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The Atheist Manifestos IV: God – The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger

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Proof that atheism is hot — at least from the perspective of bookstores — hit me in my local national chain bookstore last week. Just a few feet from the front door sits a center cap of new releases on sale. Amongst the dozen or so selections – Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Now you gotta understand. I come from a deep dark red state, one so full of evangelical and activist Christians that it is replete with recent legislative efforts to ban virtually all abortions on moral grounds. Thus, a significant portion of the population might well consider the placement of Stenger's book as flaunting the devil's work.

At the same time, the placement of the book in a state like this is reflective of the buzz the so-called "new atheism" has been generating due to the popularity of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Among the issues they raise is why religion is exempt from the same scrutiny applied to other areas of life and society. Although Stenger does not go as far as Harris or Dawkins in condemning religion itself, he takes the ultimate analytical step in the process. He subjects the question of the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (and, hence, the very foundation of those religions) to the scrutiny the scientific method would apply to any other hypothesis.

Stenger is fully aware of and does not hesitate to refer to the cries theists raise to this approach. Specifically, they claim that matters of faith, belief and miracles are not amenable to logic or the scientific method because they are outside science itself. Balderdash, says Stenger. You don't need to apply science to beliefs or faith itself. Instead, it can be applied to the factual foundations of the assertion that God exists.  Do the laws of physics and nature suggest that a divine hand played a role in the creation of the universe or life itself?  Does scientific fact jibe with the views of life and the universe expressed in scriptures purported to be the word of God? What do scientific studies show about prayer and miracles?

This is not a book that asks, "Is God dead?" Instead, while at times waxing somewhat more philosophical, the vast majority of it is a scientific approach that challenges whether God ever existed in the first place. In making that assessment, Stenger comes away with one conclusion: the God envisioned in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions does not exist.

Stenger notes that definition is important when seeking to subject a hypothesis to scientific analysis. Thus, the "scientific God model" to which he applies analysis has eight attributes that serve as the tested hypotheses. These are not such things as omnipotence or omnipresence. Instead, they are more straightforward and quantifiable attributes such as God being the creator of the universe, authoring the laws of nature, stepping in when he wishes to change the course of events, endowing humans with eternal souls, and being the source of morality and other human values. Stenger examines each of the eight attributes in turn by looking at what he contends to be the objective and empirical evidence. In each case, he concludes that life, the universe and everything look just as they would be expected to look if there is no God.

God: The Failed Hypothesis suffers two largely unavoidable problems. The first is this is, of necessity, science writing. For some, myself included, science and scientific terms can cause eyes to glaze over or heads to hurt. That said, Stenger, an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, does an admirable job of trying to keep things basic enough for the average reader.

Second, those most likely to read the book are probably already members of the atheist congregation. Thus, those who most need to read and ponder Stenger's arguments are those most unlikely to. Yet even if they do, I can hear them invoke a phrase astronomer Carl Sagan used in his 1980 public television series Cosmos: "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

This latter aspect is most problematic when Stenger strays from the strictly scientific (e.g., what does the scientific evidence show about the validity of intelligent design) to the philosophical (e.g., the question of evil). In these cases, he tends to support his conclusions with rather broad strokes. For example, he writes that if religious experiences were as deeply significant as religionists suggest, "then data would exist that even the most die-hard skeptic could not ignore." Likewise, he asserts there is no independent evidence that "any" biblical prophecy has been fulfilled and there is no "incontrovertible physical data" confirming the events detailed in scripture.

Such an approach does not, however, specifically refute the arguments of theists that as much as we may prefer it otherwise, questions of God's existence are not always going to be the stuff of hard evidence. Stenger is prepared, though, noting that the fact such evidence should have been found produces the high probability necessary to draw a scientific conclusion that the God hypothesis has failed objective and scientific scrutiny. At bottom, though, it ultimately reflects the loggerheads between the two views.

Some may find Stenger's conclusion that "we are just a product of circumstance and chance" disconcerting, if not downright depressing. Apparently cognizant of that, Stenger's last chapter is called  "Living in the Godless Universe" and he uses it to flesh out his position that belief in a deity is not a prerequisite to finding meaning, wonder and awe in life and the universe.

