Victor Stenger – The New Atheists

February 24, 2010

Victor Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado.  He is also founder of Colorado Citizens for Science.  He’s held visiting faculty positions at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and at Oxford in the United Kingdom, and has been a visiting researcher at Rutherford Laboratory in England, the National Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Frascati, Italy, and the University of Florence in Italy.  Stenger’s research career has spanned the period of great progress in elementary particle physics that ultimately led to the current standard model.  He participated in experiments that helped establish the properties of strange particles, quarks, gluons, and neutrinos and has also helped pioneer the emerging fields of very high energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy.  In his last project before retiring, Vic collaborated on the experiment in Japan which showed for the first time that the neutrino has mass.  He is the author of many books, including Comprehensible Cosmos, The Unconscious Quantum, Not by Design, Has Science Found God, the New York times best-seller God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, and The New Atheists: Standing Up for Science and Reason.

In this, the first of three special-edition episodes featuring D.J. Grothe, Vic Stenger discusses The New Atheism, contrasting it with the old atheism, in that it is more uncompromising in its critique of religion and God-belief.  He defends the view that a soft stand on religion for the sake of science education is unacceptable, because the evils resulting from religion demand a vocal response.  He describes his own history as an author critical of the paranormal and how this further fueled his atheism, contending that skepticism of the paranormal may lead to skepticism of religion.  He talks about Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould, and their reluctance to criticize theism, and argues that sometimes, contra Sagan’s famous line, “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”  He defends making a positive statement that God does not exist—beyond a reasonable doubt—as opposed to merely stating that one lacks belief in God. He wonders if authors Susan Jacoby and Jennifer Michael Hecht should also be considered New Atheists. He describes lines of positive evidence from cosmology, physics, biology and neuroscience that he says necessary leads to a conclusion of atheism.  He tells why he doesn’t think the battle over evolution education should take priority over the New Atheist’s larger war on faith, and why rationalists should not unduly seek the support of religious moderates and religious supporters of science.  And he shares his optimism about the growing popularity of vocal, uncompromising atheism, especially among young people.

This is the first of three special edition episodes of Point of Inquiry featuring DJ Grothe. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Victor Stanger. He’s an American particle physicist and author. He’s now really active in philosophy and skepticism. And the new Athie ism, he’s published nine books for general audiences on physics, cosmology, quantum mechanics, philosophy, religion, Athie ism. Yes, pseudoscience. His new book is The New Athie ism Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Welcome back to a point of inquiry vexed anger. 

Hey, it’s great to be back. 

Vic, your new book, The New Atheists, and you’ve written it kind of on the heels of your New York Times bestseller, God The Failed Hypothesis. Answer me this to start off, Veck. What exactly is new about the new atheists? In other words, isn’t this kind of just the same old atheist? What’s new is that it’s maybe more popular, but it’s the same old Athie ism of the old atheist, the same good but old arguments against God’s existence. 

Well, what to do is is perhaps not popular or least popular among what we have called the old atheists. And the difference is that the new Ethe ism takes a harder line against religion. It says we shouldn’t be so compromising with religion. We shouldn’t be treating religion with kid gloves the way we do just because we’re afraid to offend them or make moderate Christians, for example, angry with us because we need their support for various things like the sport of science, support of teaching, of evolution and so on. We think that that’s too soft to stand. There’s too many evils connected with religion. This is too negative effect that religion has on our society. It was certainly seen during the years of the Bush administration that we have to speak out more forcefully against Jim Underdown. 

So what’s new is that it’s more uncompromising because of the harm that the new atheists reason religion causes society. 

Yes. It also I should mention that we feel like you have to stand up for a reason at all times and not allow superstitious ideas to dominate so much. 

Well, explain this for me. You for many years and through many of your books, you weren’t really a critic of religion. You were a critic of the paranormal, of pseudoscience, of untested kind of fringe science claims. That’s what you focused on over the course of many of your books. And recently, you kind of applied that same kind of skepticism in a big way to God. You’ve always been a skeptic of God’s existence. But I mean, your let’s say your bread and butter academic and literary efforts have been focused on pseudoscience in the paranormal. 

