Forget the noisy rhetoric and dogma of Richard Dawkins. The late Victor Stenger, author of many other books on the multiverse and how design is an unlikely explanation for our universe, has written “God, The Failed Hypothesis,” subtitled: ‘How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.” For those familiar with Hugh Ross, and his ministry at Reasons to believe, Stenger is the kind of guy who keeps them on their toes and is one who thoughtful theists should pay attention to.
In this book, Stenger deals with and knocks down many bad Christian apologetic arguments, one would almost read this book and confuse it for a book on Christian Apologetics and maybe more books should be written by Christians on slop apologetics, and how to avoid bad reasoning, but for now this book will have to do.
He begins with a very important notion, modelling God. In order to qualify as God as opposed to non-God, what would be the minimum set of properties one would have to have? He calls this the “3O God,” which contains, “Omniscience, Omnibenevolence, and Omnipotence.” Do the realities in the world we live in square with the properties that this minimalist God must have and are they compatible with such a deity’s existence?
This book can be summed up as:
* No god designed the world in all its complex structure. Everything whose origins have been understood so far has arisen by simple natural processes.
* No god has given us immortal souls. Everything suggests that our minds are entirely reducible to simple material components.
* No god has made any miraculous interventions in human history. All such accounts are source-critically spurious.
* No god created the universe by supernatural means. Everything we see is compatible with the known laws of physics.
* No god fine-tuned the parameters of the universe to make it congenial to humans. Innumerable other configurations would have worked too, and besides, only an infinitesimal part of our vast universe is inhabitable or even accessible to us.
* No god has communicated with humans through revelations. Such visions never contain any testable data about the real world that weren’t already present in the head of the visionary.
* No god has given us morality. We negotiate our morality among ourselves, and regardless of our faith or unfaith we tend to agree remarkably well about what behaviour is good or bad.
* No omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god exists, as there is evil and suffering in the world that such a being would never allow.
While he does deal with some of the more powerful arguments in favour of theism, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, it may be difficult to tell if he provides a refutation or a rebuttal. This does not change the fact that anyone seriously wanting to be prepared to answer objections against theism and, specifically, Christianity should read this book.
While Stephen Jay Gould had once granted the unnecessary concession that religion and science were two separate and non-overlapping magisteria, Stenger does not grant this cease fire concession and suggests that science is adequate for dealing with issues that have religious implications. After all, he notes, religion has overstepped its boundaries, from time to time, and does more than make pronouncements about morality, but also makes statements about the nature of reality, so why can’t science do the same? Can it not deal with morality, and what is sometimes ‘quantifiable’ human behaviour?
It is my shared opinion with the author that Intelligent Design has just not showed up to play ball with the other competing paradigms out there. The scientific community has not rejected ID because of its religious implications, but because it has not presented a testable model, from which predictions can be made. One needn’t fully agree with Darwinian evolution to acknowledge this paradigms success is due to the fact it is a testable model, from which predictions have been made, and it does empirically address what we see in the world today. Any evolutionist will acknowledge the limitations in the model, but we must acknowledge that ID has of yet failed to present one, although I do look forward to developments in the future, by ID theorists.
While Stenger’s criticism of ID is valid, he goes on, in the same breath, and acknowledges that creationism is, indeed, a testable/falsifiable model, but it has been tested and falsified in that it predicts a young creation of about 6000 years, and geology has clearly falsified this. Stenger does his book no good service by presenting arguments from the Bible that the Bible never puts forth and he never addresses the Jewish, or Christian scholarship contrary to a young creation hypothesis and not due to an ignorance of their work, given he does mention such scholars in later chapters.
ILLUSIONS OF DESIGN
Further on, in his section on ID he criticizes those who attribute design to where there is no, apparent, design. While it is true that we are pattern seeking creatures, whether it be by evolution or other means is another story, we could see false patterns in nature–but this behaviour of seeing patterns necessary for survival. For instance, a tribesman in Africa, who is accustomed to seeing a rustling in the bush, and associating it with a predator, will generally have a better chance at survival than those who fail to make the association than those who don’t, even if the rustling turns out to be a wild boar or the wind. Stenger is right, rashly attributing effects to designed causes is an argument from ignorance and it is possible we see patterns where there are none. He points out several cases where apparent design has given us empty results and can be explained in terms of mechanism, not intelligence, and appeals to a mechanism called “self-organization,” which is certainly observed in crystal formation, where simplicity begets complexity, but the behaviour of the crystal formations seems to be rather simplistic, in that the formation does take on parts, but does not self-actualize. Stenger does not mention crystal formation in his book, but draws attention to other similar features of the universe, and points out that there is no intelligent efficient cause and uses mechanism to explain away any design features.
