Vince Darcangelo's Reviews > God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist

God by Victor J. Stenger
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jan 17, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: reviews, science, philosophy, nonfiction

This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY

God is (or rather isn't) in the details
CU professor Victor J. Stenger searches for evidence of a higher power in his new bestseller. Is it time to issue a theological Amber Alert?
by Vince Darcangelo

For more than four decades physicist Victor J. Stenger has explored that which is undetectable by the human eye. Prior to retiring in 2000, he was a leading researcher in the area of particle physics, a branch of science that studies the elementary constituents of matter and radiation and the interactions between them. As a scientist, Stenger has researched miniscule subatomic particles, but as an author and philosopher he's been searching for something very, very big—the existence of God.

Now serving as an adjunct professor of philosophy at CU, and professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, Stenger has authored seven books, the most recent of which, God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, is currently a New York Times bestseller.

As a theistic roll call, God: The Failed Hypothesis is the philosophical equivalent of Ben Stein's famous "Bueller? Bueller?" query with the Big Guy marked as absent. Stenger discusses the scientific evidence and dissects traditional and nontraditional arguments in favor of the existence of God, including the theory du jour, Intelligent Design, and concludes, "Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God." It's the type of book that could be a real buzz kill if you let it, but in the hands of Stenger, a scientific textbook transforms into an existentialist treatise on how to live in a godless world.

"When I recognized that I was not being controlled by supernatural forces but am on my own, I found that fact immensely relieving," he says.

On Saturday, March 17, at 2 p.m., Stenger will read from and discuss God: The Failed Hypothesis at Borders (1750 29th St., Boulder, 720-565-8266), the first in a summer-long series of speaking engagements that will take the author/scientist throughout America and into Ontario, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Stenger recently hooked up with the Boulder Weekly—a newspaper that scientific research has determined does exist—to discuss the absence of God and why Stenger identifies himself as a humanist rather than an atheist.

Vince Darcangelo: God: The Failed Hypothesis has become a New York Times bestseller. What do you think has drawn people to this book?

Victor J. Stenger: It happened to appear just when there was a surge of interest in criticisms of religion, occurring no doubt as a reaction to the excesses of the religious right and their corrosive influence on the Bush administration. Endorsements by best-selling authors Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others, helped enormously.

VD: God: The Failed Hypothesis seems to be a progression of your earlier work, including the book, Has Science Found God? How did you come to this line of research? Where do you see yourself heading next?

VJS: I have always been interested in seeking answers to the most fundamental questions. My research career, before retirement in 2000, spanned the great developments in elementary particle physics that started when I was a graduate student in the early 1960s. I was a participant in a number of discoveries that lead to the highly successful current standard models of particle physics and cosmology.

In the 1980s I began to see how science was being misused to make outlandish claims in religion and what was once called New Age spirituality. I started to speak out critically about those claims. One of my books, The Unconscious Quantum (1995), refuted the assertion that quantum mechanics supports the existence of psychic phenomena such as ESP. As mentioned above, I now see the same thing happening in theology, so my next work is tentatively titled The Godless Quantum.

VD: In writing and researching this book, you focus on what you refer to as the "uppercase" God, "not all gods." So, for those who haven't yet read the book, and may make assumptions based on the title, when you refer to God as a failed hypothesis, are you saying definitively that no god exists or that God as He is understood does not exist? If the latter is the case, do you leave open the possibility that some god or gods could exist?

VJS: Yes. I basically rule out the God worshipped by most Jews, Christians and Muslims, along with the creator god of any culture—including the Enlightenment deist god of people like Thomas Jefferson. The only gods remaining are those who care not a whit about humanity and have nothing to do with us or hate us so deeply that they are the cause of human suffering. But, thankfully, we have no reason to believe in these gods any more than we have to believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

VD: You contend in the preface that God "should be detectable by scientific means simply by virtue of the fact that He is supposed to play such a central role in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans." In essence, God is in the details—or should be, at least. A common argument for the existence of God, however, is the "God of the gaps" theory, as you say, which goes that since science can't explain everything, God must exist in those unexplained areas. How do you dispel the "God of the gaps" argument?

