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17 May 2009

God: The Failed Hypothesis

Richard Dawkins and the other members of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of atheism base their position on the lack of evidence for the existence of "God", and admit that it is possible that "God" might exist in spite of the lack of evidence. Their position, stated simply (perhaps too simply), is that they see no reason to believe in "God", although they do not go so far as to say that "God" does not exist. Victor Stenger takes this view one step further, and says that science can establish that "God" does not, in fact, exist.

This book is properly seen as a follow-up to Stenger’s earlier book, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (Prometheus Books, 2003), in which he examined (and dismissed) the various claims that science had found something supernatural or unexplainable that could only be attributed to a deity. In relation to that book, as well, this new book can be seen as a step further.

Stenger’s exercise is qualified very early on, as he restricts the "God" he is disproving to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic "God", which he defines as having the following characteristics:
  • the creator and preserver of the universe;
  • the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature;
  • able to step in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, including violating his own laws;
  • the creator and preserver of life and humanity (humans being “special in relation to other life forms”)
  • endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls;
  • the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice and democracy;
  • revealed truth in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history; and
  • does not deliberately hide from any human who is open to finding evidence for his presence.
While some theologians would doubtless take issue with some of these characteristics, it is probably fair to say, as Stenger does, that these are the attributes traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic "God". Stenger does not posit that "God" is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent; such a "God", he says, is already (philosophically) disproven by the Problem of Evil. In any event, he does not need to give "God" these attributes in order to establish his non-existence, and the case he builds will (he says) apply to even an evil or imperfect "God".

Having defined "God", Stenger then sets out to establish that, in relation to each of the defining characteristics, there is none of the evidence we should expect to see if a supernatural being with that characteristic existed. Over the course of six chapters, he sets out in convincing detail what we should expect to see if "God" existed, and what we do in fact see. He bases his arguments on the most current science available, and always frames them in terms of the scientific method. While his science and philosophy are both sound (Stenger is an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at one university and adjunct professor of philosophy at another), his language is always clear and understandable to the layperson, never getting overly philosophical or overly technical.

The next chapter is less satisfying, and feels somewhat “tacked on”, as Stenger tackles the Problem of Evil and summarizes both theistic answers to the problem and atheistic rebuttals thereto. This is a topic that really deserves a more thorough treatment than Stenger can manage in one chapter, and is not really needed in a book devoted to the scientific approach. He is not wrong so much as sparse in his treatment, and he does not give this age-old topic the full examination it deserves.

Having convincingly dismissed the possibility of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic "God" existing, Stenger moves on to ask what possible gods are left. Here he provides a wonderful and convincing argument against a “hidden” god – albeit one who is still “perfectly loving”. Similar to the argument from evil, the argument basically says that a perfectly loving god would not deprive creatures of a positive and meaningful relationship with him, so cannot exist. An imperfect or evil (or even just not perfectly loving) god, of course, is not excluded by this argument, and Stenger quite properly admits that such a god cannot be totally ruled out, but “that we have not one iota of evidence that he exists”.

Finally, Stenger turns to the question of how we should live in the godless universe. Again, this is a topic that deserves a fuller treatment, and one hopes that Stenger might turn his talent to such a treatment in the near future. In this book, he contents himself with pointing out the negative impact of religion on society (something several other authors have done better recently) and discusses how we can find meaning, comfort and inspiration without "God".

All of the arguments presented in God: The Failed Hypothesis (aside from the few quibbles previously mentioned) are cogent, comprehensive and convincing. They will be useful in any serious discussion of the existence of "God". This is a book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of every agnostic, atheist and open-minded theist along side Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

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