This is the twenty third post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. Finally, I have come to the end of the series, which has taken me far longer than I would have liked. In this post I will discuss his tenth chapter, Living in the Godless Universe.
Professor Stenger divides this chapter into four sections. Firstly, he asks whether religion is useful to society, in which he tries to understand why religion arose. Secondly, he discusses what he terms as the negative impact of religion on society. Here he discusses how political authorities have used religion to justify their foolish actions, and how religion has led to war and so on. Then, he goes on to discuss whether we need religion to find meaning in the universe, or whether we can find meaning internally. Finally, he asks whether we need religion to live life comfortably, and when he argues that atheists live far more comfortable lives free from the fear of hell.
I will discuss each of these topics in turn. But first, I need to make a general point. Professor Stenger here largely uses the word "religion" as though it was a monolithic entity. He takes examples from Christianity (mostly US Nationalistic Christianity), Islam, and Buddhism, with Buddhism given the most favourable review. But he intends his conclusions to be general. This is problematic. Different religions believe different things. Even different sects within the same religion believe different things. As such, it is a fallacy to say "Religion does this" or "Religious people believe this." No doubt some do, but many would not. What he is criticising is not religion (because there is no single thing as "religion"), but can be extended to any deeply held world view which includes moral aspects. Professor Stenger's own devout atheism is among those. So everything he criticises some Christians, some Muslims, and some Buddhists for will (with suitable modifications) also be applicable to some atheists. If you are going to use the word "religion" as broadly as Professor Stenger does at some points in this chapter, you have got to include atheism as well.
For example, when he discusses conflict between beliefs, he criticises the monotheistic religions for thinking they are the only way to truth, and being intolerant of other beliefs. But the different forms of atheists also believe that they are correct (with a similar level of certainty to many theists), and are thus also intolerant of other belief systems. Being intolerant is not the same as suppression. Many atheists can happily live beside a Christian, even though they believe that Christian to be wrong. Many Christians are also happy to live alongside those of other beliefs, even though they believe those ideologies to be incorrect. There have been Christians who have actively suppressed those of other beliefs across history. There have also been atheists who have violently suppressed Christians and other people with ideologies they find unacceptable. So everything that Professor Stenger criticises religion for can also be applied to the irreligious. Obviously he believes that at least some of the irreligious take their views from reason and science rather than superstition. Clearly, though, this is a difficult case to make. Different atheists believe contradictory things, so they cannot all be right. Just like everyone else every atheist is either wrong or ignorant about a great many things. The atheist ethicist has no answer to the naturalistic fallacy, and at the heart of any atheist's philosophy are a set of unprovable and unproved assumptions, concerning (for example) the philosophy of science and God's place (or lack of a place) in it. These assumptions are usually adopted without criticism. There are, of course, a few atheist scholars who try to be perfectly rigorous in their thinking, and the best come close (although, based on this work, Professor Stenger was not among them). But these are few and far between. Most atheists are not philosophically trained (or not well enough), and their atheism is ultimately built on straw. Why then should their secular views be allowed, while a Christian views based on his philosophy of classical theism be declared invalid? I'm not writing this to say that Christian politicians are necessarily better than secular ones. The same criticism applies to Christians -- few Christians have fully based their beliefs entirely on rigorous reasoning, although there are some who have. But most educated Christians do have rational grounds for believing what they do, and can reasonably well articulate those grounds. Christians simply add in additional premises based on the New and Old Testaments and the evidence that the Bible is broadly correct. This does not make Christians (or those of any other religion) irrational. It might make them wrong; but equally most atheists are wrong about a great many things. Professor Stenger does not provide a good reason as to why secular beliefs devoutly held might be admissible but religious beliefs not. The criticisms that Professor Stenger wages against the religious in this chapter can also be aimed at the irreligious.
I, as a Christian theist, would strongly disagree with the atheists (at least to an extent -- few people are wrong about everything, and everyone is wrong about something), and would say that the truth is to be found somewhere within the scope of Christianity. He criticises Christian politicians for acting in accordance with their (at least partially) Christianity-derived philosophy. But the same criticism can be raised against atheist or agnostic leaders, who act in accordance with their own philosophies, which are (at least in my view) based on unsound reasoning building from faulty premises. The important question is "Which of these beliefs is true?" and my fear is that Professor Stenger is begging the question against Christianity, and those of other religions. This might be justified if he had been successful in his previous chapters, but (as I have argued in length) he hasn't.
Is Religion Useful?
Religion has been around for as long as we can find clues to its existence. Certainly it predates the invention of writing. Civilisation might have made those beliefs more sophisticated, but it did not create them. So far I am in agreement with Professor Stenger.
But the next thing that Professor Stenger claims that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all arose in parallel to the city state, and may have been created to justify the relation between a powerful King to his subjects.
This is simply false. Firstly, the city states arose well before the emergence of Christianity and Islam. Islam, in particular, is not the religion of the city state, but of a Bedouin tribe. Judaism obviously takes its roots back to Adam; but if you say that it became a distinct religion with either Abraham or Moses (or was invented in the Iron Age, following Finkelstein and other archaeological sceptics) it was also well after the emergence of the city state.
Were they created to justify kingly or some other human authority? There is a case that that is true for Islam, since the religion of Islam is entwined with the Islamic state (I do not mean ISIS by that, but a generic caliphate). But Christianity and Judaism? If we take the Jewish history as correct, then it began with a stateless man, Abraham, who exercised no political authority. Moses led his people in revolt against a King, and established a society which had no King. It had a law, and a priesthood, but no temporal authority. When the Israelites did eventually set up a monarchy (and here the OT sceptics would pick up the story) the Biblical texts attack their rulers more than they praise them. If the Torah was written in the monarchy period, it would hardly have been done so to uphold the authority of a King. It makes it clear that even Kings are subject to the power of God, and ought to be criticised and disobeyed when they turn away from divine law.
This is true for Christianity even more so. True, the later Roman Emperors tried to turn Christianity into a state religion. This then remained the case for much of European history (although even here a distinction between temporal power and the Church was maintained). But Christianity arose in a period of intense persecution by the state. While Christians are called to respect the authorities, it is clear that the priority is to follow God. Christianity acts as a challenge and corrective to political power.
Professor Stenger next takes aim at the claim that without religion everyone would behave immorally, and society would be wracked by wars and immorality. His response makes a fair point: that religion hasn't exactly helped in this regard. There has been plenty of wars and immorality in religiously dominated societies. This is true, but it is also irrelevant to the question. This issue is not what happens with religion, but whether any atheist society would be any better. Atheist societies have only existed for the past hundred years or so, and their records have not been particularly exemplary. And, of course, these societies, while professing atheism, have so far existed in either a post-Christian or post-Buddhist/Confucian context, and unconsciously taken in many of the assumptions of those religions.
Then we have to consider how we define what is and isn't moral. An atheist might be content with considering restrictions on one's own sense of authenticity or sexual freedom as immoral, but in that they are very much in the minority. From a Christian view, the last 60 years or so in Western culture are very much justifications of the principle that once Christianity is abandoned, sound ethical views will first of all be ignored and then persecuted. Modern society, with its greed, corruption, mixture of extreme wealth and far too many people struggling to pay for the essentials (even when paid an average salary and living frugally), crime and drug use, family breakdown and sexual dissatisfaction, loneliness, racism (from the critical theorists), irrational prevailing philosophy, and the coming economic and cultural collapse is a pretty convincing counterexample to the claim that atheist philosophy would do a better job than a Christian one in building a good society. On the other hand, we can also look at the rise of Christian Europe from about 800AD to around 1900. Was society perfect then? By no means! But it was Christianity that guided the society from barbarism to the most successful civilisation yet produced, with plenty of triumphs to go along with the failures.