This is exactly what creationism, and more specifically the Bible predicts, that God has set laws into effect which will govern the affairs of the universe, we needn’t say that God is first handedly moving behind every activity in the universe, but we theists recognize God as being a primary cause, who is behind secondary causes. (Jeremiah 32:39) Surely Stenger was aware of the philosophy of Aristotle at the time of writing this book. Surely the proponent of both natural selection, as well as theists, should be aware that appealing to natural selection, self-organization, or God, to explain function, is hardly enlightening. Karl Popper wisely coined the sharp-shooter fallacy, which states the theory that explains everything explains nothing at all. Using God, or Natural Selection to explain how a state of affairs comes about says nothing about how the mechanism operates and this is not what the theist is obliged to do in defending their position.
Where Stenger drives his failed point home, is in the section, “Simple Rules,” in the chapter on illusion of design. In this section Stenger appeals to a principle of self organization in systems which take on complexity, and notes they are non-living systems. But this orderly behaviour in nature is exactly what one would expect to see in systems and that we can apply these laws to them, allowing us to make probabilistic predictions, based on past experience, if nature was preloaded with information at its inception. Stenger fails to deal with the origin of information in this chapter.
What the reader might find odd, is in the section of this chapter, “Simple Rules” Stenger points to computer programs which have aided us in understanding self-organization, regarding simple systems which develop into more complex systems. In this section he notes:
“Usually these demonstrations start by assuming a few simple rules and then programming a computer to follow those rules.”
Right off the bat Stenger is assuming preloaded conditions which generate the state of affairs, and nowhere does he define terms such as “simple,” or “complex,” but expects the reader to take them for granted. The reader may assume that he is referring to a system, whether it be organic, or inorganic, which starts with fewer parts and takes on new parts. “Simple,” in the strongest sense of the word, would mean uncomposed, therefore not decomposable, but Stenger does not mean this, as it would imply something more ultimate.
Stenger makes some very good points, with regards to the shortcomings of design models and does go on to attempt to define design, or purpose, in the universe. He makes an astute statement saying that we must be cautious in not attributing design, where no design exists. He notes philosopher Nicholas Everitt, who suggests that better terms might be the argument from order, or, the argument to design. Where is order, though? Is order in the eye of the beholder, or is it a real feature of the universe, with which are minds are geared to observe? In order to find order, we must assume, a priori, that our minds are useful for discovering patterns in nature and that nature behaves in such a predictable fashion, and many think Quantum mechanics has challenged this. ID theorists need to develop a model which not only points to design, and from which predictions can be made, but they also need to make risky conjectures which can be falsified and put to the test. So what if the universe appears ordered, or if it is? ID theorists need to point to the efficient cause, and its nature. Rather than suggesting the universe exhibits design, they need to suggest which deity would best fit the state of affairs by pointing to a top down revelation. Scholars at Reasons to Believe (RTB) do seem to be doing this and are presenting models which are not complete, but are attempting to compete with existing models. Books, such as “More Than a Theory” by Hugh Ross, present features of the universe, including its age, suggesting that if they were at any given different settings, life would not be possible, but Ross doesn’t stop there; Ross suggests, in the spirit of retaining embarrassing material, that feature which exhibit no/apparent design, should be categorized as such, while features which exhibit design, or fine tuning, be categorized as such, as suggests an inference to the best explanation for all the available data. What the naturalist, and the supernaturalist, should both do is cooperate in the field of science and let the data bring us to the best conclusion. Ross suggests using the Bible as a predictive tool, after all, if it is authored by the same efficient cause as is nature, we should be able to make predictions about the nature of reality from it. This would be what Karl Popper suggested as making risky conjectures and putting our ideas on the chopping block, rather than trying to prove them, we should be attempting to disprove them, afterward we will not be left with certain ideas, but will be left with no ideas, or ideas which are well established.
