Science can never have an opinion about the existence or non-existence of a god who keeps himself hidden and doesn’t interfere with the world. Thus many scientists take the position that god questions are beyond scientific inquiry. In this book, Victor Stenger starts from an interesting observation: no religious people actually believe in a god who keeps himself hidden and doesn’t interfere with the world. Quite the contrary, most believe that he has a strong and direct influence on what happens in the world and that it’s possible to communicate with him on a daily basis. Such a god, once his characteristics have been decided upon, can be studied scientifically through his works. If any. And if there is no evidence of such works — then the god most faithful people believe in has been disproven.
Myself, I approach the god-proof business from another angle. I find the whole hypothesis so preposterous, particularly considering its origins in ancient mythology, that I can’t really see why we should take it seriously at all. Proving or disproving the existence of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim deity seems as called-for as testing for the existence of Bilbo Baggins, Zaphod Beeblebrox or Albus Dumbledore. Gods are fictional characters, consisting of words on paper, and a heavy burden of proof rests with anyone who suggests that they might exist. If some people are uncritical or deranged enough to actually believe in gods, then I’m afraid rational argument is unlikely to convince many of them otherwise.
But let us follow Stenger’s excercise in scientific logic. His message is that god is not just an unnecessary hypothesis: it’s a falsified one. The book is structured around a list of commonly envisioned divine characteristics that are empirically testable. Stenger reports on how they have been tested, one by one, and so strips the deity of its identity one chapter at a time until nothing remains but the hidden, non-interfering god that nobody actually believes in. Like so:
- No god designed the world in all its complex structure. Everything whose origins have been understood so far has arisen by simple natural processes.
- No god has given us immortal souls. Everything suggests that our minds are entirely reducible to simple material components.
- No god has made any miraculous interventions in human history. All such accounts are source-critically spurious.
- No god created the universe by supernatural means. Everything we see is compatible with the known laws of physics.
- No god fine-tuned the parameters of the universe to make it congenial to humans. Innumerable other configurations would have worked too, and besides, only an infinitesimal part of our vast universe is inhabitable or even accessible to us.
- No god has communicated with humans through revelations. Such visions never contain any testable data about the real world that weren’t already present in the head of the visionary.
- No god has given us morality. We negotiate our morality among ourselves, and regardless of our faith or unfaith we tend to agree remarkably well about what behaviour is good or bad.
- No omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god exists, as there is evil and suffering in the world that such a being would never allow.
I quite liked the book, particularly Stenger’s insistence that science cannot be allowed to avoid having an opinion on factual issues when statements based in religion are made about them. It’s a bit long-winded and pedantic in some parts, but it did keep me reading. Still, as I said, I wonder what impact the book can ever have on religious people.
In order to drop belief in the Abrahamic Sky Guy the Stenger way, you must first achieve a critical, skeptical, scientific mind-set, or you won’t be willing to follow his reasoning. And once you do achieve such a mind-set, you no longer need to follow Stenger’s arguments, because you have already learned not to believe anything on blind authority. Religious faith and a scientific worldview can’t co-exist in one’s mind without serious compartmentalisation.
So, Victor my man, I agree with almost everything you say. Now, do you have any ideas about how I can convince my neighbour, the intellectually challenged yet very good-natured Seventh-Day-Adventist carpenter, that all his most cherished beliefs are in fact just lies?
Stenger, V. 2007. God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. New York: Prometheus Books. 294 pp. ISBN 978-1-59102-481-1.