VJS: The God of the gaps argument usually is applied to some existing gap in scientific knowledge. As long as science can give a plausible explanation for filling that gap, even if it can't yet verify that explanation, then the argument that God is needed to fill the gap fails. Only after you show that no plausible natural explanation is possible can you bring in supernatural explanations. It can happen. I give the hypothetical example where well-conducted experiments in intercessory prayer show that Catholic prayers heal the sick while no other prayers work. I can conceive of no way that could be explained naturally. Indeed, well-conducted experiments have been done and show pretty conclusively that a God does not exist who answers prayer in any significant way.

VD: What is your perspective of the theism vs. science debate? How about that of

your colleagues?

VJS: Dawkins, Harris and I are among a growing minority of scientists who think it is time to take a harder line against superstitious thinking. Most of our colleagues, the majority of whom are atheists, seem to think that they need to pander to religious moderates in order to maintain their support in issues such as creationism vs. evolution and financial support for science. We see a more important debate than creation vs. evolution, namely reason vs. superstition. We look at the disastrous effects of the faith-based, rather than evidence-based, policy making of the Bush administration as ample reason to question all religious thinking, not just the most extreme fundamentalism.

VD: Are science and theism incompatible?

VJS: I think so, although I do respect the attempts of some theologians to try to come up with a rational basis for beliefs that are compatible with science. The problem they have is that science views humanity as an accident of evolution while most religions place humanity on a step just below God, saints and angels. Most theistic evolutionists still think God stepped in along the way to guarantee that humans evolved, so whether they like it or not they are still in bed with the intelligent design creationists.

VD: Are science and theism necessarily at odds as the progress of scientific knowledge has often come at the expense of religious belief? And is this why the battle between science and religion is so contentious right now?

VJS: History demonstrates this. Practically every fundamental scientific discovery has called into question traditional religious teachings. The war runs hot and cold. Today it is hot. It will cool as America follows Europe and becomes more secular. The signs are already there, with young people becoming increasingly non-religious. We are about where Europe was 30 years ago.

VD: You refer to Intelligent Design as "stealth creationism." What is your take on Intelligent Design? Do you see ID as a passing incarnation of the argument from design or a more grounded design theory that has some staying power?

VJS: I think ID is now dead, in that name anyway. Rest assured creationism will re-appear under some other pseudoscientific designation that attempts to hide its religious motivation.

VD: You address many of the negative aspects of theism, such as its exploitation for power by the ruling class and the numerous wars that have been waged in the name of God, as well as the terrorism we see today. You even state that, "Many people are good. But they are not good because of religion. They are good despite religion." Regardless of the truth or falsity of this statement, do you fear that delving into this sort of commentary potentially exposes a bias in your research?

VJS: Well, it's an empirical fact, not a bias. If the facts were otherwise, I would say so.

VD: What sort of backlash, either scientific or popular, do you anticipate from this book? Have you received any at this point?

VJS: Of course I expect letters and e-mails from wackos. I have only had a couple so far. I ignore them. I expect serious challenges to my reasoning by theists, and that is fine. I expect criticisms from scientists and other academics who disagree with my position about religion and science. These are often closet believers. What I hate are the reviews where someone says, "I have not read this book, but it is wrong because..."

VD: I am an atheist, albeit a reluctant one. In my experience, most atheists are reluctant because they want there to be a higher meaning and an afterlife. What do you make of the human longing for spirituality? What advice do you have for those on the skeptical side of the fence who would prefer if the scientific evidence did prove or at least support possibility of the existence of God?

VJS: I can give you a hard-nosed, New Jersey answer and simply say, that's the way it is. Deal with it! But I have a much more positive outlook, which is based on the philosophy of humanism. In fact, I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist.