God: The Failed Hypothesis has its limitations and flaws. All things considered, though, it is a valuable contribution to a growing list of modern works that raise serious and legitimate questions about the basis of religion and its acceptance and impact in the 21st century.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • Harry

    Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are intollerant pie-holes who preach hate. Read their books and I suggest borrowing it from the library instead of lining their pockets with your hard-earned cash.

    Sam Harris’ claims of good torture and good war is freakin ridiculous. He even goes on to be descriptive by saying it is “good” torture to smear pre-menstrual blood on muslims. WTF!?!

    Richard Dawkins is a money grabbing hate-mongerer. “Religions are viruses” and we need to de-religionalize people. What type of brainwashing is this jack ass endorsing. The next thing he’ll reccommend is liquidating jews, retards, and homos. What a nice new religion this atheism has become… oh wait its been around for a while now endorsed by every crazy dictator around. Seriously, WTF!?!

    I’m not speaking of behalf of all people who read this junk, I am only a source of information that has noticed the hypocrisies in these atheists messiahs. I bought these books to gain a better understanding of atheism and to gain respect for this idea. What I took away from it is a spiteful hateful piece of literature meant to degrade religions on a whole.

    Stenger’s book sounds good and I am keen on reading this as well, I just hope he provides more intelligent and less discriminatory messages in his work.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    Harry: You appear to be letting your blind faith get the better of you. The authors Harris and Dawkins are making serious points that they believe important – and without resorting to either the worryingly fractured thinking you seem to espouse or the extremely rude way you go about it.

    There’s nothing evil or malignant in believing that the gods of olden times don’t actually exist, nor does it rule out a genuine reverence for the universal wonder of existence, a secular miracle if you like. If religion is false, then these people do all humanity a great service as we seek to deepen and enhance our understanding.

    As to hypocrisy, that’s a very human condition to which nobody is immune. Maybe we should stop getting so uptight about it..?

  • john connore

    Yo Harry, take a chill. The most intelligent people in the world are atheist, if you don’t believe that then do a little research. You spew hatred, just like your religious extremist. After six yrs. of born again Bush, who was told by god to invade Iraq and simultaneously ruined this country, maybe it’s time folks like you started to expand their mind and deal with reality. By the way which one of 5000 gods do you advocate.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    It is just impossible to prove G-d via a hypothesis. A working hypothesis is as far as one can get in the attempt.

    One does not get to G-d without faith, or more specifically, trust. Therefore proving the hypothesis that G-d exists must fail.

    The allegation that none of the prophecies of the Tana”kh have occurred is open to debate. The author is a physicist, not a historian. His history, such as it is, deals with billions of years before the first sentient creature on this planet stirred.

    One can discover, as many scientists already have, that the universe has many aspects of Mind. But from a scientific point of view, one can only speculate as to the source of the Mind. That is as far as one can go within the discipline of science.

    Of course atheists have dogmatic absolutists among them, just as theists do, as we have already seen in comments made above.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    Wrong again, Ruvy. It’s impossible to prove anything that isn’t true. Conversely, it’s easy to prove true things.

    You say it’s impossible to prove the existence of god via hypothesis, a proposal intended to explain certain facts or observations. Your empty assertion that one gets to god via faith is just faithist doublespeak that means nothing. The plain truth is there is no god at all.

    Your next false trick is to imply that non-believers are dogmatic absolutists is another lie that is designed to imply there is something fundamentally wrong with the approach I espouse.

    Sadly, you are the one that can not and, indeed, will not, accept any truth that flies in the face of your dogma. I however stand ready to recant at the first sign that I am wrong. Such simple human humility seems way beyond you and has lead you into an area of entirely dubious pseudo-intellectual constructs as you try desperately to maintain the illusion to which you cling so maniacally. What a pity and a waste of a good (secular) soul.

  • http://prairieprogressive.blogspot.com Tim Gebhart

    A British blogger who is into flow sheets has graphically summarized what Christopher and Stenger are saying.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “Wrong again, Ruvy. It’s impossible to prove anything that isn’t true. Conversely, it’s easy to prove true things.
    …..
    The plain truth is there is no god at all.”