Right. But I think this kind of leads you to it. You know, you if you go back to the fact they wrote my second book, which came out in 1990, was called Physics and Psychics, and it covered a lot of the history of the attempts to do scientific experiments on E.S.P and a psychic phenomena and so on. And if you look back at the people that were doing that back in the 19th century, people like Oliver Lodge, for example, these were all people who were good scientists, effective, very famous scientists. And why were they doing it? They were doing it because they were also very religious and they were hoping that they could demonstrate the existence of of of God, of another reality. Jim Underdown. 

Right. Alfred Russell Wallace, J.B. Ryan also had that kind of motivation at Duke. 

Right. That was, of course, later in time in the thirties. Well, but back in again, in the 19th century, we had William Crookes was another one. Crooklyn Large were were very famous physicists and read it made some very important discoveries. And yet they they both had personal reasons for wanting to believe and thereafter large. It had a son killed in Flanders Field and was wanted to try to communicate with them and so on. So that was always a motivation of psychic research. 

So what I hear you saying is that the same kind of skepticism that you were applied and that many people apply to claims like ghosts or psychics or spirit communication, you say, should equally be applied to the God question. You’re an equal opportunity skeptic. 

Sure. Because at the same time, we also have phone I discovered in continuing in this area, the more I learned that there were many claims. Made from the religious and from the theological, and that science was supporting the existence of God. 

And so claims you refute them. 

Yes, claims that I could and knowing about the science that they were referring to. I knew that they were just wrong. They were being misleading at best. 

In making these claims, you said one thing that’s new about the new atheists is that it’s more uncompromising. It’s not just a philosophical exercise. Seems to me there’s something else that’s new about the new Athie ism, and that’s that you are or you seem to be trying to actually use evidence from the sciences, not just arguments from philosophy, but kind of almost scientific arguments that make the idea of God so very unlikely. 

Yes, because I think, again, the atheists have been a little bit too easygoing on this issue, too too unwilling to take a strong stand. For example, Carl Sagan, who is, of course, one of the great heroes of Freethought, Jim Underdown and skepticism, and CISM, who was was reluctant to take too hard a stand against religion, as with Stephen Jay Gould is another one. But I think it was often quoted as saying that absence of evidence is not evidence or an absence because everybody knows there’s no evidence for God. If there was evidence for God, it would be in those textbooks, just like the evidence for neutrinos and everything else. So. So there’s there’s no scientific evidence regard. And he said, well, yeah, but still could be. And that’s the that was the line that I would say most atheists have been taken in in my book, God Ferrall hypothesis. I think I was unique and going to the next step and saying that there are many cases where absence of evidence is evidence for for absence. And we should start picking up on those particular examples. And in a sense, in the book discusses, any number of them were where we should have seen evidence regarding and didn’t we should have seen evidence, for example, for the exodus. And we have and we can almost say unequivocally that the exurbs didn’t happen because there should have been physical evidence for the tribes of Israel or wandering around the desert. So that’s the sort of argument that I brought in. And that was the Leighann Lord very well. 

And leaving aside the fact that, you know, your argument about the exodus, you know, regarding this ancient nomadic sematic tribe is only evidence against a certain God, not God in general. What you’re saying, though, is that you can make strong arguments, strong claims that God does not exist, rather than just saying I fail to find evidence that God does exist. In other words, you’re using science and reason to actually argue against God’s existence. That’s what seems to be new. 