SEARCHING FOR A WORLD BEYOND MATTER
In Chapter 3, Stenger takes on the soul, and belief in it being, essentially, a god-of-the gaps position which supernaturalists have taken up over the years, all the way from Shamans to early Greek philosophers, such as Empedocles, who held that thinking and feeling where attributable to an immortal soul which resides around the heart, but leaves the body after death.
However, Stenger says, these arguments for the soul, held by Descartes and Grecian philosophers, soon become replaced by an understanding of the brain. No longer do we need to postulate the theoretical notions of a soul to understand how humans, and many animals, reason intelligently and display certain rational capacities, but these events find their explanation within the very physical mechanisms in which they take place, thoughts can now be understood as purely physical events. Natural and testable claims can now replace the mystical and untestable. To buttress this notion, Stenger brings up MRI’s and other similar procedures which show brain activity in regions that are being activated, which are no doubt very sophisticated, and points to an experiment which involved patients who were observed when making moral judgements of two categories, 1: personal actions, and 2: Where direct personal action was required. The results of this experiment were that the brain showed greater activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotions when the actions were personal. Stenger concludes, then, that our thoughts and moral faculties are not just exhibited in our brain activity, but that our brains are responsible for the deepest thoughts that are supposed to be the province of spirit rather than matter. In other words, our thoughts are purely physical events and that “matter alone appears to be able to carry out all the activities traditionally associated with the soul.”
What Stenger fails to consider here is the tremendous work done in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, especially by philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga. If our thoughts and beliefs are purely physical events, where are they located, how much do they weigh? Do they have extension in time and space? What of intentionality? If we are purely physical beings, with no soul, our beliefs lack intentionality and we came by them due to our physical composition, not because of our ability to meaningfully interact with the world. Simple statements, such as, “2+2=4,” according to the materialist, become subjective statements, with no actual truth content that we know of, which the majority of people just so happen to believe, and not anything to do with the external world–and if counting noses, to see who believes what, was a determining factor of truth, truth would be a subjective notion anyway. Materialism cannot account for intentionality, and the acquisition of knowledge, or the link between a thought and a thing and epistemology has not outgrown its metaphysical groundings. JP Moreland, in his defence of the soul, often appeals to Leibniz’s law, or the law of identity, that ‘A is A’ and if there is some feature which is essential to A which B does not have, then A and B are different, however, if A and B do not differ then A and B are identical. So, while our brains do have physical extension properties, our thoughts do not, therefore, our thoughts and our brains are different things, even though our thoughts manifest themselves in physical events, as neuroscience has discovered. While it is true that there is no known mechanism through which an immaterial soul can interact with a physical body, but there needn’t be when there are sufficient, independent reasons for holding to the existence of the soul. Pure materialism has its own questions to answer, as mentioned above.
Stenger discusses prayer experiments which patients are prayed for, both knowingly and unknowingly, and in which patients are not prayed for and mentions the results are less than favourable to the reliability of prayer, which should come as no surprise. There are various problems with this type of experiment. I do not believe the object of prayer was mentioned, such as an impersonal new aged deity, a pantheistic god, or Allah. Surely, to isolate a true deity, one must be praying to the correct one, given there are so many to choose from. The second problem with this type of experiment is it involves two subjects, the patient and the object of prayer, as per the previous problem. There are some who may remember the Volkswagen emissions test scandal, where Volkswagen engineers, brilliantly, programmed the car to burn clean when it knew it was being tested, and it would resume normal functions when testing was complete. Those conducting this experiment did not take into consideration that if a deity exists, it is not an impersonal vending machine which only responds to a critical mass of prayers and then spits out desired results once preset conditions are reached. Such an entity, if personal, would need its own criteria for responding to prayers and answering them accordingly and, like in psychology, other people’s intents are difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. Even if a handful of prayers were answered in a desired fashion, it would not guarantee the total success of every prayer, even if they were to the same deity. Therefore, these results do not fall under the branch of hard, replicable science, but fall under the weaker sciences of behavioural psychology. This seems like a very weak, spurious test to conduct. These types of experiments are hardly blind, given the respective deity knows it is being tested and may have higher reasons for not participating as a subject, which are beyond the intent of the testing. Such unknown intents are an internal defeater to the legitimacy of these types of experiments.
