Books on Science and Religion #4: More on Victor Stenger and God and the Folly of Faith

Books on Science and Religion #4: More on Victor Stenger and God and the Folly of Faith

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 22, 2014

Our last blog looked at Victor Stenger‘s views on science and religion as described in God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, one of his recent books. Stenger, a physicist by training, has been active in secular humanist and atheist circles for several decades, and his thought is representative of those circles. He is published by Prometheus, the publisher founded by the secular humanist Paul Kurtz. (Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist was Prometheus’s first New York Times bestseller.)

Like `Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, Stenger is critical of the lack of reason and science in religion. `Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition.

220px-VicHead2011Stenger agrees, but goes a step further. Science and religion, he believes, are “forever irreconcilable:”

The differences between science and religion are not merely matters of different points of view that might be harmonized with some effort. They are forever irreconcilable. (Stenger, Victor. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, Prometheus, 2012, p.28.)

The Baha’i point of view is different. Religion is very important and not something to be discarded. Rather, it should be a force for progress and show its conformity with science. The potential for the future is tremendous:

When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles–and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

Science needs religion to balance its negative tendencies, and vice versa:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

Victor Stenger and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility Science and Religion is a remarkably broad survey of the discussions that are taking place in the modern dialogue of science and religion. Stenger has read widely, has been involved in many online discussions on the topic (in venues such as Huffington Post) and has been a columnist in the Skeptical Inquirer for many years. These experiences, combined with the number of books that he has written, has given him an almost encyclopedic engagement with the field.

GodandFollyThe book is organized as a series of essays and notes that encompasses a variety of science and religion topics. I’ve counted about 110 essays in all, meaning that each is necessarily short. Generally, each essay includes some introductory material,  an overview of how Stenger sees things and then a summary. Often there is a paragraph or two about claims that people have made supporting the perspective that science validates religion, typically with quotes. Then he summarizes by arguing against religion.

Darwin and Design

As an example of one of these short essays, consider Darwin and Design (pp. 108-111). First, he briefly describes Darwinian evolution as “a purely natural process that lacked design and purpose.” Then he mentions arguments by Ian Barbour, the scholar credited with initiating the modern discourse on science and religion, noting that Barbour views evolution as more than just blind chance. Denying this, he offers radiation decay statistics as an example of a purely random process (probably a bad example, as it appears to be irrelevant) and concludes that:

… when an observed phenomena follows a statistical pattern that can be predicted by pure randomness, then the conclusion can be drawn that the phenomenon occurred spontaneously without action by an outside agent. (Stenger, ibid, p. 109.)

That means, he says, that “this is the place where the greatest conflict between science and religion exists in biology.”

220px-AlvinPlantingaHis next step is to argue that anybody who doesn’t believe that evolution is unguided and completely purposeless is not a supporter of evolution, regardless of what they think. Thus, Catholic doctrine supporting evolution by natural selection is, according to Stenger, not support for evolution. The views of Alvin Plantinga (a well-respected American analytic philosopher who has written widely on the philosophical aspects of science and religion) to the effect that evolution is consistent with belief in God?  Simply wrong. Rather, such claimed agreements with evolution, Stenger claims, are really beliefs in intelligent design (which he describe as intervention in evolutionary development processes).

He concludes that:

… there is no evidence for design, but there could have been. If God or Superman interfered with the normal course of evolution, it should have resulted in some observable effect in the fossil record.(Stenger, ibid, p.111.)

To Stenger, this proves science and religion are irreconcilable.

Stenger’s Summary of the Conflicts Between Science and Religion

Stenger usefully offers a summary of what he sees to be the set of reasons “why the worldviews and methods of science and religion are fundamentally incompatible” (Stenger, ibid, p. 290-296.)

Briefly, they are as follows:

Because the material world is all that exists, because the origins of the universe are entirely natural, because the so-called anthropic principle – which argues that the universe is fine-tuned for life – is explainable naturally, because the universe can’t be designed by God because it is filled with suffering, because evolution is unguided, because there is no such thing as quantum consciousness or a holistic universe, because all things – information, the mind – can be reduced to the operation of atoms, and because morality need not be derived from religion.

A Discussion of the Idea That Evolution is Unguided

Lets look in detail at Stenger’s thinking about evolution and the incompatibility of science and religion. Here is how he summarizes his position:

We have already seen how theologians and lay believers have tried to come to grips with Darwinian evolution. Basically they say it is God-guided, but that is contrary in principle to the Darwinian model and is just an unacknowledged form of intelligent design.

Furthermore, evolution implies humanity is an accident – in total disagreement with the universal religious belief that we are special. Many will disagree, but these are two places where science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. (Stenger, ibid, p.166.)

HamletSkullHCSealousAs noted earlier, he is claiming that science and religion are incompatible because the “Darwinian model” is incompatible with the view that evolution is God-guided and because “evolution implies humanity is an accident,” views that are metaphysical – not scientific – and highly controversial.