The reason we have wars and immorality is that people are evil. This is true both for those living in a religious society -- of whatever religion -- and those without religion. It is true for those in power, and those without power. The only remedy for this is to encourage a strong sense of virtue in the population. This is promoted by Christianity. Of course, even so, people will fall short. Christianity is based on the idea that a human-created utopia is impossible. The perfect society will only come about when God directly intervenes after the final judgement, and recreates the world. So the failure of Christianity to create a perfect society is hardly an argument against Christianity.
Finally, Professor Stenger asks why so many people believe. He toys with various evolutionary theories, suggesting a "God module" in our brain, or that we are programmed to see purpose and design in the universe. In other words, the desire for religion is a culturally evolved trait, which arises from something which gives selection advantage. These are speculative theories, and Professor Stenger acknowledges that.
There are two criticisms to be made here. Firstly, the idea is overly generalised. To say that many people are religious because of a biological tendency towards religion might be true for some, but it is hardly universal. I am, for example, a Christian because I believe that the evidence is strongly in favour of Christianity, and strongly against other religions and atheism. I imagine most other Christians in modern times are the same. Other reasons might be less honourable, such that you were raised in the religion, and never gave it a second thought. Equally, a fair number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on would give similar responses. As would atheists -- there are plenty of atheists who accept that belief because they were raised in an atheistic culture and only ever encountered characterise of the various religious beliefs. (There are also, of course, plenty who came from a religious background which they later rejected on account of their assessment of the evidence.) The problem with arguing for a biological origin of religious belief is that it does not take into account the stories of actual religious believers, or allow that there might be a variety of reasons why people are religious.
Secondly, Professor Stenger sees this as an argument against religion. In other words, if religion is an evolved trait, then why do we need God? The Christian apologist would argue that God is really behind it all, but Professor Stenger asks, not unreasonably, what the evidence is for that. Of course, one can also ask what the evidence is that God isn't behind this purported urge towards religion. The problem once again falls back to one's theology of science. Does science operate independently of God, as the atheist and deist maintain, or is it the description of God's upholding of the universe, as the theist maintains? This question I have discussed in depth elsewhere, and my conclusion is that contemporary physics is what we would expect if it was a description of God's upholding of the universe, and not what we would expect otherwise. But, in any case, if the theist is correct in their theology of science, then any biological urge towards God would have been implanted by God. After all, everything is ultimately the work of God, and that would include a putative biological urge towards seeing purpose in nature. If the atheist philosophy of science is correct, then any such urge would not be implanted by God. What such an urge (if it exists) implies thus depends more on one's understanding of the relationship (or lack of it) between God and science than the fact of its existence (if that is a fact), and cannot be used by itself as an argument against God (or a conclusive argument for God).
Negative Impacts of Religion
Professor Stenger earlier argued that moral values are innate and a product of evolution. I responded that this is philosophically naive, and commits the naturalistic fallacy. Professor Stenger also argued that moral values do not require a divine source. My response is that the only two known ways of circumventing the naturalistic fallacy are divine command ethics, which presupposes either theism or deism, and natural law ethics, which is based on the same premises that imply theism. That's not a discussion I want to go over again here.
But Professor Stenger requires an objective, atheistic, morality for his next point. This is to claim that religion has done a great deal of harm to society. He concentrates on the influence that Christianity has had in the US. This specific example is of little interest to me. He seems to be beset by the same idolatry of the US founders and constitution that afflicts US Christianity. I have great reservations about that idolatry. The US founding fathers were imperfect men, and the principles they used to establish their country were also imperfect. Better, perhaps, than many others, but still imperfect. Appeals to the constitution are just an argument from human authority, and are thus of no weight. But there are some general points which can be discussed.
Professor Stenger's first point is to complain about how religion influences politics, or more particularly, how politicians like to claim that God is on their side to justify whatever policy takes their fancy. And I would agree that, when this happens, it is usually a problem. Aside from moral principles, Christianity offers little to advise most issues that politicians are interested in. It is quite possible for orthodox Christians to genuinely take different positions on many of these issues. For example, on economic issues, I would describe myself (with a few caveats) as a free-market capitalist, while encouraging private almsgiving for those who can afford it. The Christian mandate is that we help the poor. According to my understanding of economics, a free market with minimum government interference, coupled with a strong work ethic and a virtuous population, is the best means of achieving that. But I do not derive that belief from my Christianity. My Christianity only gives me a desire to help the poor, and a vigorous opposition to greed. The rest of it comes from other principles. A socialist who happens to be a Christian would come to economic matters with the same desire to help the poor and opposition to greed. And he can conclude that some form of socialism is the best means to achieve that end. The politician, whether capitalist or socialist, who states that "God gave me the mission to help the poor" is being honest, because the Biblical authors make it clear that God gave us all that mission. But, if he goes beyond that, by saying, for example, "God gave me the mission to help the poor by raising taxes to pay for increased social security," then that goes beyond what the Bible says. Raising taxes might (or might not) be the right thing to do, but to claim divine inspiration for it when in practice you derived it from non-religious premises is just being dishonest.
Of course, there is another sense in which a political leader can be inspired by their religious values. My moral principles are certainly influenced by my Christian belief. Were I a politician, then they way I would vote, and which party I stand for, would (I hope) be influenced by those principles. But why is that a problem? I believe in Christianity because it is rational, and the evidence points in that direction. Natural Law ethics is not specifically based on Christian principles in any case, although consistent with them. In other words, I do not adopt those principles for arbitrary reasons. An atheist might well have different moral values to me. Those moral values would (hopefully) be derived from the underlying principles that inform his atheistic world-view. They would also claim to have been built on reason and evidence. So why does Professor Stenger claim that the atheist politician has the obligation to vote in accordance with his atheistic philosophy, but the Christian politician is forbidden from being informed by his own world view? If his meaning is that "only people who agree with me can stand as politicians" -- that's not democracy, but a dictatorship. And a tyrannical dictatorship at that. And, of course, once we apply moral philosophy, a particularly troublesome dictatorship because atheistic moral systems cannot be built up rationally without violating the naturalistic fallacy, and are therefore built on principles which are entirely arbitrary. They can thus be moulded into whatever serves the dictator's own self-interest.
I agree that many Christian politicians are stupid and make stupid decisions. However, many atheistic politicians are no better. The atheist would not justify his decisions by an appeal to God, but he would still justify them by some equally idiotic means, calling upon some principle or premise that he has even less evidence for than he believes exists for theism. Or replace an appeal to divine authority with an appeal to some human authority. Of course, there are sensible politicians as well -- Christian, atheist, and other religions -- who will, no doubt, justify their policies with better reasons. The answer is to elect sensible, thoughtful, people -- but that seems to be beyond us at the moment. In short, it is not the politicians' Christianity which is the problem, but their stupidity, or (to put it another way) their humanity. Of course, "stupid" here is a relative term, and simply means that they are not up to the task they have set themselves. A country is a difficult, complex, system, and beyond any of our abilities to run efficiently. Politicians of any stripe will make mistakes and appear to be stupid on occasion, particularly to their ideological opponents.
There are a few specific quotations in this section I have to take issue with.
We can easily imagine, and history seems to confirm, that religion was the means by which good behaviour -- "good" usually being defined by whomever was in power at the time -- was enforced.
There is, of course, the problem that this is an over generalisation. It might be true for some religions -- in Islam, for instance, secular and religious authority is entwined. But is it true for every religion? One only has to look at the Old Testament prophets who often spoke against the ruling authorities and were persecuted by them. Far from being the means by which good behaviour was enforced, their complaint was that without religion bad behaviour was being encouraged. Or the Old Testament law, which describes a society in which nobody is in power -- just elders and Levites in each village to judge disputes. This turned out not to last, and after a few hundred years a King would be appointed -- the Israelites were not committed enough to their religion, but that doesn't change what the Torah says. There is one mention of an Israelite King -- Deuteronomy 17:14-20. This is not a command, but a permissive concession, and is written to restrict the power and influence of any human that was put in power.