Of course Stenger ignores the account in 1 Kings 18:16-45, where Elijah conducts a true experiment with the competing religion in his time. There he truly isolates a cause&effect relationship and makes a highly risky conjecture, that a true God would be able to light the altar on Mt Carmel on fire and a false deity would not be able to. Why the prophets of Baal conceded to such a showdown, perhaps they thought neither deity would be able to and the absence of a miracle would cancel the other out!? This type of manifestation is of course not the normative and if it were, scientists like Hume and Stenger would, most certainly, find natural laws to account for such events, if they were commonplace. That is the problem of a miracle, is the laws of nature are what is predictive, while if miracles occurred so often, we would hardly be able to tell them apart from the regular occurrences of nature, and natural laws would swallow them up. Too convenient of an answer? Unfortunately, this goes back to the problem of behavioural psychology. Arguing from miracles to God is very difficult, but once one has established good reasons to believe that a deity exists, then it can become more meaningful to discuss special acts of God, such as miracles and revelation. Stenger, like Hume in his treatise, unknowingly provides a criteria for recognizing miracles, rather than flippantly attributing the unknown, or the mysterious, to being acts of God.
In chapter 4 Stenger moves out of the earth, and on to the universe as a whole. Here he asks, “From a modern scientific perspective, what are the empirical and theoretical implications of the hypothesis of a supernatural creation?” He goes on to suggest what questions need to be asked. 1. Did the universe have an origin? & 2. Did that origin happen naturally?
Stenger goes on to say that, for there to be theistic implications, the origin must not have happened naturally, since a God, by definition, would be supernatural and not a part of the natural order. He says, “One sign of a supernatural creation would be a direct empirical confirmation that a miracle was necessary in order to bring the universe into existence.”
Stenger goes on to say, “The cosmological data should either show evidence for one or more violations of well-established laws of nature, or the models developed to describe those data should require some causal ingredient that cannot be understood–and be probably not understandable–in purely material or natural terms.”
Stenger shows a less than advanced understanding in the philosophy of science. Here, in the way he frames the debate, he assumes that the laws of nature must have been overridden in order for there to have been supernatural intervention in bringing out the universe, and assumes that our laws of nature are 1. Exhaustively known, and 2. Are immutable. In reality, the laws of nature are not exhaustively known, and I think he, as a physicist, knows this. The laws of nature are descriptive, but are powerful in that we can make many predictions from them. They are descriptive in the sense that they do not represent the phenomena itself, entirely, but are mathematical constructs of the event in question and are subject to revision. Stenger acknowledges these points on the second page of the chapter and the fact that theoretical physicists are making serious attempts to simplify these laws and make a law which encompasses all laws, demonstrates this as a reality.
Stenger’s greatest error here is that there are no physical laws of nature which describe the origin on the universe, or which account for the big bang itself. These laws came into being at the moment of the big bang, so to ask how they were overridden to allow for a supernatural entity is a categorical error, on Stenger’s part. We can ask, meaningfully, how these laws interact with the given state of affairs, but to ask how these physical laws generated themselves is a serious bootstrapping error.
One prediction Stenger makes, and theists in general agree with, is that if the universe is designed (as in it is the product of an ordered/rational mind) is should exhibit a high degree of order and that if the universe is a closed system, it could not have always been so, due to the second law of thermodynamics/entropy–which states that the disorder of such a closed system must increase over time, so at some time, Stenger notes, it must have had order imparted from the outside. Stenger notes that at the moment of the big bang, there was a high degree of disorder, and due to this law in effect the result could not have been ordered. But that is not what we see today, the fact that we can make predictive laws to account for events in our universe and world, shows there is enough order and that nature behaves in a predictable fashion, and any events which are not explicable in terms of our natural laws only show that our models are not omniscient and can be revised eventually. While it is true, at the quantum level, that nature seems to behave in a more erratic fashion and our Newtonian laws do not account for these events, the resultant effect of this disorder is explicable in terms of Newtonian dynamics. It would seem, then, that disorder is attributable, while order is a reality of nature and our ordered minds can describe its events, and to say otherwise would be question begging or self-defeating.
