June 8, 2014
The modern discussion of the relationship between science and religion – which I take to have begun in the 1990s with the revival of academic and intellectual interest in religion and in the belief in God – can be characterized as having three phases. In the first phase, the growing popularity of books by academics such as Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne and the like, along with concerted efforts by the Templeton Foundation and other organizations, revived the popularity and intellectual respectability of the study of science and religion. The topic has continually grown more popular at universities, in the press, and among the general public.
The second phase can be taken as the emergence of New Atheism, which started with the 2004 release of The End of Faith, Sam Harris’s impassioned attack against religion inspired by al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center. The End of Faith was followed by Richard Dawkins’ enormously successful The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett’s and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena (2006), and Christopher Hitchen’s polemical God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).
We are now well into the third phase of the discussion – a phase of widespread dialogue with a growing number of participants that is increasingly international. A significant consequence of this discussion is a growing interest in the histories of science, religion, philosophy, and ideas. Another consequence is the concern to escape from the older parochial view of history as what took place in Europe and ancient Greece.
What is becoming clear from this discussion is that science, religion, philosophy, technology, politics, and economics are intertwined with each other. At a given time and place, more often than not there is a variety of different ways of thinking about the relationship between science and religion. Often, some are opposed to religion in the name of philosophy or science – or vice versa. And, there are some who support philosophy and science in the name of religion or vice versa, and there are almost always philosophical, political, technological, and economic angles of all degrees mixed in that have to be taken into consideration. (Yes, it depends on whether or not you mean science in a narrow technical modern sense or or whether you mean it a broader more universal sense. See the definition of science in Wikipedia.)
It is into this enormously active and intellectually fertile environment that Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion was released in 2012. Before we look at what he says, lets find out about who he is by looking as his first book – published long before new atheism came on the scene.
Victor Stenger and Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe
Victor Stenger was born in 1935 in a working-class neighborhood in the gritty industrial port city of Bayonne, New Jersey to immigrant parents from Lithuania and Hungary. After studying electrical engineering in Newark, New Jersey, he moved west to Los Angeles, getting a Ph.D. in physics (1963). He then moved further west to the University of Hawaii and served as a professor of physics until his retirement in 2000. His specialty was particle physics.
He started writing on science and religion – taking an atheistic slant – well before the new atheists entered the field. His first book – Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe – was published in 1988 and followed by eleven further volumes. In Not by Design, Stenger establishes his style and his approach. He writes as an authority on physics and physics-related issues, is dismissive of religion and its views – but interested in it to a point of preoccupation, is very distrustful of philosophical interpretation or scientific speculation – but again interested in it to a point of preoccupation, and focuses on offering what he feels to be simple, logical, and above all, scientific interpretation of issues often considered to be religious or philosophical.
For example, writing about the origins of the universe, he says:
The origin of the universe is really not a theological or philosophical question, any more than the motion of the planets or the operation of a steam engine. The universe is a real place composed of observable bodies galaxies, stars, living beings, atoms—which are the proper objects of scientific study. The origin of this universe is a scientific issue, specifically a question of physics. (Stenger, Victor J. Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe. Prometheus Books, (1988), p. 8).
Now, the view that the only valid answers to questions about origins of the universe – or of other questions like the purpose of life – is known as scientism. The very accomplished philosopher of science and atheist Massimo Pigliucci defines scientism in the following way:
Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding. (Pigliucci, M., (2013). New Atheism and the scientistic turn in the atheism movement. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37:142-153.)
Clearly, Stenger embraces scientism. About such things as paradigms drawn from modern scientific findings, Stenger recommends wariness and conservatism:
I do not, however, recommend many of the other books on bookstore shelves, which assert the authority of modern physics in support of fashionable new world news or paradigms about humankind and nature. The revolution of twentieth-century physics, resulting in the overthrow of much of Newtonian classical physics, did not go quite as far as many writers claim. (Stenger, ibid, p. 10)
Clearly, he is not comfortable with speculation or even some of the consequence of quantum mechanics.
He has a simple recipe for rationality:
Rationality is nothing more than the use of clear thinking, critical analysis, and logic. Being logical simply means using words in the way that they are defined. … What can be the value of fuzzy thinking, or the use of words in ways inconsistent with their definition? I believe there must be a rational basis for all human endeavor; not just science but art, music, politics, religion, and any other social or cultural activity. (Stenger, ibid, p. 9-10)
Of course, this raises all kinds of questions. Who gets to define the meaning of words that we use? Who gets to define what is and what isn’t fuzzy thinking? Stenger seems to assume, here and elsewhere, that he is the one – because of his experience as a physicist – who gets to decide.
Stenger also embraces reductionism, the idea that all phenomena are ultimately reducible to the laws of physics (or to atoms and the void, as he argues in God and the Atom, his most recent book). Even the most abstruse questions – he emphasizes – can be satisfactorily explained by reductionistic methods.
After writing Not by Design, Stenger became extraordinarily active in the modern American secular humanist and atheistic movements. In addition to writing eleven additional books – many of which have been embraced enthusiastically in atheistic circles – he has been president of and/or a member of multiple humanist societies and has published in numerous skeptical periodicals. He has been a tireless speaker on secular humanism and the author of an impressive series of blogs – nearly 80 of them – on Huffington Post.
I take Stenger to be representative of the rank and file of the American humanist and the modern atheism movements, much more so than superstar thinkers like Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris. And while Stenger lacks the brilliance and intellectual sparkle that gives those thinkers their outsize impact, he is more representative of the movement at its base while at the same time saying in plain language what the superstars have embellished.
In the next blog, we will consider Victor Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.
This is the 2nd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.