Is "goodness" defined by the people in power? Sometimes, but many religions exist to work against that notion. By stating that even the people in power are subject to a higher authority, those religions give a stay on arbitrarily declared social norms. Without that stay, there is nothing to stop an atheist just making things up as they go along. Indeed, we can see how post-modern atheistic values have changed, and become more and more extreme, over the last few decades. And their advocates have no qualms in trying to enforce those values on society. It is not just the religious who try to use their ideology to enforce what they think is "good."
The question is ultimately which religious or irreligious world-view is true (or closest to the truth)? There is an objective goodness. Goodness can be recognised by people, but is not defined by them. The true religion will support that. Any deviation would therefore be an evil; and it is right to encourage people to do what is good. If societal acceptance of a religion encourages people to follow good, then that is a good thing, not a problem. If societal acceptance of a religion encourages people to follow evil (because the religion is false), then that is a bad thing. The question is whether or not the religion is true. To say that it encourages people to follow its standards as a criticism of the religion is just begging the question.
Then we have this statement here:
Justice Scalia's thinking exemplifies all that is wrong with religion and why it is so inimical to human progress. God rules over a physical and social firmament that must remain unchanged, because change implies imperfection in his original creation.
The original context are some statements made by the judge about the US constitution. I pass no comment on those -- they are a legal rather than religious concern. The general point is that this apparently exemplifies a tendency within American Christians towards conservatism, which is apparently a problem.
But that is the very opposite of what Christianity teaches. Christianity teaches that creation is imperfect, and flawed. God's original creation is fallen; and every aspect of it is broken. It teaches that we are to work to try to improve society, and ameliorate those flaws. The early Christians took Roman society and sought to improved it. Opposition to gladiatorial games, opposition to abortion and infanticide was all led by Christians. Later on, opposition to slavery (which took longer to achieve) was also led by Christians, firstly in the medieval period, and then again, after slavery was revived during the Renaissance with its opposition to all things medieval, in the early modern period. Christianity also teaches that a perfect society cannot be achieved by human means. There is no reorganisation of society that can eliminate its flaws. And any attempts to create an utopia based on some "rational" secular ideology invariable lead to a society far worse than the Christian one it was replacing. See the French, Communist, and Fascist revolutions as examples. This is because people are imperfect. As such, the Christian recognises that there are always problems in society. We try to fix one of them, but over-correct and cause some other issue. That's inevitable given our imperfect nature. The only thing we can do is to work within the context we have, overturn unjust laws, and help individual people in need.
Of course, a conservative, including a Christian conservative, will be resistant to change that which is good and has been proven to work well. But what is wrong with that? The problems come when people think that they can do better without thinking through the reasons the original rule was put in place, or the longer term and wider effects of their proposed change. But equally where there is something wrong in society, or which isn't working, the Christian will try to resolve it. As happened with the examples I mentioned. Of course "wrong" and "isn't working" are defined within the context of Christian ethics; but that is only a problem if you presuppose that Christianity is false. Equally, numerous people who claim to be Christian will act against Christian ethics -- but the problem there is hypocrisy, not with Christian doctrine.
While I wish people were less gullible, less willing to believe in the most preposterous supernatural notions, I still have a high regard for the basic decency of most human beings. Many people are good. But they are not good because of religion. They are good despite religion.
The examples that Professor Stenger gives here are the September 11 attacks, division between religious groups, and religious wars.
Now, as a Christian I would obviously take issue with Professor Stenger's high regard for the basic decency of most human beings. The opposite is the case. People are not naturally basically decent; we are naturally decedent. None of our instincts can be trusted. That, to my mind, is by far a superior way of understanding the world. People can become better than that through specific training in virtue, or just absorbing values from their family or culture. That is not sufficient to make anyone perfect -- only God can do that -- but it could be enough to make society vaguely workable.
One only has to look at history to see the point. Whether the brutality of the ancient Assyrians, with the Roman delight in the bloodshed of the gladiatorial games, through to the horrors of the twentieth century atheistic regimes (such as the communists and Nazis), one can see that it doesn't take much for that veneer of basic decency to collapse. Most of those people would have regarded themselves as basically decent. And they were probably kind enough to their friends and neighbours. But it is in how you treat your enemies and perceived inferiors that mankind's true nature is revealed: and time and time again it has been revealed to be deeply unpleasant.
That training in virtue can include religious training. Of course, how successful that is depends on the religion, and how seriously that religion is taken. There is a vast difference between the moral values of Islamic fundamentalism and Christianity or Buddhism (or at least Christ and the Buddha). Were the September 11 terrorists motivated by their religion? That can't be denied. But it has no relevance to the morality of an evangelical or catholic Christian, because the Christians follow a different exemplar and have different moral values.
Professor Stenger was fortunate enough to be raised in a society that still maintained the outward form of Christianity -- it had not yet become the post-Christian society we see today. As such, he was influenced by Christian virtue. That culture was gradually disintegrating during his life -- and we are now seeing the fruits of that -- but it had not yet gone when he started. One only has to look at the supporters of critical theory to see the evil, and lack of respect for others, that exists within people who have no regard for traditional religion.
So I would put it the other way round. Many people are evil. Some of them (depending on the religion) are evil because of their religion, but most are evil despite their religion.
So what about religious wars? Certainly wars have been fought over religion, and that is lamentable. But wars have been fought for many reasons. One cannot say that there would have been fewer wars if everyone was an atheist.
Take, for example, Wikipedia's list of wars involving England. This runs from 937 to the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707, so during that time England was very much a religious and Christian country. Given the source, this list might not be fully complete (or contain false entries), but it will be good enough for my illustration. We can divide the wars into those primarily motivated by religion, and those primarily motivated by territorial, succession, or other disputes. If Professor Stenger's thesis was true, one would expect this list to be dominated by religious wars. I have put a few entries on both columns if they were of mixed motivation.
|Religious war||Non-Religious war|
|First Crusade||Aethelstan's invasion of Scotland|
|Second Crusade||Northumbria's war of independence|
|Third Crusade||Norman Conquest of England|
|Ninth Crusade||Norman invasion of Wales|
|Prayer Book Rebellion||The Anarchy|
|French Wars of Religion||Revolt of 1173–74|
|Eighty Years' War||French invasion of Normandy (1202–1204)|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)||Anglo-French War (1213–1214)|
|Bishops' Wars||First Barons' War|
|Irish Confederate Wars||English invasion of France (1230)|
|Second Barons' War|
|Conquest of Wales by Edward I of England|
|First War of Scottish Independence|
|War of Saint-Sardos|
|Second War of Scottish Independence|
|Hundred Years' War|
|Castilian Civil War|
|Third Ferdinand War|
|Wars of the Roses|
|Italian War of 1494–1498|
|Cornish Rebellion of 1497|
|War of the League of Cambrai|
|War of the League of Cognac|
|Italian War of 1542–46|
|Italian War of 1551–59|
|Anglo-French War (1557-1559)|
|English expedition to France (1562-1563)|
|Eighty Years' War|
|First Desmond Rebellion|
|Second Desmond Rebellion|
|War of the Portuguese Succession|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604)|
|Nine Years' War (Ireland)|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1625–1630)|
|Anglo-French War (1627–1629)|
|Portuguese Restoration War|
|Irish Confederate Wars|
|English Civil War|
|First Anglo-Dutch War|
|Anglo-Spanish War (1654–1660)|
|Second Anglo-Dutch War|
|Third Anglo-Dutch War|
|Nine Years' War|
|War of the Spanish Succession|
Granted this is just one country (and I am certainly not going to do a detailed analysis), and one can dispute some of my attributions of the causes (particularly around the time of the reformation, the Protestant-Catholic divide influenced everything), but I don't see why it would be especially atypical in either the number of conflicts or their motivations.
Clearly, there is an imbalance here. That immediately refutes the claim that all or even most wars are caused by religion. The point is that it does not take much for ambitious rulers to go to war. If religion is important for them, then they might go to war for religion. But obviously there is a big difference there between religions which encourage their rulers to go to war, such as Islam, and those which place stringent limits on warfare, such as Christianity.