Humanism is as ancient as any religion and is, from what I know of history, the true source of much what religion has claimed as its own. Take the Golden Rule. Christian preachers will tell you it came from Jesus, but they must know that is not true. Even Jesus did not claim that, if you read the Gospel of Matthew. It was part of human thinking long before Jesus. In fact, there isn't a single original moral teaching in the New Testament.

My favorite piece of art is La Pieta by Michelangelo in St. Peter's basilica in Rome. Most people would see this as a religious work, but I see it as intensely human. I am inspired that a member of my own species could take a chunk of marble and carve out of it something so beautiful and so touching. Such magnificent talent gives me hope for the human race. Somehow that talent is diminished by attributing it to some external, supernatural power.

When I recognized that I was not being controlled by supernatural forces but am on my own, I found that fact immensely relieving. We are free. There are no gods or ghosts. As an atheist T-shirt says, "Relax. There is no Hell."

VD: There is a certain comfort in theism, in particular concerning the afterlife. I imagine most people long for an afterlife because they don't want their own consciousness to cease at death. Likewise, most people don't want to think of their dead loved ones as simply decomposing in a burial plot. What is the value of disproving the existence of God and removing these comforts?

VJS: What possible benefit can come from living a delusion? Why not just drug yourself into oblivion? I would think that it is better to come to grips with the facts of life and adjust to them. All our thoughts, memories and emotions are carried in our brains. Within minutes after we die and the brain is deprived of oxygen, they are lost forever. That is an almost incontrovertible fact. All we can do is live the best life we can while we have it, and move off the planet so our children and grandchildren can have room to live their lives.

VD: In your own way, you necessarily delve into existentialist philosophy in the final chapter, "Living in the Godless Universe." Are there any voices from this realm that you feel really resonate today, especially if working under the premise of there being no God?

VJS: Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins have written eloquently from that point of view. But another I can mention is John Shelby Spong, the retired former Episcopal bishop. Unlike Sagan, Dawkins and me, Spong still believes there is some higher power out there. However, he rejects most traditional Christian thinking as delusional, showing better than most atheists why this is so. But I disagree with him about the need for a higher power and do not see anything so special about a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who damns everyone to eternal fire who does not grovel before him.

VD: Has scientific advancement played a role in the prominence of monotheism over polytheism?

VJS: Not in any way that I can see. All conceptions of gods are based on human experience. Once we worshiped the sun, moon and animals. Then God was modeled after kings, obviously to justify their power over everyone else. Religion has always been the means by which those in power justify staying in power. We had the divine right of kings, now obsolete with the God-king sure to follow. I was recently in India. There the vast majority live in poverty and squalor. They don't revolt because their religion tells them it is their fate, their dharma. What a terrible thing is religion!

VD: In the chapter on "Cosmic Evidence," you discuss the concept of time and the notion that the universe "need not have a beginning." There seems to be a logical human conception that everything must have a beginning. In laymen's terms, how could the universe not have a beginning?

VJS: Let's first look at whether time can have an end. Time is the count of ticks on a clock. We count forward, tick after tick, event after event, and though the number can be very big it is never infinite. It never comes to an end. Now count backward. Tick precedes tick, event precedes event. That count also never terminates. We never reach a beginning.

VD: In the same chapter you argue that an empty universe is less likely, and one that would be more in need of supernatural intervention, than a full one. Could you briefly explain what this means and its consequences?

VJS: This is discussed in The Cosmological Cosmos, and I mean to write more about it. Basically, most physical systems that are highly symmetric are unstable. They tend to undergo phase transitions to less symmetric states. Liquid water is more symmetric than an ice crystal and water will change to ice in the absence of any heat. Heat, or energy, is needed to reverse the process. The most symmetric thing you can think of is the void, where you have removed all the matter. So it is also the most unstable. Something is more natural than nothing.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read God.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.