to the god of the three religions that trace their origins to the patriarch Abraham, a probably mythological figure who supposedly lived four thousand years ago. If Abraham existed at all, he would have been polytheistic, as were all the peoples in Canaan at the time. Judaism did not become monotheistic until after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon circa 530 BCE.
THE ATHEIST WORLDVIEW
The term theism usually refers to the belief in a personal god or gods such as found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Technically then, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the gods of these religions. If atheists were defined as people who are not theists, they would include deists, Buddhists, and others generally identified as "spiritualists." Deists believe in a god who created the universe but then leaves it alone to carry on according to the laws he has laid out, rarely if ever stepping in to change the course of events and not paying much if any attention to individual lives. Buddhists (though not all) do not believe in gods but have some sense of a supernatural. Spiritualists believe in an unknown higher power, a so-called universal spirit, or simply have a vague notion that "something must be out there." Let us stick to the common usage of atheist to mean someone who believes that no gods exist, including the deist god, the universal spirit, or any other vague possibility that agnostics prefer to leave open. This includes Buddhists. That is, there are theists, deists, Buddhists, spiritualists, agnostics, and atheists. More simply, there are believers and nonbelievers, or supernaturalists and naturalists.
Atheists view science as the best means humanity has yet come up with for understanding the world. Not all scientists are atheists. However, few of those scientists who are believers assume any role for the supernatural in explaining the phenomena that reach our senses. Rather they compartmentalize their thinking into scientific and religious. They enter one compartment when they go to church on Sunday, one that has been swept clean of the critical thinking and devil's advocacy that came with their training. Monday morning they return to work and enter the other compartment, where God never enters the equations.
As you often hear, "science is provisional." So both believing and nonbelieving scientists must keep open the possibility that their concepts may change should the data warrant it. Science just makes models anyway and does not require nor does it use any metaphysics. As far as science can tell, the universe is matter and nothing more. If at some future date, scientists find they need something other than matter in their models and they can still describe that substance mathematically, this new stuff would not be supernatural. In that case a distinction between believer and atheist would still remain. For now, let's keep things simple: the atheist believes that we need not include anything beyond matter (to be defined precisely later) to describe the universe and its contents. Everybody else thinks we need something else.
The atheist view is not what some believers derogatorily call "scientism," the view that science is the only source of knowledge. Atheists appreciate the beauty of art, music, and poetry as much as believers, along with the joys of love, friendship, parenthood, and other human relationships. We love life even more than the believer, because that is all we have. We only insist that when anyone makes a claim about the world of our senses, that science and reason be allowed to test that claim.
That may sound noncontroversial, but one of the major complaints that the new atheists have about society today, especially in the United States, is that religion is given a special dispensation from the requirement of rationality that is applied in all other forms of human discourse. We are pilloried for hurting people's deepest feelings when we cast doubt that somebody born of a virgin rose from the dead or when we question that some book contains all the truths that anyone need ever know. We not only regard such beliefs as wrong, we see them as immoral and dangerous to the future of society. Philosopher Michael Martin, who has written authoritatively on atheism, distinguishes between two types, negative atheism that simply identifies nonbelief, including agnosticism, and positive atheism, where the nonbeliever "rejects the theistic God and with it the belief in an afterlife, in a cosmic destiny, in an immortal soul, in the revealed nature of the Bible and Qur'an, and in a religious foundation for morality.
A breakdown of world belief is given in Table 1.1.
These estimates were obtained from the Web site of a Christian organization, adherents.com, that based them on Encyclopedia Britannica and World Christian Encyclopedia reports. The numbers for each faith are admitted to tend toward the high end since they count people with a minimal level of self-identification.
We see that there are over a billion nonbelievers in the world, more than Hindus, making it the third-largest "belief" system. This may be a vast underestimate that has not counted China accurately. I have seen estimates that there are as many as a billion nonbelieving Chinese alone. But while they may not believe in gods, most Chinese maintain traditional supernatural beliefs such as feng shui and fortune telling.
The table does not break down the nonbelievers. Martin quotes an estimate from the 2002 New York Times Almanac that 4 percent of the world's population are professed atheists. With an estimated world population at this writing of 6.7 billion, this gives 268 million current admitted atheists, while there are no doubt many more who keep their nonbelief to themselves.
Despite the apparent fact that the people of the United States are exceptionally religious, at least in terms of professed supernatural beliefs of one type or another, the national figures are not much different from those worldwide when surveys probe more deeply than simply asking the subject to state a religious preference. While only 1.6 percent, or about 4.8 million Americans admit they are atheists, this is undoubtedly an underestimate because the term "atheist" has a more negative connotation in America than in other developed countries. In fact, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey estimates from stated beliefs that 12 percent or 36 million Americans are atheists. Atheists fall below homosexuals in the esteem of a majority of Americans. For example, in the November 2008 US elections, North Carolina senator Elizabeth Dole, wife of 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole, put out a TV ad that her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, accepted money from an atheist rights group. A Dole commercial showed pictures Hagen with a woman's voiceover saying, "God does not exist." Hagan angrily filed a lawsuit for defamation. In America, apparently, calling a person an atheist is as bad as calling her a child molester. Hagan handily defeated Dole, while the lawsuit is still pending as of this writing.