Is war always wrong? The usual Christian response is almost always, and I struggle to think of any examples where the aggressor was justified in their aggression and manner in which they fought the war, but it is at least theoretically possible that if a war was fought to prevent a great evil, that the evil caused by the war is less than the evil that would have happened without war. The Christian just war (in the sense of justified) theory was developed in the middle ages, and outlines a number of criteria which can be used to judge any conflict. These include :
- The conflict has to be called by a right authority. Traditionally this would be a King; today we might (rightly or wrongly) give the role to the United Nations.
- The conflict has to be called for a just reason, such as in defence of oneself or an ally, or to prevent a genocide. The cost to human life, and the quality of that life, of the war needs to be less than that of the evil it was waged to prevent.
- The war is fought rightly, minimising causalities, and in particular harm to non-combatants.
- There has to be a reasonable chance of success.
These criteria are not biblical, but they strike me as eminently reasonable. It acknowledges that the world is imperfect, and that if the good guys don't stand up, then the bad guys in the world certainly will.
So what of the religious wars in the table above? They fall into two basic categories. First of all there are the crusades. Secondly the wars of reformation. The wars of reformation I cannot come close to justifying. They were a measure of the way that politics and religion were mixed together in those times, and political rivalries were as much responsible for these wars as religious fervour on account of the population as a whole. But those political rivalries were largely inflamed by religious fervour. The theological differences between Papists and Protestants are important and significant, but they are still an argument between members of the same family. I have read the gospels more times than I can count, and I don't recall Jesus saying, "Love your enemies, unless they believe in transubstantiation, in which case kill them." The effects that those wars had on Christianity in Europe were devastating, particularly the thirty years war, and I think this is part of the reason why the intelligentsia lost its faith in the Church (of whichever variety). But these weren't wars conducted by people following Christianity, but wars conducted by people disobeying Christianity.
The crusades are a little different. Islam (or at least certain schools of it) does glorify war. Mohamed was a warlord, who fought numerous battles, some defensive but many aggressive to propagate his religion. His successors carved out their Empire by conquest, and then imposed Sharia Law on it; suppressing Christians and Jews. By the eighth century the Muslims had crossed North Africa, into Spain, and from there attacked France. Everywhere they went, they committed atrocities against Christians and Jews -- not all the time, but enough of the time to become a pattern. Their treatment of Polytheists and non-theists was even worse. By God's grace they were beaten back across the Pyrenees. They raided the coast of Europe constantly, and for a while occupied Sicily. The Europeans had, by the time of the crusades, only just recovered it; while the Muslims still controlled the majority of Spain. There was, in short, a clear and present danger to Christian Europe from a known aggressor. Until the 11th century, Western Europe was in no position to respond.
Then, under a series of weak rulers, the remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire suffered defeats in battle, and lost their heartlands in Asia Minor (modern Asian Turkey). The Emperor sent an appeal for aid to the Bishop of Rome. At the same time Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem were being assaulted by the Muslim rulers. The Bishop responded with the call to crusade. The atrocities in Jerusalem proved to be more of a draw to the Western Europeans than the plight of their Greek brethren, and the crusade turned into an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from its Saracen oppressors.
But the original purpose of the crusades was in defence of an ally, and to disrupt possible attacks against Western Europe's own people and lands. They were called by a right authority. There was, at least in the short term, a change of success. The way the wars were fought were not just -- there were atrocities committed by the crusaders against civilian populations; the purpose was turned to something less noble and motivated by superstition; and that is even before we get to the disaster of the fourth crusade, which ended up attacking the very ally the crusaders were meant to be defending. But to say that the crusades were uniformly evil is a misstatement. As is saying that they were uniformly good. Their flaws, though, should not be tied to Christianity. They arose from people disobeying Christianity.
But are the crusades and wars of reformation a count against Christianity? That would only be the case if they were fought following Christian principles. They weren't. They are a count against humanity, and against religious hypocrisy.
But there is another criticism to be made. Even if the wars were not motivated by Christianity, they were still fought by people who professed Christianity, and mostly for selfish gain. Christianity has at its heart the doctrine of sanctification, i.e. that people, through the work of the Holy Spirit, should be morally purified and become better over time. So with this in mind, clearly an established Christian ruler would not want to wage an unjust war. Thus the fact that there are such rulers who have done so is evidence against sanctification.
And I think this is a good point. However, there are caveats. Firstly, there have been numerous Christian rulers who have been pious and not refused to contemplate a war of aggression precisely because of their Christian principles. Secondly, even in the times discussed where almost all Englishmen would call themselves Christian, there were still periods where a lot of that belief was only nominal. There have, of course, been revivals as well. But just because somebody pays lip service to Christianity, and even attends Church, does not mean that they earnestly believe. This is not to say that there were no people with genuine Christian conviction leading the way in the conflicts in the list above. It just means that one cannot assume that because someone was an Englishman that they were necessarily a devoted and sanctified Christian. Each example has to be examined on a case-by-case basis. In any such analysis, one also has to take into account Christian peacemakers, made so by their religious conviction. Thirdly, sanctification is a process; and it does not remove all character flaws immediately. A ruler in a warlike country might be slower to recognise and be cured of his warmongering. Even through Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit, we still are imperfect and sin (e.g. Romans 7:7 and following; Philippians 3:12). I struggle to understand how anybody could conclude that a war of aggression could be anything other than something which will cause a great deal of evil to both my "side" and the opposition. But then, I am not a medieval King under the pressures that medieval Kings faced. I have no great understanding of what those pressures were. I am in no position to pass judgement on them. My own sins caused by the pressures that I and those around me face are more than enough for me to worry about, before I can condemn those from a different time and place.
And that's the point. People are evil. People are surrounded by and advised by evil people. People tend to think more of those they know personally, and regard those they don't know as mere statistics. Certain people in positions of power are faced with temptations that others do not have to endure. Sanctification helps reform that evil, but does not eliminate that evil. In certain circumstances, that evil manifests itself into action; and when that action is performed by somebody with too much power a great deal of unnecessary harm is done. That is not a statement which any Christian will disagree with, because it is one of the foundations of Christian doctrine. That we are such a bloodthirsty species -- and that we ought not to be -- is a doctrine assumed by Christianity, so I hardly see how a list of wars can be invoked as an argument against Christianity.
Next, Professor Stenger turns to the Nazis, including the claims that the Roman Catholic Church aided the Nazis, and that Hitler himself was a Roman Catholic. While possibly the Church could, perhaps, have spoken up more than it did, an encyclical of 1937 condemned the Nazis and their ideology. Many individual Roman Catholic priests protested against the government, and were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. The Church rescued numerous Jews from the Holocaust. While some priests did continue to support the German soldiers, there was widespread Catholic opposition to Nazism.
The Protestant Church at that time and place was dominated by theological liberals. Theological liberals tend to adapt to the surrounding culture, and are happy to jettison any aspects of orthodox Christianity which stand against their new sensibilities. This becomes particularly problematic when the surrounding culture is Nazi. The result is a unholy mess. There were, of course, some orthodox Lutheran Pastors and theologians in Germany at the time. These include some who were already established as among the most important Protestant theologians of the early twentieth century -- such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Niemoller. I'm not the biggest fan of the neo-Orthodox movement associated with these thinkers (although, admittedly, I haven't given it any more than a superficial study) -- I am more of a classically orthodox Protestant myself. But such distinctions are relatively minor when we look at the bigger picture. I count them among the good guys on the civil wars affecting mainline Protestant Churches through the twentieth and into the twenty first century. These people were horrified at the direction that both German society and the state Lutheran Church were going. The result of their protest was the Barmen declaration, which set out clearly the Christian opposition to Nazism. The result of that was, unsurprisingly, either the concentration camp or exile for those who signed it. The Nazi regime was quite happy to tolerate an accommodating liberal Church. But not any remaining orthodox Christians. So calling Nazis Christian when they were opposed by the leading orthodox Christian theologians and they themselves persecuted those theologians seems to be a rather bold claim.
