This is the second of three special edition episodes of Point of Inquiry featuring DJ Grothe.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe point of inquiry is 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 grass roots. My guest this week is Victor Stanger. To continue our discussion on the new Athie ism, his book about taking a stand for science and reason. Vic Stanger is an American particle physicist and author. His books include Not By Design The Origin of the Universe, The Unconscious Quantum Metaphysics and Modern Physics and Cosmology. Has Science Found God? The latest results in the search for purpose in the Universe Quantum God’s Creation, Chaos and the search for cosmic consciousness. His New York Times best selling book, God The Failed Hypothesis How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Vik Stanger, welcome back to the show.
Well, it’s certainly a pleasure to be back on your great show.
Thank you, Vic, for the New Atheists. And we’re talking about your book, The New Atheist. I’m taking a stand for science and reason for of a group of you who are considered in the media, the new atheists. There’s kind of this us and them mentality. And at the close of our last discussion, we kind of got into that. You were speaking about, you know, the opposition. And for you, the opposition is not just those who are the kind of fringe religious who believe in creationism and a young six to ten thousand year old earth or a universe for you, the US and them. Well, the VAM is anyone who believes in God. You know, science types vs. those who Richard Dawkins calls the faith heads. Right. You have lots of folks, though, and philosophy of science arguing that at least to some extent. And here’s my question that science is itself based on faith. Are you willing to concede that science, if it’s based on faith, is just based on a more reasonable faith than religion is? Or do you deny that science is itself based on faith?
Well, for me, the word faith means belief in the absence of evidence. And so that means faith is exactly the opposite of science. So science is belief in the presence of faith as belief in the absence of it. So I see absolutely no sense whatsoever for anyone having faith without any reason for having faith. And yet that’s what faith is fundamentally because the people who believe in God don’t have the evidence to back it up. And. And so they they will admit that it’s faith. They talk about faith. That’s what they say. You have to believe that their faith first and then the evidence will come later. And they have things of that sort.
Right. In some versions of religion, some fundamentalist versions of religion. There’s a big emphasis on blind faith. But there are other religious people who have less blind faith and just believe in God for bad reasons. In my view, kind of evidence, but faulty evidence. Just like in the history of science, you have people believing all sorts of things that were untrue. We now know based on bad evidence. So it’s that sense that I’m drawing the comparison. You know, not every religious person is steeped in blind faith. They might just believe for reasons that we don’t find acceptable.
Yeah, I mean, they will they will say, of course. My belief is based on evidence, not not just blind faith, at least some of the. If you say there are some that were blind, faith is fundamental. But most of them will say, I believe because I look around me, this is the most typical answer. I look around me and I see how could all this have happened naturally. How could all this have happened by accident? And that’s where the science comes in. You we show now.
All right. It’s kind of the Romans. One argument out of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s writings. You say science has given an answer to that question. Look around and wonder where all this came from. God had to have done it. You say no. Science has a much better, more fleshed out answer.
That’s right. That’s right. That’s different. You see, at one time, many of the arguments that people do give will be arguments before Darwin. Of course, you had you had no explanation for for life except the God explanation. And that was it was the watchmaker argument, the blind watchmaker. So all these arguments were were good. The I mentioned in the previous episode about entropy and so on once was an argument that the universe had to have started in greater order than it does now. But it has now because of the. Second law of thermodynamics, which says that the disorder of the universe has to keep increasing. And so it must have started out with more order, less disorder than it has now. When it was discovered that the universe is expanding, that to change that whole story, it made thermodynamically possible to start out in a state of total disorder. When the universe was very small and it was in the tiny sphere of the tiny dimensions, there were just doing dawn upstate’s available to it. But as it expanded, the more states became available and you could have the the evolution of order without violating fair within that mix. So these are the sorts of arguments that change what scientists do. Science develop arguments that were once good arguments for God were were answered, the God of the gaps.
