Friday, October 24, 2014

Death Of An Atheist Giant

Although I missed it when it was news, I recently noticed the passing of one of the more influential New Atheists, often called "the fifth horseman" among them, Victor Stenger, of a heart attack at age 79.

Stenger was a physics processor who made it his task to show the superiority of the modern scientific worldview over religion. authoring a number of books dedicated to the effort, including a New York Times bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Among his other notable titles were Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, and God and the Atom.

He was well-known for his saying-turned-into-teeshirt-slogan: "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings." Which in my humble opinion is an oversimplification at best. One sympathetic towards religion might respond in kind: Religion brings comfort in times of trouble. Science created nuclear weapons. Maybe both true so far as they go, but neither going far enough.

Two things I'm not fond of: using science as a defense against religion; using science to bolster religion. My feeble effort to make my way though this great divisive issue is to recognize a compatibility of science with either religious and non-religious attitudes.

The problem I have with the New Atheists is that they seem forevermore the counterpart of the religious fundamentalist. It seems to me biologist Rupert Sheldrake states it accurately in his book Science Set Free (page 328):

Much of the hypocrisy of science comes from assuming the mantle of absolute truth, which is a relic of the ethos of absolute religious and political power when mechanistic science was born. Of course, there are disagreements among scientists, and the sciences are continually changing and developing. But a monopoly of truth remains the ideal. Dissenting voices are heretical. Fair public debates are alien to the culture of the sciences.

The "fifth horseman" did speak powerfully for those who want to use science as "the mantle of absolute truth," especially for arguing atheism. But I'm one of those who feel skeptical about the human ability to discern "absolute truth." I say that with regard to religious or spiritual authority as well.

I do disagree with New Atheism, especially as expressed by Stenger in 2012, that religion "is and always has been a blight on humanity that has hindered our progress for millennia and now threatens our very existence." I think that describes religious extremism. But Stenger and his companions go beyond battling religious extremism, I think, to the point of reaching the opposite extreme.

Dr. Stenger's influence will far outlive him no doubt. I only wish it had been dedicated to moderation. Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that a giant has fallen.


  1. News to me too. I remember once considered buying one of his books. I didn't.

    It often isn't talked about but many of our advances in medicine came about with some ugly scenes behind the scenes. The story of Jonas Salk is an example, and I can't quite remember his name right now but the Dr. responsible for cataract surgery. I passed that book on to a friend. The name Charles rings a bell. Should look it up. The Dr. responsible for local anaesthetic also was given a hard time.

    I'm not sure why people think there are absolutes. It seems to me absolutes are vulnerable to change. :) If they weren't, we wouldn't have the scientific advances we have and will have.

    1. The science of medicine is one field I have less confidence in than ever before (which isn't to say I renounce it all). Perhaps despite all humankind has thus far been able to discover about the universe, we still are infants in that understanding. If so, perhaps a little more humility would be in order. I agree with you: more advances are on the way.

    2. "Humility." A story I've written maybe in a comment or post. I can't remember anymore.

      While still working as an R.N. I had a doctor asked me why I was different than the other nurses. Different? You aren't afraid of us. (The conversation was a bit longer.) I told him that is because they think you are God and I know you aren't.

  2. I've always had the thought that doctors are just like me and everyone else, except they spent many years in school and special training learning their profession. I think people sometimes put scientists on a pedestal, too; yet they are faulty humans just like us, with prejudices, blind spots, and stubborness.