What of Hitler himself? Although raised a Catholic, he came to despise Christianity. He admired how the Church was able to hold a position of prominence in society, but that was about it. He saw the religion as weak and the main reason why the Aryan race had been allowed to stagnate, and he despised its Jewish roots. He mentioned Christianity in his speeches and policy statements. It would have been electoral suicide not to, since most people were at least nominally Christian, even of the liberal variety. But note the subtle redefinition of Christianity to Positive Christianity. It is a subtle move: add the word "positive" to the name, and people think that you are talking about just a minor improvement to what came before. Hitler's aim was to not destroy the Church, but to subvert it to support Nazi ideology. This includes undermining most of Christian doctrine, including stripping it of all Jewish aspects and its ethical code. The outer trappings would remain the same, but the inner theology would be distorted beyond recognition. Clearly this process would take time, and Hitler didn't survive long enough to fully establish his program (he needed to win the war first). But the end goal for the Church in Nazi Germany is clearly documented.
The Nazis themselves seems to have been influenced by a neo-Pagan cult centred around the idea of various ancient racial groups, which had become popular in some circles in the early twentieth century. This cult looked back to (what it thought was) pre-Christian German culture and religion. This cult is obviously very different to being Christian. Hitler himself did not seem to be actively religious. He was clearly influenced by these ideas, but not as a active devotee. A bit like the person who claims to be Christian but has never stepped into a Church.
So what of the good done by Christians?
Although the many selfless and dedicated people who do charitable work will tell you that they are motivated by their love of God, it is not really clear that God has that much to do with it. Perhaps these people are simply innately charitable and would have done the same without religious motives.
But why not just take their word for it? After all, the Biblical text is clear that Christians are to help the poor and those in need. I could cite numerous examples from both the Old and New Testaments, but two will suffice.
Deuteronomy 15:7 (ESV) If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.
Matthew 25:31 (ESV) When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
But more than that -- the sanctification of the Holy Spirit changes the hearts of the believer, to make them more charitable. To desire to help the poor is just natural for the mature Christian. Of course, not everyone has the means to give money, or the time and skills to give labour. But for those who do, this is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian.
Of course, it is not just Christianity which teaches this. I am critical of many aspects of Islam, but one thing the Muslims really get right is in their exceptionally generous almsgiving for the poor. The same can be said for Buddhism and other religions. What about atheists? Certainly many atheists and agnostics do give generously. But that might just be that most atheists were raised in a post-Christian society, with a residue of Christian morality still remaining. We will see what happens as that residue fades. For example, many socialists dislike individual almsgiving and private charities, and prefer that the government should support the poor rather than taking individual responsibility for it. Of course, the government has its own agenda serving its own interests, numerous responsibilities, and rarely manages anything well.
Could these people just be inherently charitable? Inherently is too strong a word. We are by nature selfish creatures, born in slavery to sin, and it is only through family and community interactions that we put some of that vice aside (though never all of it) to interact in society. This is obvious -- it is those who gain independence from those family and community ties who usually become the worst people in society. If somebody is raised in an environment to feel compassion for those in need, or has some experience to develop that compassion, then they might well grow up to prioritise giving alms. This will be true for some people in an atheist or agnostic society. But it would be more true for those raised in a religious society.
Thus I am not convinced that Professor Stenger has sufficiently evidenced this attempted rebuttal of religious charity as an indication of the social good that some religions provide. He provides a few anecdotal examples involving US government programs and oversight, but these do not really demonstrate his point concerning individual philanthropy.
So does the worship of God lead to a better world? Professor Stenger states that God is widely worshipped, and we do not have a better world because of it. There are several problems with this claim. Firstly, the notion of "better" is undefined. If God exists as described by one of the major religions, then having worshippers of that God would automatically make the world better, regardless of any wider effects. Secondly, a better world in comparison to what? A purely secular society? We don't have much real-world experience of that. So Professor Stenger is comparing the real world we live in against an imagined utopia which may or may not be realised if his dream of a non-religious society comes into play. Of course, the examples of a largely non-religious society we do have -- Soviet Russia, Communist China (particularly under Mao, before the relaxations of the rules by his successors), and North Korea are hardly convincing examples of a world better than the one forged by Christianity. And, of course, if we are going to trade in imagined utopias, I can just as easily state that there are and have always been many people in the world who do not worship God. Even in formally Christian societies, there have always been people, even in prominent positions in the Church, whose faith is only nominal. Perhaps it is the non-worshippers (specifically of the Christian God) who make the world imperfect, and the better world would one without the non-religious? I am not claiming that this is true; I am just making the point that there is at least as much evidence for this as there is for Professor Stenger's claim that it is the devoutly religious who cause strife in the world.
That the world is imperfect does not contradict Christianity. It is one of the key premises of Christian doctrine. We are fallen creatures, constantly tempted away from the good. It is impossible for mankind by ourselves to build a perfect world, and any attempts to try will be inherently flawed and ultimately create something worse what came before. It is only when God directly intervenes and recreates the world that it will be made perfect again. The history of humanity is perfectly consistent with this view. I do not think that it is consistent with Professor Stenger's view that human beings are basically decent. If so, then Professor Stenger's non-religious society will inevitably collapse into barbarism or tyranny.
Is life meaningless without religion? Professor Stenger cites William Lane Craig in saying there is no ultimate significance, value or purpose.
Professor Stenger's response to this is to ask whether we need ultimate purpose, and perhaps only what matters now is important. He makes the point that many people pursuing an ultimate purpose have done great evil. Although I would counter that they were necessarily following the wrong ultimate purpose. That some ultimate purposes are wrong does not prove that all ultimate purposes are wrong. Indeed, if one ultimate purpose is right, one would expect that all those contrary to it would be wrong. So can we find some present meaning in our life that does not depend on our immortality? Can we find meaning internally? Professor Stenger references Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, with the priority it gives to the contemplative life.
According to Professor Stenger, while many theists claim that without God, people would only seek bodily pleasure and other selfish interests. But, as social animals, we seek pleasure in the company of others and empathise with those suffering. With the evolution of civilisation, there are many wonderful and important activities we can participate in. He contrasts his own life mission, to understand the universe, with the tribal values and mind-closing faith of religion. He cites Professor Singer in saying "We can live a meaningful life by working towards goals that are objectively worthwhile." Professor Singer sees one of these goals is to reduce avoidable suffering. He also cites Kai Nielsen,
A man who says, "If God is dead, nothing matters," is a spoilt child who has never looked at his fellow man with compassion.
What to make of this? Does this refute the claim that without God, life is meaningless? Professor Stenger did get my hopes up by referencing Aristotle, but then spoilt things by moving onto Singer and Nielsen, who I have never been impressed by. Of course the reference to Aristotle is rather meaningless, since his ethics is based on his metaphysics, which Professor Stenger would certainly reject. Not least because Aristotle's metaphysics implies theism (Aristotle only dimly glimpsed this, but his successors spelt it out.)
The initial problem was spelt out by another favourite philosopher of the secularists, David Hume. Hume stated that one cannot get from a statement of fact to a statement of value. I disagree with Hume on this point. Both divine command and natural law ethics evade his argument. But these either directly presuppose the existence of God, or presuppose premises which imply the existence of God. But, for the non-religious person, there is no way out. So when Professor Singer states that we can pursue goals which are objectively worthwhile, and all he has to go on are the known mechanisms of the physical world, then how does he determine what is and isn't objectively worthwhile? I can do so by falling back on my Christian ethics, but that's not available for the atheist. From the atheist perspective, suffering is ultimately just a physical process. So is not suffering. There is nothing in the laws of physics, or chemistry, or biology, which states that one of them is good or the other bad. There is nothing to say that avoiding suffering is objectively worthwhile. Nor is there anything (if we exclude religious morality) which states that the exercise of compassion is objectively worthwhile. The universe will continue just the same whether or not we exercise compassion.