And there’s less and less room for the God of the gaps to fit anymore because the gaps are being closed by new evidence from the sciences.
And of course, since most people are not very scientifically educated, tertiary education is in this country’s is quite poor compared to other countries, other countries. So that’s at least part of the reason why is you have so many believers remaining compared to Europe, for example.
Okay, but bringing that up raises the question that if it’s that chicken and the egg question where more science education leads to Athie ism or more Athie ism leads to science education, which one it should happen first. Well, shouldn’t we bolster science education and let these matters of God belief sort themselves out and people’s kind of private spaces rather than telling people they’re wrong to believe in God, and then hoping that science education catches up to the rest of the world or the what let’s say northern Western Europe?
Well, I wouldn’t try to say you’re wrong to believe in religion. I was saying, let’s look at the arguments. I mean, you present me with an argument for God who’s presented evidence.
And and look at all due respect, my friend, you, in fact, have spent a couple few books saying you are wrong to believe in God. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling people they’re wrong if you think they’re wrong. You know, that’s a free exchange of ideas. I I’m a big booster for that sort of dialog. But you do tell people you’re wrong. I’m right. And here’s why.
I just don’t look at academic arguments in that way, because there’s always there’s always room for change and so on. Always have new evidence. So you use what you say is based on the available evidence to date. You cannot draw the conclusion that the data require us to introduce this as a natural element in the universe. And that’s the way I like to put it.
So very wrong. But you say it in a way so you could feel good and academic about it. I’m not being cheeky and I’m saying that’s the way you frame it.
Yeah, but I mean, I think you have to if you if it’s again, whether you’re going to make people mad at you or not, then I find that frankly, I don’t that make too many people mad at me.
I read all these insulting things about Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and.
Sam Harris, Hitchins in particular. So much about Sam, but they don’t say these things about me. They generally say, I disagree with you. You know, I get a lot of I get a lot of mail. It’s not that it’s not that people are reading what I’m writing because they are.
But they don’t vilify you.
No, I haven’t had I haven’t heard anything any problem whatsoever in the last few years. And I’ve gotten plenty of people disagreeing with me.
When we spoke on the last show about some differences between the new atheists and the old atheists, one distinction you drew was that the new atheists don’t mind causing offense if they do it in, you know, in the process of speaking the truth. Right. So you yourself said you don’t want to soft pedal V.A theism for fear of reprisal or upsetting the apple cart with believers, et cetera. That seems to be one difference of the new atheists, right. Are you now suggesting that that approach can be productive sometimes?
Well, I know it sounds like I might be saying that, but I don’t I don’t feel I’ve really changed. All I’m I’m trying to argue is that it’s. It shouldn’t cause offense if you if you’re just arguing on the basis of of the scientific facts and so on. And there should be any reason for a. All right. But at the same time, sure. If somebody is going to be offended, whether they shouldn’t be or not, that can’t deter you from going forward with with your arguments. Just because somebody says, oh, I’m offended by that is because they don’t understand it. They might be offended by it, but that’s determined.
That’s a crystal clear answer. And I get what you’re saying. On the one hand, people shouldn’t be offended because you’re just talking about the evidence. No big Wolf. On the other hand, they may be offended, you think incorrectly. And if so, that offense should not keep you from speaking the truth. But surely you get that. You know, we’re talking about central basic beliefs, the most cherished beliefs people have. And if you go around telling people they’re wrong, surely you can get why they’d be offended.
Well, it doesn’t seem to happen. They are so convinced they’re right that no matter what I say, doesn’t bother them. But I guess the way I should say, since I haven’t insulted personally, they say, OK. That’s the way you think we. I think. Right. That’s of course, what you’re up against. You’re up against that kind of mentality where people are not willing to to argue with you on on an intellectual basis because they have their own ideas so strongly implanted that you can’t you can’t change me. Let me give you the sort of let me give you an example. I think that would help. Once I was interviewed on a Christian radio show and before I even had a chance to say a word, the.