IS AMERICA A DEIST NATION?
Although a majority of Americans call themselves "Christians," a study of their actual beliefs made by Baylor University in 2005 indicates that many people who think of themselves as Christians actually disagree with basic Christian teachings. The survey found that 44 percent of Americans do not believe in a god who plays an important role in the universe or their personal lives. That makes them deists, not theists, although most probably would not accept the designation. But the fact is that only 54 percent of Americans are true Christians who believe in a God who significantly acts in the universe and in human lives. Certainly you are not a Christian if you do not believe in a God who consciously acts in the world.
So more than a billion people on Earth do not believe in the Abrahamic God or any other specific god, outnumbering Hindus and Jews, and almost matching the number of Muslims. If some fraction of the estimated Chinese nonbelievers is counted, then there are more nonbelievers than Muslims and only Christians exceed nonbelievers.
ATHEISM IN SOCIETY
Despite the large numbers of nonbelievers, atheism has not represented as major a force in world or national affairs as many much smaller groups such as Jews or homosexuals. While communism is officially atheist, a fact Christians gleefully point to as an example of what happens when atheism holds sway, communist philosophy is based on economics, not metaphysics. The political and economic philosophies of communism do not follow from the hypothesis of nonbelief. Indeed, with its dogmatic policies and authoritarianism, communism more closely resembles a godless religion than secular atheism. The only political views of atheists that are closely linked to their beliefs are that church and state should be separate and that decisions should be based on reason rather than revelation.
A number of organizations in the United States and elsewhere promote atheist, freethinking, and secular humanist viewpoints. The organization with the largest membership of freethinkers is the Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin. Its copresidents are Dan Barker and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor. For nineteen years Barker was an evangelical preacher and highly successful composer and performer of Christian music. Gradually, without any atheist proselytizing, he came to doubt and finally disbelieve in Christianity and all religion for that matter. Barker tells his story in his 2008 book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists.
Most prominent atheists contribute regularly to Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Center for Inquiry located in Amherst, New York. CFI is a think tank for atheism and secular humanism. It also coordinates the local efforts of several other centers along with a large number of community and student groups worldwide.
Currently, the net memberships of FFRF, CFI, and other organizations are comparatively small and hardly the threat that Christian leaders would like Christians to think they are. In the past, nonbeliever organizations have not been able to recruit a major fraction of those who hold similar views on God and religion and stir them up into political action.
I think it is fair to say that, at least until recently, the typical nonbeliever simply did not give religion much thought and lived her life as if it were the only one she had-which happens to be the case. Nonbeliever publications and other media outlets have had little influence when compared to the vast industry of religious books, magazines, TV and radio stations, and Internet sites. One reason why America seems to be more religious than other developed countries could be the vast Christian propaganda machine, which is unmatched anywhere else. In the past the subjects of atheism and secularism have received scant attention in the general media. Until recently, books on atheism have not sold well, although some atheist authors, notably Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, have written best sellers on the closely related subject of evolution.
NEW ATHEISM STEPS IN
This all changed dramatically in 2004 with the first in a series of best sellers by authors who preached a more militant, in-your-face kind of atheism that had not been seen before, except with the abrasive and unpopular Madalyn Murray O'Hair. This phenomenon has been termed New Atheism and it may augur well for the future of nonbelief. New Atheism seems to be a growing phenomenon in the United States and has attracted much media attention. The atheist and freethinker groups mentioned above are experiencing increasing membership, especially on college campuses.
As you might expect, this phenomenon has driven Christian apologists to distraction. A whole raft of books has been published in response to the atheist best sellers, largely from Christian publishing houses, of which, as I said, there are many. Most of these anti-atheist screeds are marked by shoddy scholarship such as incomplete references, inaccurate quotations, and misrepresentations of atheist views. I will give specific examples in the course of this book. None of the anti-atheist books have sold anywhere near as well as the atheist books they challenge. In what follows I will quote from some of these and other commentaries as I summarize the arguments made in the new atheist literature. This first brush should give a good taste of the conflict and demonstrate why any reconciliation is unlikely in the near future. In the following chapters we will discuss the issues in greater detail and expand upon what I see as the message of New Atheism.
Here's how the well-known conservative author and political commentator Dinesh D'Souza describes the new atheists in his 2007 book, What's So Great about Christianity?
The atheists no longer want to be tolerated. They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it. They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims. They want to control school curricula so they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity. They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but evil. They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today. In short, they want to make religion-and especially the Christian religion-disappear from the face of the earth.
In this introduction D'Souza does not provide evidence for his assertions by quoting from the new atheist literature. We certainly do not want to "expel Christians" from the public square or "control school curricula," but we would not be unhappy with some of the other outcomes. As we will see later, when he does quote new atheist writers (including myself), D'Souza does so misleadingly and, in at least one important case, falsely.
Excerpted from The NEW Atheism by VICTOR J. STENGER Copyright © 2009 by Victor J. Stenger. Excerpted by permission.
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