What about an evolutionary account of ethics? Natural selection provides a purpose -- that we should pass on our genes and adapt to the environment. Can this be used to construct something objectively worthwhile? I think that there is some merit to this -- but only if it is placed in an Aristotelian or divine command framework. For the theist, evolution by natural selection is just a description of the work of God, so any purpose drawn from it is ultimately a reflection of God's will. For the Aristotelian, it would ultimately be drawn from the various final causes of biological matter. But for the atheist? It is just a physical process. To say that life adapts through evolution and natural selection does not say that it is morally right for it to do so. No more than we can say that it is morally right for hydrogen in the sun to fuse into helium releasing light and heat. So the atheist would need to make a jump from the natural processes of physics to the moral obligations of a conscious being; and no such jump is possible in a materialist framework.
That leaves moral relativism. People can create their own meaning. Or society can derive its own purposes. That last one is a non-starter. "Society" is not a concrete thing capable of reasoning. It is just a collection of individual people. So any will attributed to society just reduces to the wills of some or all of the people within it (and the suppression of the wills of those who disagree with the majority). So can individual people find their own meaning? Yes, but this doesn't help the atheist decide what they ought to do. Bob can find meaning in attempting to find a cure for cancer, or he can find meaning in going on a mass shooting spree. From the perspective of the moral relativist, there is nothing to say that one of these meanings in life is good or the other bad. Whatever Bob chooses to do in life, his life will be considered as meaningful as long as he carries it out. But then, in this definition, everything that everyone does, even if they choose to do nothing, is meaningful to them, which is another way of saying that everything is ultimately meaningless. The phrase meaning of life loses its power. It does not direct us to what we should do, since it makes no preference between one goal and another. But to say that our life has meaning implies that there is also a meaningless life which was avoided, but the meaningless life under moral relativism is near-enough impossible.
Perhaps you might object to my example. Surely the mass-shooting spree negatively impacts the individually chosen goals of other people. Since there are more of those people than Bob, their wishes should override his. Firstly, what if there is only one victim? Bob finds meaning in shooting them, and he finds meaning in not getting shot. What is to say that his purpose in life is more significant than Bob's? How can we choose between them, without objectively saying that shooting people is wrong (which would be to abandon moral relativism, which states that there are no objective moral truths)? If there are multiple victims, then we could say that Bob is outvoted, but why should we trust the majority to get it right? If Bob instead devoted himself to finding the cure for cancer, and the majority of people wanted to shoot him, would that make it right for them to do so? If not, then by what basis can we say that a majority of people wanting to live outvotes evil-Bob's purpose of wanting to kill them, without bringing in some objective moral values, outside the subjective desires of individuals, saying that shooting people is wrong.
In other words, moral relativism is a dead end. The meaning we take from life is meant to shape our desires and goals. But if that meaning is derived from our desires and goals, then it just becomes circular. There is nothing of substance there, which brings us back to the meaningless universe.
Professor Stenger's response is then just a case of begging the question. He cites a few authorities, but the statements he cite just assume what he is trying to prove, i.e. they assume -- as no proof is offered -- that avoiding suffering or exercising compassion are objectively meaningful in an atheistic philosophy, and he attempts to prove from that that there are objectively meaningful goals in an atheistic philosophy. He hasn't answered Professor Craig's point.
Comfort and Inspiration
Professor Stenger's next section discusses the comfort and inspiration that people find from their religion. His discussion is split into two sections. Some of the work discusses religious sources of comfort, and other parts looks at whether science can also provide meaning and inspiration in our life.
With regards to religious sources of comfort, he discusses topics of life after death, and mental health effects of a religious belief.
Unfortunately, science cannot confirm the Christian-Islamic promise that we one day will be reunited with departed loved ones, and live eternally in the bosom of our creator. The rational prospect of life after death is close to nil.
Professor Stenger proposes his own hypothesis about how the belief in life after death emerged. He offers no evidence for this hypothesis, but even if true it would not disprove that there is no life after death. That would just be committing the genetic fallacy. Nor does he recognise that there are different models of life after death. There is, for example, Judeo-Christian resurrection, Hindu reincarnation, the Greek belief in disembodied shades left in Hades, Buddhist Nirvana, and so on. These are quiet different, and require different discussions. Lumping all of these into "life after death" is overly simplistic.
Professor Stenger is quite correct that science cannot confirm a belief in a future general resurrection (for example). But neither can it deny it, without making the begging-the-question assumption that there is no God able to bring it about. People who believe in whatever form of life-after-death they accept do not do so on account of scientific demonstration. They do so for other reasons. I cannot speak for others, but for myself, I believe there to be good evidence that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and also good evidence that Jesus taught that there would be a final judgement followed by a general resurrection (with his own resurrection preparing the way for that). Accepting those premises, a belief in this form of life-after-death is quite rational. The underlying philosophy of classical theism also is also fully consistent with the belief.
Professor Stenger makes the mistake that because science cannot confirm it then it must be irrational. This relies on a positivist philosophy which has been well established as flawed. Partly because science is always a work in progress as new experiments are conducted, and "established" conclusions can be overturned; partly because there are invariably multiple theories which explain the data; and partly because there are plenty of fields where the data is not established using the methods of science, but are nonetheless established as well as many pieces of scientific data is established.
Professor Stenger also makes much of the fact that in his worldview, there is no fear of hell. That is only an advantage, of course, if his worldview is right. If he is proclaiming that there is no hell and there in fact is a hell, it will likely lead to anyone following him being unprepared for it. But he states that belief in hell is a source of concern for the Christian.
The promise of life after death carries with it the dread that the afterworld will be spent elsewhere than in the bosom of God. Everyone is a sinner, and even the most cloistered nun lives with the nagging worry that she might not be forgiven for that occasional impious thought that slips into her head between endless recitations of the Hail Mary.
But this is a misstatement of Christian belief. In Christianity, our salvation does not depend on our own works. Our salvation comes from the work of Christ and the grace of Christ alone. There is assurance of forgiveness as long as we continue to trust in God's promises and maintain the desire for holiness marked out by repentance. For the Roman Catholic, the worst that those impious thoughts will lead to is a little bit longer in purgatory. For the Protestant, there is not even that worry. If, as in Islam, Christian salvation were dependent on weighing up our good and bad deeds, there would be a fear of hell. But, for the committed Christian, there is no personal fear of hell; just fear for other people. So Professor Stenger misunderstands Christian doctrine here.
He also cites a study that shows greater examples of obsessive-compulsive behaviour among the most devout Protestants. However, there have been conflicting studies, and the overall position of the research seems to be unclear. Studies linking religious participation with mental health seem to indicate a small but positive correlation between increased religiosity (whatever that means) and improved mental health (whatever that means). I am always sceptical about the worth of such studies, even if in this case the results seem to be in my own favour -- they tend to try to model numerically things which cannot be unambiguously measured in terms of a number -- but I see in general no support for Professor Stenger's claim of greater distress among the most religious.
Professor Stenger also mentions benefits of prayer and meditation to a sense of peace of mind, but states that these have purely physical explanations. That doesn't, of course, exclude that it is not also from God. He mentions religious inspiration for great art and music. Not being at all interested in art, and too little time to inflame any passion in music (classical music for me), I am not in a position to comment much on this. However, it strikes me that artists often reflect their worldview and culture in their works. You would then expect that a worldview which provides a more comprehensive explanation of the human condition, such as orthodox Christianity, would provide a better setting for an artist than those which are more nihilistic or destructive, such as post-modernism. But artistic appreciation is very subjective, so I doubt that anything useful can be said one way or the other here.
The second part of the section deals with the inspiration to be found from scientific research. And there is much here that I agree with. He cites Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins as people who find joy in scientific research. And that's fine. Where I disagree with him, though, is in his belief that that must come as an alternative to belief in God. The Christian who is a scientist can have that pleasure as well. He will interpret it differently -- the goal is not merely to understand the universe, but through it also the mind and works of God -- but the same sense of joy and fulfilment is there. But Professor Stenger is right to say that this is a joy that is not available to everyone (just like I cannot partake in the joy that the appreciation of art gives some people).