THE BIG BANG AND BILL CRAIG
Theists were excited, and many non-theists not so much, at the discovery of a big bang, which implied not an infinite past for the universe, but a cosmic beginning. Stenger addresses arguments commonly used by William Lane Craig, who popularizes the argument by Al Ghazali, an Islamic philosopher, known as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument,” which is both an inductive and a deductive argument. It is inductive in the sense it begins with an observation that something exists, and that whatever begins to exist has a cause; it is deductive in the sense that if the universe has a beginning it also must have a cause sufficient to explain its origin. Craig says, elsewhere, that suppose one were to stumble upon an object on a trail, which did not match its surroundings. Would one account for this object in terms of purely naturalistic laws, or would they assume this mechanism were the product of a rational mind!? Now let us expand the object in question bigger and bigger, until it is the size of the universe. At what critical size does the need for an explanation of its origin go away?—This is a reverse notion of the works, Stenger brings up, on Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose’s work which “proved” that a singularity existed at the beginning of the big bang, so if one were to extrapolate the universe back to zero time the universe gets smaller and smaller. While Craig suggests that actual infinites do not exist in mathematics, that is, there is no critical mass of finite numbers which can be added up to equal infinity, Stenger suggests an eternal universe is possible, because just as one can count forward into infinity, so too can we count backwards into infinity. Here Stenger is conflating an actual infinite with a potential infinite, and is suggesting that because we can go forward into the future, potentially infinitely, so too can we go backwards into an actual infinite, and completely dismisses the argument that if it were infinitely old it never would have reached the present, because traversing an infinite past would be required.
In the section on the origin, Stenger shows his beliefs in a multiverse. One should know which type of multiverse Stenger is talking about, because there are 4 levels to a multiverse.
Level 1 – The actual universe is larger than the observable universe, which is fairly incontrovertible, given it is expanding at a faster velocity than light travel can reach us, given its size.
Level 2 – The current universe we inhabit is the multiverse and is infinitely large. This is not too problematic, except that it postulates an actual infinite, not a potential infinite.
Level 3 – That we are part of an infinite array of universes and a black hole in one universe, supposedly/perhaps, leads to another universe. This is the type of multiverse Stenger proposes, which supposedly escapes the need for ultimate causality.
The obvious problem with the level of multiverse Stenger holds to is that it pushes back the causality a notch, postulating an infinite regress of causes, by doing so Stenger takes the universe and turns it into a god of its own, giving it explanation within itself. Here Stenger doesn’t escape the god problem, he pushes it back a notch in hopes science will fill that hole with a naturalistic explanation, or he gives god another name, “The Universe.” This simply will not do as will be explained later. Sufficed to say, Stenger does not escape the Kalam Cosmological argument, he proffers an absurdity to escape the conclusion he simply doesn’t like. Science, being interested in cause&effect relationships, should not consider the god hypothesis off the table, simply because it is not mechanistic or natural, but in the interest of truth, should follow the data to its reasonable conclusion.
WHERE DO THE LAWS OF PHYSICS COME FROM?
Here Stenger proudly declares that he has demonstrated the origin and operation of the universe can be explained in purely naturalistic terms, but this has been responded to earlier in this review. Stenger confuses natural law for agency, chance for force and potency for actuality. The fact is, laws are not sufficient, even if the universe were infinitely old, because there is no force to act upon preexisting matter.
In Stenger’s own words, “…the most fundamental laws of physics are not restrictions on the behavior of matter. Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior.” Then he goes on to say, “In order for any principle of nature we write down to be objective and universal, it must be formulated in such a way that is does not depend on the point of view of any particular observer. The principle must be true for all point of views, from every “frame of reference.” And so, for example, no objective law can depend on a special moment in time or a position in space that may be singles out by some preferred observer.”
So, Stenger asks, “Where did the laws of physics come from?” Stenger says, “From nothing!” Not that there are actual laws which came from actual nothing, but that our laws are nominal features of the universe and, “Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should if they were not handed down from anywhere, and this is why, for example, a violation of energy conservation at the beginning of the big bang would be evidence for some external creator.” Stenger firmly believes that, “due to this, no such miracle is required by the data, because we are justified in applying the conservation laws to the beginning of the big bang at the Planck time, where the universe had no structure, no distinguishable place, direction, or time. In such a situation, the conservation laws apply.”