Great to make a positive statement that beyond a reasonable doubt. Now we have to be careful about using words like proof and so on, because people will say, you you can’t prove God doesn’t exist. I agree. You can’t make a logical proof on the present decision, but you can argue beyond the reasonable doubt. You can prove beyond reasonable doubt the way we do it in the law. And a criminal court, for example, prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We can do that in science and make a very high probable prediction statement that that God does not exist. And again, you raise should have pointed out that it was at all conceivable gods that we’re talking about here. There’s a describe the problem, just two sets the universe in motion and the act in any way that would be a difficult God to disprove the God who most people worship, the Judeo, Judeo-Christian, Islamic God play such an important role in the universe is responsible for everything that happens, creating the universe to making everybody fall to the ground and so on. Listening to every human thought in particular and answering prayers and and talking to people and giving them revelations and so on. That’s the God that they’re talking about, this God that most people worship and that God should have been detected by no beyond a reasonable doubt. 

And so now you’re touching on that thorny issue in epistemology. What, that you don’t need certain knowledge in order to have reliable knowledge? You’re saying, of course, we can’t have certain knowledge that God doesn’t exist, but we can have knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt or or, in other words, reliable knowledge that God does not exist in the knowledge that you can count on. 

You know, that you can base your life on because people will say, well, you know, maybe there are some outside chance that God exists. And yeah, there’s an outside chance that is that if I tried out for. NFL quarterback. I might be able to make it and make billions of dollars, but half of that happening is pretty low. So I don’t try to do it in the same way with religion. You don’t. It’s not worth wishing your life away as a nun or something or even spending so much time and money on your religion. It’s of no value whatsoever. 

Okay. You just raised a lot of other questions about the possible value in believing something that’s nonsense. You know, there are those who say even if there is no God, religion works. So why do the new atheists have to go at it so, so much? We’ll get into that Hahm question in a bit. I also want to talk about these specific lines of evidence. But before we get to all of that, Veck, before Sam Harris wrote his book, before Dennet, before Dawkins, before Hitchens, before you, you know, all of you are together called the New Atheists. Well, two women wrote two bestselling freethinking books. There was Jennifer Michael Hecht book, Doubt a History. Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers. Should these women be considered new atheists as well? Or is new atheists who just kind of a boys club? 

It shouldn’t be a boys club, of course. And, you know, I’m sorry if they should have been included. 

I’m not the one who really defined who was the new atheists. That those people didn’t include me. They just talked about the four horsemen. And I kind of insinuated myself as a sort of a stableboy for the four horsemen because, well, it helps to have a New York Times bestseller like you did. You know, I think this is basically what defined it. It was was it was that these books Falwell made, The New York Times list also got a lot of publicity, too. 

It was the other thing. It was they were written about a lot and then it kind of awakened people to it. Whereas the other books phonebook for these theories didn’t get quite that attention. So I think that’s what you have to attribute it to. 

Okay, so back to what distinguishes the new atheists from the old atheists. It’s basically, as you said, more of an emphasis on science, that these arguments are more informed by science, by biology, physics than, you know, the old philosophical arguments against God belief. 

Yeah, that is a distinguishing factor. I should get why I want to emphasize is that all all four of us. Right. From a scientific perspective rather than from a theological or a sociological or a psychological Jim Underdown. 

Would you give me some kind of hard science examples for you? 

These are arguments against God’s existence coming from science, mostly come from physics, right? 

Yes, that’s right. Of course, there are all these examples from biology as well and from neuroscience there. They’re important, too. But from physics and cosmology, I I’ve studied those subjects enough to know to know that there’s no reason why the universe could have come about. Naturally, there was no violation of any of any laws of physics in the universe. Calling about the laws of physics themselves could have come about naturally and so on. There are many arguments from physics and cosmology that lead you to see the universe is looking just like it should look if it wasn’t created by some outside force. 

Okay. Give me one of those. 

Well, let’s take the rather interesting example that the that the universe seems to have zero energy, just as it should have if it came from nothing. Whereas if it had come from something that some external force it generated the universe, then you would think it would have had the non-zero energy that would have some energy would have been protected from the outside. And in fact, there was no energy required to produce a universe. That’s perhaps a better way to put it. There was no miracle of energy, the valuation of energy conservation required to make the universe. There is no violation of any known principle of physics. So the fact that actually my favorite argument is, is the thermodynamic one, and that is that if you look at our models of the universe, if you extrapolate them back to the earliest possible time, you find that the universe began in a state of complete chaos, maximum entropy. And that means that even if it had been created, there’s no memory of the creator in the in the universe. 