The guy that was, you know, the Jim Underdown, the host posted, the host said, I got to tell you something first. He said, this is when I was a young man. I was part of it by heart palpitations, where my heart would just go out of rhythm and so on. And then I met this girl and we went out and then we were sitting on the couch in her living room and put her head on my chest and she heard all these awful pop stations. And what that is, is all that. I mean, she said, I’m going to pray for you.
And she prayed Jesus. And he said he went away and they never came back. All right. And that was his story. And how do you explain that? OK. Well, what was I going to say? I mean, no, I knew I knew what I was thinking, but I was afraid to say it because it would just insult them and then told the audience, I just I knew they just wouldn’t understand what the question was. It really was. Can you give me a plausible explanation for that? And what is the most plausible explanation for that story?
Simple. The guy’s lying.
Only people don’t lie. Of course they lie. So that’s going to be the simpler explanation.
If not lying, self deceived or, you know, it’s the fish story. He believes it, but it’s not true. Something like that.
Yeah. There could have been all kinds of. I mean, you always embellish. And you always idealize the story that it may not have been that simple. So there’s there’s a lot of simpler explanations. And that’s this is the approach I always take. You give me an argument and I’ll give you a simpler exploration. And until you rule out a simpler explanation, you can’t adopt the more complex explanation that you cannot introduce a miracle to explain something that I can explain naturally. And that’s that’s the kind of thinking that you have to contend with, because, you see, if I had given that explanation, I would urge the audience that everybody would’ve been shocked. I was accusing this guy of why. So obviously, I didn’t say that. Mumbled something rather important. What alternative explanation I gave them. But that’s the that’s the thinking process that we have to deal with Jennifer Michael Hecht.
You’re conceding in that anecdote that we have to be conscious of the audience that we’re speaking to. So the audience you’re speaking to in some sense, frames or should color how you say what you’re going to say if you want to get through to people. It’s not enough to just speak the truth and bludgeon people over the head with it. You know, it’s a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. It’s not just giving people their medicine, but helping them like it. And so you seem to be, in a sense, arguing with the new atheists even as a new atheist yourself. You’ve written this book, The New Atheists, but yet you’re saying there are some occasions when you don’t want to just tell people that there’s no reason for them to believe what they’re believing because it’s all nonsense and you’re right and they’re wrong. You have to say it in different ways to advance your agenda.
You said it. It’s the audience. I don’t think the audience for the new atheists is that group of people that they’re just going to be convinced. Whereas you have a lot of people out there on the fence and you have most boring. This is most important. That’s a young people, usually young people who are still formulating their ideas. That’s why I’m so excited when they see the way the young people’s freethinking atheist groups are growing in this country. Thanks very much to a lot of your doing well.
Thanks for that. Yeah. The vote. You mean the work of the Center for Inquiry? Our campus outreach. I agree with you. I see the same enthusiasm. And it’s because, in a way, the new atheists and other writers have deputized all of these young people into becoming like activists for the beloved cause.
That’s a good way to put it. I mean, it’s a very every time I go to to one of these meetings where where there are young people, I just I’m just so happy and ratified by. By what? But I see that. So there’s a big audience out there.
And the audience isn’t necessarily, you know, the evangelical Christians. You’re trying to talk off the ledge of faith.
It’s pretty hopeless and hopeless because they’re going to die someday. The younger people look at it. That’s why I see it. About 30 years will we may reach the level of much of Europe now with believers being Spellman already.
