- Paperback: 282 pages
- Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1591027519
- ISBN-13: 978-1591027515
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 67 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,016,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason
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"One of the most forlorn ways of defending religion is to misconstrue, distort, or ignore the best arguments put forward against it. Unfortunately, this spirit of obscurantism now animates even secular critics of the 'new atheism.' Victor Stenger dispels the resultant blizzard of lies and half-truths with great skill in this timely and accessible book. We are all in his debt." --Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times best sellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
"There is nothing new - and everything new - about the New Atheism. Victor Stenger (one of the New Atheists himself) eloquently reminds us that although the persuasive arguments against religious belief have existed for millennia, they are now strengthened and confirmed with the insights of modern physics and philosophy to such a degree that we are brought to a tipping point. We have surpassed the critical mass of evidence and reasoning where the time has come for atheists to step forward - and they are indeed stepping forward confidently - to occupy the intellectual and moral high ground that is their rightful place. What is truly 'new' about atheism is that the world, after too many centuries of giving religion a free rein, is now prepared to see and embrace the positive wisdom of doubt. A freethinker like Stenger is no longer perceived as the lone, angry 'village atheist' living on the desperate fringe of society. The religious right can no longer smear atheists as 'strident, angry, aggressive, and negative.' Victor Stenger, with his affirming, incisive and illuminating observations, shows us that there is truly grandeur in taking a stand ,for something precious: science and reason." --Dan Barker, author of Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists. Co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
"The new atheism is not just another dogmatic belief system to be accepted on faith, nor does it make people immoral and miserable. Stenger's thorough review should make both believers and atheists take seriously the harm religions can do." --Susan Blackmore, visiting Professor in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, and author of Ten Zen Questions; The Meme Machine; and Consciousness: An Introduction.
"Victor Stenger's combined expertise in physics and philosophy prove fatal to any pretense that theism is defensible or rational. The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason is a clear and potent explanation of why the old theism is no match for the new atheism." --Dr. Hector Avalos, author of The End of Biblical Studies (2007) and Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University
About the Author
Victor J. Stenger (1935 - 2014) was an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. He was the author of the New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis, God and the Atom, God and the Folly of Faith, The Comprehensible Cosmos, and many other books.
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He wrote in the Preface of this 2009 book, “In this book I review and expand upon the principles of New Atheism. Not all nonbelievers---atheists, agnostics, humanists, or freethinkers---have been happy with the approach taken by the new atheists, especially our unwillingness to take a benign view of moderate religion. They would like to maintain good relations with the religious community… They worry that government funding for science might be put at risk and the teaching of evolution in the schools compromised. While new atheists sympathize with these concerns, we do not consider them as serious as the even greater dangers imposed by the irrational thinking associated with religion… We strongly disagree… that science has nothing to say about God or the supernatural. The gods most people worship purportedly play an active role in the universe and in human lives. This activity should result in observable phenomena, and it is observable phenomena that form the very basis of scientific investigation.” (Pg. 13-14)
He adds, “Perhaps the most unique position of New Atheism is that faith, which is belief without supportive evidence, should not be given the respect, even deference, it obtains in modern society. Faith is always foolish and leads to many of the evils of society.” (Pg. 15) And “Basically, then, this book debunks many of the myths about religion and atheism that are held not only be believers but by many nonbelievers as well.” (Pg. 16)