You mean no fingerprint or sun? 

No fingerprint? No. No structure of any sort that could have been put in there or if it was put in there. Got wiped out by this. There’s chaos at the at the very, very earliest moment. So if there was a creator. If there is a God. God didn’t leave any imprint on the universe and only if he acts later on and changes things. Would he have any effect. 

I can hear an argument in my head from an armchair Christian apologist being something like lock vak your. You’re saying you’re describing how the universe really is. But who are you to say that that’s not how God himself designed it? 

Well, sure, he could have done it that way, but it doesn’t look that way. What I’m saying is you can always argue that God did it that way, but that that the God, the God that those people are talking about is a God that steps in and does things. And if he steps in and does things, you would see signs of that in the first place. You would see a few signs that would be in the physics of the creation. OK. So he didn’t given leave any signs there? Where did he leave signs really leave signs for us to be aware of his existence, apparently. 

And I’d like to let point of inquiries. Listeners know that you can get a copy of the new atheist. I’m taking a stand for science and reason through the Web site point of inquiry dot org. Vic, the overwhelming evidence for evolution. You know, this evidence coming from biology, not just from physics, also lends support to the new atheists in that you no longer need God to explain how life got here. There’s a naturalistic explanation, in other words, for how we arrived, right? 

Yes, it is more than that explanation again, you see. You could say there’s no evidence for God based on our observation of the biological world, because we have this theory of evolution that explains everything just just fine. 

Jim Underdown you’re saying there’s actually evidence that God doesn’t exist coming from evolution as opposed to just lack of evidence that he does exist? 

Yes, exactly. Because. Because if you look at living organisms, they don’t show any sign whatsoever of being designed because you could see there’s still design in there. And of course, people still try to claim that people who are religious, the people who are religious and still see they accept evolution are not being quite honest about that. Because if you look at what they actually believe, they believe, sure, they believe that. We went through this process of growing from simple things to more complex things, but they still think it was guided by God. And if it was guided by God, then there should be, again, a sign of that fissure. You would expect things to be somewhat more perfect than they are when in fact they look just like they should look. It was a whole hodgepodge process, a Rube Goldberg kind of process, where the best solution for a problem is not found by evolution. It’s just anything that works is survive. That’s all it has to do. And so we’re left with all these unnecessary parts, such as every cell in our body has all this totally unused DNA. What an enormous waste that is. And to have to have your DNA in every cell with your body. So you would think that the we just some part of the body that had the DNA that you needed for reproduction, what is every cell to have all this stuff in it? It’s just a total conglomerate mess. 

So the fact that we are as organisms kind of like kludges were, you know, amalgams of all these kind of leftover parts from our evolutionary history. And a lot of it’s unnecessary and ill designed. You know, our appendices end up, you know, sometimes exploding and killing people. Our esophagus is very close to our windpipe. And so we tend to choke, you know. Well, that’s good. 

In fact, using the same hole for breathing and eating. What a silly idea that. 

Yeah. So if there is an intelligent designer, we would fire the designer for bad design. You’re saying that that kind of reasoning is positive evidence against God belief as opposed to just lack of evidence for God belief. 

Sure. And again, you see, I’m not making this a place where people keep tripping up on these arguments is I’m not making a logical argument. I’m not making some some deduction from some set of assumptions. I’m presenting evidence and asking for the evaluation of that evidence and what that evidence implies. And that’s that’s kind of a again, a scientific view. And it would be so against something similar to what you might do in the law court and court, where you you can’t really prove something with 100 percent likelihood. But you say, well, let’s look at the way things really are and see see what’s the best explanation for that is Jim Underdown. 

So in the spirit of science. You’re marshaling evidence to support the claim God does not exist. You’re not just exercising your kind of philosophical muscles and talking about reasons you lack belief in God. The reason I’m focusing on that distinction is because I think a lot of folks, even atheists, get hung up on those two distinct approaches. 

