Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The ’New Atheism’ hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the ’New Atheists.’ Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the ’New Atheism movement’ (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the ’New Atheism’ and the arguments employed by those attacking ’New Atheism.’ Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the ’New Christians.’ In some cases he reveals the way many of the ’New Atheist’ positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments — particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

The nature of New Atheism

Most of the New Atheists recognise the 2001 religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York helped spur them to action. I suspect they were also reacting against the religious bullying characteristic of the time. Islamic threats to authors like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Christian Right attacks on abortion rights, gender rights, stem cell research and teaching evolutionary science.

I am somewhat cynical about the term ’New Atheism’ — as if we had suddenly discovered the subject. And the label has probably come from the critics, anyway. But there are some specific characteristics to the current wave of atheist revival worthy mentioning.

Stenger points out the well-known New Atheists are mostly science based. Sam Harris (The End of Faith – 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation – 2006) has a degree in philosophy and is working on a Ph D in neuroscience. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion – 2006) is a well-known biologist with years of research and science popularisation behind him. Victor J. Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis – 2007) has a long research career in physics and astronomy and has written several books popularising and defending science. Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon – 2006) is a philosopher of science who has written extensively on scientific subjects. And while Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great – 2007) is not a scientist he does defend and use science in his debates.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel – 2006) is sometimes included as a New Atheist. While her professional qualifications are in humanities rather than science she identifies strongly with many of the positions taken by the others.

New Atheist issues

These include:

God is a scientific question: After all science studies reality, statements of fact. This is implicitly conceded by many religious apologists who use science-based reasoning such as the ’fine-tuning’ and ’big bang’ arguments for the existence of their gods. Most theologians, however, strongly oppose this, preferring to keep their god safe from scientific investigation.

Religious claims should not be protected by false respect: They call for such claims to be discussed, debated and submitted to rational inquiry in the same way we do with scientific, political and sporting claims. Religion should not be allowed to make claims about reality but deny rational investigation of such claims. Faith should not be given a free pass.

This assertiveness is a characteristic feature of the ’New Atheists’ — one which has annoyed some other atheists as well as believers. Even some atheists accept the argument that religion has a special place and its claims should be protected against rational inquiry and normal human discussion.

Faith itself is a problem: Even when held by moderates. Promotion, even glorification, of faith is dangerous as it provides a base for extremists to justify antihuman actions. To some extent even the moderate believers must bear responsibility for supporting extremism if they promote faith against reason.

Proud defence of science and reason: They will assert these principles and oppose any attempt to make a place for those who wish to undermine science or claim territory for religion that it doesn’t deserve. This has helped disperse the idea that science and religion should be placed in separate compartments, ’non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA)’ (see Morals, values and the limits of science).

Stenger describes the position of many scientists and their organisations that science has nothing to say about gods and the supernatural as disingenuous. This is important today when religious apologists try to distort and misrepresent science to provide ’evidence’ for their gods.

Consciousness-raising: They have all been active in the consciousness-raising of people for atheism and reason. Their books, appearances, videos, lectures, etc., attract huge attention and have helped atheists to ’come out’ and publicly acknowledge their beliefs.

Human and democratic rights: The ’New Atheists’ have all spoken in defence of human and democratic rights. They have been assertive on these issues when many liberals have preferred to acquiesce against Islamic and other religious threats and customs in the belief they were advancing multiculturalism

The hostile response

The richarddawkins.net web site estimates publication of about 40 books attacking the ’New Atheists,’ mainly in response to Dawkins ’The God Delusion.’ Study of ’New Atheism’ and ’The God Delusion’ have even been incorporated into some theological education programmes.

Stenger discusses some of the reaction by authors like John Haught (God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens – 2008), Dinesh D’Souza (What’s So Great about Christianity – 2007) and Alister McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine — 2007). Many of their arguments and claims are of course straw men and easily disposed of. However, Stenger does devote several chapters to subjects like the problem of evil, supernatural claims, the nature of science, faith and evidence, compatibility of religious and scientific views, human consciousness, morality and ’being good without a god.’

This makes the book useful as a summary of the whole subject providing the arguments of both sides on all the important areas.

Some scientific issues

I was personally pleased that Stenger provides authoritative and informed rejection of some of the religious apologetics attacks on, and misrepresentation of, science used by these ’New Christians.’ He demolishes the arguments for a god based on formation of the universe (the ’big bang’ and ’the singularity’) and ’fine-tuning’ of physical constants. I discussed the first issue (the cosmological argument) in Godless cosmology.

Stenger argues far more believers accept the cosmological design agenda behind the ’fine-tuning’ argument than biological intelligent design (ID). Theologians who won’t have a bar of ID will use ’fine-tunign’ arguments. However, he shows that is wishful thinking, that many of the claimed examples of ’fine-tuning’ just are not true (see Fiddling with ’fine-tuning’) and the argument usually assumes that physical constants can be varied independently.

I also like the way he rejects the claim made by apologists, and some defenders of science, that science cannot study the ’supernatural.’ That the scientific paradigm restricts itself to only natural phenomena.  ’Is this supposed to mean that scientists would ignore a miracle if they saw one?’ I would add of course not! They would rush to investigate it with thoughts of Nobel Prizes in mind. After all — what are miracles but phenomena that appear to defy natural logic because we don’t yet understand them? And investigation and understanding are what scientists specialise in.

Critics of the New Atheists often accuse them of ’scientism’ — the idea ’that science is the only means that can be used to learn about the world and humanity’. I have been accused of that myself. So am pleased Stenger disposes of this charge with the assertion these critics ’cannot quote a single new atheist who has said that. We fully recognise the value of and participate in other realm of thought and activity such as art, music, literature, poetry, and moral philosophy. At the same time, where observed phenomena are at issue, we insist that scientific method has a proper role. This includes questions of the supernatural and the existence of any god who actively engages in the affairs of the universe.’

Another chauvinistic Christian assertion Stenger denies is that Christianity was somehow responsible for the rise of modern science. ’Maybe, as many Christian apologists claim, Western religions helped science develop by their own looking outward for God. However, I am not ready to give religion too much credit since science goes back centuries before Jesus to the axial age in Greece.’

Eastern religion

Stenger supports suggestions from Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore that atheists should appreciate some of the insights of Buddhism and others spiritualists and mystics of the east. They believe these can help us in understanding of our own minds and in developing a calm attitude towards life. Practises such as meditation can be stripped of their dogma and supernatural explanations and help encourag mental health.

There is little to fault with this book. Stenger writes in his usual style. A style that is readable, economical and clear. One rather parochial criticism — he is wrong in his claim that atheists form a majority in New Zealand. The 2006 census showed 32% of the population claiming no religion. Statistics on belief are always difficult to obtain and interpret and unfortunately he does not provide a reference for his assertion.

So, take that with a grain of salt. But if the subject interests you, whatever, your personal religious belief, this is a book you should read.


See also: Quantum Gods my review of Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness.

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