Perhaps surprisingly for some readers, Stenger says, “I have made my own independent study of ancient Eastern philosophy… I find that when stripped of any implication of supernaturalism I agree with [Sam] Harris that Eastern philosophers uncovered some unique insights into humanity and the human mind that were lacking in the West. I proposes that the teachings of the ancient sages of the East constitute a ‘Way of Nature’ that provides atheists and materialists with a viable path to peace and happiness. The sages’ teachings are marked by selflessness and calm acceptance of the nothingness after death… the Eastern methods did not require any supernatural element. The mass-scale religions of the West and the East ignored this ancient wisdom, replacing it with the extreme self-centeredness associated with the absurd promise of eternal life.” (Pg. 30)
He argues, “as my colleague Brent Meeker points out, religion has not exactly shown any significant expertise with respect to morality. It has supported slavery, the oppression of women, ethnic cleansing, serfdom, the divine right of kings, and extraction of testimony by torture. It has opposed anesthetics, lightning rods, sanitation, vaccination, eating meat on Friday, and birth control. It is very easy to give nonsupernatural reasons for preferring honesty to lying, for outlawing murder and theft. And in fact those moral principles were common in human society long before anyone had thought of the current major religions. So whatever useful moral prescriptions religion has provided are equally available without it.” (Pg. 69-70)
He acknowledges, “we can now with a high degree of confidence rule out Enlightenment deism. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics has shown that the motions of bodies contain an element of chance… The universe is not a vast machine in which everything that happens is fully determined by what went on before. This still allows for the possibility of a god who built the universe and its laws but who also added a large amount of randomness. In fact, this is the ‘God who plays dice’ whom Einstein refused to accept.” (Pg. 83)
He asserts, “Since our only experience is with our universe and its parameters, we have no way of knowing what sets of parameters might still lead to some form of life different from ours but just as complex and still containing intelligent beings… We have no reason to assume that there aren’t many universes. Even if our particular universe is highly unlikely, the chance that we are one of many would be as high as 100 percent… The multiple universe, or multiverse, scenario is severely criticized by theists as unobservable. Of course God is unobservable, too, so the best the theists can claim is a standoff. Actually, there are already some ideas about how we might detect the presence of other universes, but they are highly speculative and too technical to mention here… In fact, we have good reasons to believe in the multiverse… the multiverse is not just some vague atheist notion dreamed up to counter the fine-tuning argument. It is sober, mainstream physics.” (Pg. 89-90)
He argues, “there is no scientific basis for the claim that the universe is fine-tuned for life. Indeed, the whole notion makes no sense. Why would an omnipotent god design a universe in which his most precious creation, humanity, lives on the knife-edge of extinction? This god made a vast universe that is mostly empty space and then confined humanity to a tiny speck of a planet, where it is destined for extinction long before the universe becomes inert. He could have made it possible for us to live anywhere. He also could have made it possible to live in any conceivable universe, with any values for it its parameters. Instead of being an argument for the existence of god, the apparent find-tuning of the constraints of physics argues against any design in the cosmos.” (Pg. 97)
He recounts the biblical story of Job, then comments, “The book of Job is one of the most powerful arguments against god in the atheist arsenal. It proves once and for all that YHWH is not a good god. Even if such a god exists, we surely cannot rely on him to define our morals, to tell us what is good or bad. If holiness is what gods so, then holiness is a terrible thing.” (Pg. 141-142)
He outlines a “Natural Scenario for the Origin of the Universe”: “our particular universe appeared by a process called ‘quantum tunneling’ from an earlier universe that, from our point of view, existed limitlessly in the past… The earlier universe, again from our point of view, has been contracting in a way opposite to what we experience with the big bang… time’s arrow in our sister universe actually points in the reverse direction from ours and both universes can be viewed as arising by quantum tunneling from ‘nothing.’ I must admit that this picture of the origin of the universe is not widely recognized. However… I do not claim that this is IN FACT how the universe arose. I merely present it as a scenario consistent with all of our knowledge by which the universe occurs naturally and thereby closes a gap which a theist might want to insert God.” (Pg. 171)
He points out, “When theists … refer to gaps in the scientific record, the best they can do is say, ‘See, God must have done it.’ This provides no more information and is less economical than a simple statement: ‘Nature did it.’ But atheists can usually do much more than this simple assertion and give some idea of how nature did it… Even where we do not have an existing established theory, such as for the origin of life or mental processes, we have plausible proposals under consideration that agree with all existing knowledge and that require no supernatural elements. Theists can only make the simple assertion, ‘God did it.’ Scientists can say: ‘We don’t know. But we’ll try to find out.’” (Pg. 185)