Yes, that’s right. I’m glad you are emphasizing that, because this is I think you have honed in on on the most important thing that I’m trying to say. 

Neuroscience is another field that some argue is showing that the God idea is obsolete. You think that the next big battleground of religion versus science, much like evolution, has been attacked by creationists? Well, it’s neuroscience. 

You think that’s the next big battlefront? We’ll have these neuro theologians maybe attacking the findings of cognitive neuroscience because increasingly the implications of the brain sciences show that everything about ourselves can be explained naturalistically. We, in other words, don’t have a soul. We don’t have a self separate from the brain that the mind is what the brain does. And therefore, that has atheistic implications. 

Yes. In fact, this is kind of interesting, too, that you find that the arguments against that are not so much scientific, but philosophical. You’ll find that people will say, yes, but you haven’t you haven’t shown that consciousness to subjective consciousness that we have can be achieved by material means that they haven’t shown. But can’t you see. And they’re are beginning to be some important developments where we’re beginning to understand a little bit about what consciousness is in on a material basis. But the theists are you, again, from this philosophical and they use silly things like the Chinese room argument itself, which may have never made any sense to me that somehow there has to be something beyond matter explaining thought that matter cannot think. They say they make that statement matter, cannot think of it as if it’s an obvious statement that needs still no justification. Whereas if that’s the case at all, you take a computer, for example, a computer. OK, so computers ever reach the stage of being able to think like humans, but they can still do a lot of the sorts of things that we associate with thinking like creative writing. For example, they can write poetry that he was professors can tell from the real thing. And these are just computer truly material things. Doing it is absolutely no reason to believe that in time we will have a purely materialistic understanding for consciousness. But that’s the way it’s going to be since it’s not. Has it occurred yet? That’s where people are going to bed. It’s not the same as in evolution where the issue is settled and has been settled for years. We evolved by natural selection and that’s it. We don’t have that. He had a number of states in evolution. 

The case is closed except for fringe views, you know, creationists, intelligent design creationists, those folks. The matter settled in evolution, but in neuroscience, there are still these big questions that I think most people, even skeptics, even naturalists, have not really come to grips with, such as the implications for the idea of the self coming out of brain sciences or the implications for freewill and, you know, all these sacred cow beliefs. 

So if, you know, if you start attacking the belief in God using evidence from the sciences, you’re not just going to be going against God, but you’re going to be going against, you know, the concept of human kind, man, the self, the soul of free, the free will notion that undergirds so much of what we think about ourselves in kind of acting in the world. Crime and Punishment, all these other implications. And you’re okay with all of that? You just want to lay it all out there. 

Well, that’s the thing. It could turn out and admit that if today that make it very clear that I’m a scientist and any scientist has to go where the data goes. If the data were to change my mind on this, I would have to go along with that. And that’s where there’s a possibility still exists to. Jim Underdown possibility for what? For some discovery to say that, yes, the mind is more than just bradycardia, because once you do that, then you open up the whole possibility of an afterlife. Because if the mind is not material, doesn’t die with the brain, and then that gives you the great hope for an afterlife. 

But there’s really no compelling line. Years of research are evidence coming out of the brain sciences suggesting that possibility. You’re just saying because it’s a newer science. It bears more attention because in the biological sciences, evolution, et cetera, the case is closed. Not so in neuroscience. 

Yeah. Again, you won’t find any any real scientific evidence for anything outside of the brain. 

In fact, the more they look, the more they look inside the brain, the more they’re able to associate all of our thoughts with the brain, the less room there is. I mean, there’s a gap. The God, there is a gap, a rapidly closing. 

And again, that’s the next big battleground. You see Discovery Institute, other creation science outfits focusing increasingly on neuroscience, not on the biological sciences. 

These. Now, they still got. Of course, they’ve got a political case for creationism because the majority of the American people still don’t believe what science is telling. You know, I kind of don’t worry about that. I worry about what scientists think because a history tells me that what scientists think eventually becomes what everybody thinks. 

