Interview: Victor Stenger

3 Mar

Victor Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, which debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List last week.

When did you first realize that you were an atheist? Was it a sort of a Eureka moment or a gradual realization?

In high school, I started reading a lot of popular science, especially astronomy, nuclear physics, and evolution. I began to see Catholicism as irrational but I did not become an atheist immediately. When I was a graduate student at UCLA I attended a Methodist church and sang in the choir. When I lived in Hawaii, my wife and I sent our kids to church-related schools, although we did not go to church. Finally, in the 1980s I began to get involved with the skeptical movement and learned about Humanism. The more I gained from experience, the more I read, the more I realized that the God concept had no merit.

Church attendance and belief in God have remained relatively steady in the US, while there has been a precipitous decline in Western Europe. What do you think is behind this?

Big money is given by extremely conservative, wealthy sources in the US to churches and other organizations such as so-called think tanks to brainwash Americans. Europe is less vulnerable to what Chris Hedges, in his best-seller, called “American Fascists”. Incidentally, he is not an atheist.

On occasion when I chance upon religious programming on TV – it seems half gimmickry and half psychological therapy. In fact, mass religions from fairly early on took on the job of providing ‘guidance’ to people. What do you make of this sort of role of religion?

While it is mostly good-intentioned, much in the religious right — the American<br />Fascist movement — is motivated by the desire for political power and the helping people aspect is a phony con game that is part of the scheme.

This question is somewhat related to the previous one. Say if we were to find out that belief in God is psychologically helpful, can we argue for an evolutionary reason behind the existence of religion? This question was famously asked by Time in its article “ The God Gene  does our DNA compel us to seek a higher power? What do you make of these kinds of assertions?

I don’t think it’s in the genes. I think religion evolved in cultures, ironically, by Darwinian means. Religion has always be the method used by those in power to keep the masses in line. For example, I was recently in India. There the vast majority of people live in misery and squalor. But they don’t complain, they don’t revolt against the rich because the Hindu religion tells them it is their dharma – their fate. In the West, the divine right of kings justified their dominance. Today George Bush tells us that he is doing God’s work.

People have often times argued that religion is needed to uphold moral values. Psychology literature points to that people are more liable to take advice from institutions or people they trust. Is there a case to be made for religion to be there as a service that disseminates morality?

This is the prime example of how religious brainwashing works. People are told that morals come from God. But the facts say otherwise. Moral concepts such as the Golden Rule were around centuries before Jesus. They are the collective principles of humanity. Studies show that atheists are at least as moral as theists, and certainly, there is a connection between fundamentalism, in Islam and Christianity, and antisocial behavior. I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist because Humanism is the source of our morality and provides a positive outlook on life.

Religion in everyday life is understood as something uncontestable while scientific theories are considered debatable. How can we provide a more open attitude towards investigating religion?

Religion makes testable claims so these can be treated the same as any scientific claim. I document these in detail in the book, but let me give you one example. Most believers do a lot of praying and think it has a positive effect. These effects should be observable. Controlled experiments have been done and have found no effects. It could have turned out otherwise, in which case I would have to admit that science had found God.

It is a well-known fact that very few people actually ever read the religious texts and it is likely that very few of those who read them understand them. So there is a chasm between the way a religion is lived and the way it was fundamentally conceived and hence the numerous ‘fundamentalist’ movements. The argument that I am making is that ‘faith’ that is driving most religious people is of a vague though absolute kind. Debunking the extraordinary stories of the books, and even providing convincing arguments against God is unlikely to change the views of the majority of religious people.

Probably. But there are still a lot of people I think I can reach with rational arguments: agnostics; believers who are not too sure; young people, especially college students who are learning to think critically and have not yet formed their views. Also, I provide ammunition for those who think like I do to use in their arguments with believers.

Science thrives on the parsimonious model. One shouldn’t create something if it isn’t needed to explain the phenomenon at hand. Hence if all ‘natural’ phenomena can be conceivably explained by variables at hand then why devise new ones. This, I believe, is one of the chief arguments that you try to make about the absence of God. Can you expand a little more on this?

In an earlier book, Has Science Found God? I refute the claims that there is scientific evidence for God. In this book, I go much further than just the absence of evidence argument that you reiterate in your question. I claim there is positive scientific evidence against the existence of the God most people worship, as in the absence of support for the efficacy of prayer that I mentioned earlier.

It is a well-known scientific corollary that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The kinds of models that you describe in your book are really a probabilistic debunking that derive their strengths from 95% confidence intervals and the unlikelihood of the hypothesis but not proof that it doesn’t exist. Can you shed a bit more light on this?

The word “proof” has at least two different meanings. In logic and mathematics, a proof or disproof is with certainty given the starting assumptions. In science and law, proof means beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter allows one to conclude that God can be “proved” not to exist if the data show this beyond a reasonable doubt. Note I use “show” rather than “prove” in the subtitle to avoid that confusion.

One of the arguments that is made by people who believe in God is that there must a reason for our existence. This is sort of an existentialist argument that says that we must have a cause behind our lives and only human lives, I may add. What do you think of this?

That is simply a pious hope. There is no basis, and I would add, no evidence, for this. In fact, the universe looks just as it should be expected to look if there is no special role or purpose for humanity. However, it is important for me to add that this does not mean that we cannot find purpose in our own lives in the family, work, art, music, doing good deeds, and so on. In fact, releasing the bonds of religion gives us more freedom to explore all that life has to offer.

Q. Tell us a little more about the kind of problems you see if we allow religious superstition to dictate policy and even science.

As documented in several other books, the religion-based decision making of the Republicans and Bush administration does more harm than good, threatens the health and well being of all of us, and increases the amount of unnecessary human suffering in the world. For example, most of the federal money spent on AIDS, in Africa and America, goes to advocating abstinence and none to condoms. Scientific studies showing that abstinence does not work are deleted from government reports.

Q. Any final words to the believers and the non-believers?

If scientific evidence were ever found for God or some other form of the supernatural, then scientists like myself would become believers. I give hypothetical examples of observations that would convince me that God exists. I ask all believers and nonbelievers to look at the data and argue about it rationally, without polemics or ad hominems. I try to do this in my book.