Well, I like that optimism, but I note that just around 100 years ago in the United States that the leading intellectuals were saying exactly the same thing. They were saying that religion is going the way of the dinosaurs. And, you know, the enlightenment ideals of reason and critical rationality, they’re going to become the new religion of man. You know, you had folks like John doing and others really making this argument and they were completely wrong. You know, they couldn’t have predicted the resurgence of fundamentalist anti science anti by reason trends in society. And so maybe it’s cyclical. I don’t want to get off on that. I want to focus on a couple other issues, really, about this book, the new Athie Izembek. And that is that one of the most interesting distinctions between the new atheists and the old atheists to me, is that all of you kind of have what a righteous indignation. Your push to advance Athie ism is kind of a moral push because you see belief in God as harming people and you want to reduce that harm. So you’re arguing against God. It kind of has all this kind of moral imperative, right?
Yes, I think it is a moral issue. I think that the new atheists are saying religion is immoral. And the history shows us that and the fact that religion claims to be the. Source of morality is is a is just a falsehood because of history, of morality is not at all centered about religion. You have things like the Golden Rule that go back to Confucius and many other thinkers. And it’s place that religion tries to make people good and moral and it’s place that scriptures have to have good moral teachings in them. But what’s wrong is that they invented those claim that they invented them and that you could only get morality through religion. The facts don’t bear that out.
Right. And I’d probably go further than you.
I’d say another thing that’s wrong is that a lot of the stuff our culture says is moral about religion is immoral. A lot of the places of the holy books, you know, people cite as being good moral teachings. Even the skeptical deists, you know, our founders, Jefferson, et cetera, who consider Jesus a great moral teacher. I, I read Jesus’s ethics, his morality, and I find it deeply reprehensible, immoral teaching in moral doctrine. So it’s it’s not just that they’re wrong on where the morality comes from. I think they’re wrong on the morality often.
You know, there are a lot of people out there who are no longer believe in God, but still say you’ll hear them say, oh, we should follow Jesus because Jesus was such a great moral teacher. I’d raise them to, again, read the New Testament and see if that is, in fact, the case.
I’d like to let our 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, a lot of evil has not been done in the name of religion. It’s been done in the name of atheistic political philosophies. Are you just sticking it to religion because you just happened to dislike religion more than you dislike all of these secular evils?
I disagree with various people that that has been evil committed in the name of Athie. Hasn’t there been committed evils committed by non religious people like Stalin? And so Jim Underdown agreed.
I don’t want to be misquoted, I said, in the name of atheistic political philosophies. Right.
So maybe political philosophy is that eight of them didn’t have anything to do with it. Is no place. And there is a lot of talk about Stalin and a lot of materials about Stalin that have come out just recently released by South by the Russians. And you will let in the single single place where we’re Stalin said, I’m going to do this evil act or I’m going to do that evil act in the name of atheists, because these people, because they have to promote atheists, amazed that he was promoting his political power. And and even the claim that Marxism was based on Ethe ism doesn’t matter, because these communist countries were not Marxist countries.
They were they were all dictatorships, totalitarian, totalitarian dictatorships that we’re based on the power they’re all keeping their own people in power have nothing to do with with religion one way or the other.
Jim Underdown to further that point. Lots of folks in religion, lots of folks who study religion, especially those who use kind of a functionalist definition of religion, say that Stalin ism and Marxism aren’t, in fact atheistic as much as they are state religions. You know, they are they have many of the qualities of the religion that youre up against. Then they have qualities of kind of just lacking belief in God.
You know, you can put it that way either. I don’t particularly want to start using the word religion to refer to any anything that’s things that are not based on transcendental beliefs, supernatural belief. I think we should keep religion limited to the right class.
And it should be said that that functionalist definition of religion. Some people still use it, but it is outmoded. You’re right. And the problem with it is that anytime a word ceases drawing distinctions, you know, and it includes everything, then it includes nothing and see as being a rosary. Yeah. So you really think that religion with faith in God we’re talking about poses a greater threat than all these other things happening in society, these political ideologies that also cause great harm. In other words, you’re set up against religion. You’re not fighting for world poverty. You’re not fighting against totalitarian regimes around the world. You’re fighting against God, belief you can’t do everything.