In the next-to-last chapter, he proposes, “I am talking to those who have already recognized the undoubted fact that there is no eternal life and I am suggesting a possible way to cope with it… the sages of the East preached that the way to achieve peace of mind is to turn away from the ego-centeredness that we all seem to develop in childhood… I will simply call it the ‘Way of Nature.’ By living the Way of Nature we celebrate the natural and refute the supernatural. We accept the fact that our individual selves will pass along with our generation… I have a great personal life… What else can a man want? I wouldn’t mind continuing it forever. But I can’t. Not having yet practiced any serious meditation, I cannot recommend any one method… What this world needs is an honest, effective, and fully materialistic method of meditation… what I preach… is directed to other atheists as they approach the end of their lives: take up the Way of Nature and achieve a state of mind where the self does not matter and nothingness is approached with peace of mind. But don’t do it too soon! Live life first.” (Pg. 222)
This book has a lot of similar material to what Stenger has previously written (perhaps it was written to capitalize on the “New Atheism” craze). But Stenger’s near-mystical conclusion may infuriate some readers, and energize others. To each his own…
One of the great things about Stenger is that he is pretty well organized. Pick up any of the five books I mentioned above or THE NEW ATHEISM in particular and you will see that Stenger is very methodical. I’ve taken up the practice of outlining the books I read and Stenger has been the easiest book to outline thus far because of his method. Within each chapter Stenger has numerous subheadings that connect to the chapter’s main idea. Stenger rarely goes off on tangents so it not difficult in the least to track his thought process even if the material he is covering is difficult to understand.
Another great thing about Stenger is that he regularly utilizes endnotes. I’ve read a few works where I see something interesting or something about which I’m skeptical and there is no footnote or endnote to be found! For anyone looking to see which sources an author is drawing from, this can be infuriating. Stenger lets the reader know where he is getting his information and offers complete citations as well as a bibliography in his works. (If you haven’t come across the problem I’ve had, count yourself lucky!)
In THE NEW ATHEISM most chapters are barely twenty pages, allowing a reader to spend a short amount of time to focus in on a particular train of thought. And the main thought of the entire book is that religion is a great evil in the world and that science and reason are the paths to freedom and truth. Stenger writes, “The reason we trust reason and science, and have no trust whatsoever in religious arguments, is that science and reason work in understanding the world and making it a better place for humanity while religious argument leads universally to dismal failure and untold human suffering.” (41) There you have it. Stenger is definitely one of the “New Atheists.”
Stenger, who was a physicist and a philosopher, whets the sword of reason and goes on the offensive. He begins by establishing the atheist worldview. “Atheists view science as the best means humanity has come up with for understanding the world,” he wrote. (21) But despite the weight science has with atheists, Stenger refutes the claim that he or his fellow New Atheists are holding to “scientism.” On the contrary, “atheists appreciate the beauty of art, music, and poetry as much as believers, along with the joys of love, friendship, parenthood, and other human relationships.” (22) Later Stenger writes, “We fully recognize the value of and participate in other realms of thought and activity such as art, music, literature, poetry, and moral philosophy.” (239)
Like Dawkins or Hitchens, Stenger attacks the claims and effects of religion directly. He points to numerous passages in the Old and New Testament that, at least to him, point to the violent nature of YHWH (Yahweh) and even Jesus. I find myself agreeing with much of what Stenger says about the Old Testament. God appears vindictive and the laws he establishes run contrary to one would consider “good.” As Stenger notes, the Bible speaks for itself in many passages. He notes that though “the bloodiest acts of violence in the name of God nowadays seem to come from the Islamic world, the roots of religious terrorism are to be found not in Islam but in the early pages of the Bible.” (108) This is true enough but it should be noted that while the Old Testament is replete with violence, much of the violence in the New Testament appears to be eschatology meaning that rather than God’s people enacting holy justice upon you it is God himself who will do the dirty deed.