He also references the technological benefits brought forward by science. Again, there is nothing here that is limited to atheists. If science implied atheism, then it might make it a little hypocritical for a religious believer to make use of that technology. But as science is perfectly compatible with some religions (such as Christianity) -- and I would argue sits more comfortably with classical theism than with atheism -- again this topic is irrelevant to whether or not God is a failed hypothesis.
We should not forget, of course, that the scientific approach itself is an offshoot of medieval Christianity. The ancient Greeks, Indians and medieval Islam helped prepare the ground, but it was Christians such as Bradwardine, Oresme and Roger Bacon who took the crucial first steps in establishing the scientific method. It was the medieval Christian society (albeit with help from the Chinese and others) that took the first steps towards our modern technological lifestyle. The fundamental metaphysical assumptions behind modern science were in history derived from Christianity. As such, as a Christian, I have no problems in claiming the technology developed from those initial forays and later developments for myself. Could the scientific method and worldview sprung from a different source? We don't know, because we only have one history to look back on. But to strip the world of the effects of religion that have occurred in history would also be to strip the world of science.
Has science rid the world of superstition? Many superstitions, such as alchemy and astrology, were initially challenged by Christianity just as robustly as by the scientists. What about Christian superstition? Certainly there is some of that, but the answer to it is to be found in criticism from within Christianity rather than from science. For example, I would regard the Roman Catholic veneration of relics as superstitious. But, because that belief is based on supernatural rather than physical processes, it can only be argued against using theology rather than science. Of course, one might regard the existence of God as a superstition, but in that case, if God exists, it would be one worth holding. Does science help us live less in fear of the unknown? Not really. As a Christian, I have hope and confidence in God above any fear of the unknown. And even if it does, it is science which provides such help, not atheism.
Now, I should add that finding meaning and comfort from a religion is not a good reason to adopt that religion. Because most religions provide meaning and comfort to at least some people, and so that you have found comfort from religion A does not mean that religion A is superior to religion B. We should choose our religion (or to not be religious) based on the evidence. That evidence takes on various forms. Firstly, there is the philosophical evidence, which can establish a general intellectual framework such as classical theism. Then there is the historical evidence, such as that for Jesus' resurrection. Then there is personal experiential evidence. Ideally you would have all three strands working together. Finding meaning and comfort is a bonus, but it means nothing if the religion isn't true.
In this chapter, Professor Stenger tries to argue against those who believe in religion because of the meaning they find from it in their lives. To my mind, this isn't a particularly good reason for believing in a particular religion. However, Professor Stenger does go too far when trying to claim a high ground for atheism. There was a distinct confusion between science and atheism, and the pleasures of finding things out are to be found in science rather than atheism. His criticisms of religious inspiration were generally evidenced and unproven speculation. He failed to demonstrate that atheism in itself can give people comfort and meaning, nor did he answer the arguments which say that ultimately it can't (i.e., that if atheism is correct the universe is ultimately meaningless). He also looks at the evil done by Christians. Yes, there have been evil things done by Christians, or people who claim to be Christian. There have also been evil things done by people of other religions. There have been evil things done by atheists. What is difficult to understand is how an acknowledgement that people are evil, some people very evil and others quick to follow them into the abyss is an argument against Christianity. Christianity is built on the premise that nobody is perfect, nobody can become perfect without the action of God, and some people are very imperfect. That includes people associated with the Church; particularly in a Christian country where everyone was a member of the Church whether they lived up to Christian values or not, and the church hierarchy was a means to social and political power and influence. Evil people exist and have existed who claim allegiance to every belief system. The question is what we do about it, and to deny the problem by believing that people are basically decent is not the way to start.
Based on my records, I have been working on this review of Professor Stenger's book for something like two and a half years (although obviously I have done other things in that time as well). In that time, I have probably written enough material (albeit that it would need considerable review and polishing) to have prepared a small book myself in response (somewhere around 260000 words). Finally, I have reached the end, and can move onto other topics.
Why did I go to such lengths? Because I thought Professor Stenger's book raises a number of interesting topics, which I have frequently wanted to discuss, and this review gave me the opportunity to do so. I will probably mine at least some of these posts for future projects. Why is each post so long? Mainly because I am a bad writer and unable to condense things, I guess.
So now all that remains for me is to write a few concluding remarks. Did Professor Stenger disprove the God hypothesis? No. The primary reason for that is that he understands too little about the ideas he was criticising to make a useful contribution. He makes assumptions about what Christians believe, which seem to be based on a very superficial version of Christianity rather than an intellectually robust faith built around classical theism. He assumes that Christians believe one thing, when in practice the belief is something else. He assumes an underlying empiricist philosophy of science, not realising that there are alternative theist philosophies of science, nor appreciating the weaknesses of empiricism and mechanism. He makes numerous errors of fact and definition, and quite a few logical fallacies. He tends to rely on a limited number of atheist sources, without really considering the counter-arguments. This is true for the other New Atheist writers, and is an obvious danger when scientists not trained in philosophy or theology venture into those areas. (Obviously many would point fingers at myself there.)
At the heart of his problems is a confusion between science and a particular philosophy of science (or set of philosophies of science), where he assumes that science operates independently of God. He also has an elevated view of science, believing that ultimately everything ought to be tested using the scientific method. The very framing of God as a hypothesis is problematic. A hypothesis is a model tentatively proposed and yet to be tested experimentally. Belief in God, however, arises partly from reason from fundamental premises, partly from historical events, and verified through personal experience. A hypothesis is something tentative pending experimental investigation. The existence of God is an analytic truth. The simple truth is that science is not the answer to every problem. It provides the answer to many problems, but there are some fields where its methods are inappropriate. That does not mean that any particular religion is unscientific, or that there is no overlap between science and religion. It means that the intersection between Christianity and physics or biology (for example) is a relatively minor part of each of those fields, and how you interpret that intersection is more dependent on the underlying philosophy of science and philosophy of religion than the actual findings of modern science.
Professor Stenger started by trying to construct a scientific model of God, with various attributes which he felt could be tested through comparison with observations including scientific observations. The initial problem is that Professor Stenger does not understand classical theism. That's not surprising. He was a physicist rather than a theologian or philosopher, and given his atheism he had little motivation to devote time to what he would have believed to have been a rather archaic and pointless field of study. Unfortunately, if you then want to write a book about God, it is rather important to understand the position of those you criticise. And to be fair to him, many atheist philosophers have also failed to properly appreciate classical theism.
He starts by looking at the argument from design, particularly biological design. His claim is that natural selection provides an alternative explanation of biological diversity and complexity which does not require a divine designer. The problem is that there is a jump between "provides an alternative explanation of" and "does not require a divine designer." That is not a jump which can be proved scientifically. It relies on a particular philosophy of science, which goes beyond the raw scientific data. In particular it supposes that the laws of physics operate independently of God. Science cannot prove that God did not guide evolution by controlling the process of "random" mutations that it in part depends on, or by controlling the environmental factors which affect natural selection. And, of course, if we understand the laws of physics to be a description of God's acts of general providence, then evolution by natural selection would be a description of how God created the diversity of life. There is no conflict between evolution by natural selection and theism. The conflict is between an atheistic or deist philosophy of science that is used to derive theological conclusions from the scientific theory. But since that philosophy of science was already inconsistent with theism, it is clear that the theory of evolution itself contributes nothing to the argument. Professor Stenger also makes much of examples of "bad design," but fails to describe why this would not be expected in classical theism.
Next he looks at the subject of souls and super-mental powers. Most of this chapter was not relevant to Christianity, as he was trying to disprove things which Christians need not believe in either. His discussion of the soul was hampered because he did not understand what the term means in classical theism, and so he was searching for the wrong thing. He also discussed various studies which claim to show no effect when people are prayed for, but these assume a mechanistic philosophy of prayer where it is the prayer itself, rather than God, which is efficacious.