Here, admittedly, Stenger proposes something theism must grow with, to account for. Stenger argues for that the three great conservation laws are not a part of any structure. Rather they follow from the very lack of structure at the earliest moment. Stenger admits his view is not widely held by scientists, and I find it difficult to fully comprehend myself, but what Stenger proposes is that in order to demonstrate God is the origin of physical laws has the burden of,
1. Proving his account wrong.
2. That no other natural account is possible, and
3. God did it.
I write this as a lay-apologist, while Stenger was a highly trained physicist, so I will not say much about point 1 and will leave that to an expert, but I do not think I can demonstrate his account to be wrong, rather it is insufficient. As mentioned before, laws of nature are not to be conflated with agency. Stenger understands the mechanism of the universe quite well, and we would all do well to pay attention to where he speaks within his field, but he seems to make for a lousy philosopher, which is unfortunate. Where Stenger sees a computer program, with preloaded conditions, of “if/then” statements” the theist is also free to see and understand the code, but the theist understands the universe in terms beyond coding and mechanism. These laws could be as immutable as the laws of logic, which they are not, yet if there is no agency to act upon them there is no force or decision making. At what point were the physical laws injected into nature? That certainly is the big question and one could say the singularity, the very beginning of the big bang, behaved in a certain way with preloaded conditions, “if/then” statements, and the laws of physics which we see today expanded with the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time we inhabit. One may be free to see the big bang as being an explosion of information, as much as it was an explosion of matter, much like biologists seek out a big bang of life, at what point were the laws of biogenesis injected into non-living to allow for organisms to function in the orderly fashion we see today!?
This seems to be a red-herring on Stenger’s part, which is an attempt to stultify any further questioning of his position, because it is as perplexing for most atheists and theists alike.
WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING?
This certainly is the big question asked by children and is often the last resort question asked by theists seeking to argue for the existence of God, according to Stenger. This seems to be a fair question, after all, if the laws of physics follow naturally from empty space-time, where did that empty space-time come from?
First of all, what is “nothing?” If we give it properties, does it not become “something?” “Nothing,” Stenger asserts, alongside his source of authority on the matter, Physicist Frank Wilczek, “Is because nothing is unstable.” Why is this the case? Because “nothing” is as simple as it gets and is very unstable, because many systems of particles are unstable and have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy.
So, it does not seem Stenger is referring to the biblical, “ex-nihilo” nothingness, because he is giving it properties, its instability. “Nothing” in the pure sense would be, “are there unicorns?” While it is possible, a survey of the current state of affairs would say there are no unicorns. In terms of nothing, this is certainly true, but there is something else. When asked to look in the kitchen for a jug of milk, one may look in the fridge and see other items, but not a jug of milk and say, “There is nothing here!” Of course we must differentiate between non-being and being in this sense, otherwise it would mean nothing to go searching for a needle in a haystack, when there is plenty of hay, but a significant absence of needles.
Let us consider each moment contingent, yet necessary to subsequent moments, and perhaps necessitated by previous moments. As far as any given state of affairs, A, and a previous state of affairs, A1, and the consequential state of affairs, A2; speaking of A, one may say there is no A1 or A2, as each moment has become the next and the present has become our past, setting aside debates on the philosophy of time. What if we were to wind back the clock to where T=0, to where the big bang was a picosecond away from happening, if we can speak meaningfully in such indexical terms, what necessitated the big bang if there were no laws and no “nothing” for these laws to act upon? What “nothingness” existed to be so unstable, as to necessitate the big bang?
I truly do hope to have physicists be more elaborate on this issue, rather than playfully equivocating on the term and obfuscating the issue. Once again, to say, “something must exist,” is to turn the universe into its own progenitor and a god of its own, and all we’re doing is shifting terms, rather than escaping the concept of a god when we do this.
CHAPTER 7 – DO OUR VALUES COME FROM GOD?
Often those using the moral argument to argue for God’s existence misrepresent it so that it is suggesting one cannot be moral without believing in God, to which the atheist is rightly insulted. Stenger takes exception to this and seems frustrated with the religions of the world acting as though they are the gatekeepers of morality, and who insist they have the right to tell the rest of society what is right and wrong, because they have special access to the mind of God. Where Stenger really shows his indignation is that secular ethicists are hardly consulted in matters to do with bioethics, such as stem cell research, while the clergy are the ones called upon. While he does not provide any case scenarios, specifically, let us assume he is correct in this. Could it be that freethinkers and secularists have given up their moral grounding in such matters, by taking up such a freethinking position? There is no definite creed, or systematic thought process which freethinkers or secularists have to refer to in such matters, so by their very definition they are almost excluded from the discussion, unless one were to consult a very large sample size, representing the society of freethinkers, but by nature of them being freethinkers, no matter how large the sample size they could not be authoritative.