This doesn’t get God off the hook, of course. Much of the violence in the Old Testament was God ordained and God approved. There are even places where God forces people or nations to do things that lead to absolutely horrific consequences. (See Exodus 11:10 where God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he does not let the Israelites go and then proceeds to kill off the Egyptian firstborn or take a look at Isaiah 10:5-11 where God uses the Assyrians as his “rod” even though the Assyrians do not intend to do what God will make them do.) Despite the gentler God of the New Testament, the New Testament is built upon the foundation of the Old and this makes much of what it has to say about ethics or morality questionable.
The violence perpetuated by Christians against Jews, pagans, Muslims, and other “heretics” since the official recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire is legendary. But in our day Christian violence is rare, especially when compared with violence done in the name of Allah. One could argue that that Qur’an is built upon the Old Testament and that the holy violence sanctioned by God in the pages of the Bible is the basis for jihad and the murderous rampages initiated by extremist Muslims. Still, modern Christianity is much more liberal than it was five hundred years ago and we can thank the Enlightenment for that.
I digress. While Stenger attacks religion head on, he also takes on misconceptions surrounding quantum mechanics and its implications. Most people are familiar with Deepak Chopra who makes some pretty wild and baseless assertions. Stenger notes that Chopra had once claimed that we can think our way to delayed aging. Unfortunately for Chopra “he continues to age with the rest of us.” (214) In fact, much of Chopra’s “woo” is based on fundamental misunderstandings of quantum theory and Stenger makes sure to iron out what we can and cannot say about the universe around us with the tools of quantum theory. He concludes by saying, “Atheistic materialism means we humans are 100 percent matter, without an ounce of any vague substance called spirit, soul, or living force. It means we humans are 100 percent natural, without a connection to any supernatural agency called God, Allah, or cosmic consciousness.” (221) Earlier in THE NEW ATHEISM Stenger attacks theories on the mind and consciousness and suggests that until we have good reason to think otherwise we should go with the evidence that suggests that the mind is what the brain does. I tend to agree.
One of the best chapters is chapter 9 entitled “The Way of Nature.” There is a lot of content in this chapter but one of the things I found most interesting was the “axial stages” societies have gone through where sages like the Buddha, Confucius, and others called upon people to be more introspective and seek the world within rather than outward to the gods above. Compassion and empathy were emphasized more than dogmatism. Rather, these sages taught that you can achieve heaven by living a more compassionate life. (203) This is what all people should strive towards – being kind to one another.
So much more could be said but it is not my intention to give an exhaustive review. But let me end with some touching prose Stenger gives in his chapter on “The Way of Nature.” He wrote,
“By living the Way of Nature we celebrate the natural and refute the supernatural. We accept the fact that our individual selves will pass along with our generation. But succeeding generations will carry our genes and our ideas forward. Having just passed my seventy-fourth birthday, and not being in the best of health (though I am working to improve that), I have to start thinking about my mortality. All my life I have had my ego boosted by those around me. Growing up in an uneducated immigrant family on the edge of poverty in a working-class neighborhood, I was the first in remembered generations of the family over six feet tall, the first to graduate college, the first to get a PhD, the first to write a book….
I have a great personal life too, having been happily married to the same woman since 1962. Our two children are settled in happy marriages of their own and are both highly educated and successful. Our four grandchildren are beautiful and intelligent (pictures available on request). What else can a man want? I wouldn’t mind continuing it forever. But I can’t.” (222)
No, he couldn’t. Stenger died in 2014 at the age of 79. He wrote the NEW ATHEISM in 2009. Without a doubt this man live life to the fullest and did his best to help his fellow man. Before his death he penned more books covering the topics of God, religion, and science.
We can and should be grateful to Stenger for the work he put in. He has no soul to go on but we do have his writings that which we can absorb with our minds and ponder in our hearts. With Stenger, we too can take a stand for science and reason.