I mean, I’m sure you’re right. These are these other phenomena exist. And I certainly don’t want to blame everything on religion. It would be silly to try to and and just illogical to try to focus everything. It’s complicated world on just one cause. But we’ll stick to religion. That’s enough is enough there to work.
Vic, I want to talk about your treatment of Eastern philosophy in your book, The New Athie ism. You’re kind of following Sam Harris’s lead here. He wrote in the end of faith, kind of a defense of Eastern meditative practices that were stripped of all their mystical garb. And you really think that atheists should be moving in that direction, looking to Eastern traditions for, in quotes, spiritual nourishment, even as atheists don’t believe in the spiritual side of life?
Yeah. And I might say that I’d like Sam, I’m not a I don’t practice some of these things, although there are a number of atheists. Susan Blackmore Blackbird’s really into Zen and Jim Underdown, which is an atheistic Buddhist philosophy. Yeah, but she’s into Zen meditation and Zen meditation is one of the toughest types of meditation out there. And I say, well, maybe there’s some nice secular meditation to do. Herbert Benson showed long time ago, Harvard that that all these different forms of meditation are potentially woodland. And there’s no point in spending money to do a transcendental meditation to get what you would get. You could get just learning a few techniques yourself. And so that that can be of benefit to you in relaxing you and so on. But I was going beyond that. Sam, I think, was to say there is a there is a philosophy here in in. It goes back to Confucius and Buddha involved, say, where you you can rid yourself of this tremendous self centredness that we have, especially in the West, where we’re so focused on yourself that you can’t even enter in your mind any other thoughts except your Ron Lindsay.
Right. And it should be said that it’s not only coming from Eastern philosophy, you get that kind of practice, but in some mystical traditions, in the Western monotheisms, centuries of the velar St John of the cross. You have this kind of divesting the self of the ego. Right. You have that going on. Pretty similar riots.
Just that. In fact, I would say in in all of these religions, these ideas have existed. But there wasn’t and then none of them, even Buddhism today. So has people forgetting about the real teachings of Buddha, but still talking about about supernatural Jim Underdown gods and so on. But it’s especially true in America how everybody is so self centered. And these churches, especially these megachurches, really feed off. And what could be more self-centered, for example, and worrying live forever. So you realize you’re not going to live forever. You if you become an atheist and you realize you’re not going to live forever, then you have some answer to that. And the answer is that. Is that why should you live forever? Were you that important? It just get rid of this notion that you are the center of the universe and just live your life and enjoy it and have have a good family and relationships and all that.
You seem to kind of be arguing against this existential import that Athie ism can give us the kind of making us even more self-centered. Right. Kind of making our lives, our own works of art that we get up in the morning to focus on. And we kind of plot our three score years and ten and and live in a very healthy but self-centered way. So that’s one approached atheist. I’m kind of the existential.
You’re right. And there are there is there are books out there that promote that view. No atheist books out there that are telling that are self-help books in the same sense that show you how to find meaning in your own life.
And again, making that the focus Jim Underdown you’re just saying the Eastern philosophies can inform a different approach that says don’t be a self-centered be kind of more divested of the self in in, you know, the time that you’re a blip in existence.
You know, it’s it’s so it’s going to vary from from person to person. But it’s the main thing is to get rid of this focus on ego. And the meditation seems to help in that regard. In fact, there’s even some evidence that what happens in meditation is there’s a certain part of the brain that has quieted down by meditation. And it happens to be that part of the brain where a lot of these ego ideas get generated. So there may be good physical reason why that happens. And certainly if that’s the case, then who needs meditation? What we need is a drug or a needle that does the same thing that turns on that module.
Yeah. Who needs exercise when when you can take a pill that makes you not have as many calories or some sense?