Stenger points to spurious statistics, which are admittedly not published in any journals, which point to the large Christian population in prisons, vs the small population of atheists. He has not done any research as to why these individuals converted, or when they converted, but it is no secret when one is alone and face to face with their conscience, after pondering their crimes, they will seek answers outside of themselves. This point does nothing to prove or disprove the legitimacy of the Christian belief, or other types of religions found in a prison population. To use this as a point for, or against, religion would be a genetic fallacy, either way.
I think it safe to say there is much scandalous behaviour in Christian communities, as anywhere else, which is exactly the condition in humanity that Christianity seeks to address–and with that, I will leave it there, since it is not the Christian worldview which necessitates such behaviour, but condemns it.
Stenger rightly says that he is not writing this chapter to say how humans ought to behave, and he is only writing a description of how they happen to behave and is drawing inferences about what these observations tells us about the God hypothesis.
Stenger seems to believe that universal norms do exist among most cultures, irrespective of their religions, with some differences, so one needn’t have religion to be moral. Don’t all, or most, people take care of the poor, refrain from stealing or murdering, and don’t we all look after our children–with the exception of some, but we as a society typically condemn this and take the children of neglect into custody, and we do this without divine revelation. Or do we?
Stenger raises some perplexing double standards exhibited in Christian communities who condemn murder, but are typically for capital punishment, we are against abortion, but will unplug the life support of a terminally ill patient. These issues cannot be addressed here, but Stenger quotes Philosopher Theodore Schick Jr, who points out that, “Both sides of the abortion debate believe murder is immoral. Where they disagree is the nature (personhood) of the fetus. So what we all agree on is a moral principle, but how far this principle is extended is the point of contention. If one were to read up on the history of slavery in the United States, one would gain an understanding that in order to justify slavery one first had to dehumanize the black people about to be put into slavery. As atrocious as this was, the moral principle was in effect and undeniable, that we do not enslave humans. The same principle was in place during the holocaust, those persecuting the Jews first had to see the Jews as less than human to justify their actions. Bringing up the slave issue seems appropriate, since Stenger brings up the passages in the New and Old Testament which seem to condone slavery, and even exhort slaves to submit to their masters. (Titus 2:9). Comparing Biblical slavery to early, antebellum, slavery is no less than equivocating on a term. The form of slavery in the Bible was a means of repaying a debt or a means of survival for those who are poor. Labour was exchanged for food and housing. Comparing this to the cruel type of slavery, used in early America, is hardly fair, since it is the type of slavery which the Bible says the Jews were drawn out of and the slavery instructions in the Old Testament tutored them out of this mindset and was progressive compared to its contemporaries, such as the law of Hammurabi. Stenger draws upon several other misunderstandings of the Bible, dismissing it as a morally negative document and even says it is as bloodthirsty as the Qur’an, and cannot be addressed comprehensively here.
To address the misconception that religion has an exclusive claim on morality, religion is a way of making sense of the moral experience which we all share. As noted, Stenger does not deny we act in an altruistic fashion and even though we pay lip service to the ideas that morality is personal, or rooted in culture, we all act as though this is not the case when we watch the news, or when our rights are infringed upon. Even those who say, “Imposing our standards on others isn’t right,” are making objective statements about morality. The point, in response to Stenger, is that a true revelation will affirm a true morality, just like when the Bible make statements about the nature of reality, it should square with said reality. What Stenger really misses is that the existence of God, a necessary being, makes morality prescriptive rather than descriptive. God is the grounding for morality and morality would then govern our behaviour as much as laws of logic govern our thoughts. Determining morality by what society says still results in relativism, a bad moral idea is still bad even though it is held by millions of people, and a good moral idea is still good even if it is held by no one. It is only by an absolute standard can we evaluate other ideas and say if they are good or bad, without an absolute standard–the nature of God–we are only able to say they are different without a transcendent ideal.
CHAPTER 8 – THE ARGUMENT FROM EVIL
This chapter raises the problem of evil, which is almost undeniable. We all experience it in some degree, and we certainly hear about it in the media. Recall at the beginning of this review, the model of God Stenger proposes. Is the evil in this world gratuitous, or is it logically incompatible with the existence of such a minimalist God?