Veck, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Your book covers much more ground, though, so I’d like to have you back on the show so we could get into a few other issues. Let’s finish up our conversation today with touching on what you just said, which is you don’t really worry about the skirmishes over the teaching of evolution in the schools. That will alarm many science advocates who are listening to you because they think that’s the real battle. They think the real battle is is not between science and religion, but between anti science trends in society and pro science trends in society. And that often focuses around evolution, but it also focuses around issues like stem cell research or cloning or climate science, et cetera. You say all of that should take a backseat to this war on God. 

Well, against the war on on unbelief, rationality and the war on superstition, the war on faith, really, one of the big points I make in my book is that faith is foolish because faith is based on believing in something without any basis for without any evidence. The only reason. And so I think that’s more important. That kind of irrational thinking is going to do the world a lot more harm than having some child who the awful words creation in the classroom aspect of it is going to harm that child. And as I said, science is going to go on. I don’t think things ever get so bad that science is going to stop. There have been times in the past when the number of scientists in the world was was a tiny fraction of what it is now. And they still revolutionized things. And so I’m I’m I’m happy that. And I don’t think people I don’t think people are going to see us as we want to see us stop doing research, specially when they see so many benefits of it. 

And in medicine and in communications and cell phones and everything else, you’re not going to give all that up just just to have creationism taught in the schools Jim Underdown the Science Benefits Society. 

People like science because of what it gets them. But on the other hand, there are trends deeply suspicious of this unelected elite. You know, these scientists telling people like you are telling them that science, if you buy into science, you can’t buy in to God. You’re saying there’s a direct line between believing in science and being an atheist. And that’s what riles so many people, even on our side of the fence. It rails them up because they say, wait, you’re going to push out of our camp, the religious science boosters. We need them to fight this fight for rationalism against irrationality. 

I’m saying we don’t need them. And then the moderates and I could and and going to the moderates aren’t going to help us win the war. 

You’re saying? 

Well, they’re not going to stop us. They’re not going to step in and start insisting that evolution be taught, that they’ll be taught in schools. They’re not going to go that far. I’m not worried about here. 

In other words, you’re saying you’re not afraid of them switching teams and kind of supporting the creationist line. They’re moderates. They’re religious people who believe in evolution. You’re just saying we don’t need to cozy up to them to advance our point of view? 

Well, look, again, you know, I don’t. I don’t mean to say that we have to be going out and telling them they’re stupid made. The way I like to put it is that you you hate the message, but you love the messenger. You still can deal with these people on an. Intellectual basis and have arguments with them about these things that are purely intellectual and don’t get into ad hominem and don’t get into any of these things. And then it’s true that some of my colleagues, I won’t mention names that do sometimes go overboard in insulting the other side. So no need to do that. 

Okay. I do want to finish up. But you’re talking about the other side and you’re actually talking about two other sides. Just then you’re talking about the creationists and also the religious people who believe in evolution. Both of those categories are the other side for you. 

Yeah. Let me you know, there was something that I said earlier in the program that I wanted to clarify a little bit. And that was I said that we’re unpopular. I think we’re unpopular now. But I’ll tell you, I think that our popularity is growing mostly among young people. If you read you read what people read on the on the blogs, which are, of course, mostly young people, they’re more and more and supportive of the new atheist ism than they are in support of of of the accommodationists to be called Jim Underdown. 

And so I think we’re winning this battle. And I don’t think that those atheists who think that, you know of various sociological reasons we should be trying to make friends and so on, that it’s not, in fact, the reality. 

The reality is that the people who are coming aboard are our particular train Jim Underdown. 

And demographic trends also seem to suggest that there’s a growing rate of unbelieve or skepticism out there. So there might be something to what you’re saying or else just this push for everyone to come out as paying off. And we’re not growing our numbers. We’re just making our numbers more vocal. One or the other. Vic, I appreciate the discussion and we’ll continue it. Next episode. Thanks so much. 

OK. Thanks for having me. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.