Victor Stenger, retired particle physicist and new atheist polemicist, passed away suddenly on August 27th at the age of 79. While I rarely agreed with Dr. Stenger, I enjoyed reading his writings and found them to be engaging and provocative.
So how to recognize the man’s passing? When a comedian dies, you honor her by telling some jokes. When a preacher dies, you honor him by preaching a great sermon. When a religious skeptic like Vic Stenger dies, you honor him by critically engaging with his polemics. In this article I’m going to offer some critical interaction with one passage from his popular book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Reason and Science (Prometheus, 2009). Let’s begin with the passage:
We trust scientific method, logic, and mathematics because they work. They give us answers that we can independently test against objective observations. They give us electric lights, computers, and cell phones.
Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings. (p. 59).
You must give the man credit for writing great rhetoric. But is there something more than rhetoric here? Stenger makes a double claim in this passage. He begins by making an implied link between atheism/secularism and science (an implied claim that is filled out in the book itself). Next, he equates religion with violence with the bald allusion to 9/11. Can these claims be defended?
Both of these claims consist of assertions of causal relation (religion is causally related to violence; atheism/secularism is causally related to the advancement of science). Interestingly, scientists are justly famous for using extreme care when making causal assertions (i.e. for saying that this caused that). A few weeks ago a couple western doctors infected with Ebola were provided with an experimental treatment. When both doctors subsequently recovered, the media was anxious to draw the conclusion that the experimental treatment had caused the doctors’ recovery. But the scientists rightly cautioned that no such inference could be drawn at this preliminary stage, for there were too many possible factors that might explain the doctors’ recovery. Controlled trials would be required before we could make any tentative conclusions about the drug’s efficacy.
When atheistic scientists are in the laboratory they are meticulous about establishing cause-effect relationships. And yet, when many of those same scientists take off the lab coat and don their favorite religious skeptic t-shirt, that care seems to disappear, only to be replaced with nearly vacuous epithets like “Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings.” (Note I emphasized “many of”. There are great atheist scientists who are appropriately chastened about making causal leaps outside the laboratory. Unfortunately, they don’t tend to grab the headlines.)
Just consider, for the moment, the instance to which Stenger alludes: 9/11. What evidence does he (or anybody else) have that it is “religion”, understood as a discrete reality distinct from irreligion (or non-religion), which is the singular (or even primary) cause behind particular men flying planes into buildings? How does Stenger tease apart “religious” factors in this event from socio-political factors, economic factors, cultural factors, and personal factors?
And what about the second causal relationship? Has Stenger (or anybody else) established with there is a positive correlation between science and secularism/atheism and a negative correlation between science and “religion”? To take but one religion, how many great Christian scientists (e.g. Francis Collins, Don Page, Allan Sandage, R.J. Barry, Owen Gingerich, Frank Tipler, etc.) does it take to falsify this thesis?
The lesson is simple: scientists who fancy themselves new atheists and/or religious skeptics should apply the same rigor outside the laboratory as they apply within it. If the causal link between a medicinal treatment and recovery requires rigorous studies to establish a tenuous causal relationship, what does it take to establish the sweeping link between “religion” and “violence”? I’m not sure exactly, but it is going to take a lot more than pithy witticisms.
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For further discussion see Steve Miller’s guest post “Are Top Scientists Overwhelmingly Atheists?” and my article “On the Myth of Religious Violence”.