“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays on the Immortality of The Soul and Suicide, Richard Popkin, ed., (Hackett Publishing, 1980), 63)
This David Hume quote certainly raises the same question Stenger raises. This argument, like the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is both inductive and deductive, it asserts that evil is real and experiential, and that if it exists it is incompatible with the existence with a 3O God. However, what Stenger goes into this chapter front loaded with is the assumed definition of evil and we are supposed to go with our guts on what evil is. Isn’t Stenger a pure naturalist? How does he define evil, without presupposing a metaphysical notion of how the universe is supposed to operate? Similar to what Socrates asked Euthyphro, “What is evil? What is the vile?” While Stenger insists that the argument from evil can only be escaped by relaxing one of the 3 O’s, this may not be the case, since Stenger is borrowing from God to disprove God, Stenger is assuming that metaphysical moral truths exist, which make the world quantitatively evil.
I would like to take artistic license to strengthen Stenger’s argument and say that evil, as defined by the Bible, is a deprivation of its standards set forth and with the nature of said God (Stenger’s 3O God). According to naturalism, with the way the world is, there is no definable evil, only a contravention of individual preference. So, is the Bible compatible with the state of affairs in this world?
The logical problem of evil can be summarized as such:
1. If God exists, then the attributes of God are consistent with the existence of evil.
2. The attributes of God are not consistent with the existence of evil.
3. Therefore, God does not and cannot exist.
However, one might say, in return,
1. If God does not exist, then no evil exists, for there is no design from which the departure from is called “evil.”
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Stenger, like all naturalists, are assuming some objective standard exists in order to say the world is malfunctioning, the same world they say wasn’t designed. From this point, alone, Stenger gives up his arguments from design, or he gives up his argument from evil. It really is the naturalists choice, but they cannot stand on both legs here.
To get back to the question, is the God of the Bible compatible with the existence of evil? That question requires another paper, altogether, but Richard Swinburne and other thinkers have done many works on the subject, for now I will merely say that the Bible uniquely recognizes evil as a shortcoming of the nature of God, that is moral evil. It is not so gratuitous as to drown out the good in this world, or conceiving children would be considered the greatest evil of all. The natural evil is not so great as to frustrate our existence permanently. The Bible is not out of touch with the world on matters of reality, such as the earth being flat, anymore than it is with the evident problem of evil, or other matters, and the Christian message uniquely provides a way out from the problem of evil and it allows us to see it in a different light. If the Bible promised us health and wealth, and good times here on earth, then the naturalist, like Stenger would have a case against the 3O God of the Bible.
With regards to the objection of moral evil in the world, the atheist wants autonomy and freedom from constraints on our actions, whether it be with regards to sexuality or social conduct, yet they turn around and blame God for not stopping said moral evil and allowing it to happen. This position is perplexing, that they want freedom, yet they want intervention from God, as though He were bound by some sort of moral code.
Stenger lists several of the typical Christian responses to evil, which are not well thought out, and acts as though these are what we are limited to in response, such as “Good and evil only exist as contrasts to each other. Therefore, if evil were eliminated, good would automatically be eliminated as well.” By presenting these responses, Stenger is attacking an empty castle, which Christians are not obliged to defend.
What is the Christian to say, then, is the good rooted in God’s commands, and evil the antithesis? Then God’s commands are arbitrary and the good is because of the source of its decree. Rather, the Christian should say that God commands good because God is good. Paul Copan, in “Is God a Moral Monster” defends moral realism, and says that no matter how good God is, humanity is less than perfect and God’s commands reflect this relationship, even though His immutable nature is presented as the ideal, our shortcomings are still recognized and God’s commands trend towards the ideal, so while much of the Bible abhors slavery, it recognizes societies shortcomings and gives regulations to control it, rather than to continue with it.
Stenger certainly writes a good book that is worth reading and understanding. He does not seem to take on the best form of the arguments for the existence of God, so much as he does the poor ways some lay apologists have used them. I believe that if a trained reader takes the time to deal with what is written in this book and compares the arguments to the available scholarship out there that they will find it does not stack up well to the arguments by good scholarship, but I suppose it is easier to refute a caricature of an argument than it is the strongest form of it, when in doubt. Apologists would do well to read this book to ensure they do not use the poor forms of reasoning which this book does accurately portray. I think this book certainly takes on the Ray Comfort type apologetics quite well and shows the inadequacy in using bad reasoning, and the more academic apologist might find it useful in showing the inadequacy in using such reasoning with Christians who have taken this approach to defending their faith.