    Here we see the mark of the atheistic dogmatic absolutist.

    Empty assertions with no ability to prove them.

  • JR

    Christopher Rose: Wrong again, Ruvy. It’s impossible to prove anything that isn’t true. Conversely, it’s easy to prove true things.

    Not all true things can be proven. That’s actually has been proven.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    RUVY: Yet again you allow your lack of reason to turn things upside down. I’m not an atheist, I don’t have a dogma and I’m not an absolutist.

    Furthermore, it’s you that is making the assertions without a single shred of evidence to back them up. I don’t need anything except the refusal to believe your wild and improbable claims, which are entirely unsubstantiated. My view is entirely supported by the absence of evidence to contradict it.

    JR: Fascinating as Gödel‘s Incompleteness Theorems may be, I don’t see how they are relevant in the context of my discussion with Ruvy. Your link was not really helpful so feel free to refer to the two I included above.

  • JR

    Without a formal system, how would you prove anything? By making an assertion and repeating it incessantly and insistently?

  • Brandon Marone

    Victor Stenger has yet another major fallacy in this book. He makes the dubious attempt to be a historian, when, in fact, he is not. He makes several fatal historical errors in doing so. For example, his claim that there are no extra-biblical records of the darkness at crucifixion taking place. WRONG. There are, in fact, at least two records of such an event. Julius Africanus’s quote on Thallus and Tertullian’s corroboration.

    Stenger also makes dubious use of the King James Bible when discussing the dragons in a city. First, the KJV Bible has already been shown to be highly suspect in its translations from the earlier texts. The modern translations have been shown to be MUCH more accurate in their translations. Second, he sets up the usual straw-man arguments by taking Old Testament scripture at face value.

    The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a massive hurdle for skeptics. It simply cannot be overcome. If the resurrection is true, there needs to be a massive reformation of scientific theory in today’s world. It kind of makes you wonder, what hidden agenda do skeptics truly have??

  • duane

    Brandon (#8) says:

    If the resurrection is true, there needs to be a massive reformation of scientific theory in today’s world.

    OK, like what fer instance? (That’s a pretty big “if” by the way.)

    It kind of makes you wonder, what hidden agenda do skeptics truly have??

    What does ‘??’ signify? Just curious. Anyway, it doesn’t make me wonder about agendas. Skepticism is not a symptom of any underlying cause. It is a stand alone frame of mind.

  • Brandon Marone

    Wow, I was retarded back then. While I indeed continue to be a Christian, my attitude toward scientific theory has changed. I now accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation for the cause of species. I no longer see any problem in reconciling my strong Christian faith with scientific theory, including evolution. And no Duane, that is not really a big “if” at all, and “??” signifies an emphasis on the question. But as I have stated, I have no problem accepting many scientific theories anymore. I also think it should be noted that the ratings of this book have dropped significantly since I posted that blog over a year ago, makes you wonder doesn’t it?

  • Robert

    My grandma use to said, “Again, the donkey back to wheat”.

    Faiht: firm “belief” in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust.

    Belief: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence.

    Conviction: a strong persuasion or belief.

    My parents wasn’t genios, nor Christian believers, nor atheist, but they teach me a great value which I consider a catch 22.
    “You either _believe_ or don’t _believe_, in both cases you are making the same action which have no negative connotation unless you denied interposing “don’t”.

    God is faith (from latin), believe, or pistis (in Greek). Even The Athenians were acquainted with the idea that there could be something divine beyond their knowledge.

    Paul had observed that they had erected an altar “to an unknown god.” But Paul also observed that given a choice between the known and the unknown, they chose the known.

    This article and books are not the exception. All of them choose the “known” subject to denied the existense, but they can NOT prove the non-existing of God without evidence… back to scuare one (belief).

    You can find the most far galaxy across the universe and you will have a complete trust (faith/believe) that is located 8 googol years light from earth, you might find a way to transplant
    a human brain some day if you “believe” that can be posible, but you will never find the God who by nature cannot be known at all specially when “pistis/faith/believe” is not applied.

    As all nations and great minds you choose to contradict their creator, and this is when all great nations start to fall apart.