Saturday, May 22, 2010

The New Atheism

Well, I just read through Victor Stenger’s book entitled, The New Atheism and must say that I was most impressed. This is not going to be a thorough review, but I will touch on some points of interest without doing the book the full justice it deserves. I’m not one to read a book in a single three hour sitting, but The New Atheism was simply too hard to put down. As a budding atheist myself, I’ve read some of Dawkins, Hitchens and others regarding multiple views on religious faith and the far reaching consequences religion has on humanity. I read Jerry Coynes, Why Evolution is True which is a very readable book on the facts of evolution, but I have yet to find a book as thoroughly digestible as Dr. Stenger’s. I viewed the majority of the debate between William Lane Craig and Stenger back in 2003 shortly after reading the book. I think Stenger did an admirable job, although I would say that Craig won stylistically. But, style without substance doesn’t add up to much more than bullshit.

Stenger does a good job of propping up his fellow atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett in the aforementioned book. Stenger has no problem including himself in the group as a “New Atheist”. The main thrust of the New Atheist seems to be this understanding that morality isn’t something that needs a god to develop and practice effectively. Also, religion is seen as a danger to society and scientific advancement. It hinders school children from learning factual scientific evidence for the existence of the universe, planet and ourselves. This is detrimental to America’s future as a scientific powerhouse. The fact that our last president based many decisions, including going to war in Iraq, on purely religious convictions is a frightening situation. Stenger argues that future presidents may do the same and ultimately lead America, and perhaps the world, into an irreversible and catastrophic situation. In a sense, the events on 9/11/2001 helped fuel the fire of the New Atheism agenda. They argue that the terrorists who flew planes into the twin towers were motivated purely by religious ideology. This is hardly a debatable point, though some would like to base their reasonings on politcal grounds to take the focus off religion as an unpeaceful way of living and viewing those around us.

Stenger argues that faith is a dangerous proposition which only gives people the excuse to harm others based on divine revelation from a god that is undetectable by any sort of scientific means of investigation. He desires to challenge people and their deep seated religious convictions regardless of the possibility of offending the believer. At the same time, he recognizes that all of these passionate debates can be done in a non-offensive and civil manner.

Stenger addresses the misconception of science requiring as much “faith” as religion. He makes it clear that science only allows itself to go where the evidence leads and holds no unsupportable biases. He discards the whole issue of ‘god of the gaps’ by appealing to a purely materialistic view of the universe, humanity and the mind itself. He addresses misunderstandings about The Big Bang that apologists often misinterpret to support their own blatant agenda. He shows that The Big Bang was not the beginning of the universe. He references Quantum Tunneling as a more realistic scenario and also appeals to a multiverse theory to counter Christian apologist ‘Fine Tuning’ arguments. Also, he points to the notion that other life may have formed under alternate conditions that didn’t under the present laws of this universe. In other words, other universes may exist or could exist with a different set of physical laws in place which allows evolution to take course in the given environment. Apologists will suggest that manipulating a single physical law will result in the universe being unable to function properly which points to this notion of fine tuning. Stenger argues that all parameters must be varied within a system to determine their effect as a whole which any noteworthy scientist should already know. It’s unreasonable to just adjust one parameter without adjusting the others.

I can’t remember if it was in the debate or book, but Stenger makes the observation that the Genesis account of creation is faulty because it gets the order of creation wrong. Scientists know that the earth was formed after the sun, moon and stars. Conversely, the Bible states that the earth was formed prior to the sun, moon and stars. This contradicts our current understanding of the development of the universe and planets-just an interesting tidbit I thought I would mention.

Stenger observes that the intelligent design movement, in an act of sheer desperation since science has filled most other gaps in, is trying to maintain that science can’t explain the mind so god still must exist. He argues that the mind is nothing more than the brain itself and simply consists of physical matter which I happen to agree. He points to various occurrences of seeing a “tunnel of light” as easily being mimicked by stimulating various regions of the brain or pointing to people who have trauma or stress applied to their brain. He believes that most of the out of body experiences people claim are basically scams. I think, under certain stressful situations, people can have out of body experiences that are easily recognized as naturally occurring phenomenon given the appropriate conditions.

He points to the inconsistency and barbarism of the god in the Bible as evidence against a divine author of morality. He argues that there is far too much suffering in the world for a divine and omni-benevolent god to be behind all of it; I couldn’t agree more. He gives a vivid analysis of Mormonism as it is one of the newer offspring’s of the Christian faith. He points to some grizzly events that took place in the not so distant past under the Mormon theology including the assassination of a rebelling woman and her, guilty by association, baby. They died because a Mormon decided to slit their throats as a God given directive via divine “revelation”. This illustrates the point that religion and violence go together and can evolve rather rapidly. A person can find it completely reasonable to slit a baby’s throat if God commands it. He also briefly points to some issues with Jesus and his failed prophecy found in Matthew 16:28 regarding him coming back before those who stood before him died.

He corrects the misconception that atheism caused Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot to kill massive numbers of people. He also correctly states that Hitler was not an atheist to begin with. He states that there simply are no atheist scriptures which ask its followers to kill others like the Bible or Quran do. He goes over the atrocities of the crusades, inquisition and other religiously motivated slayings like those perpetrated by Incas and Aztecs. The common denominator is always religion. Nobody ever kills because of their lack of belief in a god or gods.

He makes an appeal to some of the Eastern philosophies of living such as Buddhism, as does Harris, without taking the notion of reincarnation seriously. He calls it ‘The Way of Nature’, as a way of living for others and being less self-centered. This helps humanity accept the fact that there is no afterlife when they are able to take the focus off of themselves. But, he suggests that one should be free to live for themselves and how they want while they are still youthful and less focused on their own mortality.

He notes countries like Denmark and Sweden, who are 80% atheist, as examples of societies which are better off than countries which are primarily religious. Sweden doesn’t have near the police force that the U.S. has to have, yet it’s not uncommon for the some of their major cities to go a whole year with only a single murder occurring in that city.

Overall, an excellent read for the person trying to get a basic understanding of the atheist movement and many of the misconceptions Christians have about atheists in general. If anyone has any other book suggestions for someone like me, please feel free to enter them in the comment section. I've just started Robert Price's, Deconstructing Jesus so I’ll see if it’s worthy of posting about later.

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