Next he discusses the Kalam cosmological argument, the origin of the laws of physics, the origin of the universe, and he discusses Hume's argument against miracles. He does not mention nor appreciate the responses to Hume's argument, which is well-known to be unsound. His adoption of the Hartle-Hawking model for the beginning of the universe is controversial and unproven, and Professor Craig has addressed it as a response to the Kalam argument. Again, I see no mention of Professor Craig's responses to his objection, not that there are other (stronger) versions of the cosmological argument apart from the Kalam. His suggestion that the laws of physics which govern the universe emerge from the universe is both speculative and unsound. Appealing to a speculative model doesn't help his cause: he is trying to falsify the notion of God, and saying there is an alternative model which also explains the data as we currently understand it does not prove that there is not also an answer to these questions that is consistent with the existence of God. What he ought to be doing according to the methodology he set out at the beginning of his book is discussing theistic philosophies of science, and argue that they would lead to a different origin of the universe or laws of physics than those we observe. He appeals to the symmetries which constrain the laws, and state that given those symmetries on the action we are going to get something like the universe we do. This is an important argument, and I use it myself in my own argument for theism. But there are three objections here. Firstly, there is more to the construction of the laws of physics than just the symmetries. Secondly, his argument for why the symmetries hold is weak -- point of view invariance does not require symmetry of the action, and nor does a lack of structure in the earliest stages of the universe (because his lack of structure was defined in terms of entropy, which concerns the distribution of matter rather than the action which describes the laws of physics which is where the symmetries become important). Thirdly, he does not explain why there should be laws in the first place; why the universe should behave in a regular way. I have argued myself that if we presuppose theism, then all these questions are answered. But even if he can construct a theory where all these issues are answered scientifically, that does not disprove theism if science is to be understood as a description of God's sustaining of the universe.
The next chapter discusses the fine tuning arguments, and he repeats the claim he made in other works that fine tuning does not show anything. This claim has been debunked before, in particular by Luke Barnes. For all practical purposes, the fine tuning argument leaves you with two options -- divine creation or a multiverse, and Professor Stenger doesn't seem to understand the full force of the argument. The possibility of a multiverse, even though it is a rather speculative proposal we have no direct evidence for, does weaken the fine tuning argument as a direct argument for God. However, Professor Stenger is trying to falsify the God hypothesis, so he should be asking "Would we expect fine tuning if the sort of God described by the theistic religions existed?" And the answer is clearly "Yes." He does try to argue against God by asking why there is so much in the universe that is unsuitable for life, but again that does not disprove that the universe was created by God. They key thing that theism states that God wanted is that somewhere in the universe is a place suitable for rational animals. There is. God might well have plans for the rest of the universe (other life, for example), but even if He doesn't have a particular interest in it there is nothing in theism which states that He should. The universe manifests the magnificence of God even if it is empty of life aside from this little corner of it, and that's what matters.
Chapter 6 discusses the topics of Biblical prophecy and archaeology. I can see that these would be defeaters for Christianity and Judaism, if his argument is successful, although not the God hypothesis as a whole. His discussion of prophecy is very superficial and less than convincing. Some of the prophecies he claimed to have failed in fact were successful; others might have been so -- our gaps in ancient history allow for the chance; others might have future fulfilment. Others he disdained as being meaningless, but without looking at the wider context. His discussion of archaeology is more interesting, and I agree that there are problems for Christians and Jews here. Professor Stenger's presentation is limited, however, because he primarily relies on a single source, Finklestein and Silberman, and does not consider the arguments which have been made against their position, or those of the writers which claim to have found concordance between the Old Testament history and the archaeological record. As stated, I don't think every question has been satisfactorily answered, but the agreement is far better than the likes of Finklestein, Dever or Thompson claim. Equally, Finklestein and Silberman is by now somewhat outdated, and subsequent discoveries have tended to be supportive rather than against the traditional Biblical narrative. As for the remaining gaps -- we should not forget that archaeologists still deal with very limited evidence. Sites have not been excavated as well as we would like, at some sites erosion and human activity has destroyed various layers, and there are many interpretive issues for example around site identification, and even the chronology is still disputed. I do regard this as one of Christianities few weak points, and a place where much more work needs to be done before I would be content, but the evidence we have is not a defeater.
Then Professor Stenger turns to ethics, and again his lack of philosophical training shows itself. His own attempt to create a ethical framework as an alternative fails to naturalistic fallacy. He fails to consider natural law ethics, and his criticism of divine command ethics seems to judge the divine commands against his own arbitrary standard. If he finds a command he doesn't like, then with what confidence can he say that he is right and God is wrong without assuming the falsity of the divine command theory? The Euthyphro dilemma is weak when used against divine command ethics. He does make a good point that the Old Testament contains some stories which make us distinctly uncomfortable. The majority of the cases raised were not with the sanction of God, and so don't stand as an argument against Christianity. But some were, and they need to be explained by the Christian or Jew, which isn't particularly easy. However, a defence can be made based around the principle of divine justice.
Professor Stenger gives a reasonably good account of the problem of evil, but has the weakness that he relies on atheist sources rather than turning to Christian defences. This is obviously one of the major arguments used by atheists (although it itself does not disprove the existence of God, only a God that would not permit evil in the world). However, a great deal has been written about the argument since it was resurrected by Mackie. The argument is split into two. There is the logical argument which states that there is a contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly benevolent, and omniscient God, and the existence of evil in the world. The evidential argument is weaker, and states that the the type and amount of evil we observe makes the existence of a God with the required attributes immensely improbable. The logical argument is now generally regarding as failing. My own response is that it assumes that omnipotence means "God can do anything" rather than the more standard "God can do anything consistent with his nature and which does not involve a logical contradiction." More significantly, divine benevolence is usually defined in terms of the promotion of good, while the argument uses it as implying the suppression of evil. The two are not the same thing, particularly when one adopts (as most theists do) the privation theory of evil, combined with a free will defence and a call to God's justice to explain natural evils. The evidential argument is more subtle, and there are still debates over it in the philosophical literature. It is, however, far from being proved. Any probabilistic argument is dependent the assumptions used to calculate it, and is thus on shaky ground. However, Professor Stenger shows no sign of being aware of this later debate, and his argument fails to make its point.
The divine hiddenness argument fails because, in least in the main theistic religions we have today, God has not gone around hiding Himself. There is a balance for God to make between making Himself too obvious (and thus in effect forcing people to come to Him, rather than choosing Him freely), and not revealing Himself at all (beyond general providence) and leaving people in the dark. There is no obvious reason to suggest that in Christianity God got this balance wrong. Of course, Professor Stenger would deny that Biblical accounts for Jesus are accurate, and if he can repeat that for every record of God revealing Himself through special providence, then the divine hiddenness argument might have some merit. But it is not the hiddenness argument defeating Christianity, but the arguments that attempt to show that the Biblical text is inaccurate. I don't think those arguments against the New Testament are particular convincing (that's a topic for another time), but even if they were it would not make the hiddenness argument, as (for example) Jews and Muslims would also dispute those texts and equally don't regard God as hidden. So the divine hiddenness argument is all a bit pointless.
In summary, Professor Stenger has completely failed to demonstrate that God is a failed hypothesis. He made a lot of bad arguments which ought to be immediately rejected, with a few interesting ones interspersed between them which require a bit of thought, but are far from being conclusive. On a few occasions, his conclusions were reasonably sound (even if he could have presented them better), but he was attacking ideas that orthodox Christians also reject. I have gone into details in the past Twenty- three posts . I can see why his book might be attractive to an atheist or Christian, or another religion, with limited knowledge of classical theism or orthodox Christianity, and I hope that it would spur the more naive Christians into delving deeper into their faith. The one good thing I would raise about his book is that it does cover most of the ground that a discussion on this topic ought to cover, unlike many other atheist works. And rebutting Professor Stenger's case is a good training ground for the Christian before they move onto the more learned atheist writers. But he fails to make his case.
And, finally, I am finished. Next year I will move onto other topics.
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