Okay. One question about your emphasis on Eastern meditative practices. You say you don’t do it yourself, but you see that there’s something commendable there. You’re, in other words, salvaging the good from of the supernatural access of some of the eastern religions. How is that any different from a liberal Christian who tries to rescue their spiritual tradition from the unsupportable claims of the Bible? I’m talking about people who what they try to naturalize Christianity or their Judaism. It’s the same to me as an atheist who goes and uses Eastern philosophy and its disciplines. Can’t an atheist similarly benefit from Western religion if you just jettison all the goofy stuff?
I think so, because there’s there’s a lot of there are a lot of people, especially the Jewish tradition, that I’ve met secular Jews who still go ahead and go and practice a lot of the prayers and so on. Of of of of Jewish religion because of the ritual of the historical nature of it, how it connects them with their heritage and so on. I don’t see any reason why people in other churches can’t do the same thing. You can use the church as a place to meditate. You can use it as a place to listen to wonderful music.
Socialize, build community.
All the social aspects of churches are very good, and again, I would say that in that regard, it’s really wonderful to see a lot of their freethinking groups around the country becoming more and more social in that respect. Having those kinds of connections that make the church so popular. So all of that can be done without any of the supernatural stuff. If it if that happens and that’s fine with me. There’ll be a good trip.
That’s one of the most beautiful things about the growing Center for inquiry movement, at least in my mind that these are real kind of fully fleshed out communities in cities across the country. People who get together, love on one another, celebrate the passages of life, you know, baby naming ceremonies. And then Mary Barry together, you know. All without the supernatural, all without God. In other words, alternatives to religion without being ashamed to ape some of the good social functions of religion even as they don’t become a religion themselves.
You know, you could even again participate in some of the rituals because we have historical significance. And I know that in Denmark, where very few people go to a church service to get married in church, they still get buried in church. You still have to imagine they have baptismal fees. And just because these are these rites of passage are important. And when two people get married, for example, they wouldn’t think of most killing it, having a white press ceremony in an old rural church.
Well, quick rejoinder on that point and then we’ll finish up. I note that in Germany, also in the U.K., but especially in places like Germany, Central Europe, also people don’t get married in churches, whether you’re gay or straight. Everyone has civil unions. And I like that trend as well. So not not just going to the church, even if you believe it’s all mumbo jumbo, not going to the church just because it’s tradition, but creating new secular traditions. I like that.
Sure. That’s fine, too. So, Vic, where’s all this headed? The new Athie ism we talked about earlier that demographic trends suggest the non-religious, including atheists, agnostics, humanists. It’s you know, that category is growing in number. Do you think that your part of a new beginning against unreason or is all of this stuff just cyclical? As I was talking about earlier? You know, turn of last century, people thought religion was going away. It didn’t.
Well, of course, it’s it’s too soon to tell. I mean, maybe you’re right. Maybe it will trend back. You certainly you talked about Europe and how Europe is becoming less and less religious. You’re talking about European Europe. You’re not talking about the Muslims that live that. Right. Are living in Europe and changing changing the demographics there.
Right. Muslims in Europe are using the institutions of democracy to kind of take over certain aspects. They’re just like evangelical Christians or fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. are using democratic institutions to stack school boards and stuff. So there is it’s not all roses. I agree.
So we all we can do is keep at it. As long as we have a voice, we can at least keep people from making these claims. As I said at some point, like got me into all this was was an objection to people misusing, particularly physics. My my own field of science in general to argue for the existence of God and to justify a lot of what they were doing and saying. And as long as I have a base, I’ll just keep speaking out against them.
So to sum up, it’s not just a negative project. This new Athie ism, it’s affirmative. And you really think there’s a good chance it’s going to win out in the end?
Yes, because I look at history and I think that it ebbs and flows. I mean, don’t forget, we started out with a pretty enlightened thinking during the Greek period. Even to some extent during the Roman Empire. And then that went downhill with Christianity. And maybe we’re recovering from that finally.
Hmm. Well, thanks very much for joining me on the show again. I loved the discussion. Vicks Dangar. Yeah, it was fun.
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