These are awfully wobbly reasons for saying that science and religion are incompatible. Yes, there are scientists who hold to such reasonings. But it is easy to make arguments that they do so because they lack sophistication about philosophy, or lack sophistication about religion, or because they don’t understand randomness and its role in physical processes, or simply because they subscribe to ideologies that impose such reasonings for extra-scientific reasons. (Or, of course, a mix of all four.)

Lets look at each of these arguments.

A. Lack of sophistication about philosophy. Consider the concept of intelligent design. It has at least two different interpretations:

  1. One is the naïve interpretation of the modern intelligent design movement. The point of view of this approach is that God had to intervene to create a needed “irreducible complexity” necessary for us to exist. (Some liken this approach to the idea that God wasn’t sufficiently skilled to make the creation work correctly from the beginning, so had to step in to make some repairs when things stopped evolving.)
  2. The other doesn’t necessarily involve tweaks or interventions. Rather, it is a much older argument and one of traditional proofs of the existence of God. It was put into modern philosophical form by Aquinas and subsequently updated several times, including by William Paley.

It doesn’t necessarily require divine intervention or the like. In Psalm’s it reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” Like all proofs of God, it doesn’t convince everybody. But the point is that it is doesn’t require the divine interventions – and the subsequent detectable artifacts – that Stenger believes it does. (For a reasoned and detailed discussions on intelligent design, see God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science and note the chapters by Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, John Leslie, and Peter van Inwagen where they argue that evolution and design are compatible.)

B. Lack of sophistication about religion. Another – again older – religious idea is that the laws of nature are configured in such a way that they ultimately produce humans. And obviously they are configured in such a way, the proof being that there is evidence that we exist.

From this perspective, stories like Genesis are metaphorical or analogical, they describe the processes in poetical ways (that the poetry seems to parallel modern scientific views may be fortuitous, or maybe not).

If we take the view that God created the laws of nature with us in mind and that God had intelligence, then we have another, richer, much deeper concept of intelligent design, one that is fully compatible with modern science.

C. Lack of sophistication about statistics. If we take Darwinian evolution as natural selection plus random mutations, which Stenger urges to do, then should we conclude as Stenger does that evolution is entirely random? After all, he is echoing a widespread interpretation to that effect.

But modern science – specifically modern physics, mathematics, and computer science – has evolved far beyond the science of Darwin’s time.  Now we know that everything in the universe involves random processes (even its creation, according to modern inflation theory). As to the question of whether any given phenomena is completely random – which many interpreters of Darwin like to anthropomorphize as meaning purposeless – the answer is “only rarely,” with quantum statistical measurements of a specific type being a example. According to the theory of stochastic processes, the answer depends on the phenomena being observed.

In the case of evolution, randomness is only part of the process – there is also the process of natural selection. Physicists studying nonlinear complex systems know that complex systems – and biological systems like evolution are among them – can have both regions of stability and regions of chaotic, random-like or unstable behavior. If you want to access these regions – if you want to reach them by some process of finding them among the huge number of unstable states that exist – then random excitations of different points in the phase space of the process is one of the most powerful methods to do so (as is well known both in engineering and in science). We know that random mutations combined with natural selection can create new species – islands of biological stability – so we know that that the evolutionary processes can drive to stability. Randomness is best considered as the source of a spectrum of excitations that work as one of the driving forces of evolution – and as only one of those forces, they are not the whole picture. Indeed, the excitations need not be random at all, as selective breeding shows.

Another way to say this is to say that random processes are “accessing” different possible states of complex biological systems. All of those states have to be physically viable – the laws of nature have to allow them to happen – and it is the availability of survivable possible states in a dynamically changing ecosystem that makes evolution happen. Only in featureless, simple systems – something that evolution definitely is not – is there preservation of the random behavior of the driving force, say random mutations.

To summarize, although randomness can be a driving mechanism for evolution, it is not the whole of the mechanism of evolution and it is not its primary feature, meaning that it is incorrect to define evolution as a purely random process or to anthropomorphize as a purposeless phenomena.

D. Extra-scientific reasons. This is where people “get a bug in their ear” or some other irrational attachment to some point of view or ideology. Maybe they hate religion for some reason having to do with their childhood or their upraising and they justify their views by claiming they are being logical, rational, and scientific. Or maybe it makes them feel they are at a more advanced level of understanding than their brethren (see the Fedora atheist meme on the internet.)


Despite these criticisms, or maybe because of them, it can be said that this is a good book. In many ways, some unintended, it provides an excellent introduction to the modern dialogue of science and religion. Partly, that’s because the author is a physicist, and physicists are trained to lay things out in a systematic way so that you can see all the working parts. This means that it is very easy to find the faults as well as the successes in what is being described.

And yes, the book captures how much nonsense is used in arguments in support of religion. Just don’t go to it hoping for a balanced view about the whole. Just go to it to see what the view is.


In the next blog, we will migrate to Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.


This is the 4th 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.

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